Friday, July 17, 2009

Heynes on Geschiere

Gamadoela's restaurant

Thursday morning the JWTC welcomed Peter Gescheire, whose earlier work on The Modernity of Witchcraft, is familiar to many of those gathered for the workshop. More recently, Gescheire has turned his attention to issues of migration and “belonging.” His presentation, which drew on his recent book, Perils of Belonging, which is focused on the ethnographic problems of community membership and autochthony. The neoliberal world, he argues, has seen an increased number of claims to cultural and ethnic membership, often cast in the language of autochthony. Drawing on Anna Tsing’s transnational ethnography of global “frictions,” Geschiere argued for an increased focus on localized experiences of globalization, rather than other analytic approaches that might take this phenomenon for granted. Globalization is not a uniform process, and therefore must be actively engaged at the various points in which it is experienced in order to understand it properly. Geschiere was particularly critical of what he sees as an overemphasis on introspection in much current ethnography due to the reflexive turn in Anthropology, which he linked to the influence of Cultural Studies on the discipline, especially in the United States. This, he said, negates the context in which ethnography is carried out and therefore turns the anthropological project from one of dialogue into one of ventriloquism.

While I very much appreciated Geschiere’s discussion of autochthony, and I found his criticisms engaging, I would like to qualify them a bit at one point. Specifically, with regard to the importance of particularly in the study of globalization, I heartily agree that anthropologists and other scholars cannot afford to treat globalization as a uniform process. James Ferguson, in his book, Global Shadows, has noted that one can hardly speak of transnational “flows” – whether of information, wealth, or culture. Rather, it is more accurate to describe the dissemination of such things as a series of “hops,” which systematically skip certain parts of the globe while simultaneously connecting others. However, while we will all certainly do well to avoid treating globalization as a monolithic process, it is equally important, at least as far as anthropology is concerned, to hold on to the idea of globalization as a framework for comparative study. Anthropology, while clearly concerned with the kinds of particular description and analysis to which ethnography is best suited, is also importantly a comparative discipline. Axes of commonality, whether human reproduction, economic exchange, or experiences of the supernatural, are the necessary flashpoints along with the study of human experience develops – hence the rich ethnographic literature on kinship, reciprocity, and religion. I would therefore temper Geschiere’s critique by sounding an equal and opposite warning: just as anthropologists gain nothing from treating things like globalization as uniform social phenomena, they will be equally hindered in their efforts by a retreat from comparative arguments in favor of the too-particular.

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