ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Plenary B: Diaspora, cosmopolis, global refuge: three voices of the supranational city

Nigel Rapport, University of St Andrews

According to political theorist Brian Barry, a 'liberal' world-view as against a 'communitarian' one ‘holds that there are certain rights against oppression, exploitation and injury to which every single human being is entitled to lay claim', and that 'appeals to "cultural diversity" and pluralism under no circumstances trump the value of [these basic] rights'. Opposed to the identity politics of the communitarians, it is these rights which the liberal then sets about enshrining in a legal-constitutional framework of citizenship. (To be sure, one of these rights might be to community membership --even to communities internally organized in terms of illiberal relations of dominance and submission, and in terms of all manner of notions of the good life-- but the citizenship framework guarantees, notwithstanding, that these 'cultures' do not become empires, and do not become ghettos.)

Translating such liberalism into an anthropological enterprise, this paper asks whether the current practice of diasporic lives in international cities might not inspire a programme of supranational, transcultural morality: from diaspora to cosmopolis to global refuge.

In a world of movement, the city --more exactly the cosmopolis in a global network of links-- may offer a better institutional framework, a more open image, than the nation-state for hosting 'a world of guests'. The relative smallness of cities and their numerical profusion may better ensure that people play the role of guests of social spaces, procedures and one another in a regular and routine fashion and thus resist the temptation of an unreflexive absolutism.

The cosmopolis may serve to promote an ironic detachment, which might in turn nurture a generosity of spirit, such that guest-hood becomes an everyday expectation and practice not merely associated with the diasporic, the overprivileged tourist or the underprivileged refugee.

The Network of Refuge Cities of the International Parliament of Writers makes this hope more than purely wishful thinking.