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 the second part of the Lavenda & Schultz chapter 16 in Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human? The section begins with “Can We Be at Home in a Global World?” (501) and concludes with reflections on “Why Study Anthropology?” (509).

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 & 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 & 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 & 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.

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 (April 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 (November 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 (June 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 April 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 January 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 is 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 (March 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 is Powering the Planet (October 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, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology-2017/what-will-happen-in-the-future/. First posted 8 May 2017. Revised 6 March 2018.


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20 thoughts on “Anthropological Predictions”

  1. In Lavenda and Schultz chapter 16 entitled “what can anthropology tells us about globalization?” talks about an array of important things such as cosmopolitanism which is ‘rights of man and the citizens.’ The way I understand it is as a term that means the free movement of capital and the global spread of ideas and practices. This is something that everyone encounters on a daily basis. The way we got sushi to America was through cosmopolitanism. When you begin to think about it, a lot of the goods that we have in our society today we would not have if it was not for this idea. Some may see this as being a downside or may be hurting our country, but I see it as making our country look more appealing and open to other countries. By doing this it will promote diversity and will draw more people into the country. Another point is also brought up called friction. This is brought up by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing who has worked in Indonesia for many years, investigating this profound idea. It goes on to assume that processes of global change will be smooth and unstoppable, that “globalization can be predicted in advance.”

    • Good points, and the reference to Tsing is especially important for this topic. Unlike some other disciplines, anthropology does not assume the outcomes can be predicted in advance–the world remains a “messy” place, and there is hope for the unpredictable.

      Thank you for the strong work on commenting this semester! I’ve filled in several of the lower scores from previous entries.

  2. Cosmopolitanism is best defined as the ability for a person to feel comfortable with more than one cultural setting. Through globalization we have become able to be more accepting or comfortable with different cultural foods. With the increase in diversity throughout the world it is a way of sharing foods and materials many places would not have without globalization. There have also been some negative outcomes from connecting with other countries for trading. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing defines the term friction as “the awkward, unequal, unstable aspects of interconnection across difference” (L&S, p. 501). There have been conflicts between countries such as destruction of certain environments just for trade materials. In Indonesia, much of their rain forests were destroyed from logging. Back then there were not as many resources and with the increase need for these materials and without any thought of the destruction people have caused it left us with some cleaning up to do. Today with the help of protective agencies there are laws put in place to protect these beautiful and important forests. In the future, I feel that we will be able to better predict ways in which we can increase the spread of goods while also planning to keep a good balance between using natural resources and replacing them. We will have the ability to increase the protection of our environments and the wildlife that reside there.

  3. Chapter 16 of Lavenda and Schultz and the question posed by Chris Rock have made me think deeply about globalization and its impact on our society. In class we started in the 1930’s and discussed the impacts of groups such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Both of these groups advocated for world peace at times when there was a lack of stability across the globe. By forming these peace groups the hopes were that the people would not have to suffer through another World War. Once the Cold War reared its ugly head it is like we returned to the time of tension and terror. The hope of globalization occurred around the 1990’s when the Cold War came to a halt. The Berlin Wall was just taken down and the rise of the internet made it way easier for people to connect from areas across the globe. The 1990’s also brought an international standard of human rights for all into focus. The 1990’s made it seem like great things were about to come for people across the world, but little did they know that the same problems that plagued us then still have a way of hanging around today. The United States still finds itself involved with conflicts over seas, our relationship with China is trending in the wrong direction and the push for boundaries has never been more alive. What will happen in the future is a great question, we could repeat history in a positive or negative way. We could join the other nations and try for peace and prosperity like the League of Nations or enter another Cold War period. The better question for this chapter would be, “How can we all win?”.

    • Thank you for the thoughts. Definitely “How can we all win?” might be a better question. However, I’m also thinking that realistically it may be something more like what Paul Farmer said about healthcare: That we may not reach utopia, but we can at least be moving away from dystopia.

    • I really like the question, “How can we all win?” but I agree that we may never reach the end goal (may not reach utopia but try to move away from dystopia). In addition, it is not easy to define what “winning” would be considered because success in our culture may not be the same as succeeding somewhere else.In order to answer the question, “What will happen in the future?” I think that we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are. If we want to try and make the world better for all, or make everyone “win,” then we may not necessarily get to the point where everyone is winning, but we would closer than we were before. However, if those who have the ability to make changes prioritize other things, such as personal gain, then it would be harder to move in the direction of making everyone succeed.

  4. Since Anthropology is coming to an end I thought it would nice if my post for today reflected on the last section of the textbook called “Why Study Anthropology”? The first couple sentences of this section defiantly describes how anthropology made me feel, “Studying anthropology brings students into contact with different ways of life. It makes them aware of just how arbitrary their own understanding of the worlds as they learn how other people have developed satisfied but different ways of living” (507).” From the being to the end of anthropology I would defiantly say that I have cosmopolitanism with other cultural specially after the video we watched on Tuesday. Cosmopolitanism is “being at ease in more than one cultural settings” (501). Throughout anthropology and globalization I have become more aware about other cultural and where we has people come from. So I believe that people study anthropology to get a better grasp on the world and understand our past and maybe even try to predict our future through globalization.

    • I agree with what Gina is saying in that i have cosmopolitanism after taking this class. Overall anthropology has opened my eyes to new cultures and ways people live in other parts of the world. One thing that really stuck out to me is how anthropology is based off the people before us who established cultures and ways of life for people living today. Before this class i thought anthropology was just the study of bones and fossils but i now realize it is much more than that. It is the deep study of people,places and things that have come before us and how they continue to change over time.

    • I feel that this is a very good reflection on the anthropology course as a whole and could agree with what Gina says. Taking this anthropology class, as many would agree I’m sure, makes you very aware of other cultures and other events or even other societies such as a society with apes like in the beginning of the course. The course was very humbling in that sense and makes one realize just how “arbitrary” that my own understanding of the world was previous to this course, as well as what it is now. I would also agree that it has brought out a cosmopolitanism now that I have more of an understanding, I am able to be more at ease.

  5. Chapter 16 of Lavenda & Schultz “What Can Anthropology Tell Us about Globalization?” talks about many different ideas of a “Global World”. Part two of this chapter talks about cosmopolitanism which on (pg. 501) can be defined as “Being at ease in more than one cultural setting” and friction which can be defined as “The awkward, unequal, unstable aspects of interconnection across difference”. When I read the definition of cosmopolitanism I think of being comfortable in different places, as if I was to go to italy and be comfortable in an average city, and friction seems to be the total opposite and I imagine myself being very uncomfortable in a place like china where it is very crowded in cities, although I do feel that after taking an anthropology course I am more aware of cultural differences and would become more comfortable sooner than I would have before taking this class.

  6. In the second part of chapter 16, on page 501 L&S talks about the thought of cosmopolitanism. After the concept of multiculturalism a new concept of cosmopolitanism was brought about by Walter Mignolo. This concept was actually first brought about by the stoic philosophers of ancient Rome. Originally it was ” by and large meant being versed in Western ways and the vision of ‘one world’ culture was only a sometimes unconsious, sometimes, unconscionable, euphemism for ‘ first world’ culture”. Anthropologists are trying to rework our understanding of cultural hybridity by stretching the notion of cosmopolitanism beyond what it is traditionally known as being associated with privileged Western elites. To rework this understanding it would have to be plural and not singular, and it would have to include non-elite experiences of cultural hybridization.

  7. Starting with the big question ” Can we be at home in a Global World?” I will give my own personal response. I think that just off of personal experience with the current political state and the way that the world has progressed it will always be hard. No matter if there are peaceful times in the world there are still tensions amongst certain nations. We will never be able to live in a peaceful world with no restrictions among nations. There will always be some limit to travel or political divide. In my opinion with every regime change in nations you might find a different way of thinking just like in our current change of regime in america. Which can cause Friction that was previously not there amongst certain nations. “the awkward, unequal, unstable aspects of interconnection across difference” (501) This would be something like the decision by the current administration to create the Travel Ban that was such an issue at the beginning of the year. We have this interconnection through travel and other technologies and one regime accepted multiple religions and ways of thought where as this new one seems to be changing the way that they deal with these ideas. This change in my opinion is bringing about a lot of tension amongst the people of multicultural nations like America. There is evidence of change in the way that certain people treat Muslims especially in America based on news that has been Spread by this new association. Those are simply my thoughts on this chapter after reading the idea of what is the future of Globalization. Though we may become ever more interconnected there will always be tension.

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