Cosmopolitanism & Cultural Relativism

Cosmo and Cosmopolitanism

A previous blog-post, Doubling Down on Culture in Anthropology looked at the newest product in the Kottak enterprise, CULTURE, speculating on whether introductory anthropology really needs a culture-splash. The “magazine style” format is also worth some comment, as it relates to a question I’ve been pondering: Have the promoters of anthropological cosmopolitanism considered the proximity of Cosmopolitan, the magazine? And does cosmopolitanism improve on the older idea of cultural relativism?

McGraw Hill asks: “Be honest: When you first saw the cover of CULTURE, did you think it was a textbook?” This is the product of asking “thousands of college students about their study habits, their textbooks, and other course materials” and discovering students wanted something up-to-date, lighter, and more affordable. After asking two or three college students about it, the new format does appear attractive. It has enough built-in distraction so the reader does not have to shudder at a large block of uninterrupted text, as The Onion so brilliantly satirized. It’s more like a contemporary magazine, with a busy format we’ve come to see as normal.

However, this may not be the best path to pursue.  An alternative would be to exploit the popularity of e-readers, like the Kindle, which still sells in black-and-white. It takes us back to a screen full of uninterrupted text. The Kindle provides an opportunity for a return to narrative text, as well as being affordable, portable, and easier to keep updated.

Anthropological cosmopolitanism

Magazine-style texts also make me wonder about that prominent magazine, Cosmopolitan, and the promotion of cosmpolitanism for anthropology. The literature on cosmopolitanism is now enormous; here is a tiny selection.

Ulf Hannerz in Diversity Is Our Business writes:

I like to think of anthropology as a cosmopolitan discipline—in the way I understand cosmopolitanism. I see the latter as a two-faced concept. On the one hand, there is a concern with humanity as a whole and its condition—a moral and at times political engagement with community, society, and citizenship at a more or less global level. On the other hand, cosmopolitanism involves an awareness, and often an appreciation, of diversity in meanings and meaningful forms. (2010:545 or see Anthropology’s World)

There is the book, Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism (2009). Even the textbook I recommend for Introduction to Anthropology discusses cosmopolitanism (Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human?).

I do appreciate the argument in Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism “that cosmopolitan is not, and never has been, a ‘western,’ elitist ideal exclusively.” Still, there are worrisome aspects to this promotion.

First, it seems cosmopolitanism was not a homegrown concept in anthropology, but an import, especially from the philosophy of Kwame Anthony Appiah. As Andre Gingrich notes, anthropology has often paid too dearly for our conceptual imports, while practically giving away our exports:

Our imports were somewhat too expensive and our exports were far too cheap. . . . Instead, for our intellectual imports, we need improved disciplinary tools of quality control before we import too much for too high an effort . . .
Our supermarkets and shops today should advise customers that the good products we have are valuable objects of interest and that their users should carefully read the anthropologist’s instructions and then pay the asking price. (2011:555, Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology’s Present and Its Transnational Potential)

That anthropological uses of cosmopolitanism have to tack on “rooted cosmopolitanism” is a sign of trouble. It also seems like too few have considered the baggage associated with the term. For most people, cosmopolitan invokes 1) elitist globe-trotting; 2) a cocktail; 3) a glossy women’s magazine stuffed with sex tips. That’s a lot to get through.

Does Cosmopolitanism Improve on Cultural Relativism?

I am not convinced cosmopolitanism takes us much further than anthropology’s home-grown idea of cultural relativism. Compare Hannerz with Ruth Benedict in 1934:

The recognition of cultural relativity carries with it its own values . . . It challenges customary opinions and causes those who have been bred to them acute discomfort. . . . As soon as the new opinion is embraced as customary belief, it will be another trusted bulwark of the good life. We shall arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence. (Patterns of Culture 1934:278; see also Ruth Benedict & the Concept of Culture)

Cultural relativism may need a dusted-off version, such as that pondered in Michael F. Brown’s Cultural Relativism 2.0 (2008), but it does not seem so different from at least some versions of cosmopolitanism.

That said, cultural relativism certainly has lots of problems. It relies too much on the baggage of culture terminology, and just like the world has been saturated by culture terminology, we are also saturated with a naive cultural relativism. Most students who willingly enroll in an anthropology course really do want to be cultural relativists, and it no longer causes “acute discomfort.” Lila Abu-Lughod puts it best:

Cultural relativism is certainly an improvement on ethnocentrism and the racism, cultural imperialism, and imperiousness that underlie it; the problem is that it is too late not to interfere. The forms of lives we find around the world are already products of long histories of interactions. (Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?, 2002:786-787)

If cosmopolitanism is really the term that will help people understand the long histories of interactions, I’m all for it. But I’m skeptical, since it seems like proliferating jargon, a point reader LT Rose recently made. Proliferating jargon is indeed a danger: a better strategy is to accurately describe learned and patterned behavior in a way to highlight human possibility and creativity, but without sealing people into boxes of “us” and “them.”

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Cosmo and Cosmopolitanism.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 28 February 2011. Revised 31 August 2017.