Globalization Stories


In the past decades, we have witnessed the rise of countless globalization stories. But the very proliferation of stories of globalization as newness have obscured the real global processes that stretch back over five hundred years:

Culturally, the world we inherit today is the product of global flows that started in the late fifteenth century and continue to affect human populations today. Yet the history of the world is rarely told in those terms.

Indeed, the particularity of the dominant narratives of globalization is a massive silencing of the past on a world scale, the systematic erasure of continuous and deep-felt encounters that have marked human history throughout the globe . . . For sushi in Chicago to amaze us, we need to silence the fact that the Franciscans were in Japan as early as the fifteenth century. For Muslim veils in France to seem out of place, we need to forget that Charles Martel stopped Abd-al-Raman only 300 miles south of Paris two reigns before Charlemagne. To talk of a global culture today as a new phenomenon, we need to forget that Chinese chili paste comes from Mexico, French fries from Peru, and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee from Yemen.

–Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations 2003:34

As many times as I revisit Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s chapter on “North Atlantic Fictions: Global Transformations, 1492-1945,” the facts always seem to catch me by surprise. I should know this material–Trouillot draws from the historian William McNeill’s The Global Condition and many of these facts are recovered in Charles Mann’s 2012 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Nevertheless, it always seems the latest round of glorifying or lamenting globalization is another erasing. The irony of the information age: all these facts are on Wikipedia and our smart phones, yet it is the wonder of Wikipedia and the smart phone that hides their importance.

Especially striking is the correspondence between what are always billed as the first truly ethnographic immersion studies–Malinowski, Boas, and Ruth Benedict’s proclamation of the world’s peoples as a “laboratory of social forms” (1934:17)–and what was a peak period of global flows. “The flow of goods and capital across political and geographical boundaries was not always increasing but it did reach a peak in the period immediately preceding World War I” (Trouillot 2003:32). All the trends of capitalism we think of as characteristic of our time had already been going on and were by certain measures peaking around 1910: multinational corporations, the mass migration of labor, the rise of finance capital and speculative markets, the concentration of wealth and inequality.

As Trouillot points out “these massive movements of goods, populations, and capital produced abrupt changes not only in the material conditions of the populations involved but also in their practices and in the ways in which they saw themselves and the world around them” (2003:32). Again, all the terms and complex identities we think of as characteristic of our day–of people as hybrids, of the bi-cultural or multi-racial, the transnational–all of that had been well underway for 300-400 years before any anthropologists showed up. Here Trouillot echoes what Sidney W. Mintz described in a more caustic assessment of contemporary anthropology: “The massive movement of people globally is centuries old. The identification of persons with more than one community is similarly ancient. . . . Things aren’t what they used to be, to be sure; but they never were” (The Localization of Anthropological Practice: From area studies to transnationalism 1998:131).

Anthropologists typically tried to journey to distant places believed to be less affected by these global flows. Of course the very ability to arrive somewhere was usually because it had already been incorporated into a colonial undertaking. Anthropologists often believed they could separate or shear off the influence of the modern from the traditional. But most peoples anthropologists encountered had already been through hundreds of years of direct or indirect influence. And as we now know, the traditional is often fueled by the modern, as peculiar symbioses continuously arise–like televisions and treadle looms to use the example from my colleague Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld’s The Native Leisure Class. And we can fully expect that these symbioses and traditional-modern fusings and re-fuelings had already been through several cycles before the anthropologists arrived.

This is not to in any way impugn the field methods of the early anthropologists, but to note that these global flows were rarely invoked as a possible explanation for the kinds of culture images that people were projecting and co-creating with these anthropologists. Could Dobuan Paranoia, as described by Ruth Benedict, have anything to do with how Dobuans were being recruited for indentured labor? Could Benedict’s sober Pueblos have anything to do with their business interests in the sheep trade as the United States expanded into its recently-acquired southwest? Could the Megalomaniac Kwakiutl have anything to do with the wealth flowing through the fur trade?

To ask these questions is not to say that everyone was determined by their position in a global-colonial economy, nor to ignore previous histories and interconnections, but to try and take better account of what was already a world in transformation.

Modernization, Modernity, and North Atlantic Universals

These global flows form part of what Trouillot terms a “geography of management” which became realized as modernization, “those aspects of the development of world capitalism that reorganize space for explicitly political or economic purposes” (2003:37). This management is always intertwined with a “geography of imagination” or the ideas and identities of modernity, a projection of individual and collective identities in relation to categories of time and space.

Modernity is a first example of North Atlantic universals:

North Atlantic universals are particulars that have gained a degree of universality, chunks of human history that have become historical standards. . . . North Atlantic universals so defined are not merely descriptive or referential. They do not describe the world; they offer visions of the world. They appear to refer to things as they exist, but rooted as they are in a particular history they are evocative of multiple layers of sensibilities, persuasions, cultural and ideological choices tied to that localized history. They come to us loaded with aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities, religious and philosophical persuasions, cultural assumptions ranging from what it means to be a human being to the proper relationship between humans and the natural world, ideological choices ranging from the nature of the political to the possibilities of transformation. There is no unanimity within the North Atlantic itself on any of these issues, but there is a shared history of how these issues have been and should be debated, and these words carry that history. Yet since they are projected as universals, they deny their localization, the sensibilities, and the history from which they spring.

North Atlantic universals are always prescriptive inasmuch as they always suggest, even if implicitly, a correct state of affairs: what is good, what is just, what is sublime or desirable–not only what is, but what should be. (2003:35)

Terms like modernity are seductive: they evoke feelings and sentiment while hiding those feelings behind a language of rationality; they hide their particular origins while projecting universality; they seem clear while hiding ambiguity; and they are often best felt when projected against what they are not. “We have a stronger sense of what modernity may connote when we point to the naysayers–the Taliban of Afghanistan, a native tribe in the Amazon, or whichever figure plays temporarily the good or evil face of the non-modern–than when we investigate those who praise it” (2003:36; I find this very useful to read in conjunction with Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s discussion of universals in Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection).

For just as modernity purports to describe an ideal and universal state of affairs, it always entails others–others who are somehow behind and need to be modernized, to “catch up”; others who fall off the main course of history, no longer perceived as really part of the modern world; or others who are romanticized as noble outliers. Trouillot then discusses how modernity “always requires an Other from within” (2003:41). Drawing on Mintz and Eric Wolf, Trouillot sees the Caribbean as a place which “was modern from day one, from the very day colonialism imposed its modernization” (2003:44; see also Sidney Mintz, In Memoriam, 1922-2015).

There is in all this a crucial lesson for anthropology:

As a discipline, we have launched the most sustained critique of the specific proposals rooted in these universals within academe. Yet we have not explored enough how much these universals set the terms of the debate and restricted the range of possible responses. In the context of this much-needed reformulation, the Caribbean’s most important lesson is a formidable one, indeed. That lesson, as I see it, is that modernity never was–never could be–what it claims to be. (2003:46)

This takes us back to a striking passage in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, as relevant for today as for the 1930s: “There is no reason to suppose that any one culture has seized upon an eternal sanity and will stand in history as a solitary solution of the human problem” (1934:237). Benedict here is one of the key people launching a critique of North Atlantic universals based on an appreciation for cultural relativism. However, by endorsing the idea of separate cultures, as isolated laboratories that could be studied apart from the management and imagination that had created those possibilities, the seduction of modernity endured. Ideas of development and modernization as “catching up” would only increase. Little wonder that for the most recent 2005 reprint, Patterns of Culture features the New York Times description of 1974: “a signpost on the road to a freer and more tolerant life” (Jean Zorn).

Signpost on the road to The West?

In some ways this chapter of Global Transformations reads like an outline of a project Trouillot called The West:

He could not complete his most ambitious project, “The West.” The project, ranging from the Renaissance to the present, intended to combine a trenchant critique of European colonialism and Euro-American capitalism with a thorough investigation of possibilities for cultural creativity and constructive political-economic development for peoples too often considered the objects of world history or marginal to its main crosscurrents. (Drexel Woodson and Brackette Williams, In Memoriam Dr. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 2013:156)

Trouillot again in this chapter insists on the importance of the Renaissance in the creation of the West, a historical fact that has been recently buried:

Now dominant North Atlantic narratives–reflecting the world domination of the English language, the expansion of Protestantism as a variant of Christianity, and the spread of Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic sensibilities–reduce the crucial role of Portugal and Spain in the creation of the West. A related emphasis on the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century, and the downplay of the Renaissance as a founding moment, also lead to the neglect of the role of the Caribbean and Latin America in the production of the earliest tropes associated with modernity. That chronological amnesia crucially impedes our understanding of the North Atlantic itself. (2003:44-45)

And indeed, Trouillot here takes us into the poetry of Baudelaire, the “eulogist of modernity,” but as inspired by Jeanne Duval, probably of Haitian descent: Jeanne Duval et Charles Baudelaire: Belle d’abandon.

Inspiring and provocative, these pages remain a hint of a still-to-be-written story: a poetry, a history, a multi-lingual project, anthropological fieldwork and philosophy, uncovering the blinders of triumphal globalization stories while providing a true sense of human possibility and pitfalls.

Update: Shortly after posting this, a related thread developed in the comment stream to my earlier reflections on Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History.

Be sure to see there the follow-up comment from Julie Skurski recommending Coronil’s article Towards a Critique of Globalcentrism: Speculations on Capitalism’s Nature (2000) and his essay “After Empire: Reflections on Imperialism from the Américas” (2007) in the edited volume Imperial Formations. See also the earlier collection of tributes to Fernando Coronil.

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  • Brad

    If human communities have been flowing and intermingling geographically for hundreds if not thousands of years, what does this do to the concept of ‘indigenous’ people, ‘aboriginals’, ‘Native’ Americans, or ‘First’ Nations?
    Conservatives here in Canada use the “native people were also immigrants” argument to denounce their status as “first’ and to blur their cultural differences as a wedge for pursuing assimilationist policies.

    • Hi Brad, thank you for this comment. Indeed, the analysis and the politics can sometimes be quite tricky. I was taken to task by pop-genetics bloggers for insisting that Native Americans might have good reason not to participate in genetics research. I’m also reminded of how some anthropologists advocate “strategic essentialism” with regard to how indigenous groups might politically use notions of cultural purity but without accepting essentialism as identity.

      Also of interest here is Tim Ingold’s essay on “Ancestry, generation, substance,
      memory, land” in The Perception of the Environment. Ingold is here asking why and how peoples called aboriginal or indigenous take up positions which actually are antithetical to indigenous perceptions of identity:

      We are left with the question of why people should feel the need to articulate claims to indigenous status in terms that, by their own accounts, are incompatible with their experience and understanding of the world. The answer, I believe, is that these people are compelled to operate in a modern-day political context in which they are also citizens of nation states. The genealogical model is deeply implicated in the discourse of the state: indeed it is the principal source of legitimation for the state’s sovereign entitlement to defend and administer its territory in the name of the nation. For the state, the land belongs to the national heritage, and is held in trust by each generation of citizens on behalf of their descendants. If it is by appeal to common heritage that the citizens of the state are made to appear the same–that is, to share a national identity–then only by stressing their separate heritage can encapsulated groups express their difference. (2000:151)

      Or, to return to a point from Trouillot in this post, while we should be careful not to provide ammunition to those trying to deny indigenous rights and struggles, we also do need to recognize how much modernity and other North Atlantic universals “set the terms of the debate and restricted the range of possible responses” (2003:46).

  • Julia

    Trouillot brings up an interesting point on pages 34-35. Previously in the chapter he talked about the influx of immigrants throughout history and how they relate to globalization. The influx of immigrants brings about both new cultures and new products to areas of the world that have been sheltered from such goods and people. Over time Trouillot argues that the immigrants and their ancestors loose their own culture and begin to adopt a new one. “The awareness of mixed origins does not mean that individuals can spontaneously retrace the flows that contributed to shaping their current practices and environment. The long-term impact of cultural imports is often proportional to the capacity to forget that they were once acquired and imposed”( Trouillot,pg. 34). Trouillot goes on to argue that people from different cultural backgrounds who have immigrated into a different society often fail to see “intrinsic parts of the cultural heritage” (pg.34). Trouillot gets to his point by clarifying that, “Culturally, the world we inherit today is the product of global flows.. that continue to affect human populations today” (pg.34). It is arguable then that globalization resulted in the production of an array of new cultures; influenced not only by one outsider culture but many all of whom shared their heritage and practices to create the melting-pot culture that we know today.

    • Jeromy S

      Julia, I find it interesting that you bring this topic up because Trouillot also states on page 39 that “Not only does progress and its advance leave some people ‘behind’ but increasing chunks of humanity fall off its course (39).” So in one way globalization is forcing groups who immigrate to lose their own culture, while in another way people are being left behind by globalization and ultimately lost with time. Do I necessarily agree with these two ideas, no not really. I believe that when a group immigrates they do not lose their culture, but instead they combine their culture with that of the locals so it is in a sense a multiculture or biculture. While it is not rare for entire cultures to be lost with time, this is mostly due to extenuating circumstances for example when the Europeans arrived in the America’s for the first time, the natives were nearly wiped out. I would have to agree in this case that globalization does cause cultures and people to be left behind because they become wiped out. However, it is the importance of cultural sustainability to synthesize these older cultures with the newer modern cultures, while still maintaining each cultures integrity, so that we may be able to continue to understand different ways of life as well as the history of earth’s people.

      • Hi Jeromy, that quote is a great one, but be careful to distinguish between the idea of progress (which is what Trouillot is mostly talking about here) as leaving people behind or off the course, and the actual changes in material practices and identities (which are of course related to changes in the idea of progress but not identical). Hope that makes sense!

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  • John McCreery

    Allow me to recommend a book that sat on my shelves for a long time before I got around to reading it: Stephen Kern (1983) The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Kern does a masterful job of integrating research on art, science, technology and politics to describe the effects of what I am tempted to call “The Great Acceleration.” To be sure, the kinds of interactions we think of as globalization, involving trade, migration, and war can be traced far back into human prehistory. But the years that Kern describes, that led up to and through World War I, saw quantum leaps in the speed and scale of those interactions and radically transformed the way our intellectual ancestors only a few generations back saw themselves and the world they inhabited — the immediate precursor to the one we inhabit. We are talking about radical shifts in perceptions of underlying reality: time, space, speed, distance, form, and the rise of concerns that resonate with and appear to be crescendoing in our own time. Highly recommended.

    • Hi John, thank you for the recommendation. This sounds like a very interesting read. I’ll put it on the list!

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  • John McCreery

    Taking a second look at this piece I found myself taking issue with what Trouillot says when he writes,

    “Culturally, the world we inherit today is the product of global flows that started in the late fifteenth century and continue to affect human populations today. Yet the history of the world is rarely told in those terms.”

    Isn’t this a terribly Eurocentric view of the world today? What about the Southern Song, 1127–1279, during which the center of Han Chinese civilization shifted from the wheat-growing North China plain to the rice-growing regions in the South? Or the conquests of Tamerlane, who devastated the Middle East during the 14th century, setting the stage for Turkish and then European domination of the region? Or, for that matter, the recurrent migrations of peoples originating in Central Asia that populated Western Europe with its current inhabitants? Are these too insignificant to count as “global flows”?

    • Hi John, thank you for this reminder, and in many ways I would wholeheartedly agree. The fact is that we have often been under-aware of the population movements, crops, and empire-building that occurred before and outside of European contact. I think that was some of what Eric Wolf was trying to describe in the first chapters of Europe and the People Without History and we’ve also become increasingly aware that even much of what happened in the Conquest of the Americas had a lot to do with native alliances and indigenous political re-alignments.

      However, it seems also the case that if we are talking specifically about “the world we inherit today,” then we do need to account for the special character of the flows that began in the late fifteenth century. While it would indeed be Eurocentric to overstate or celebrate their uniqueness, primacy, or achievement (and Trouillot is quite careful not to), it is nevertheless necessary to take proper account of the ways the world was knit together during this period, for the development of a capitalism that was global from the outset.

      • John McCreery

        The question that remains open for me is what is “the special character of the flows that began in the late fifteenth century”? I note, for example, something I learned from my study of the work of the “Anthropology of Administration” group at Minpaku, the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan. Following WWII, both the victors and the defeated confronted a problem in industrial organization and labor relations in particular. Several distinct models emerged, including three of particular importance. The Anglo-American model focused on pay and perks for the individual worker, within a framework broadly defined by market fundamentalism. The German-North European model saw workers as a class instead of individuals and institutionalized arrangements, union representatives on corporate boards of directors, for example, to ensure worker participation in the running of companies. The Japanese model developed along the lines defined by the Tokugawa division of Japan into feudal domains. As Nakamaki Hirochika remarks in the title of one of his books, “Once there were daimyo. Now there are companies.” Why, then, is the Anglo-American model taken to be the “natural form” of global capitalism? The answer involves imperialism. The Anglo-American form of business organization was imposed top-down in colonized regions. Why didn’t it take root in Japan? Meiji period government officials and entrepreneurs studied Western models, but having no direct experience of how they actually worked, they reinterpreted those models in familiar Japanese terms. Now, of course, Japanese companies competing in international markets have been under pressure to adopt “the global standard,” i.e., the Anglo-American model. The last two decades have seen a lot of restructuring moving in that direction. But what, after all, is two decades? With China now the world’s biggest market for automobiles and electronic gear, the world’s largest consumer of petroleum and other natural resources, who is to say that the Anglo-American model is the only game in town? It is easy to imagine a Chinese scholar writing a few decades from now about a few abnormal centuries in which the West dictated to the rest, a period now thankfully over…..

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  • Noelani Browne

    I have found that a statement from the section on the North Atlantic Universals surprised me the most. “North Atlantic universals are always prescriptive inasmuch as they always suggest, even if implicitly, a correct state of affairs: what is good, what is just, what is sublime or desirable– not only what is, but what should be” (2003:35). I found this quote especially interesting because North Atlantic universals within themselves distort historicity. This quote also can be related to Benedict in her reification of culture with the phrase “white intervention” (Benedict, 1934:131). She reifies culture with this phrase by creating hierarchacal differences between the white race and the race of the Dobu. The cannibalism of the Dobu was seen as unjust by the North Atlantic universals used.

    • Thank you, Noelani. It does seem that to a degree the notion of cultural relativism can smuggle back in these kinds of value judgments, although to her credit Benedict did a lot to challenge them.

  • Juliet H. Foroughi

    “North Atlantic universals are always prescriptive inasmuch as they always suggest, even if implicitly, a correct state of affairs: what is good, what is just, what is sublime or desirable–not only what is, but what should be” (35). This, I feel, is INCREDIBLY indicative of the general modus operandi of the Western powers for many, many years. Democracy and capitalism are identified as these great, wonderful concepts that are the only way for people to live and be equal. They are SO wonderful in fact, that they must be forced, often with violence, upon so-called third world countries, completely destroying cultural systems and boundaries that were perfectly fine to begin with. It ties into the now generally condemned idea of the “white man’s burden,” the idea that we are so noble and brave to shove our ways down other people’s throats. Many conflicts that are still happening or are still feeling the repercussions are BASED on this!

    • Thank you, Jay. I do think this quote goes well with the last page in this chapter about anthropology: “As a discipline, we have launched the most sustained critique of the specific proposals rooted in these universals within academe. Yet we have not explored enough how much these universals set the terms of the debate and restricted the range of possible responses” (2003:46).

  • Jessica Hannah

    “In short, modernization has everything to do with political economy, with a geography of management that create places: a place called France, a place called the third world, a place called the market, a place called the factory or, indeed, a work-place.” Pg. 37 Trouillot. I thought this was interesting because our world is so split up by country, by wealth, by environment, into these places. I thought this kind of related to Benedict because in her readings the different cultures were split up into different “places” similarly, causing different ways of life.

    • Thank you, Jessica. Indeed, in many ways what Benedict may have missed is how the examples she was detailing had already long been caught up in the processes of a global political economy.

  • Collin237

    There seems to be the assumption that non-modern cultures seem so different from us only because we don’t see them fairly. But if globalization has been going on for such an indefinitely long time, then it seems to me there’s a second reason. That in resistance to modernity they accentuated their own differences from us. As I see it, part of the conceit of North Atlantic Universals is that it mixes uncritically some assumptions that are clearly part of modernity; and other assumptions that may be natural for everyone but that most of the world learned to suppress as modernity spread.

    What I see happening with the “ontological turn” is that in our own culture we realize that we combine various types of claims, some factual, some metaphorical, and some mythical (despite disagreements about which is which) into social life. Whereas we see the claims of another culture as a monolithic body of knowledge that they factually believe, and we feel like we’re disrespecting them unless we go to great lengths to profess belief in them also.

    Now that it’s getting easier and easier for everyone to communicate with each other, there’s no excuse anymore for assuming other cultures are fundamentally different from ours in any way except what they reveal to us in honest dialogue.

    • Hi, and thank you for this comment. I think I would agree with you in many respects. You may be interested in a blog-post recently put out there by Al West, Why I like Ancient History which discusses his interest in the stories from before the processes set in motion 500 years ago.

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