Anthropology & global issues   no comments

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This week I have done some more reading on anthropology’s methods, complementing the findings I wrote about last week. The more I found out about anthropology, the more I wondered how as a discipline it would tackle global issues. Indeed from reading the introductory texts, I got the sense that anthropology (the socio-cultural kind) was concerned with the study of human kind. A priori this doesn’t seem to pose a problem in terms of the globality of the subject matter, but in its approach and even epistemology, anthropology is firmly based on the notion of classification. Indeed its ontologies are cultures, peoples, societies, etc. and its methods are primarily descriptive and comparative, assuming the existence of different ‘things’ to compare. As mentioned in previous posts, an anthropologist looks at a society/community/social group which he/she investigates doing fieldwork, conducting interviews, historical research, etc. But what happens when the group in question is the entire world population, as is often the case with so-called global issues? How then would such a discipline tackle questions that seem to contradict its own epistemological foundations?

Trying to look at the digital divide from an anthropological lens, I have hit what might be the crux of the issue in this assignment – how to let go of my previous assumptions about the world, shaped in large parts by my training in International Relations and instead of re-phrasing the ‘problématique’ I immediately see with the global digital divide in anthropological terminology, attempt to ‘discover’ the problems and ‘frame’ it as an anthropologist would. In order to try and do that, and while I did find some answers in the introductory readings, I decided nevertheless to look for some more targeted articles on the issue.

An article by Kearney (1995) ‘The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism’ in Annual Review of Anthropology was particularly helpful. The answers or thinking I considered fall in two broad categories – theoretical and practical.

On the practical side, Peoples and Bailey (2000, p. 5) assert that for global issues, which have admittedly gained importance in the past two decades, anthropologists are often called to consult on specific projects – an emerging sub-field of the discipline referred to as applied anthropology. The idea here is that solutions to global problems often require local knowledge, provided by traditional anthropological research and therefore increasingly useful in the field.

On the theoretical front, Kearney recognises that new thinking is required in ‘anthropological theory and forms of representation that are responses to such nonlocal contexts and influences’ (1995, p. 547). He sees global issues (and globalisation) as having ‘implication for [anthropology’s] theory and methods’ as research which is limited to local units of analysis ‘yield incomplete understandings of the  local’ (1995, p. 548). He sees the redefinition of space-time into a multidimensional global space with fluid boundaries and sub-spaces as the most important disruption to anthropological epistemology. He also notes that the notion of ‘progress’ assumed in the discipline and the notion of ‘development’ is and needs to be questioned in the context of globalisation, that is to say that there is no inevitability in the course of global history. Moreover with the ‘deterritorialisation’ of culture, the focus of anthropological study is shifting towards ‘identity’.  Underpinning these changes is the fundamental reframing of the concept of classification, no longer considered ‘an invariant subject of investigation in anthropology, but taken instead as a historically contingent world-view category’ (1995, p. 557).

This has given me some interesting avenues to explore so I will conclude my introductory reading on anthropology here. Next week I will start looking at management as a discipline.


Kearney M. (1995) ‘The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism’ in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24, pp. 547-565

Peoples, J. and Bailey, G. (2000) Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, 5th ed., Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning

Written by Jennifer Welch on November 5th, 2012

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