Global Age?

For Cultural Anthropology 2020, using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, 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). This was for the first class of Cultural Anthropology 2020. For an update, see Cultural Anthropology 2023.

The lecture below continues 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: 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?

Global Age: Transcript

What is Anthropology?

I’ve always presented anthropology as a four-field discipline in the United States. It’s a little bit different in Europe, in the UK, and in other places around the world. But in the United States, due to the founding influence of Franz Boas, we’ve always considered ourselves to be a four-field discipline. These days I say North American anthropology because in my last introductory textbook, a Canadian archaeologist reminded the intro class that this is also true in Canada. I think to a certain extent in Mexico as well.

In North America, anthropology is seen as a four-field discipline. As I said, this will be perhaps a little bit of a review for those of you who are anthropology majors or who have taken some other anthropology classes, but one of the fields of anthropology is biological, which is sometimes–hopefully not so much anymore–called physical anthropology. It deals with human evolution, biological aspects of human beings, and includes primatology. Here at Hartwick we have Professor Connie Anderson who teaches courses in Biological Anthropology and in medical anthropology, really good stuff, and especially if you’re interested in nursing and the applications of anthropology to that, or also primatology. The Biological Anthropology things some of you have probably either heard about or been on her January term experience to South Africa, a very popular J Term trip. . . .

Archaeology, which is what a lot of people associate anthropology with, the stones and bones aspect of it, from those old Indiana Jones movies, but archaeology is seen as one of the four fields of anthropology. Here at Hartwick we have a Professor Namita Sugandhi who teaches fundamentals of archaeology, and also our upper level archaeology courses, and runs a field school at the Pine Lake environmental campus. . . .

Linguistic anthropology combines anthropology with the study of language. A lot of people who do Cultural Anthropology are also–in some ways it’s impossible to do Cultural Anthropology without having some sense of what’s going on in Linguistic Anthropology–but there is a specialized subfield of Linguistic Anthropology, which Guest discusses. It’s the smallest subfield of anthropology: it has the fewest number of practitioners. It’s usually very specialized. We don’t have at Hartwick someone who is a specialist in Linguistic Anthropology. Super interesting, but also super-difficult material too. We’ll be talking a little bit, when we talk about the Guest chapter on language, we’ll be talking a little bit more about Linguistic Anthropology.

A lot of people fold that into Cultural Anthropology, which is what we are studying in this class, a 200 level Cultural Anthropology class. For those of you who were thinking, “well I never took intro,” a lot of people teach Cultural Anthropology as their Intro to Anthropology. . . . A lot of people teach Cultural Anthropology more as a general introduction. Here at Hartwick, we try to do an Intro to Anthropology, which is all four fields. Then, Biological Anthropology, Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology are 200 level classes, but if you’re interested in it you can jump right in at the 200 level. That gives us an overview, a quick snapshot, of what anthropology is.

What is Globalization?

We then move on to the idea of globalization and a global age. What is globalization and why is it important for anthropology? Guest in this textbook–this is supposed to be a “toolkit for a global age”–talks to us about the idea of globalization. In the last class we talked about how human beings have always been interconnected: they have always been migrating, talking to each other, communicating with each other. This has been a characteristic of human beings since we were human beings. Globalization refers to an intensification of those processes. There have been a lot of debates in academia about “when does globalization or the global age begin?” Some people see it as a very recent phenomenon. The anthropologists that I like the most see it as something that begins around 1500, with those first voyages of Columbus and other European explorers, uniting the world in a trans-oceanic network. It intensifies in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and with the migrations from different parts of Asia and Europe and the Americas, there’s an intensification. Then, there’s another intensification from 1989 on. That’s what Guest here is referring to when he talks about important aspects of globalization. None of these is entirely new. We see these intensified in recent years. Guest discusses the idea of time-space compression, which is basically that the technologies that we have like cellphones, but before that the phones, the transatlantic cables, the satellites, transportation developments, enable people to experience time and space differently than they might have in the past. The cliche is that it’s a small world. This has probably been especially true with all these devices that we now have, where we can be in different places, and yet have some feeling of being in the same place. If it weren’t for the technologies that enable time-space compression, we wouldn’t be doing class like we’re doing it now. This Zoom class is entirely a creation of the global age, where we can be simultaneously in all different places, and in some ways hopefully communicate.

Another example, or another key characteristic of globalization that people talk about, is the idea of flexible accumulation, which is basically that instead of producing things and selling things in one location you can spread out both the production process and the consumption process across different regions. You might be able to compose different parts of an automobile, put it together, it’s made in different parts of the world, and it all comes together. Then, it is sold for a profit in a new location. You can look at the labels on your clothing, or the labels on your food, or the labels on the stuff that’s in your room, and you see how in fact we have been influenced by these processes of flexible accumulation. Now, of course, again, this is not a new thing. People have been trading things around for a long time. One of the classic instances of flexible accumulation is how we had plantations with enslaved Africans in the Americas to ship sugar back to Europe. People have been doing this for a long time, but with the coordination of computers and travel networks and containerization, it seems to be intensifying in recent years.

A third aspect is migration. Again, definitely not new. A million people each year migrated in the 19th century. So, from 1800-1900 almost a million people per year migrated. This is not a new thing: migration is part of the human experience. What is maybe new is not necessarily the numbers of people, but how often people seem to be circulating, or they might make multiple migrations, or they may be stuck between countries in refugee status or a stateless place where they belong to neither one country nor the country they are living in or migrated to. Again, this is not entirely new. My own great-grandparents migrated into the United States from Italy. Then, went back to Italy. Then, my grandfather came back to the United States. There was a whole circuit of Italian migration through the Americas. A lot of them never intended to stay in places like the United States, and some of them just ended up here. We know about them because their descendants are here. It’s not that this circular migration is anything new. However, with the time-space compression technologies, we may be more aware of it today, and there may be more instances of people who are unable to belong to any particular place because they are displaced or refugees from their country of origin.

Then, we have the idea of uneven development. Oftentimes when we hear the word, “globalization” or the global age we think about this level playing field of mixing and integration, and everyone is coming into contact with each other, and that the world has become a smaller place. Uneven development refers to how these things are differently experienced based on where you are in the world. Perhaps what country you live in, but also often within the same country, how different that experience might be. That people who live in urban environments may share more with other people in other countries who live in urban environments than they do with people in their own countries who live in rural environments. I used to ask the class how it felt for you to come to Oneonta New York from wherever you are.

. . .

So, last time I did a poll like this was about 10 years ago, and about half the people said that it felt like it was being in the middle of nowhere and the other half said it was like being in the big city. Right now, it looks like half of you say that’s about the same as wherever I’ve been, about 30 percent of you say it feels like being in the middle of nowhere, and about 20 percent say it’s feeling like being in the big city. The reason I do this poll is because in some ways Hartwick College and our neighbor SUNY are relatively unique, in that many colleges draw from a very similar population: if you’re in a rural area, that college will draw from the rural population; if you are in an urban area, it will draw from its urban population. Hartwick is an interesting place because a lot of people come here from more rural areas. Then, a lot of people come here from more urban areas. When these two areas come into contact, it’s an instance of uneven development. Sadly, I think to a certain extent we’re probably seeing one of the effects of that with what is going on right now, where we were very rural for about five or six months, from March through August and right there in August we became suddenly urban. Now we are experiencing the COVID surge. This is an instance of what we might call uneven development. Even within the same country, within the same geographical space, you can have a very different experience of what is going on. A lot of people equate that or see that as an outcome of the process of globalization.

Are we still globalizing?

I want to go a little beyond Guest here to say that in some ways the idea of globalization has been with us for quite a long time, and 20 years ago I taught a class called, “Latin America and Globalization.” In some ways, the idea of globalization has become rather old, or we might ask if this is still going on. Is this still the process which most characterizes our times? Is this still a global age? What do I mean by that?

In the last few years, we’ve seen what we might call a resurgence of nationalist impulses. Globalization of course is supposed to be a world where borders are becoming less important, but we see the rise of nationalism. This is not just in the United States. It is probably most famous to us because it is in the United States, the rise of politicians who are trying to revive senses of nationalism and a nationalism that is what they call, “blood and soil” nationalism. It’s not simply a “we’re all in this together in this country,” but that certain people belong to the country and certain people are left outside of the national identity. Again, this is not just Trump. We saw a few years ago, and preceding Trump, the vote in Britain to execute what was called Brexit, or the leaving the European Union. Some of these international organizations, which once had increasing power over people’s lives, are in some ways perhaps being rejected and replaced. There’s a resurgence of nationalism in this time period.

Linked to that are the new varieties of border restrictions, the impetus against people who are migrating in, whether that be economic migrations, political migrations, refugees. We see this of course in the United States, the whole impulse to “build the wall,” and to try and erect walls, to try and limit refugees, to limit migration. But this is not just in the United States, this is happening in different parts of Europe, and different parts of Asia. Globalization is often described as a “world without borders.” The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is seen as an example of ushering in this global age, but the truth is people have been building more walls. They’ve been building walls around their neighborhoods, and they’ve been building walls around their countries, and they’ve been tightening border restrictions. Of course, we see that especially in this time, when people started making all kinds of travel restrictions. The idea of time-space compression is difficult to comprehend now, when people in the United States are unable to travel to a lot of different countries. I think Mexico will still let us in. For now, Canada won’t and much of Europe won’t. It’s very difficult to think of a globalized world in which we are unable to even travel internationally at this time. Again, there have been increasing border restrictions, even in this world of globalization.

Then the idea of “slobalization,” which is a clever phrase that came out a couple of years ago in _The Economist_. This is the idea that despite economic integration–we talked about flexible accumulation and goods and trade being able to move into any part of the world–that in fact that has slowed down. The global economy is being integrated at a snail’s pace. Some of the old trade agreements are being disrupted and are being upended. We saw in the last couple of years the renegotiation of NAFTA, which largely appears intact, but the idea is that we may be going in the other direction in terms of the global integration of trade.

Related to that is the relatively new divide between the United States and China. You may have heard about the trade war that we were having with China, as well as the trade agreements that we were having and what was going on there, but behind the scenes there’s also been a technological decoupling of the United States and China. Many technologies that are used for cellphones and internet servers and those kinds of things are starting to be politically divided. This results in two different systems developing and a competition for which one is going to win the day. Or maybe there will be two separate platforms. You may be experiencing this a little bit in your life, at least my kids are, with the idea that will TikTok continue, or will it be banned, or will it be sold. So, TikTok might be seen as an example of a development that what comes from China and is very popular all over the world, but several countries, not just the United States, are afraid of various parts of TikTok. We might be decoupling our TikTok, or even perhaps banning it entirely. That’s an example of this larger possible divide between what was a symbiotic relationship between the United States and importing a huge number of Chinese goods straight into Walmart.

This all leads up to the idea, was globalization more hyped than it was real? The term “globalization” was a capitalist advertising slogan. It was meant to sell more products. My anthropology advisor Michel-Rolph Trouillot once said that if we didn’t examine this, we end up “repeating advertising slogans without knowing how we ended up there” (2003, 48). Globalization was imported into the social sciences and there were lots and lots of anthropology and sociology and political science classes about globalization. Anthropology, to its credit, has always insisted that the global age has a long history. We don’t want to get caught up in the hype of globalization, but there are important aspects that are new to our time.

We don’t want to start thinking that it’s this one-way process. If you think about all the things we’ve just talked about, we can think about how in some ways a lot of the things that used to be seen as integrating the world are in fact resulting in deeper disintegration or a slowness of integration.

At the same time, in the last year or two years, several issues have come into our lives, or are in our lives, that show us how deeply interconnected we really are. People have been drawn to nationalism and national solutions, but there are several issues that simply go beyond national borders, and you can’t put walls up around them. They’re not going to be answered by limiting things like migration, or trying to limit travel, or limit the technologies that make globalization possible. One of them is what Guest discusses in terms of the environment and environmental issues: global climate change. Guest wrote in this edition a whole new chapter on “Anthropology and the Environment.” This is a huge improvement from the previous edition of the textbook–it was a big missing piece because this is an issue that is about the future, about sustainability, that is and will be affecting all of us. There is no way to solve this simply from a national or a national perspective.

Of course, Guest’s textbook was written and published before the coronavirus, but here is another thing that does not respect national borders. We’ve had travel limitations and all kinds of people trying to clamp down by restricting people’s movement, but the virus seems not to care so much. Some of those travel restrictions seem to have reinforced or spread the virus more, as everybody tries to get back from wherever they were before the travel ban goes into effect. It can have the opposite effect to what was intended. Public health is a global issue now. One of the problems in our response is we are feeling the lack of a globally coordinated response to what is a global issue. This is something the United States used to lead the way on, for example with the Ebola outbreak, leading the way to coordinate a global or an international effort. With the coronavirus there has simply not been a an international, coordinated global effort to come up with a global strategy. In fact, some countries, like our own, seem to be lacking even in a national strategy to combat it, let alone a global strategy.

Some of you mentioned Black Lives Matter. I think that as of a couple years ago, the issues of Black Lives Matter were seen as relatively unique to the United States, or relatively particular, relatively limited to the United States. In part because unlike other parts of Europe and the rest of the world, we’re one of the few developed countries in which the police are always carrying weapons. We are one of the most heavily armed people in the world. This seemed to be something that was limited to the United States. (See my post on #GunReformNow for #AnthroDay.)

However, with the recent protests we saw not only more support than ever before within the United States, but we also saw international support for the Black Lives Matter movement. There was international support for the Black Lives movement, and other countries are turning the movement to issues in their own society. So, people see the issue of racial justice or justice for Indigenous peoples or for Aboriginal Australians as part of a global effort. It’s partly in support of what is happening in the United States, but partly turning it onto their own societies.

I think we’ve also started to realize that all these issues are not only global, but they are interconnected. Racial justice, environmental justice, public health justice, economic justice are global issues, and they are connected to each other. They are not going to be solved separately from each other. All these movements or ideas are interconnected and must be dealt with globally and together.

That brings us to “thinking like an anthropologist.” Guest ends each chapter with a little segment which is often very good for applying what’s in the chapter. Here Guest tells us: “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). On the discussion board I asked to what extent do you personally believe in this statement, and how do you think other people in the United States are believing this statement. In my reading of your posts, it of course warms my heart to see how many of you strongly believe or strongly endorse or say it’s 100% correct that we need to have greater engagement, interaction, and cooperation in this global age.

I say it warms my heart, because over the past few years being a professor has been an interesting challenge, in the sense that a lot of the skills that we are trying to develop–skills like appreciating diversity, communicating, being able to read, write, spell, have civil debates–have been undervalued. We’ve been exposed to people who say that to succeed in the world, to succeed politically or to succeed economically or to succeed in business, that you don’t need any of those things. In fact, you get more retweets and likes and followers if you say things that are isolated and ignorant than if you say things that are about engagement, interaction, and cooperation. Hopefully we’re on the other side of that arc, but it’s been an interesting time to try to convince people that it is a good thing to know how to communicate effectively, and how to try to reach across what might be diverse perspectives in order to understand and to talk things through.

It’s also interesting, heartbreaking, to read how so many of you think that in some ways the United States is perhaps going in the wrong direction, or split 50-50, which seems to be our political situation. We always seem to be more polarized than pulling together. There’s a lot of ways to read this Guest quote. As one of you put it, of course it’s true, it’s a given that it’s true.

In re-reading I’m struck by the idea: “if we want to solve these challenges.” Do we even want to solve these challenges? In the last few years of the global age, we’ve been told that those challenges don’t even exist, and that global climate change isn’t even a thing. We’re told these challenges don’t exist, or they’re unsolvable, or it’s stupid to even bother to solve them. I think this statement is true, and I think we do live in an uneasy balance. It’s hard to think about this. It often also makes me think about my own classes in anthropology. Do anthropology classes help us get to greater engagement, interaction, and cooperation, or is it simply that people who are interested in greater engagement, interaction, and cooperation join anthropology?