Anthropological Predictions

What Will Happen in the Future?

For Anthropology 2017 we tackled big and controversial questions anthropology has attempted to answer. Our final question: What Will Happen in the Future? Can we make anthropological predictions?

The reading for answering “What will happen in the future?” was part of chapter 16 in Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human? The section began with “Can We Be at Home in a Global World?” and concluded with reflections on “Why Study Anthropology?”

This material was for Anthropology 2017. We could not predict certain events, like The Coronavirus. However, we did provide a template for thinking about the big questions of anthropology and the world. For some related issues and an update, see the 2020 lecture on “Anthropology for the Future” using Tim Ingold’s Anthropology: Why It Matters:

What happened in the last century?

Of all the social science disciplines, anthropology tends to take the longest-range view of the world. From the study of human evolution in Biological Anthropology to an Archaeology that stretches thousands of years into the past, anthropology has a lot of long-term perspective. And as we see in anthropological perspectives on When did Globalization Begin?, anthropology views processes of globalization as centuries old.

Of particular importance in the last century were the two World Wars. After each war, organizations formed which purported to end such wars. After World War I, countries formed a League of Nations. After World War II, countries gathered into the United Nations. Nevertheless, a third World War seemed to be on the horizon, a war between what capitalist countries, called the “First World,” and communist countries, called the “Second World.”

Given its connotations as an idea today, many people do not realize that people imagined “The Third World” as a group of non-aligned nations. The Third World began as a response of hope and peace to Cold War conflict (see Reform & Revolution).

From Independence & Hope to the Post-Colonial

Like the failure of the League of Nations to prevent a second World War, many of the dreams of independence fostered in the Third World were dashed. Analysts began to refer to the new situation not as “independence” but as “post-colonial.”

The idea of the post-colonial stresses how colonial relationships become perpetuated within individual nations. Wealthy elites rose to power in many previously colonial countries. These governing elites funneled wealth in the same manner that colonial relationships extracted resources. As we see in a history of capitalism, the global capitalist system emerges first in the colonies. (See The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution for more.)

Meanwhile, the alliance of Third World nations could not counter-balance the First/Second World power struggles. The divides between capitalism and communism made for a “Cold War” in the North. But for many in the South this was a time of hot war, fueled by arms sales and ideology. In short, the idea and hope of national sovereignty had to confront the post-colonial realities of inequality and immigration.

Globalization 3.0

If the 16th century could be considered Globalization 1.0, the 19th century Globalization 2.0, and the 1930s-1970s a time of somewhat anomalous “de-globalization,” the period since 1989–which most people think of as globalization–should really be thought of as Globalization 3.0. Lavenda and Schultz specify a political moment: “In 1989, the Cold War came to an end. The Soviet Union and its satellite states collapsed, and China began to encourage some capitalist economic practices. These radical changes in the global political economy left no part of the world unaffected” (2015:475).

Lavenda and Schultz also outline a technological-economic moment: “The cybernetics revolution led to advances in manufacturing, transportation, and communications technology that removed the seemingly unbreakable barriers to long-distance communication and contact, a phenomenon called “space-time compression” (2015:476).

During the 1990s, Globalization 3.0 brought a kind of euphoric hope. People believed that the end of the Cold War might also lead to the end of war. Boundaries and borders could dissolve. We could connect to everyone through technology. People assumed ethnic and religious differences would fade into cosmopolitanism and tolerance. People believed human rights for all could be achieved–through nation-states, but held to international standards (Lavenda and Schultz 2015:490).

A 2017 international workshop on The Bureaucratization of Utopia captures the mood of the 1990s. “The 1990s saw the multiplication of UN agencies, international laws and transnational human rights networks, all of which endorsing an agenda for improving the world and bringing about a new one in which the impregnability of state borders would be gradually replaced with the authority of international law.” (See the YouTube Workshop on The Bureaucratization of Utopia.)

Like the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the Third World, the hope of 1990s Globalization 3.0 gave way to the “War on Terror.”

What will happen in the future? Wait, don’t answer that!

The social sciences are riddled with failed attempts to predict the future. The realities of Globalization 3.0 make prediction ever-more challenging. This has been especially true for those social scientists who once seemed good at medium-term prediction. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in 2003, “until recently, political science, economics, and sociology basked in the glow of this mid-term [predictability] and related claims of control” Global Transformations 2003:68). This claim of prediction and control is now substantially reduced:

The future as we knew it is now increasingly fractured into two new parts: a near-present that challenges our technical mastery, and an aftermath, out of real time, that our imagination has yet to seize. . . . The exigencies of this near-present now seem to reduce our grip on a long-term forever postponed. The content of that long-term is open to question. . . . The need to adapt quickly to tomorrow’s exigencies, yet the inability to envision beyond them, is now part of the lived experience of an increasing number of human beings. (2003:68)

What Trouillot saw in 2003 seems many times truer since 2016, when the predictions of political science and economics have fumbled and tumbled.

An increasing number of people need to adapt quickly to tomorrow's exigencies but are unable to envision beyond them.Click To Tweet
In this situation, wise anthropologists stress contingency and unpredictability. Anthropologists insist the future cannot be known in advance. To a certain extent, this is the tack Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing takes in Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Lavenda and Schultz tackle Tsing’s work in their final chapter. (As an aside, Lavenda and Schultz are the only Introduction to Anthropology textbook I know that would try to discuss Tsing’s difficult book.)

Tsing insists globalization cannot be predicted in advance. Tsing also shows us how resistance cannot be predicted either. Successful resistance can happen unexpectedly (Tsing in Lavenda and Schultz 2015:501-502). (For more on Tsing’s follow-up work, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, see my class on Would the world be better off without humans?)

Anthropological Predictions

1. Paradoxical combinations of the modern and the traditional will continue to proliferate.

See my co-authored book Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy.

2. The people everyone once thought were “fading away” will not just be fading away.

In some ways, anthropology was founded on the idea that peoples outside the West were all about to fade away. Anthropologists sallied forth with the idea of doing salvage work, or the “Salvage Paradigm.” And it’s quite interesting to compare how the Salvage Paradigm intersects with what Trouillot terms the Savage Slot. However, a century later it has become more than obvious that while global processes transform our lives, the people everyone believed would be fading away have not gently faded away. In some respects, they seem resurgent. One 2017 example is María de Jesús Patricio. “Spokesperson for the people and candidate for the media”: An indigenous woman for the 2018 presidential elections in Mexico. Imagine a century ago the idea that there would be an *indigenous* *woman* candidate for president. Unthinkable.

María de Jesús Patricio remarked that the aim of the indigenous coalition is not to collect votes and achieve power positions. “Our engagement,” she said “is for life, for organization, and for the reconstitution of our people who have been under attack for centuries. Time has come to find a new configuration for us to keep existing.” She added that this is also an invitation for all oppressed sectors of society to “join the struggle and destroy a system that is about to exterminate us . . . This is a real alternative to the war that we are experiencing.”

Of course, these facts mean that “what will happen in the future?” entails a re-thinking of the anthropological project. As Trouillot put it:

The time is gone when anthropologists could find solace in the claim that our main civic duty–and the justification for our public support–was the constant reaffirmation that the Bongobongo are “humans just like us.” Every single term of that phrase is now publicly contested terrain, caught between the politics of identity and the turbulence of global flows. Too many of the Bongobongo are now living next door, and a few of them may even be anthropologists presenting their own vision of their home societies, or studying their North Atlantic neighbors. The North Atlantic natives who reject them do so with a passion. Those who do accept them do not need anthropologists in the welcoming committee. (2003:137)

So, for example, there is an article titled Islamic Law Is Alive and Well in the U.S. in the March 2018 edition of Sapiens. “Americans often react to the idea of Sharia with horror and repugnance. That isn’t warranted,” writes anthropologist Jeffrey Bristol. But will this approach change any minds that haven’t already been made up? And why locate this as primarily a phenomenon in the United States? This leads us to point #3.

3. The backlash (from so-called nationalism & populism) will continue.

For an October 2017 anthropological reflection, see A Brexit in the World, and How It Found Its Place by Sarah Green:

The instability of populist political parties, combined with the unpredictability of the outcome of elections in which they take part, makes it highly foolish to predict what might happen next with the Brexit Thing, especially when Theresa May’s premiership hangs by a thread. What has become clear over the last year is that voting, and the increasing involvement of young people in the political process, really matters. Who knew?

And for a “long read” on these subjects, see The demise of the nation state by Rana Dasgupta (2018): “On the eve of its centenary, our nation-state system is already in a crisis from which it does not currently possess the capacity to extricate itself. It is time to think how that capacity might be built.” See also my own April 2018 series on When will the United States collapse?

4. The world is multi-polar. But highly unequal within & between countries.

See Anthropologists of the Second “Gilded Age” by Sindre Bangstad in Anthropology News (2017) for examples of how anthropologists are exploring these inequalities:

While our methodologies and class positionalities may limit our ability to access and explore the social worlds of the corporate elites who yield such an outsized influence on politics and society in the second “Gilded Age,” economic anthropology is ideally suited to explore the social lives of those faced with the human consequences of our starkly unequal societies, whether North or South. The work of fine anthropological scholars such as Christine Walley is one such starting point.

5. Politics will be volatile. Inequality doesn’t mean a progressive politics prevails.

One reference for this idea about what will happen in the future is Boscoe Bae’s analysis on the Human Economy Blog, Inequality, Christianity and Implicit Racism in the US (2017). Bae writes:

While the professed views of egalitarianism and “equality before God” are arguably a model for the world, the model of the world that certain brands of Christianity propel in practice effectively undermine those goals. If they are to join the global struggle against inequality, American Christian churches caught in these contradictions, need to address their moral prejudices against poverty and race.

Alternatively, we can look at the March 2018 elections in Italy. As Sinan Celiksu writes in Anthropology News on Populism and the Conundrums of Democracy in Italy:

The upcoming Italian elections are unlikely to put our minds to rest on such perennially vexed issues, and they are even less likely to conclude the protracted crisis of Italian politics. They will neither end the much-hated status quo, nor give birth to a new one capable of pleasing everyone. But the ways in which the Italian and European establishments play the coalition game will determine if the crisis goes deeper, creating the conditions for a belated but more decisive triumph of the populists. I think Italy remains an apt laboratory for observing the populist rise and Gramsci’s definition of crisis: “The old is dying, and the new cannot be born.” (for a post-election update from Celiksu, see the 2018 Pride without Prestige)

6. The planet we share is not limitless.

For much of the history of colonialism and capitalism, people treated the planet as if we had limitless resources. People extracted resources until they were depleted. They also took little heed for waste and byproducts. The situation became so extreme that some wondered if the world would be better off without humans.

6a. What will happen in the future? Sustainable Futures

As of 2017, the US regime purported to resurrect the notion of limitless resources, both with regard to extracting resources and emissions. However, most of the world’s peoples know such a vision is misguided and destructive. At the 2018 meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology the theme was Sustainable Futures:

Sustainable Futures are put forth with the goal of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We include in the concept sustainability considerations of the distribution of wealth and resources and environmental renewability in our time and in the contexts of nationality and ethnicity, race and social class, and gender and sexuality. The 2018 Annual Meetings will bring to the forefront the ways in which anthropologists and other applied social scientists and professionals are tackling the most pressing issues of our times–including but not limited to migration and displacement, climate change, technological processes, travel and mobility, access to education, the preservation of natural and heritage resources, health care and well being, and global economic and political crises.

Similarly, as Rasmus Rodineliussen points out in Save the Oceans (2018): “Numerous studies indicate if human waste management and consumer patterns continue as they are now, then in 2050 the plastic in the world’s oceans will weigh more than fish. . . . To further the global work against marine debris, and to work towards fulfilling the UN goals before 2030, it is of great importance to pay more attention to local social practices because it is with these most issues begin, and it is here the solution lies.”

6b. Powering the Planet

In Durham (UK) the 5th annual “Why the world needs anthropologists” symposium was Powering the Planet (2017):

No challenge is most important than the care of our common home and the fight against climate change. One of the essential sectors in the pursuit of a cleaner and more sustainable world is the energy sector. Humans have always used various forms of energy in order to organize themselves socially and optimize their productive processes. The arrival of the 21st century and the adverse effects of a society versed in an unlimited consumption model have illustrated many questions about our energy production model. What can anthropology do for contributing to a more responsible and sustainable energy future?

Or, see Why The World Needs Anthropologists: Powering the Planet. “Clearly, there are many ways that the world of energy needs anthropologists, and there is also a need for anthropologists to demonstrate why ethnographic methods and theories are useful beyond the discipline.”

7. The anthropological approach of a generous, comparative, yet critical framework will be more important than ever.

A new duty arises. No longer can we keep the search for truth the privilege of the scientist.
–Franz Boas (1945)
This quote is via Trouillot, who told us “Ultimately, anthropology will only matter to the populations that we study and to most of our readers if it evokes a purpose outside of itself” (2003:5)

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “Anthropological Predictions: What Will Happen in the Future?” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 8 May 2017. Revised 25 April 2021.