ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 10

Cosmopolitanisms in the Indian Ocean region – Helene Basu & Zulfikar Hirji

Room: CBA 0.001x41

Panel abstract

As the locus of perennial exchange and mobility the Indian Ocean region has often been described by historians as marked by cosmopolitanism. In this panel we propose to transcend notions of cosmopolitanism derived from Western philosophical traditions of universalism by exploring models of multiple belongings and cultural fusions we encounter in ethnographic settings in the Indian Ocean region. How do these respond to theoretical implications of "rootedness" in its various ideological forms (e.g. ethnicity, nationalism, religion) and practices of "trans-borderism" ? Can one live as a cosmopolitanist and a member of a parochial community at the same time ? This two-part panel seeks to explore cosmopolitan ideas/practices and counter ideas/practices in relation to broader questions pertaining to subject positions/ cultural constructions of personhood, gender, economics and/or religion. We suggest to focus particularly on cosmopolitan life histories and subjective experiences in the Indian Ocean region.


Helene Basu
Free University Berlin

Zulfikar Hirji
University of Oxford


Cosmopolitanism and ritual consumption in Zanzibar

Helene Basu, Universitaet Muenster

People living in Zanzibar think and act beyond the local in many different contexts. One such context is provided by practices of possession such as performances for kibuki spirits which emphasise the ritual use of objects and the consumption of drinks defined as French, Madagassy and Comorian. The paper focuses upon subjective experiences, imagination and enactments of multiple gender identities constitutive of a cosmopolitan ritual space created through consumption.

Dissociation, Identification & Differentiation: The Festival Kreol and Afro-Creole cosmopolitanisms in the Indian Ocean

Laura Jeffery, University of Edinburgh

This paper explores expressions of inter-island belonging in the Indian Ocean through an ethnographic examination of the annual Creole Festivals in Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles, which also involve artists and musicians from Madagascar, the Comoros and the Maldives. Indian Ocean understandings of 'Creole' range from notions of colonial and post-colonial settlement, blending and hybridity to notions of historical, ancestral and cultural ties to Africa and by extension to America and the Caribbean. This paper asks what organisers in the various island states seek to achieve through their local Creole Festival, and what implications contrasting concerns have for variations in programming across the diverse island states and for the overall coordination and direction of the festivals. The paper elucidates three processes evident amongst participants: dissociation from the locally dominant European and South Asian traditions; identification as Indian Ocean Afro-Creoles with overlapping histories and shared cultural traditions; and differentiation of each group as culturally unique and rooted in a particular state or a particular island. This paper thus argues that, as a result of ethnic identity politics in the Indian Ocean, cosmopolitan practices in the region is characterised by simultaneous and relational processes of trans-borderism and rootedness.

The production of cosmopolitanity: the baraza in Zanzibar as a cosmopolitan place

Professor Roman Loimeier, Universitaet Goettingen

Turino (2000) has defined the term 'cosmopolitan' as 'objects, ideas and cultural positions which are widely diffused throughout the world and yet are specific only to certain portions of the populations within given countries'. Cosmopolitanism would consequently be described as a 'specific type of cultural formation and constitution of habitus that is translocal in purview' (Turino 2000: 7). As cosmopolitanism involves specific practices, material technologies, and conceptual frameworks, it has to be realized in specific locations and in the lives of actual people and will be shaped by and somewhat distinct to each locale. Cosmopolitan formations are therefore always, simultaneously, local and translocal. At the same time, cosmopolitanism is different from other types of transnational cultural formations such as disporas or overseas immigrant communities, because it lacks the specific factual or symbolic grounding around a single homeland or place of origin. Cosmopolitan cultural formations draw on and comprise diffuse sources from an increasing number of local sites. In my contribution I would like to present the baraza in Zanzibar as a paradigmatic place for the production of 'cosmopolitanity', even though, as the Zanzibarian exemple shows, cosmopolitan formations imply constant re-mixes which reflect the influence of specific power-structures in a specific setting at a specific period of time.

Cosmopolitanism contested: on the dynamics of equivalence in the western Indian Ocean

Edward Simpson and Kai Kresse

Some notable historians have attempted to develop ways of thinking about the western Indian Ocean as a unified society. They have done so in order to transcend the established regional biases of social science and to outline the population movements within the Indian Ocean that, they suggest, give its littorals particular character. In this paper, we attempt to show that people mixing and moving about the Indian Ocean, for trade and commercial purposes and within networks of kinship and religion, does not yet necessarily signify a 'cosmopolitan' world in an even or unified sense. To do so, we draw on ethnographically contextualized narratives of social factionalism, competition and religious propriety among Muslims in East Africa and South Asia. We look at how historical narratives (of Islam, of social origin) are used in situations of tense inter-factional and inter-religious rivalry and opposition, and within their respective post-colonial contexts, namely Kenya and India. Our problem can be simply stated: without social diversity cosmopolitanism is a hollow idea. Highly significant social differences define the characters of port towns, despite centuries of intermingling populations. Therefore, the impression of unity in the Indian Ocean, we suggest, is derived from particular kinds of social diversity which are recognisable to people within the region as they move through space and time. By contesting the primacy of 'cosmopolitanism' in this way, we hope show that local views and experiences of cosmopolitanism do not necessarily bear directly on notions of elitism or tolerance, as much of the European social theory literature suggests. Rather, the various regionally shaped forms of cosmopolitanism that are encountered might better be thought of as the recognition of social differences and the skill to be able to operate within them rather than a force that will erode those differences. If it makes sense to speak generally of 'Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism', it is in this sense of social contestation based on a struggle with history that is not so much shared as in common.

Cosmopolitan, or just plain clever? Chronic mobility on the Indian Ocean shores

Iain Walker, Macquarie University

Cosmopolitanism is a term with multiple meanings, some useful, some vague, but many of which presuppose that there is something radically different about the contemporary world, marking it off from an 'old' world that was static, locally grounded and culturally coherent. This radical difference is attributed to the explosive growth in movement (of people, things, ideas) over the past two or three decades and the subsequent exposure of cultures and societies to multiple and diverse influences that are encompassed eclectically, unequally and, often, disruptively. While not denying that flows of individuals and ideas have intensified significantly, in this paper I suggest that the cosmopolitan world is not entirely new.

Using examples from the Comoro Islands, Zanzibar and Yemen, I show how trans-local contacts have long been a feature of life; and how people have, over the course of time, evolved different strategies to interact with and negotiate other cultures, in the process incorporating influences (of all sorts) into their own worlds. These cultural worlds have been both bounded and unbounded, but they are nevertheless coherent, providing models for behaviour for those who subscribe to them. Far from being radically disruptive, therefore, or leading to multiple and shifting fragmented cultural uncertainties, trans-local exchanges are instead shown to be dynamically consistent elements of social life.

Cosmopolitanism and Empire: the case of Sheikh-Sir Mbarak al-Hinawy (1896-1959)

Zulfikar Hirji, Institute of Ismaili Studies & Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (Oxford)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many places and people living around the Western Indian Ocean littoral were governed by the British Empire. The paper explores the extent to which 'cosmopolitan living' was made possible by the imperial state through an examination of the life-history of Sheikh-Sir Mbarak al-Hinawy (b. 1896). Sheikh-Sir Mbarak was one of the most prominent Arab Muslim figures of Omani descent who was the Liwali (Governor) for the Coast of East Africa from 1942 until his death in 1959. Theoretically, the paper raises questions about the extent to which 'cosmopolitanism' can be used as a synoptic framework to examine Indian Ocean societies of the past and in the present.

Panel Discussant: Daniel Yon (York University, Canada)

Daniel is author of Elusive Culture (2000) and an ethnographic film (forthcoming 2006) on the story of agricultural workers from the Island of St Helena in post-war rural England which looks at Atlantic World cosmopolitisms in terms of social memory and landscape, race and citizenship.

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