ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 19

Cosmopolitanism and its discontents - Dr. E. Kirtsoglou and D. Theodossopoulos

Room: CBA 0.060x80

Panel abstract

There are certain times, in certain contexts, when cosmopolitanism is discussed in a critical and disapproving manner: as a concept complicit with the interests of the powerful, or as a notion related to Western political supremacy and the ills of globalization. This panel invites contributions that examine the political consciousness of situated actors who voice their disapproving commentary towards international politics and the wider processes that surround them. It attempts to bring those particular views at the center of analysis, relying upon anthropology’s ability to throw light to local perceptions and worldviews.

When faced with ‘normative cosmopolitanism’ different communities seem to share similar appreciations of political causality and global justice. Such collective feelings of reservation towards the sincerity of political practices often produce generalized discontent with cosmopolitanism, a turn to nationalism, conspiracy and introversion. At the same time however, ethnically and socially diverse communities seem to acknowledge their common position vis-à-vis a western ‘universal’ or ‘hegemonic’ discourse, thus producing parallel responses to and interpretations of it, developing a sense of ‘political intimacy’, a silent acknowledgement of the reasons behind the other’s introversion and closure. Hence, political cosmopolitanism can be approached as an idiosyncratic form of cultural cosmopolitanism, an opportunity for the articulation of difference. In this respect, appreciation and tolerance of Others could potentially develop out of the same political predicament, that of belonging in a cosmopolitan world, but not as an equal partner.

Contributors are encouraged to address some of the following themes:

  • Cosmopolitanism as the handmaid of globalization
  • Perceptions of cosmopolitanism as a reified political entity
  • Feelings of political intimacy in the context of perceptions of western hegemony
  • Resistance to cosmopolitanism and the rise of nationalism
  • Political marginality in relation to development and/or modernization

The session particularly welcomes contributions from scholars who specialize in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South Asia and Latin America.


Dr. D. Theodossopoulos
University of Bristol

Dr. E. Kirtsoglou
University of Wales Lampeter


Hegemonic, Subaltern and Anthropological Cosmopolitics

Prof. John Gledhill, University of Manchester

From the perspective of those whose lives have not been enriched by globalization, the kind of cosmopolitanism that underlies both the public policies and private cultural practices of governing elites often seems a reflection of their conscription by Northern power. Globalization may thus foster popular desires for the reconstruction of the “national projects” that neoliberal elites –– often characterized in Latin America as vendepatrias – seem to have abandoned. But this is only one of a variety of resistances to elite cosmopolitics, some of which, even when they are locally rooted in specific ethnic identities or religious congregations, draw strength from seeing themselves as part of a global movement and thereby have the potential to contribute to an alternative cosmopolitics. Nevertheless, other examples of apparently counter-hegemonic responses are disturbing to Northern anthropological sensibilities. Mainstream anthropology took the form of a (Western) “cosmopolitics of difference”, always troubling its practitioners with contexts in which their subjects defied aspects of the normative universalism promoted by Western global domination, especially when this involved rejection of parts of this universalizing project to which they themselves subscribed. Lack of popular enthusiasm for human rights and the more essentializing and exclusionary forms of ethnic identity politics provide apt contemporary illustrations. In this paper, I examine a range of counter-movements to neoliberal cosmopolitics which have emerged in recent years within Latin America, questioning over hasty characterizations of some of these developments as incompatible with the “positive” features of Western universalism while at the same time noting that some of these apparent “resistances” do not necessarily counteract the more capillary social effects of neoliberal globalization at the level of everyday life. In the light of this analysis, I argue that the cosmopolitics of anthropology itself needs to become more radical, or perhaps to revisit the alternative anthropological cosmopolitics proposed by dissident pioneers such as James Mooney in the era before the discipline’s institutionalization. An obsession with difference adds to the difficulties of recognizing the capability of subaltern actors to articulate visions that are historically unintelligible without the imprint of North Atlantic hegemony yet seek to redefine its universalism in ways that offer them greater prospects for inclusion. It also tends to deflect our own normative concerns away from the profound social transformations that would be necessary to create a world in which that might be possible.

Shifting Centers, Tense Peripheries: Indigenous Cosmopolitanisms

Prof. Andrew Strathern and Dr. Pamela J. Stewart, University of Pittsburgh

Although cosmopolitanism, with its aura of liberalism and multicultural tolerance, is sometimes contrasted with movements for indigeneity and the separate identities of peoples, this contrast ignores a number of complications, relating to the ambiguity of definition inherent in center /periphery models of the world. Even within these models discontents of the "periphery" with the perceived "center" can be identified as occurring at a number of levels, from the local level through to the level of the "global order". Such discontents, further, can produce a sense of parallel subjectivities among those who see themselves as disadvantaged. In a different modality, peripheralized peoples sometimes make mythopoeic constructions of solidarity and affinity with perceived centers of wealth and power, as happened in some of the social movements labeled as "cargo cults" in New Guinea. Such claims can be seen as the aspirant cosmopolitanisms of the dispossessed. In Taiwan, the indigenous Austronesian speakers have been successively colonized by European explorers, Han colonists from China, the Japanese, and the Kuomintang refugees from the conflict with Communist forces in China in 1949. In recent years, however, their peripheralized position has been ideologically reversed, with the advent of a political move towards separatism in Taiwan. They are now sometimes seen as emblematic of Taiwan's "difference" from the mainland of China, because they are regarded as the "authentic" people of the land. They themselves, moreover, are using this new status to reach out internationally to cultural movements in other Austronesian-speaking areas in the Pacific, South-East Asia, and the Philippines, connections which they further extend in terms of imputed shared aspects of history to North American Indian or Native American populations. Their cultural revival, or assertion of identity, is thus based on a kind of cosmopolitanism of indigeneity. They, like many other "indigenous" groups, use the Internet as a means of pursuing their international projects. "Cosmopolitanism", therefore, does not necessarily belong only to the multicultural metropolitan contexts of life. It has to been seen in broader terms, and we have to recognize the ways in which peoples of the periphery both express their discontents with the center and work to redefine new centers in which their peripheral status can be overcome.

Two sides of the same coin? World citizenship and local crisis in Argentina

Dr. Victoria Goddard, Goldsmiths College

Focusing on the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, this paper explores the contradictions of belonging. Callinicos (2004) suggests that, since the protests at the Seattle summit in November 1999, we are witnessing a ‘movement of movements’, a widespread political tendency to tackle and critique the capitalist system. He sees the moment as a potent one, presenting many challenges to the political activist and the theoretician. Amongst the many challenges afforded by the political moment is the possibility of experiencing, understanding and analysing the points of intersection between agency and structure. We could add that an equally significant concern is the imbrication of local and global struggles and events. Following Callinicos, it could be suggested that one of the characteristics of local struggles is, precisely, their engagement with and indeed embeddedness within critiques of world capitalism. As such, militants, demonstrators, or simple citizens are concurrently engaged with local and global political terrains. They are at once making moral and political claims as local, national and global citizens.

Since its inception, the Argentine state has been the site of conflicting visions of nationhood, broadly seen either in relation to discourses of purity or in a commitment to cosmopolitanism. However, both envisaged the Argentine nation-state as, essentially, European in character and orientation. This sense of identity and complicity with Europe was shattered with the war with Britain over the Falklands/Malvinas and more recently with the collapse of the economy and the crisis in 2001. Reflections on the roots of the crisis led to intense self-questioning in terms of Argentina’s place in the world and the complex relationships that constitute global capitalism. The presentation outlines the circumstances of the crisis and examines the accounts of some of those caught up in it, focusing particularly on the contradictions inherent in being American and European, irrevocably defined by local context whilst struggling and imagining one’s place within an equally real but elusive global domain.

The cosmopolitan and the nominal: case study of Islamic Jihadist night dreams as reported sources of spiritual and political inspiration

Dr. Iain Edgar, University of Durham

The convergence of peoples and markets in ‘real world’ cosmopolitanism is significantly challenged and indeed fractured in emerging apparent differences as to the ontological status of inner worlds. On the one hand Western secular, liberal, post-Christian capitalist ideology and world view ‘see’ inner worlds, usually, as reflective but not primarily constitutive or generative of outer world dynamics. The Freudian notion of the personal unconscious is emblematic of such a paradigm. The Western psychoanalytical paradigm is, however, radically different from many societies studied by social anthropologists, notably shamanic cultures. Strongly religious cultures share a differing and variant paradigm as to the nature of the unconscious; the numinous is, or rather can be, the locus of spiritual generativity within the outer world. These abstractions find real world political, economic and social significance today, particularly, in the ideological world view of the growing Jihadist variant of Islam. As well as their critigue of Western secular culture and the current post-colonialist oppression of Muslim peoples, part of their Islamic Jihadist inspiration is apparently derived from their reported experience of true night dreams from Allah, within the Islamic tradition of prophetic revelation through ‘true dreams’, Al-ruya. This paper presents many such night dream examples from the Al-Qaeda leadership and followers, to the Taliban and ex-Guantanamo Bay inmates. Some examples, particularly the case example of the reported inspirational dreams of Mullah Omar, have been gained through recent fieldwork in the Middle East, particularly Pakistan. I develop anthropological, epistemological and methodological reflections upon the phenomena of the political usage of such reported imaginary data. Yet also, a sublime, and possibly contented, cosmopolitanism needs to address these apparent variances as to the status of these tricky hinterlands of the self. The irony of Zionism and the idea of the Biblical ‘Promised Land’ being partly based on readings of Genesis night dreams, and George Bush apparently having a ‘divine’ connection is not ignored.

Conservative Indonesian Muslim resistance to cosmopolitanism as reflected in the popular journal Sabili

Prof. C. W. Watson, University of Kent

Southeast Asia nations have in the past been, and continue to be, ambivalent towards cosmopolitanism, at times welcoming the opportunities it offers, at other times rejecting aspects of it which are regarded as incompatible with national cultural and political traditions. The hostility towards cosmopolitanism has occasionally been interpreted as a ploy adopted by political leaders to safeguard their own positions: thus Sukarno and Lee Kuan Yew both criticised western democratic forms as being inappropriate for political conditions in their nations, but there was always suspicion that this was because neither liked to deal with a potentially strong political opposition. Political resistance of this kind to cosmopolitan ideas was often expressed in cultural terms: western cosmopolitan styles of music, dress, behaviour was unacceptable and therefore efforts were and are made to censor cultural imports. In the last two decades the torch of cultural opposition has been taken up by conservative religious groups and personalities, and because of the way in which international relations in the Middle East have developed it has become difficult to untangle the religious, political and cultural strands to this general discontent with globalization and westernization in Southeast Asia. This paper looks at one manifestation of the opposition to cosmopolitanism: the journal Sabili, a widely distributed Muslim fortnightly journal which has a readership among the educated Muslim urban elite of the principal cities in Indonesia. It is generally recognised by observers within and outside the country as the most audible voice of anti-American and anti-Christian popular opinion, though there is some debate about exactly how influential it is, or indeed about how to measure its influence. This paper after giving a broad description of the journal, its contents and readership proceeds to scrutinise one issue entitled “Amerika Penjajah” (“Amerika the Colonial Power”) and illustrates precisely how this discourse of anti-western and anti-cosmopolitan ideas is currently formulated. At the same time it seeks to contextualise this discourse within the particularities of recent developments in Indonesian society.

How the ‘underdeveloped’ became staunch environmentalists: Cosmopolitanism and the Postcolonial Condition

Dr. Vassos Argyrou, University of Hull

Mobility, it is often said, does not make the cosmopolitan. What is required in addition is willingness to engage with others, an openness towards the world. This rationalistic celebration of the will neglects to ask about two important things: first, the conditions of possibility of the open mind; second, the consequences of its being open and receptive.

In this paper, I wish to explore both in the context of postcolonial relations. I shall focus on the governments and bureaucracies of the so-called developing countries and will be asking how and why they have come to open themselves up and willingly embrace environmentalism. I shall raise these questions against the backdrop of an earlier openness and willingness, the embracing of the idea of rapid industrialisation and development—a fantasy of the1960s and 70s referred to in those days as the ‘leap across the centuries’. In the process, I hope to be able to say something meaningful about the re-‘colonisation of the native consciousness’.

Marginal Exchanges; Barter, friendship, and rural discourses about escaping the growth of cosmopolitan Japan

Dr Ma Àngels Trias I Valls, University of Wales Lampeter

This paper provides an ethnographic account of a Japanese community who locate and articulate themselves at the political intersection between the rejection of cosmopolitan values, the creation of ‘sustainable’ environmental life-styles, and the articulation of difference within hegemonic discourses of ‘belonging’ to a Japanese town. The different actors in this ‘community’ provide a frame of reference for new and old types of discourses regarding the rejection of Japanese global economic discourses vis-à-vis international and local politics. The types of social relations proposed by these actors illustrate the tensions –and creative responses- to the wider processes affecting their immediate rural community, in particular, the processes of the global economic transformation of rural spaces once understood as ‘escape areas’ from the growth of cosmopolitan areas.

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