Anthropological Theory Critique

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we began “On Theorizing Globalization” which I turned into an anthropological theory critique:

This material was for The History of Anthro Thought after finishing the section “On Social Position and Ethnographic Authority.” The three articles:

  • Arjun Appadurai, “Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery” (1986)
  • Akhil Gupta & James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference” (1992)
  • Aihwa Ong, “Mutations in Citizenship” (2006)

Next we read about Global Apartheid.

Anthropological Theory Critique

As we begin to conclude our journey through Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century, I find myself engaging in an anthropological theory critique, wondering: Do we really need new anthropology for this century? Or was 20th-century anthropology sufficient? As we’ve progressed, I’ve increasingly questioned whether our new articles truly add to our anthropological theory or if they just introduce more complex equations and vocabulary.

Rehashing Old Ideas?

In this anthropological theory critique, I’m probably going to say some mean things about our recent authors:

  • Donna Haraway on feminism–did this really advance our anthropological theory beyond 1970s feminists?
  • Delmos Jones on decolonization in 1995–almost 30 years ago, yet we still discuss it as if it’s a novel contribution to anthropological theory.
  • “Teaching to transgress”–was this really that different from Ruth Benedict’s earlier anthropological insights?
  • “Citizen Anthropology” in southern Africa–how different is this from what Franz Boas or even Lewis Henry Morgan were doing, studying with fellow citizens (albeit Indigenous Americans)?
  • Bernard Perley on Native American anthropology–does this substantially improve on Beatrice Medicine’s earlier contributions to anthropological theory?

I don’t want to be mean, but I do wonder sometimes if we’re just dressing up old anthropological theories in new language.

Globalization: What’s New Under the Sun?

Our next section, “On Theorizing Globalization,” presents globalization as this new and different thing. The editors tell us that while “socioeconomic interconnectedness and exchange are enduring features of humankind” (265), the last two decades of the 20th century saw a new rapid global spread of capitalist modes of production.

The idea is that with the fall of Communism around 1989-1990, the dissolution of the USSR, German reunification, and changes in Chinese production, we see a radical extension of capitalism. This supposedly leads to deterritorialization, increased migration, and new global power configurations.

But in this anthropological theory critique, I wonder–what is truly new or larger than in the 19th century? The percentage of migrants/immigrants then may have been comparable to or even higher than in recent decades. For instance, the U.S. still hasn’t reached the same percentage of foreign-born residents as in 1910-1920.

Moreover, there’s been significant backlash against ideas of deterritorialization and flexible citizenship. Recent elections worldwide have brought ethnonationalists to power, insisting on stricter borders and national identities.

Gatekeeping Concepts & Anthropological Fashion

Arjun Appadurai’s 1986 article “Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery” introduces the idea of “gatekeeping concepts” (269). These are ideas that become inextricably linked to certain regions or cultures in anthropological study.

Appadurai argues that these concepts can lead to “serious distortion” (269) in our understanding of societies. They limit what we study and how we interpret cultures. He elaborates: “The study of other issues in the place in question is retarded, and thus the overall nature of the anthropological interpretation of the particular society runs the risk of serious distortion” (269).

Appadurai’s critique of gatekeeping concepts was influential for later anthropologists, particularly Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Lila Abu-Lughod. Trouillot’s “Anthropology and the Savage Slot,” builds on Appadurai’s ideas to argue that anthropology as a discipline has been constrained by its historical role in defining and studying the “savage” or “primitive” Other. Trouillot suggests that these gatekeeping concepts have not only limited our understanding of specific cultures but have shaped the very foundations of anthropological thought.

Abu-Lughod, in her essay “Writing Against Culture,” also draws on Appadurai’s work. She argues that the concept of “culture” itself can act as a gatekeeping concept, leading anthropologists to view societies as bounded, coherent wholes rather than as dynamic, interconnected entities. Abu-Lughod proposes “writing against culture” as a way to challenge these limiting conceptual frameworks.

Ironically, Appadurai himself became associated with the concept of “ethnoscapes” in globalization studies–perhaps becoming a gatekeeper himself. He describes India as: “A stellar example of the anthropological black hole, where a variety of ideas, findings, and possibilities vanish from the metropolitan gaze” (271)

Beyond ‘Culture’: Rethinking Maps & Territories

Gupta & Ferguson’s 1992 article “Beyond ‘Culture'” challenges our mental maps of the world–the idea that countries neatly correspond to territories and cultures. They argue that spaces have always been interconnected, even before colonialism.

They make several important points:

  1. “Spaces have always been hierarchically interconnected” (273)
  2. We need to examine how communities formed “out of the interconnected space that always already existed” (273)
  3. “As actual places and localities become ever more blurred and indeterminate, ideas of culturally and ethnically distinct places become perhaps even more salient” (273)

To illustrate their argument, Gupta & Ferguson compare two anthropological works on the !Kung people of the Kalahari: Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman and Edwin Wilmsen’s Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari.

Shostak’s book, which became quite famous in anthropological circles, presents the life story of a !Kung woman from her individual perspective. It’s celebrated for its intimate portrayal of !Kung life and culture. However, Gupta & Ferguson argue that this approach, while valuable, reinforces the idea of the !Kung as a distinct, bounded cultural group.

In contrast, they highlight Wilmsen’s work, which shows how the !Kung are part of a wider network of people and economic relations. Wilmsen argues that the image of the !Kung as isolated hunter-gatherers is actually a product of what Gupta & Ferguson call “the ‘retribalization’ of the colonial period” (275).

According to this view, the !Kung weren’t always exclusively hunter-gatherers. Before colonialism, there was a mix of hunting, gathering, and cattle herding, with people moving between these activities. The colonial period, however, rigidly categorized people into “tribes” with fixed identities and practices.

Gupta & Ferguson use this comparison to illustrate their broader point about the need to rethink our understanding of culture and place. They argue that we should move away from seeing cultures as discrete, bounded entities tied to specific territories. Instead, we should recognize the historical processes and power relations that shape cultural identities and practices.

This perspective challenges us to consider how seemingly “traditional” or “primordial” communities are actually formed through complex historical processes and ongoing interactions with wider social, economic, and political systems.

However, in this anthropological theory critique, I can’t help but think–didn’t Eric Wolf already say much of this in his 1982 book Europe and the People Without History? Are Gupta & Ferguson really adding new insights to anthropological theory, or just new vocabulary? Wolf’s work emphasized how even seemingly isolated societies were part of larger historical processes and global connections. He showed how the development of capitalism shaped societies worldwide, challenging the idea of pristine, unchanging cultures.

So while Gupta & Ferguson’s article provides a valuable critique of how anthropology has often conceptualized culture and place, I wonder if it’s truly breaking new ground in anthropological theory. Are we seeing genuinely new ideas here, or are we simply rediscovering and rephrasing insights that were already available to us? This question speaks to the broader theme of our course: as we examine anthropological theory for the 21st century, we need to critically assess what’s truly new and what’s a repackaging of earlier ideas.

Flexible Citizenship & Its Discontents

Aihwa Ong’s work on “Mutations in Citizenship” introduces the idea of the “citizenship bundle” being disarticulated. She argues that highly skilled migrants now “respond fluidly and opportunistically to dynamic borderless market conditions” (275).

Ong claims that “flexibility, migration, and relocations, instead of being coerced or resisted, have become practices to strive for rather than stability” (275). But in this anthropological theory critique, I’m skeptical–where’s the evidence for so many assertions?

Moreover, I worry about how Ong’s concept of “flexible citizenship” might be misinterpreted or weaponized in our current political climate. Couldn’t ethnonationalists use this idea to stoke fears about immigrants “gaming the system”?

Ong herself acknowledges the darker implications: “It is by no means clear that the right to survival will everywhere be translated into citizenship or merely legitimized on the grounds of common humanity, or relevance to labor markets” (281). That’s for sure–and in 2024, this statement has proven to be disturbingly prophetic.

The anti-immigrant backlash we’re witnessing is overwhelming and unprecedented. The very notion of a “right to survival” seems to have evaporated from public discourse. We’re seeing policies and attitudes that actively deny even the most basic human rights to immigrants and refugees.

The idea that people might be “legitimized on the grounds of common humanity” feels like a quaint relic of a more optimistic era. Instead, we’re seeing a hardening of borders and hearts, with many countries adopting increasingly draconian measures to keep out those seeking safety or better opportunities.

Even more alarming is the erosion of the idea that immigrants might be welcomed based on their “relevance to labor markets.” Despite clear economic evidence showing the benefits of immigration for many sectors, we’re seeing policies that actively harm national economies in the name of “protecting” them from outsiders.

The situation has become so dire that even those fleeing war, persecution, or climate disasters are being turned away or detained in inhumane conditions. The global community’s failure to address these issues collectively has led to a race to the bottom, with countries competing to appear the most unwelcoming to potential immigrants.

This harsh reality makes Ong’s work both prescient and, in some ways, already outdated. While she foresaw the potential for citizenship rights to be eroded, even she might be shocked by the extent to which basic human rights are now being denied to immigrants and refugees. The concept of “flexible citizenship” seems almost naive in a world where many are struggling simply for the right to exist in safety.

As anthropologists, we’re now faced with the challenge of not just theorizing about these issues, but actively advocating for a return to basic principles of human rights and dignity. Our discipline’s insights into the fluidity of culture and the interconnectedness of all peoples are more crucial than ever in countering the dehumanizing narratives that dominate current discourse on immigration.


As we wrap up our exploration and anthropological theory critique of 21st-century concepts, I’m left wondering: Have we really advanced beyond 20th-century insights? Or are we just repackaging old ideas in more complex language?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I hope this critical examination pushes us to think carefully about what’s truly new and valuable in contemporary anthropological theory.

Recap: Anthropological Theory Critique

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we began “On Theorizing Globalization” which I turned into an anthropological theory critique:

This material was for The History of Anthro Thought after finishing the section “On Social Position and Ethnographic Authority.” The three articles:

  • Arjun Appadurai, “Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery” (1986)
  • Akhil Gupta & James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference” (1992)
  • Aihwa Ong, “Mutations in Citizenship” (2006)

Next we read about Global Apartheid.

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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