Archive for the ‘On Arjun Appadurai’ Category

Critical Comments on Arjun Appadurai

©Tessa Valo, 2007

Antimotto: “Within the boundaries of the tribe the writ of the same culture runs from the end to end” (Malinowski 1944, quoted in Buzard 2003:63)

The relationship between the notion of globalization and social scientists has in the recent decades admonished of about that of a magnet and iron nails; the massive explosion of globalization studies does not evade anthropology as a discipline, on the contrary, it strikes right into its heart and provokes burning discussions aiming at rethinking of its traditional categories and proposing of new theoretical and conceptual tools with greater heuristic potential as well as rethinking of its methodology and its place in the world of transnational flows. Particularly, the characteristic features of globalization[1] stimulated anthropologist’s new interest in the cultural dimension of globalization and incited the re-examination of the concept of culture and the way globalization is “creating new cultural configurations through which people are living out new subjectivities and social relations” (Moore 1999:11). As well as the theorization of the consequences of the weakening and changing position of the nation-state within the world system (cf. Chatterjee 1998, Appadurai 2005). These and related questions stimulated also Arjun Appadurai to take part in the course of this kind of anthropological inquiry and to develop new theoretical tools as well as to rethink traditional anthropological notions through the prism of a transnational, or rather postnational approach (Appadurai 2005:9). But before discussing further Appadurai’s theoretical perspective and the questions it poses for the anthropological practice, let me first present some of my brief notes on globalization that will later inform the background of the argument.

Global? Local?

There are several points we should take notice of when discussing globalization, firstly, not everybody is a migrant, a refugee[2], a member of a diaspora, an expatriate, a cosmopolitan academic, a businessman or whatever the good old examples of the grand narrative of globalization consist of; the vast majority of the world’s population is bound to the local community – though of course it can be said that, what is imagined as global, has impact on and redefines that what is imagined as local – but it remains a social fact that the “global interconnectedness is extremely uneven” (Fuller & Assayag 2005:1). Secondly, I argue that to speak of global and local sensu stricto does not make a good sense; there exists no either-global-or-local but always both-and; global and local (if we are still forced to think in these categories) are mutually affected, constituted, reinforced and influenced and thus come into being only through a dialectic relationship; anything which can be imagined as global is necessarily in a certain sense localized. In another words, what is traditionally associated with the notion of the global (i.e. statehood, monetary economies, citizenship, modern mass media, migration etc.) is always actually realized at the local level and is “embedded in the locally constituted life-worlds and power relations” for “whether it is ideas or substances that flow, or both, they have origins and destinations, and the flows are instigated by people” (Eriksen 2003:4). Or to put it differently, “denotations may be global. But connotation is always local: meaning is never inherent in a sign, it is always filtered through a culturally endowed eye or ear” (Comaroff 1996:17). And it is the understanding of the meaning, of those culturally endowed eyes and ears through which people perceive the world, interpret their and others actions within it and make sense of themselves, what is ab initio the main concern of anthropology.

Conceptualizing the Postnational

Arjun Appadurai, joining the discussion on what Harvey (2001) coined with the term ‘space-time compression’ and what others formulated in the language of transnational flows, diasporas, or globalization, developed concepts that would enable an anthropological approach to the issues of modernity, globalization, public culture and consumption. In the next section we are going to review several of the underlying premises of Appadurai’s approach that is aiming at the redefinition of the field of anthropological inquiry and research in relation to the above mentioned debates that play also an enormous role in lives of the people we study. Later we will build further on this part when discussing the production of locality and neighborhood and their heuristic potential for the current anthropological research.

There are two crucial notions upon which Appadurai’s theorizing is premised and which are always, in one form or another, present. It is media and migration[3] – viewing them as interconnected, Appadurai explores their “joint effect on the work of the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (Appadurai 2005:3; emphasis in original) and tries to develop a “general theory of global cultural processes” (Ibid.:46). The work of the imagination is viewed as a “space of contestation in which individuals and groups seek to annex the global into their own practices of the modern” (Ibid.: 4). As an anthropologist he sets out to investigate the cultural dimension of globalization and fully acknowledging the fact that “the transnational flow of universalizing signs demands their domestication, that they be made meaningful and salient to homespun realities” (Comaroff 1996:174), he focuses on the production of locality and neighborhood in a globalizing world, viewing the locality as an “inherently fragile social achievement […] ephemeral unless hard and regular work is undertaken to produce and maintain its materiality” (Appadurai2005:179;180). Now let us turn our attention for a little while to the notion of cultural which Appadurai proposes instead of using the concept of culture.

Appadurai resists, and has several good reasons to do so, the noun form of culture, and proposes instead its adjectival form, i.e. cultural. The noun form of culture necessarily implies a certain reification and substantiation, making culture a part of the same discursive realm as race and implying the idea of certain social groups as cultures (cf. Ibid.:12-14). The cultural on the other hand “moves one into a realm of differences, contrasts and comparisons that is more helpful” (Ibid.:12) and thus presents a more suitable heuristic device which can be used when talking about difference (Ibid.:13). One is at this point tempted to say – so far so good. After a promising start Appadurai proceeds and suggests “that we regard as cultural only those differences that either express, or set the groundwork for, the mobilization of group identities” (Ibid.:13), even though aware of certain problems this view presents, he goes on further moving to “the idea of culture as involving the naturalized organization of certain differences in the interests of group identity”, i.e. towards the “instrumental conception of ethnicity” or else “culture as group identity based on difference” (Ibid.:14-15; emphasis mine). And proceeding further to the discussion of culturalism, which he understands as a “conscious mobilization of cultural differences in the service of a larger national or transnational politics” (Ibid.:15) he implicitly crowns the shift from understanding culture or let us say cultural as a category of analysis (and a heuristic device) to understanding culture in terms of a category of practice[4]. Understanding culture in terms of differences that have been mobilized to articulate group identity[5] seems as nothing more than replicating the culture as a category of practice i.e. the way culture is used (and misused) in the culturalistic discourses and identity politics[6]. Such a notion of culture should be in my view rather the object of our inquiry and analysis than the means of understanding it. This excursus in Appadurai’s notion of cultural had one particular objective, and that is to turn our attention to its certain inner dissonance and to bear it in our minds; since if we are to think further about the cultural dimension of the production of locality and neighborhood we are as anthropologists obliged to rethink this particular notion of cultural, which I view as unsatisfactory for any project trying to unravel the cultural dimension of globalization[7].

The perspective premised on the ideas of motion and mediation – global processes of migration and communication – necessarily leads to the conceptualization of identities as deterritorialized, to the idea of culturally hybridized world and to thinking “beyond nation” (Ibid.:158-177), and rather in terms of translocalities – no wonder then that “the nation-state, as a complex modern political form” is for Appadurai “on its last legs” (Ibid.:19). Appadurai is thus concerned with “what locality might mean in a situation where the nation-state faces particular sorts of transnational destabilization” (Ibid.:178). Let us thus first have a closer look on the condition of the nation-state in the globalized world.

The emergence of global economy is continually diminishing the importance of and destroying anything that might be perceived as national economy (cf. Comaroff 1996); the processes of migration and the presence of alien population within the nation-state together with various transnational and subnational movements present a threat to its categories and legitimacy based on one-territory-one-people principle and moreover the global mass mediation enabling people to imagine a spectrum of possible realities and opportunities (and motivating them to action) makes it more and more difficult for the nation-state to virtually police its borders and produce reliable citizens. But the fact that globalization threatens to disintegrate the nation-state at least to a certain degree, does not mean that the nation-state is not responding to this threat. On the contrary, for the first, we can observe national governments making great “efforts to (re)assert their sovereignty and control” (Comaroff 1996:173) – just think of the recent discussions about European identity, which more than often end up with the search for and reassertion of the national and debates on the national cultural heritage; and for the second, an emergence of the identity politics, politics of difference, new patriotisms and ethnonationalisms (cf. Comaroff 1996; Appadurai 2005) in which the “ideas of culturally and ethnically distinct places become perhaps ever more salient” (Gupta & Ferguson 2006:611, cf. Olwig 2002). These processes, which can be understood as two sides of the same coin, present a special challenge for anthropology and its practice. What is needed is a framework connecting the large-scale and small-scale processes and conceptualizing their dialectical relationship. Arjun Appadurai presents in the “Production of Locality” such a framework, which enables the anthropologists to build further on, or eventually rethink the previous research.

The Production of Locality and Neighborhood

Appadurai, not taking locality as something already present and given or simply as a site of social action, focuses on the locality as something that has to be produced. He shows us how rituals and other social actions can be reinterpreted and rethought as localizing practices which aim at the production and reproduction of locality and of ‘reliably local subjects’, i.e. “actors who properly belong to a situated community of kin, neighbors, friends and enemies” (Appadurai 2005:179). In other words, he demonstrates how former anthropological research can be understood in terms of socialization of space and time, as analysis of the social techniques of the production of the ‘natives’ and production of particular localities and neighborhoods, documenting “the myriad ways in which small-scale societies do not and cannot take locality as given” (Ibid.:180). Locality is for Appadurai “primarily relational and contextual” (Ibid.:178) and can be conceived of as a certain phenomenological quality, as an aspect of social life, not as an easy achievement, on the contrary, as something that has to be continually reproduced, build anew and “maintained carefully against various kinds of odds” (Ibid.:179). Neighborhoods on the other hand “refer to the actually existing social forms in which locality, as a dimension or value, is variably realized. Neighborhoods, in this usage, are situated communities characterized by their actuality, whether spatial or virtual, and their potential for social reproduction” (Ibid.:179). Neighborhoods can thus be seen as referring to the micro-structures of everyday life and to the particular Lebenswelts, to the everyday processes on the micro-scale, i.e. to the complex structure of local conditions, daily interactions and social relationships, the structures of feeling, myths and rituals, representations and other aspects of social life that play an important role in the organization of life of a community. The concept of neighborhood in other words emphasizes the importance of situatedness[8] in contemporary globalized world (be it a physical or virtual one). Local knowledge is thus about “producing reliably local subjects as well as about producing reliably local neighborhoods within which such subjects can be recognized and organized” (Ibid.:181). Moreover Appadurai understands the relationship between the production of local subjects and neighborhoods as historical and dialectical in its nature.

But the relationship between locality and the neighborhood is much more complex and intricate since locality can not be separated from the actual setting, i.e. the neighborhood – it is the neighborhood which has the potential for social reproduction and it is the social action of the local (and situated) subjects that in a sense produces the locality. Here Appadurai approaches the crucial notion of context. Neighborhood is necessarily grounded in diverse historical trajectories and forces and is unthinkable without its contextual dimension. “Neighborhoods are what they are because they are opposed to […] already produced neighborhoods” (Ibid.:183). Neighborhoods are thus contexts for social action, but they also require contexts, i.e. other neighborhoods or ethnoscapes. Neighborhood thus provides a setting, a meaningful frame for human action; “a neighborhood is a multiplex interpretative site” (Ibid.:184). The context-generative dimension of neighborhood serves to Appadurai as a springboard for theorizing the relationship between the local and the global realities and providing a framework well-suited for bridging the large-scale and small-scale processes, since “the way in which neighborhoods are produced and reproduced requires the continuous construction, both practical and discursive, of an ethnoscape (necessarily nonlocal) against which local practices and projects are imagined to take place” (Ibid.:184). The context of the production of locality in a world marked by migration and mass mediation has itself markedly changed and this fact has crucial consequences for the role and practice of anthropology. And thus, before we proceed to a further and more critically oriented discussion of the concepts of locality and neighborhood in relation to the anthropological fieldwork and research, let us first sketch in general terms the challenges anthropologists face in the changed world.

Anthropology in the Changing World

The anthropological field, the defining element of anthropology as a discipline, which has normalized and bounded its practice, has markedly changed in the last decades. “The field sites in which contemporary anthropologists work are shaped by the geopolitics of the postcolonial, imperial world” (Gupta & Ferguson 1997:10). The current world of postcolonialism, multiculturalism and transnational flows thus not only changed the conditions of cross-cultural encounters but also affected the “ethnological imagination’s understanding of mediation in a culturally pluralized world” (Kurasawa 2004:170). The old traditional categories presupposing the isomorphic relationship between territory, culture, nation-state and society together with “our spatially centered, conventionally derived constructs will not do any more” (Comaroff 1996:170). The changing socio-cultural reality thus calls for new linguistic tropes, analytical perspectives and changed methodological approaches. The above mentioned necessarily leads us to the problem of place in anthropology and its ethnographies, i.e. to the problem of how fieldwork locations “often come to be identified with the groups that inhabit them” (Appadurai 1988:16). The idea that culture is naturally a property of spatially localized people as well as the idea that to study it we just have to ‘go there’ can not serve us any longer and has been also criticized numerous times (see e.g. Appadurai 1988, 2006, Clifford 1986, Gupta & Ferguson 1997, 2006). To put it differently, “cultures are becoming both deterritorialized and reterritorialized: they are no longer predicated on particular spatial co-ordinates” (Moore 1999:11). This rejection of the traditional categories and concepts that no longer make good sense in the perspective of the changed socio-cultural situation leads us to the questioning of the traditional conception of field and fieldwork, i.e. of the defining element of anthropology itself. To put it differently, in the current world marked by migration and mass mediation “the ‘ethno’ in ethnography takes on a slippery, nonlocalized quality, to which the descriptive practices of anthropology have to respond” (Appadurai 1991:191, quoted in Gupta & Ferguson 1997:3). Or else, Gupta & Ferguson ask: “what are we to do with a discipline that loudly rejects received ideas of ‘the local,’ even while ever more firmly insisting on a method that takes it for granted?” (Gupta & Ferguson 1997:4) and we might add – in which the imagination of cultural areas is still implicitly present, structuring the ways we conceive of people and groups of people we study. The rejection of the world composed of territorially bounded cultures and peoples thus challenges the idea of moving in and out of the field (cf. Gupta & Ferguson 1997). The field is now virtually everywhere and we can no longer escape it and pretend that we are ‘out of the field’. This situation results in rethinking of the field and fieldwork in terms of notions related to that of multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 2006) and multi-local field studies (Hannerz 2002) which “pay attention to the interlocking of multiple social-political sites and locations” (Gupta & Ferguson 1997:37). It is no longer possible to get a complete picture of some kinds of activities from a local viewpoint (if it ever was), the ‘local’ is produced by distant influences, it can be in a sense produced ‘elsewhere’, and to understand the local we have to broaden our horizons and open up for new places, sites and connections and even nonlocal (in a geographical sense) definitions of the field. The field can consist of several localities, which through their networks and certain interdependence form one coherent field (cf. Hannerz 2002). The field is thus not disappearing or is not in a crisis, it just has to adapt itself to new conditions; the field as a local or multi-local site has to be related dialectically to the larger spatial arenas. The field that crosses several localities and works at several sites is especially well-suited for certain problem areas connected with the effects of migration, globalization and mass mediation, such as “tracking movements and migrants transnationally in diaspora and exile, or the history of the circulation of objects and techniques, or studying the relationships of dispersed communities and networks that define well-designated macro-processes in the global flow of capital and expertise” (Marcus 2006:618). But multi-sited, multi-local or translocal must not necessarily mean that the anthropologist works (physically) in several localities, it is the connection of the global meanings and their appropriation in the production of concrete localities and the focus on the connections between localities and the production of meanings what makes the given perspective translocal.

The Production of Locality and Neighborhood: Critical Comments

Appadurai poses the question of what happens to the production of locality in contemporary world and of what might “locality mean in a world where spatial localization, quotidian interaction, and social scale are not always isomorphic” (Appadurai 2005:179), in the era of the weakening of the nation-state etc. He relates these questions to the problem of nationalism and identity politics, or new patriotisms. This line of thinking seems especially interesting. But there are several problems I would like to discuss before returning to this point. For the first, there is a certain problem I have with the concept of neighborhood. When thinking about its possible applications I feel more than confused about the difference the concept of neighborhood makes – in a certain sense – in relation to that of say ‘culture’, and I deal in fact with the same kind of problem Appadurai himself had with the concept of ‘culture’, namely that of substantiation and that of drawing boundaries. If neighborhoods are referring to ‘situated communities characterized by their actuality’, then I have to ask: how are we to delineate them or else where are the boundaries that neighborhoods and localities so sorely try to guard (- supposing that they could be in the end certainly defined as fluid, fuzzy or blended, in the popular diction of last decades)? How are we to define community (- a question mysteriously missing in Appadurai’s theorizing)? Does the existence of a particular neighborhood depend on the perception of particular actors within or outside it? Is it thus as relational and contextual as locality (possibly not as a substantive social form…)? How large can a neighborhood be (a question related closely related to that of a community, not knowing what a community stands for, how can I guess what everything can be meant with a neighborhood)? Are all answers to these questions context-dependent (if it is so – dependent on which or whose context)? And if we are to accept the game of the neighborhoods, then we have to ask the question: who? – i.e. for whom is this or that neighborhood a meaningful context, and moreover who is producing the concrete neighborhood? Though Appadurai states that “the production of a neighborhood is inherently colonizing, in the sense that it involves the assertion of socially (often ritually) organized power over places that are viewed as potentially chaotic or rebellious”[9] and that the “production of a neighborhood is inherently an exercise of power over some sort of hostile or recalcitrant environment, which may take the form of another neighborhood” (Ibid.:184), I feel the question of power as seriously undertheorized, we must ask more explicitly who creates neighborhoods, what is needed for a neighborhood to be produced, for whom are they a meaningful context and who participates on the context-generative aspect of neighborhoods and we have to go even further. Because these and related questions concerning the power to define and produce neighborhood or a locality are of special importance in relation to the emergent identity politics and ethnonationalisms.

As we have seen, the concept of neighborhood raises in my view more questions than it solves, therefore I am going to focus rather on the idea of production of locality, which is in my eyes a much more potent notion. But here arises a problem – as presented by Appadurai, locality can not be separated from the concept of neighborhood. Therefore I suggest replacing the concept of neighborhood with a network approach, i.e. with the concept of networks[10]. Through the application of the network approach the abyss between the virtual and ‘real’ neighborhoods would disappear as well as the problem posed by the definition of community and the problem of boundaries. The notion of networks is also well-suited to grasping the character of the contemporary world, since inherent to this notion is the idea of process, and on the other hand more stable networks can be conceptualized in terms of structure. The network approach also has the potential to bridge small-scale and large-scale processes and map with more precision the connections and interconnections that are of relevance for the concrete research problem. The idea of the production of locality, that I view as highly theoretically potent, could be connected with the network approach, this would lead in my perspective to a more theoretical precission which I am sometimes missing in Appadurai’s writing[11] and would be also more productive at the practical level of anthropological research, since the concept of neighborhood seems to me too confused for me to be able to apply it analytically in a particular case study. On the other hand the application of the notion of the production of locality particularly in relation to the politics of identity could raise new questions and motivate new perspectives on how particular localities are discursively produced, from what kind of material, what is made important, what is deleted, how the locality is in the discursive practices of identity politicians inscribed on the bodies of the subjects that are being in a certain sense localized, no less in relation to the global surroundings. These could be used e.g. in multi-sited studies on the workings of identity politics in diasporas and ‘at home’.

Appadurai’s work thus brings us in the realm of many fruitful ideas and makes us definitely think about the changed situation of the contemporary world and motivates us to a much deeper recognition of the certain undeniable facts of globalization and their incorporation in our thinking, practice and theorizing; on the other hand we must avoid taking the presented notions uncritically and overenthusiastically. As we have seen, certain concepts viewed from a different perspective raise more questions than they are able to solve.


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[1] The symptoms of the changed character of the current world can be, borrowing from Comaroff (1996:167) summarized as follows – “(1) accelerated process of globalization accompanied by a dramatic growth of transnational institutions, movements and diasporas; (2) the weakening of the nation-state; (3) the rise of a (re)new(ed) politics of identity couched less in the language of nineteenth-century European modernity than in the rhetoric of alternative modernities; (4) a crisis of representation in human sciences”. For more on crisis of representation in human sciences see Marcus & Fischer 1999:7-17.

[2] But there is no doubt that refugee – representing the avant-garde of his people (Arendt in Agamben 2003:19) – can be conceptualized as a category or example par excellence through which the crisis of nation-state and related processes can be perceived; but we must be aware of that such an analysis leads more to a prognosis than to a diagnosis, opening up possible scenarios of the imagined postnational future. “[A refugee] is a limit concept that provokes the radical crisis of the principles of the nation-state and at the same time creates space for the recovery of categories […] it is the only category in which we can today anticipate the forms and delimitations of the future political community” (Agamben 2003:25;20, translation mine). The migrant then plays in Appadurai’s perspective a resembling role, contesting the nation-state and its categories.

[3] A similar line of thinking where the demographic and phenomenological impact of migrants and minorities in general within West is conceived of as presenting a challenge for conceptualizing of the transnational character of contemporary culture is present in Jameson (1991).

[4] Here I am borrowing the distinction between categories of practice and categories of analysis from Brubaker, and following his dictum which states that „we should avoid reproducing or reinforcing such reification by adopting categories of practice as categories of analysis“ (Brubaker & Cooper 2000:10).

[5] And taking group identity, and especially the concept of identity, and thus the objective existence of different group identities, for granted, does not help us to get out from the essentialist trap. One way out would be to get use of the concept of identification (cf. Brubaker & Cooper 2000; Eriksen 2003b:135-151).

[6] Here we could note, together with Unni Wikan, that ‘culture’ in culturalistic and similar discourses “has become a new concept of race in that it functions in a reductionist manner to make ‘them’ lesser human beings than ‘us’. Whereas ‘we’ regard ourselves as thinking, reasoning, acting human beings with the ability to reflect and respond to changing circumstances, ‘they’ are portrayed as caught in the web of culture and propelled to do as culture bids” (Wikan 1999: 58). I have discussed this topic closer elsewhere (“cand.nr.321” 2007).

[7] My aim here is not to present an alternative, but to point out to something I perceive as a problem when using Appadurai’s theoretical devices.

[8] For more on site, situation and situatedness see the interview with A. A. (Baldauf, & Hoeller 1999).

[9] Here we could again return to the above posed question, namely – what is the meaning of the ‘situated community with the potential of reproduction’. In perspective of what was said above is neighborhood a sort of structure-imposing entity? Is a situated community a structured functioning neighborhood in opposition to place viewed ad chaotic and rebellious? Etc.

[10] The ideas on network analysis come mainly from: Coleman 1990; Lin 2001; Scott 2000; Emirbayer 1997; Emirbayer & Goodwin 1994; Barnes 1954; Wasserman & Faust; Granovetter 1973; Somers 1994; Wellman 1988; White 1992.

[11] Generally I view Appadurai’s writing as probably too much implicitly biased through the experience with Indian diaspora, the model he proposes suits in a sense perfectly for this case but I am not convinced that it holds the test of other cases; for similar observation see Tsing 2002:468-9.


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