A Cosmopolitan Anthropology?, 15th to 16th September 2009.

I was asked to give a report on our meeting so here goes:

A Cosmopolitan Anthropology?, 15th to 16th September 2009.

Cosmopolitanism has been 'in the air' in social science and philosophy since the turn of the millennium. This conference held at the University of St Andrews aimed to pick up strands of the diverse arguments that this word engages as they affect anthropology. Cosmopolitanism clearly has relevance for anthropology both as a subjective and ethical project for some, but also as an objective category advancing ideas around ethnicity, globalisation and deterritorialisation for others. 'A Cosmopolitan Anthropology?' reflected this. A number of papers touched on individual life stories, exploring biographical capacities for cultural openness and personal transformation. Here the stress was more on the aesthetic and ethical than on the institutional and normative. Several contributors nonetheless emphasised the institutional bases for cosmopolitanism in terms of 'actually existing cosmopolitanisms' and regarding the objective results of post-colonialism and nationalist movements. Cosmopolitanism clearly appears in some regions and in some situations more than in others, hence the relativity and diversity of ethnographic 'cosmopolitanisms'. The tension in the discipline between the description of many ethnographic worlds versus the attempt to find a unifying language was discussed (including the difficulty and possibility of advancing shared ethical universals). Ulf Hannerz pointed to the historicity of 'cosmopolitanism' in terms of its euphoric (post-German unification) and its bleaker side (post-'war on terror'). An engaging student session highlighted the difficulty of research in current terrains and fields; Eastern European gypsies in Glasgow Scotland, Caribbean Rastafarians in Ethiopia, Venezuelan migrants in Quebec, disaffected Danes in their confrontations with the 'they' of the Danish government. With its moves from human universals to cultural, often personal, particularities through delineation of institutions and practices, the conference picked up the mercurial character of 'cosmopolitanism' in its current usage. Perhaps the last word goes to Keith Hart who, in a summarising phrase spoke of a cosmopolitan anthropology as 'whatever we need to know about humanity in order to make a better world'.

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the question that comes immediately is how to avoid domination from the 'leading' to say contemporary ideologies

In my opinion the importance of a cosmopolitan anthropology is to have the opportunity to give access to colleagues of the Third World to raise a voice of expression and auto-definition of all the real risks they face... and.. this could surpass the cultural and linguistic borders and influence also US THE WESTERN anthropologists. The tired WEST really needs stimuli from the fresh REST...

These are important strands. Certainly one point to reiterate (made in the Lins Ribeiro article you have circulated on the threads) is that 'Western' anthropology is now dispersed in many centres and that there is already a hyperreflexive feedback between 'local' ideas as they pass between locations in a globally interlinked anthropology which is no longer the property of Columbia or Cambridge or the ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. This alone is already changing the notion of Western anthropology.
Do you think it is possible that the term 'cosmopolitan' may have become so polarized that its use is counterproductive, lining people in non-communicating opposite camps, much as 'globalization' once did and perhaps still does?
That may well be. Hideko Mitsui made an insightful comment at the conference along these lines: the most 'banal' and relatively unwitting form of cosmopolitanism is evidenced where people, for instance, define what they eat against American cuisine or against French food: the people involved are already thinking in terms of a larger cosmos when they localise themselves vis-a-vis. I think that there is an element of this in play when anthropologists define their project against 'cosmopolitanism'. For some, the opposition to using cosmopolitanism tends to be that it is has a tendentious, naive moral agenda; as if the previous theoretical or framing trends in anthropology were free of any ethical tendency. My sense from the discussion at this event was that most uses of the term involved attempts to open new kinds of ethnographic vista. We have only to look at the morally loaded and naive way that the words 'culture' and 'society' are often used to see why people may seek out cosmopolitanism as one alternative. But the results in our case were extremely diverse as I tried to sketch.

Keith Hart said:
Do you think it is possible that the term 'cosmopolitan' may have become so polarized that its use is counterproductive, lining people in non-communicating opposite camps, much as 'globalization' once did and perhaps still does?

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