Anthropology in a Global Age

For Cultural Anthropology 2020, using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, we explored the concept of Anthropology in a Global Age. We discussed how “human history is the story of movement and interaction, not of isolation and disconnection. . . . Interaction and connection are not new phenomena. They have been central to human history” (Guest 2020, 13-14). We used this material to reflect on the extent to which anthropology operates in a global age:

This was for the first class of Cultural Anthropology 2020. For an update on Anthropology in a Global Age, see Globalization and Anthropology in the 2023 version of this course.

The lecture continued with chapter 1, “Anthropology in a Global Age.” Although anthropologists believe that all humans are connected–and have been interconnected for a very long time–Guest here discusses globalization: “The term globalization refers to the worldwide intensification of interactions and increased movement of money, people, goods, and ideas within and across national borders” (20).

Global Age Discussion

For student comments, we concentrated on what Guest wrote in “Thinking Like an Anthropologist: Living in a Global Age”: “Solving the challenges that face the human race in your lifetime will require greater engagement, interaction, and cooperation–not more isolation and ignorance” (Guest 2020, 30).

My questions were: To what extent do you believe this statement? And, to what extent do other people in the United States believe it? In other words, although we may be living in a “global age,” do you believe people have recognized this need for greater engagement, interaction, and cooperation? Or are we turning more toward isolation and ignorance?

Summary: Anthropology in a Global Age

The Four Fields of North American Anthropology

Anthropology in the United States and Canada is traditionally seen as a four-field discipline, a perspective established by the influential anthropologist Franz Boas. These four subfields of anthropology in a global age are:

  1. Biological (Physical) Anthropology: Focuses on human evolution, biological aspects of humans, and primatology.
  2. Archaeology: Studies human history and prehistory through the excavation and analysis of artifacts and physical remains.
  3. Linguistic Anthropology: Examines the relationship between language and culture, often integrated with cultural anthropology.
  4. Cultural Anthropology: Explores human culture and society, and is the primary focus of this class. (See Anthropological Perspective for the Cultural Anthropology 2023 version)

Globalization & Its Importance for Anthropology in a Global Age

Globalization refers to the intensification of human interconnectedness across the world. While humans have always been interconnected through migration, communication, and trade, the process has accelerated in recent centuries, particularly since the voyages of Columbus in the late 15th century, the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, and the technological advances of the late 20th century.

Key characteristics of globalization that anthropology in a global age must address include:

  • Time-space compression: Technologies like phones, satellites, and the internet enable people to experience time and space differently, making the world feel “smaller.”
  • Flexible accumulation: Production and consumption processes are spread across different regions, with components made in various parts of the world and assembled for profit elsewhere.
  • Migration: While not a new phenomenon, migration has intensified, with people making multiple migrations or being stuck between countries as refugees or stateless individuals.
  • Uneven development: Globalization is experienced differently based on location, with urban and rural populations within the same country often having vastly different experiences.

Challenges to the Concept of Globalization

Despite the seeming inevitability of globalization, recent years have seen challenges to this concept:

  • Resurgence of nationalism: The rise of nationalist politicians and movements, such as Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, has pushed back against the idea of a borderless world.
  • Border restrictions: Increased restrictions on migration and travel, often in the form of physical barriers and tightened policies, contradict the notion of a globalized world.
  • Slowbalization: The global economy is integrating at a slower pace, with old trade agreements being disrupted and renegotiated.
  • US-China divide: Growing tensions between the US and China, including trade wars and technological decoupling, challenge the idea of seamless global integration.

These developments raise the question of whether globalization was more hype than reality, a capitalist advertising slogan rather than a genuine phenomenon. As anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot once said, the term “globalization” began as a capitalist advertising slogan, and if we do not examine it critically, we end up “repeating advertising slogans without knowing how we ended up there” (2003, 48).

Global Issues & Their Interconnectedness

Despite these challenges, several issues have emerged that highlight the deep interconnectedness of the world and cannot be addressed solely through national solutions:

  • Global climate change: Environmental issues transcend national borders and require a coordinated global response.
  • COVID-19 pandemic: The rapid spread of the coronavirus across the world has demonstrated the need for a globally coordinated public health response.
  • Black Lives Matter movement: While initially focused on police violence in the US, the movement has gained international support and sparked discussions about racial justice in other countries.

These issues are not only global in scope but also interconnected, with racial justice, environmental justice, public health justice, and economic justice all intertwined. (See Interconnectedness for a 2023 update.)

Thinking Like an Anthropologist

As anthropologist Kenneth Guest states, “Solving the challenges that face the human race in your lifetime will require greater engagement, interaction, and cooperation–not more isolation and ignorance” (2020, 30). While many individuals strongly believe in this statement, there is a sense that the United States is divided on this issue, with some questioning the very existence of these challenges or the possibility of solving them.

Anthropology classes aim to foster the skills necessary for engagement, interaction, and cooperation, such as appreciating diversity, effective communication, and civil debate. However, it remains an open question whether these classes attract individuals already interested in these values or actively cultivate them.

Ultimately, addressing the complex, interconnected challenges of anthropology in a global age will require a commitment to understanding, collaboration, and collective action across borders and cultures. Anthropology, with its holistic perspective and emphasis on human diversity and commonality, has a vital role to play in this endeavor.

Recap: Anthropology in a Global Age

For Cultural Anthropology 2020, using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, we explored the concept of Anthropology in a Global Age. We discussed how “human history is the story of movement and interaction, not of isolation and disconnection. . . . Interaction and connection are not new phenomena. They have been central to human history” (Guest 2020, 13-14). We used this material to reflect on the extent to which anthropology operates in a global age:

This was for the first class of Cultural Anthropology 2020. For an update on Anthropology in a Global Age, see Globalization and Anthropology in the 2023 version of this course.

Related Material

To enhance your understanding of anthropology’s role in our global age, explore these related topics:


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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