Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 205-212
[Access article in PDF]
Writing Against Globalization
Susan Brin Hyatt
Books under review:
In August of 1999, the theme of the venerable monthly publication, National Geographic, was "Global Culture." That particular depiction of "global culture" consisted primarily of portrayals of the worldwide ubiquity of western consumer goods, along with a somewhat less comprehensive examination of the ways in which non-western practices, ranging from feng shui to henna tattoos, had a habit of showing up in the most unlikely of places.
Popular journalism is one thing; anthropology, however, should be quite another. Reviewing dissertation proposals for one foundation last year, I was surprised by the number of documents in which young scholars outlined their plans to examine manifestations of various cultural phenomena, from the steady thrum of hip-hop to the celestial vapors of transcendental meditation, as they have materialized in a variety of spaces all over the world ranging from [End Page 205] the metropolitan to the remote. They intended to do so, however, apparently without acknowledging that the meanings of such practices are still significantly mediated (and thereby changed) by a number of rather important institutions that continue to exist between the global and the local. Anthropology's long-standing focus on such levels of analysis as nation, state, region, locality, city and village seemed to have dissolved into a notion of "global culture" that risked becoming as amorphous and superficial as that presented by National Geographic. And, yet, although the National Geographic article did acknowledge that, "Cultures don't become more uniform; instead, both old and new tend to transform each other," (Zwingle 1999:33), in the contemporary ethnographic imagination, "the local" now seemed meaningful only as either a way-station for the consumption of western commodities, magically produced and conveyed on some enormous earthly assembly line, or as a place in which to examine the penetration of "foreign" practices. Based on a partial survey of current work in anthropology, one might almost be tempted to argue that "globalization" has become the master trope that now threatens to supplant that bedrock concept so crucial to the practice of ethnography, "culture."
Of course, the notion of "culture" has also withstood some sustained battering over the past 15 years or so, and we might take some pointers from those debates as a way to begin to refocus our anthropological treatments of "globalization." In one perceptive discussion, for example, Lila Abu-Lughod (1991) suggests that what anthropologists need to do is not to write about culture but, rather, to write against culture. She argues that since culture has been used as the lens through which the "native" is viewed and by which the "native" is constructed, and as it is a conceptualization that continues to reify the divide between the anthropologist as "self" and the native as "other," an opposition whose probity was increasingly challenged in the post-Writing Culture environment of the 1990s, it is a notion to be textually resisted (see also Appadurai 1988; Gupta and Ferguson 1992).
Abu-Lughod makes several useful suggestions for ways to "write against culture" as an alternative strategy for the production of ethnography. These include refusing to make sweeping generalizations about people's lives; showing how experiences are constituted by actual individuals, who live in specific circumstances and possess particular histories; and incorporating into our texts a recognition of the ways in which our "informants," themselves, are also constantly engaged in questioning, interpreting, and re-interpreting their own lives and experiences (Abu-Lughod 1991:147-157). Abu-Lughod suggests that to write against culture means to "explore the advantages of what I call 'ethnographies of the particular' as instruments of a tactical humanism" (1991:138). [End Page 206]
In a similar spirit of mind, I would submit that the notion of globalization as it is frequently deployed these days also perpetuates a series of somewhat artificial...