Table of Contents
A world in motion
A world in motion
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 28, 2022 (Week 6)
Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/6
Main reading: Straight (2002)
What was globalization?
As people became more aware of the globalization of the economy, anthropology wanted to bring critical, skeptical perspective to global interconnection.
By the end of the 20th century, anthropology had fully embraced the idea that there was a global context for their work in any one single local setting.
Now it is common to hear that globalization may slowing down, or going in reverse, e.g.:
- Wong, Edward, and Ana Swanson. 2022. “Ukraine War and Pandemic Force Nations to Retreat From Globalization.” The New York Times, March 22, 2022, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/us/politics/russia-china-global-economy.html.
Globalization is ongoing, but hasn’t worked out the way anyone expected. What can we learn now from the anthropology of globalization in retrospect?
Supply chains are cultural conjunctures
One example of the new anthropology of globalization is the study of objects and their movements, a “biography” of goods that reveals the hidden mechanisms of the global economic system (Kopytoff 1986; see also Appadurai 1990, 1996, 1988).
Homo faber: A Marxist view of human nature
Marx has a different conception of the human subject from homo duplex. For Marx, a human is an animal that labors.
An animal merely feeds. It is so dependent on nature that it is part of nature.
A human makes food, and then eats. It knows the difference between its needs and the means to meet those needs. For the human subject, the environment is a resource.
Social relations are the definite form of human life activity
Capitalism is a system in which some people use other people as tools to exploit resources.
Capitalism is a system in which all valuable things can be owned as private property.
- Hence, productive resources (capital) are privately owned, and people without capital need to sell their labor to others who own capital needed to produce useful things.
“The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof”
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. […]
It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the form of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. […] [S]o soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendant.
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour […]. (Marx  1972, 319–20)
Unpacking the “fetish” in Marx
There are at least three levels to Marx’s sense of fetish and fetishism
- There is an ethnocentric sense of fetish: Marx assumes that non-Western cultures all have a superstition that objects have magical powers, i.e. they believe they are fetishes.
- There is the metaphoric sense of fetish: Marx argues that capitalist consumers believe that commodities with magical powers, particularly usefulness, as though this use value was a permanent and inherent quality of a manufactured object.
- There is the fantastic sense of fetish: We can also see that consumers in a capitalist system readily accept the fantasy that the conditions of a commodity’s production are special, and that the commodity is also special.
A global capitalist system is, by definition, also a system that comprises many different cultures, settings, and ways of life.
Yet the contact among cultures in a global system takes place in a very specific and highly unequal set of institutions:
- Goods move freely, people (mostly) don’t.
Nostalgia for “traditional culture” is the commodity fetishism of difference.
The commodification of mporo is the representation of Samburu in Western symbolic categories
Samburu is the mirror of the consumer’s culture
jewelry : mporo : : Europe : Samburu
Samburu is the opposite of the consumer’s culture
jewelry : mporo : : pleasure, gratification : authentic meaning and moral value
The consumer’s identity is a moral choice
mporo : no mporo, secondhand clothes : : Samburu past : Samburu now
Samburu past : Samburu now : : tradition : modernity
What was globalization?
What does the movement of Samburu necklaces to European shops say about globalization now?
- Every society is part of a global order, but every person sees the same global order through the lens of their own local world-picture. One’s own world-picture is a distortion of the world, and one’s place in it.
- Even though the global economic order no longer feels new, and may arguably be in retreat, the global order has always been defined by both connection and isolation, movement and stoppage.
Today there are many different global contexts. Which one matters the most is a subject of debate.
- Global warming
- Global politics of migration
- Global competition among the new “great powers”
- Possibly other “global” phenomena as well
References and further reading
Appadurai, Arjun. 1988. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Theory, Culture & Society 7 (2-3): 295–310. https://doi.org/10.1177/026327690007002017.
———. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kopytoff, Igor. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 64–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marx, Karl. (1867) 1972. “Capital, Vol. 1.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 294–438. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Straight, B. 2002. “From Samburu heirloom to new age artifact: The cross-cultural consumption of Mporo marriage beads.” American Anthropologist 104 (1): 7–21. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2002.104.1.7.