ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 6

Interpretive communities and Cosmopolitanism – Andrew Smith

Room: 1 -CBA 0.005x32

Panel abstract

One of the issues addressed by this conference is whether or not cosmopolitanism is exclusive to what Hannerz calls the cultural ‘aficionado’ – the detached, elite traveller. According to an alternative proposition cosmopolitanism is an outlook which begins from, rather than precludes, membership of local social networks and communities. In this debate, questions of interpretation are crucial. On the one hand, rising migration and the border crossing power of the mass media are often seen to provoke a crisis in established cultural meanings. It is commonplace to associate cosmopolitanism with relativism, and therefore with the undermining of established consensus over the meaning of given acts, products or texts. On the other hand, these same social conditions also raise a very different set of questions, having to do with the way in which geographically dispersed communities are consolidated through the maintenance of shared beliefs and common modes of interpretation. A world in which cultural difference is prominent, it might be argued, demonstrates anew the continued ability of social groups to affirm particular truths and specific parameters of understanding. At the same time, such affirmations are inevitably complex and ambiguous. In many cases, communities are required to respond to and interpret events, or representations of events, which are not of their making. Indeed, such events or representations may unsettle the very idea of proprietarial labels such as ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. The possibility of defending a specific meaningful interpretation is not only a strategy in this context, but also part of what is at stake.

This panel addresses questions of audience, reading, interpretation and the construction of meaning among particular social groups, and across the boundaries of different social groups. Speakers are welcome to address some, any (or none) of the following indicative questions:

  • In what ways has a given event or text been interpreted within a specific community?
  • How have such interpretations become the basis for contestation within a group, or between different groups?
  • When does the cross-cultural reading of a work or an act challenge the conventional or the intended meaning of that work or act within its original context?
  • To what extent is it true to suggest that certain interpretations are exclusive to a local audience, and is there any substance to the claim that certain works ‘belong’ to specific communities?
  • How important are shared strategies of understanding in the formation of diasporan identities?


Dr. Andrew Smith
Dept. of Sociology, Anthropology and Applied Social Sciences,
Room S405 - Adam Smith Building,
University of Glasgow,
Scotland, UK.
G12 8RT
T: +44 (0)141 330 5267


Burial Sites, Informal Rights and Lost Kingdoms: the cosmopolitanism of land claims in South Africa

Deborah James, LSE

Cosmopolitanism is best understood, according to Ferguson in his book on Zambia, as paired with its opposite localism. The two polarities together represent a full range of cultural and political possibilities. These polarities dovetail and interweave - neither on its own represents a "whole way of life" but the predominance of one over another must be seen in a specific political and economic context (1999).

This paper takes land as a text, with those dispossessed of it as a diaspora. In the new South Africa, the promise of land restitution raised millennial-style expectations amongst dispossessed and dispersed former landholders. Partly prompted by emerging policy discourses, iconic tropes of localised cultural experience such as grave sites, initiation lodges and cattle byres have acquired new significance: they became verifiable evidence of effective possession of - because proving what the Land Claims Commission calls "informal rights" in - land. They thus became grounds on the basis of which to claim the restoration of such land. The meaning of land, the nature of ownership, and the legitimacy of its restoration, were all matters contested between claimants and policy makers/human rights lawyers. They were also contested by those at different levels in the hierarchical social order of the new South Africa. Members of the African nationalist political elite, in dialogue with lawyers, cherished one set of understandings while ordinary migrant/country-dwellers tended to hold to another. Both, however, were mediated through the new discourse on informal rights. It is neither purely through the activities of cosmopolitan diasporas with their "political demand for land" nor through the unmediated localist experience of less sophisticated country-dwellers with more practical orientations that the significance of land becomes evident, but in the interaction between the two. Based on local understandings, transformed in the course of thirty years of "land back" struggles, and finally negotiated over the course of the last ten years, a new diasporic consensus on what "the land" signifies has been established.


British Student Migrants to South Asian Universities

Mary Searle-Chatterjee, Manchester

It has been argued that much of what passes for 'cosmopolitanism' is merely 'aesthetic' rather than 'normative' cosmopolitanism, that the disengagement of mobile groups from the 'local communities' that anthropologists have traditionally studied is not necessarily replaced by any strong commitment to more universal values. In this paper I explore the lives and thinking of British people who went between 1961 and 1992 to study for several years at South Asian universities. I consider them to be cosmopolitan by virtue of the following external indicators; many subsequently settled 'abroad', married 'foreigners' and generated children who were even more likely than themselves to take up overseas opportunities in the global economy. They have moved beyond both South Asia and Britain. Many referred to that period in South Asia as the most important phase of their lives, when they accumulated new experiences and types of learning that transformed them and their work. I take my informants to be a community in that they had shared certain experiences. In extended interviews with me they interpreted those experiences and their own trajectories.

I show that far from becoming ironically detached aesthetic cosmopolitans, my informants developed new forms of commitment, though the cultural learning that occurred on the basis of roughly similar experiences was highly diverse. Some went on to become life-long interpreters of South Asia but more common was the development, or enhancement, of a feeling that British society and culture was deficient in some way, and needed to be remedied. Those who returned to Britain (albeit with much future mobility) had new values, which they acted on.

Their 'learning' was not simply a reproduction, or even translation, of ideas, or skills, held by the 'locals' encountered, but involved the development of something different. To complicate things further, in some cases the ideas and practices of those 'locals' already showed the effects of prior 'western' influence. My commentary on this 'learning' is based on the two years that I, too, spent as a student at an Indian university, like my informants, as well as on the seven additional years of living, working and researching there that followed.


The power of interpretation as a source of rivalry in a cosmopolitan environment: Islamic medical ethics in Lebanon

Morgan Clarke, Oxford

Lebanon, home to eighteen official religious communities, and a self-styled entrepôt, ‘bridging “West” and “East”’, has seen the tragic collapse and uneasy rehabilitation of a cosmopolitan ideal. Power is expressed through religious community, and a multiplicity of world-visions, all springing from different refractions of the monotheistic tradition, jostle for recognition. Between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in particular, the possibility of the use of ‘independent reasoning’ (ijithâd) in the interpretation of largely shared religious texts is a key source of debate and rivalry. Shiite authorities, held to be freer in this regard, pride themselves on their ability to reform their legal tradition in response to the demands of the globalised scientific age. In this paper, I investigate how these varying powers of interpretation manifest themselves, and how members of the different communities avail themselves of their religious leaders’ opinions, and that of others. I focus on questions of medical ethics, especially in the field of gynaecology and reproduction, where shared cultural norms of propriety are especially challenged. Public affirmation of communitarian identity cohabits with a private openness to the legal interpretations of others, in the embrace of cosmopolitan medicine.

Shifting Securities: Multilingual News Cultures and Cosmopolitan Citizenship

Marie Gillespie, Open University

This paper draws on a collaborative ethnography of multilingual news audiences and across the UK. The research uses the Iraq War 2003 as a prism to investigate how ‘critical events’ are mediated and interpreted at the intersections between a) government and military actors seeking to legitimate security policies, b) news producers aiming to inform publics and sustain ratings, and c) audiences using a variety of news sources and interpretative strategies to incorporate disturbing and or frightening events into the parameters of their understanding. The paper examines how security issues and the current politics of fear are interpreted among migrant and diaspora groups. It identifies recurrent discursive themes and practices in diaspora news cultures (i.e. viewing as a moral cum political duty; news as a rite of passage for youth and as media ritual for adults; the aesthetics of suffering and dialectics of victim-oppressor relations). The paper argues that the use of alternative and competing sources of news (in different languages and from different national perspectives) can relativise and disrupt conventional frames of understanding and belief. Sceptical zappers often become competent cosmpoliticians (or lay politicians, cultural brokers and mediators) who play an influential role in contesting dogmatic beliefs and absolutist interpretations of events in translocal social and communication networks. The discursive and social strategies employed by such interstitial translocal actors open up possibilities for meaningful dialogue across cultural, religious and national boundaries and for cosmopolitan forms of citizenship to emerge in situations where certain discursive logics and rhetorics bind and trap people into interpretative communities that may appear to be closed, impermeable and intransigent.

Uncritical Distance: 419 Scams and Cosmopolitan Blindness

Andrew Smith, Glasgow

There has been an overwhelming tendency to discuss cosmopolitanism in terms of critical distance. Salman Rushdie, to cite a famous examples, has suggested that cross-cultural interpretation demands a certain reflexivity and a willingness to recognise the dubious nature of all claims to Truth. Much of the discussion of cultural hybridity or of migrant experience in postcolonial studies emphasises the same sceptical, anti-essentialist perspective with regard to the interpretation of cultural products and experiences.

So-called ‘419’ e-mail scams, however, require precisely what might be called uncritical distance. They operate effectively because of what Gayatri Spivak has termed ‘sanctioned ignorance’. That is to say, the degree to which structural inequality creates not only the conditions for an elite cross-cultural cosmopolitan knowledge but also gives rise to a profound cultural parochialism. In this respect, it can argued, pace Said, that it is not only knowledge that is power: ignorance also can be a symbolic expression of power. But it is this structured ignorance that 419 scam mails rely upon, assuming as they do an interpretive community which does not exhibit distance from the text and which makes possible the passing off of dubious truths as legitimate. This paper examines these emails, therefore, and looks at what they suggest about the relationship between ignorance, power, cross-cultural interpretation and the processes by which economic capital is distributed in the postcolonial world.

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