BIOGRAPHIES: ARJUN APPADURAI
by Layla Al-Zubaidi * Posted May 1998
Degrees and previous positions
Arjun Appadurai specializes in sociocultural anthropology, globalization, and public culture, and his current research interests are the internal organization of mass media and the historical study of state policies involving quantification. He teaches mainly historical anthropology as well as the anthropology of consumption and globalization. Regionally, he specializes in South Asia.
1974, 1977: Library research in the Indian Office Library and British Museum, London.
Basic concepts and accomplishments
Appadurai believes that the nation-state is in crisis and thus argues, although this view is not necessarily popular, that current global processes of migration and communication will lead to the deterritorialization of identities in a world which will become culturally hybridized through the growth of diasporic public spheres and the global flow of images, finances, technologies, and ideologies. He suggests we "think beyond the nation," (1996a) by imagining a form of sovereignty which replaces territoriality with translocalities.
Anthropology is for Appadurai an archive of lived actualities (1996: 11). Anthropology reminds him steadily that every similarity hides more than one difference and that similarities and differences conceal each other indefinitely. Anthropology brings with it a professional tendency to privilege the cultural as the key diacritic in many practices. This tendency is crucial for his approach, since he argues for the cultural dimension of processes such as globalization and consumption.
Appadurai’s second field of specialization is area studies, particularly South Asian studies. Area studies in his view reflect particular maps, marking groups and their way of living by culture, and creating topographies of national cultural differences (1996: 16). The geographical divisions, cultural differences, and national boundaries become isomorphic, and world processes are seen in this spatial imaginary through the lens of a national-cultural map. Appadurai sees the significance of area studies as reminding us that globalization itself is a historical, uneven, and even localizing process. Area-focused case studies have shown that globalization does not necessarily result in homogenization or Americanization. Because different societies appropriate the materials of modernity differently, there is still a need for the study of specific geographies, histories, and languages. Appadurai views the genealogy of cultures in their circulation across regions, while the history of these forms is their steady domestication into local practice. He stresses that locality itself is a historical product and subject to the dynamics of the global. Areas put in this way represent sites for the analysis of how localities emerge in a globalizing world, how colonial processes underlie contemporary politics, and how history and genealogy inflect each other.
In the following paragraphs his basic concepts are outlined alongside his major publications.
Appadurai explores how electronic media offer new everyday resources and disciplines for the imagination of the self and the world. He suggests that similarly, motion and migration cause a new instability in the creation of subjectivities. In concert with the global flow of mass-mediated images, they produce diasporic public spheres (for example Pakistani cabdrivers in Chicago listening to sermons recorded in Iranian mosques), thus confounding theories on social change that are centered on nation-state as entities.
He makes three basic distinctions of imagination in the post-electronic world (1996: 5-9):
1) Distinction between exceptional and daily practice:
Imagination has broken out of the expressive space of art, myth, and ritual as the domain of charismatic individuals and specialists, and has become a part of the everyday life and practices of ordinary people, who formerly were excluded.
Modern diaspora, whether desired or forced, distinguishes itself from past forms of migration because today mass-mediated imaginary frequently transcend the boundaries of national space, and the politics of adaptation, move and return are deeply affected by mass-mediated images, scripts, models, and narratives. Diasporic public spheres are no longer small, marginal, or exceptional.
2) Distinction between imagination and fantasy:
Many critics of mass culture (Frankfurt School, Weber, Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, Daniel Lerner, Alex Inkeles) describe a modern world based on growing rationality, shrinking religiosity, secularization, increasing commoditization and regulation, and the loss of play and spontaneity. Appadurai counters that there is evidence that new religiosities of every sort are not dead at all, but have even been encouraged by global media and networks. Critiques of the "media imperialism" discourse have shown that the consumption of media does not result necessarily in passivity, but may evoke resistance, selectivity, and agency. While fantasy represents the concept of "opium for the masses," implying passivity and "false consciousness," imagination is the prelude to expression, which, especially when collectively expressed, may fuel action rather than preventing it. Thus, "imagination is today a staging ground for action, and not only for escape" (1996: 7).
3) Distinction between the individual and collective senses of imagination:
Imagination is now the property of collectives, creating "communities of sentiment," groups that imagine and feel things together (1990b). Benedict Anderson has shown how print capitalism created "imagined communities" of people who were never in face-to-face contact, which was the prerequisite for the formation of nation-states (1983). Electronic capitalism has produced forms that exceed both the potential of the printing press to bond communities and nation-states, working transnationally and internationally. These communities carry the potential of moving from shared imagination to collective action. As an example, Appadurai shows how the "Rushdie-affair" is about a text-in-motion, which had a commoditized trajectory that brought it outside the western space of artistic freedom and right of speech into the space of religious authorities and their own transnational spheres (and the very different settings of New York, Cologne, Karachi, New-Delhi and more). The transformation of everyday subjectivities through media and imagination is not only a cultural fact, but deeply connected to politics, through the new ways individual interests crosscut those of the nation-state. Today’s battles over immigrant rights are not just one more variant on the politics of pluralism: they are about the capability of nation-states to contain the politics of their diasporic minorities.
This "theory of rupture" is one of the recent past, since it is only in the past two decades that media and migration have been so massively globalized across transnational terrains. According to Appadurai, his own approach is no mere update of older social theories of modernization, but presents something radically new (1996: 9):
1) He is not concerned with teleological propositions of how modernization can universally converge into rationality, democracy, and free markets.
2) His focus is not large-scale social engineering (carried out by states, international agencies and other elites), but the everyday cultural practice and transformation of imagination.
3) He is suspicious about any kind of prognosis regarding issues of nationalism, violence, and social justice.
4) His theory of break, based on the joint force of mass media and migration, moves away from classical approaches that are dependent on the salience of the nation-state, and is instead explicitly transnational and even post-national.
He does not provide explicit alternative models, but suggests that actually existing social forms carry the potential of more dispersed and diverse forms of transnational allegiance. He expects that materials for a postnational imaginary exist already, particularly in the form of diasporic public spheres. Activist movements involved with women’s issues, the environment, human rights etc. have created a sphere of transnational discourse, resting on the authority of displaced persons such as refugees and exiles. However, he admits that the move from transnational movements to sustainable forms of transnational forms of government cannot be sufficiently explained by this approach.
Culture and difference
Appadurai argues that the most valuable feature of using the concept of the cultural is the concept of difference. He defines difference as a contrastive rather than substantive property of certain things. The work of Jacques Derrida has given the concept of difference a vast set of associations. Appadurai sees its main virtue in being a useful heuristic that is capable of highlighting points of similarity and contrast between all sorts of categories (classes, genders, roles, groups, and nations). Describing the cultural dimension of something thus stresses the idea of situated difference, that is difference in relation to something local, embodied, and significant: culture is better regarded as a dimension of phenomena rather than substance, a dimension that allows for situated and embodied difference (1996: 13). Stressing the dimensionality of culture rather than its substantiality permits thinking about culture less as a property of groups and more as a heuristic device for talking about difference. Appadurai suggests we regard as cultural only those differences that express or provide the basis for the mobilization of group identities. With this selection, he brings the word culture close to the idea of ethnicity.
In summary, Appadurai resists the noun form of culture that implies the idea of actual social groups as cultures. He suggests an adjectival approach to culture, which stresses its contextual, heuristic, and comparative dimensions and moves to the idea of culture as difference, especially in the realm of group identity. Hence, culture is a dimension of human discourse that employs difference to generate diverse conceptions of group identity (1996: 13).
Appadurai defines consumer revolution as a cluster of events whose key feature is a generalized shift from sumptuary law to fashion (1996: 72). This detaches consumer revolution from any particular temporal sequence (e.g. mass merchandising) and from specific historical sequences (e.g. literacy). He hopes that this definition opens up the possibility that large-scale changes in consumption may be associated with various sequences and conjunctures of these factors. For example, in India, department stores have appeared only recently, following the growth of advertising, in contrast to France, where department stores preceded advertising. In noting these particularly instantiations, Appadurai tries to avoid the search for preestablished sequences of institutional change, which then become established as constitutive of the consumer revolution. He intends rather to encourage the recognition of the multiplicity of scenarios conjuring the appearance of consumer society, in which the rest of the world will not simply be seen as repeating or imitating, the conjunctural precedents of England or France (1996: 73). In comparing consumer societies, Appadurai makes the distinction between history and genealogy. He understands history as leading outward by linking patterns of changes to increasingly larger universes of interaction, while genealogy leads inward; toward cultural dispositions and styles that are embedded in local institutions and in the history of the local habitus. For example, Mahatma Gandhi’s ascetic reluctance towards goods and possessive individualism might historically lead to John Ruskin and others in the West who formulated pastoral and anti-industrial visions. Genealogically, however, Gandhi’s attitude might lead inward, to a long-standing Indian discomfort with sensory experience at large. It thus follows that in studying the consumer practices of other societies, we have to expect a host of different histories and genealogies to be present at the same moment. The more diverse a society and the more complex its interactions, the more fragmented its consumer practices are likely to be (1986a).
Appadurai differentiates five dimensions of global "scapes," flowing across cultural boundaries: 1) ethnoscapes, the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which people live, 2) technoscapes, the global configuration of technologies moving at high speeds across previously impermeable borders, 3) financescapes, the global grid of currency speculation and capital transfer, 4) mediascapes, the distribution of the capabilities to produce and disseminate information and the large complex repertoire of images and narratives generated by these capabilities, and 5) ideoscapes, ideologies of states and counter-ideologies of movements, around which nation-states have organized their political cultures.
Appadurai stresses that globalizing and localizing processes, or "global homogenization" and "heterogenization" feed and reinforce each other rather than being mutually exclusive, and he calls for more anthropological studies on the "production of locality" (1995a).
1983 (Reprint) Worship and conflict under colonial rule: A South Indian case. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
1996 Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of modernity. London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
1977 Kings, sects and temples in south India, 1350-1700 A.D. Economic and Social History Review 14 (1): 47-73.
1978 Understanding Gandhi. In Childhood and selfhood: essays on tradition, religion and modernity in the psychology of Erik H. Erikson. Peter Homans, ed. Pp. 113-43. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press.
1980 Comment on the female lingam: interchangeable symbols and paradoxical associations of Hindu gods and goddesses by G. Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi. Current Anthropology 21 (1): 54.
1981a (Review) Contributions to South Asian Studies 1. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Gopal Krishna, ed. American Ethnologist 8 (1): 211-12.
1981b Gastro-politics in Hindu South Asia. American Ethnologist 8 (3): 494-511.
1981c The past as a scarce resource. Man 6 (2): 201-19.
1981d Rituals and cultural change. Reviews in Anthropology 8 (2): 121-38.
1983 The puzzling status of Brahman temple priests in Hindu India. South Asian Anthropologist 4 (1): 43-52.
1984a Wells in western India: irrigation and cooperation in an agricultural society. Expedition 26 (3): 3-14.
1984b (with Gregory Possehl) "Cow," man and animals: living, working and changing together. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania: 47-56.
1984c How moral is South Asia’s economy? A review essay. Journal of Asian Studies 43 (3): 481-97.
1985a (Review) The cult of the goddess Pattini, by G. Obeyesekere. Journal of Asian Studies 44 (3): 647-49.
1985b (Review) Understanding green revolutions: agrarian change and development planning in South Asia. Bayliss-Smith, Tim P. and Sudhir Wanmali, eds. Third World Quaterly. London.
1986a Introduction: commodities and the politics of value. In The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective. Arjun Appadurai, ed. Pp. 3-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1986b Center and periphery in anthropological theory. Comparative Studies in Society and History 28 (2): 356-61.
1986c (with Wilhelm Halbfass) History of the study of Indian religions. Encyclopaedia of Religion. Mircea
Eliade, ed. New York: Macmillan.
1986d Is Homo Hierarchicus? American Ethnologist 13 (4): 745-61.
1987a Hinduism. Encyclopaedia of Asian History. New York: The Asia Society and Scribner and Sons 2: 56-59.
1987b The Indian cow. Encyclopaedia of Asian History. New York: The Asia Society and Scribner and Sons 1: 347.
1987c Street culture. The India Magazine 8 (1): 2-23.
1988a How to make a national cuisine: cookbooks in contemporary India. Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1): 3-24.
1988b Place and voice in anthropological theory. Introduction to special issue of Cultural Anthropology 3 (1): 16-20.
1988c Putting hierarchy in its place. Cultural Anthropology 3 (1): 36-49.
1988d Comment on Francis Zimmerman, the jungle and the aroma of meats. Social Science and Medicine 27 (3): 206-7.
1988e Imagined worlds: the decolonization of cricket. In The olympics and cultural exchange. Kang, S.P., J. McAloon and R. da Matta, eds. Pp. 163-90. Hanyang University: Seoul, Institute for Ethnographic Studies.
1988f (with Carol A. Breckenridge) Why public culture? Public Culture 1 (1): 5-9.
1989a Transformations in the culture of agriculture. In Contemporary Indian Tradition. Carla Borden, ed. Pp. 173-86. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
1989b Small-scale techniques and large-scale objectives. In Conversations between economists and anthropologists. Parnab Bardhan, ed. Pp. 250-82. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
1990a Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Public Culture 2 (2): 1-23.
1990b Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. In theory, culture, and society 7 (2-3): 295-310 (short version).
1990c Topographies of the self. In Language and the politics of emotion. Lutz, C.A. and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Pp. 92-112. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1990d Technology and the reproduction of values in western India. In Dominating knowledge: development, culture and resistance. Marglin, Stephen A. and Frederique A. Marglin, eds. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
1990e (with Carol A. Breckenridge) Public culture in late 20th-century India. Items 44 (4): 77-80.
1991a Dietary improvisation in an africultural economy. In Diet and domestic life in society. Sharman et al, eds. Pp. 207-32. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
1991b (with Carol A. Breckenridge) Marriage, migration and money: Mira Nair’s cinema of displacement. Visual Anthropology 4 (1): 95-102.
1991c Global ethnoscapes: notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In Recapturing anthropology. Working in the present. Richard G. Fox, ed. Pp. 191-210. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
1991d Museums are good to think: heritage on view in India. In Museums and communities: the politics of public culture. Karp, Ivan., Steven D. Levine, and Christine Mullen Kraemer, eds. Pp. 34-55. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
1993a Number in the colonial imagination. In Orientalism and the post-colonial predicament. Breckenridge, Carol A. and Peter van der Veer, eds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
1993b Patriotism and its futures. Public Culture 3 (5): 411-29.
1993c The heart of whiteness. Callaloo 16: 797-807.
1993d (Reprint) Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. In The phantom public sphere. Bruce Robbins, ed. Pp. 269-95. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
1993e Consumption, duration and history. Stanford Literary Review 10 (1-2): 11-23.
1993f The geography of canonicity. In What is Fundamental? Chicago: the University of Chicago: The Committee on Social Thought: 3-12.
1995a The production of locality. In Counterwork. Richard Fardon, ed. London: Routledge.
1995b Playing with modernity: the decolonization of Indian cricket. In consuming modernity: public culture in a South Asian world. Carol A. Breckenridge, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
1995c Public modernity in India. In Consuming modernity: public culture in a South Asian world. Carol A. Breckenridge, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
1996a Sovereignity without territoriality: notes for a postnational geography. In The geography of identity. P. Yaeger, ed. Pp. 40-58. Ann Arbor, Michigan: the University of Michigan Press.
1996b Diversity and disciplinarity as cultural artifacts. In Disciplinarity and dissent in cultural studies. Nelson, Cary and Dilip Gaonkar, eds. New York: Routledge.
1996c (with James Holston) Cities and citizenship. Public Culture 8: 187-204.
1996d Off-white. A.N.Y. (Architecture New York). Winter.
1997 The colonial backdrop. Afterimage. February.
1986 The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Appadurai, Arjun, Carol A. Breckenridge, eds.
1987 Special Annual Issue on "Public culture" in The India Magazine. New Delhi.
Appadurai, Arjun, ed.
1988 Special Issue of Cultural Anthropology on "Place and voice in anthropological theory" 3 (1).
Appadurai, Arjun, Frank J. Korom, Margaret A. Mills, eds.
1991a Gender, genre, and power in South Asian expressive traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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