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David Graeber: There never was a West! Democracy as Interstitial Cosmopolitanism

Recently, the terms "Western civilisation" or "Western values" have been used in opposition to regimes mainly in the Middle East. But how fruitful is this notion of "the West"? In his keynote speech at the conference Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology, David Graeber showed that this idea is a kind of Othering: It makes artificial gaps between people that have more in common than supposed.

His deconstruction of the West resembels earlier deconstructions of the National (what traditionally has been considered as "typical Norwegian" is rather the result of migration and influences from other countries).

In his paper that he presented on the conference, Graeber writes:

If you examine these terms more closely, however, it becomes obvious that all these “Western” objects are the products of endless entanglements. “Western science” was patched together out of discoveries made on many continents, and is now largely produced by non- Westerners. “Western consumer goods” were always drawn from materials taken from all over the world, many explicitly imitated Asian products, and nowadays, most are produced in China.
As European states expanded and the Atlantic system came to encompass the world, all sorts of global influences appear to have coalesced in European capitals, and to have been reabsorbed within the tradition that eventually came to be known as “Western”.
Can we say the same of “Western freedoms”? The reader can probably guess what my answer is likely to be.

The idea of a superior "Western civilisation" is a product of colonialism. But as he says:

Opposition to European expansion in much of the world, even quite early on, appears to have been carried out in the name of “Western values” that the Europeans in question did not yet even have.

Graeber mainly used the notion of democracy as a Western concept as an example:

Almost everyone who writes on the subject assumes “democracy” is a "Western" concept begins its history in ancient Athens, and that what 18th and 19th century politicians began reviving in Western Europe and North America was essentially the same thing.


Democratic practices-processes of egalitarian decision-making-however occur pretty much anywhere, and are not peculiar to any one given
"civilization", culture, or tradition.

We should according to Graeber treat the history of “democracy” as more than just the history of the word “democracy”:

If democracy is simply a matter of communities managing their own affairs through an open and relatively egalitarian process of public discussion, there is no reason why egalitarian forms of decision-making in rural communities in Africa or Brazil should not be at least as worthy of the name as the constitutional systems that govern most nation-states today-and in many cases, probably a good deal more so.


Rather than seeing Indian, or Malagasy, or Tswana, or Maya claims to being part of an inherently democratic tradition as an attempt to ape the West, it seems to me, we are looking at different aspects of the same planetary process: a crystallization of longstanding democratic practices in the formation of a global system, in which ideas were flying back and forth in all directions, and the gradual, usually grudging adoption of some by ruling elites.

Yet why have these procedures not been considered as "democratic." The main reason in Graebers view: In these assemblies, things never actually came to a vote! Rather, they preferred "the apparently much more difficult task" of coming to decisions "that no one finds so violently objectionable that they are not willing at least assent". It is this form of participatory democracy that social movements around the world are trying to revive!

Graeber also discusses the "coercive nature of the state" and the contradictions that democratic constitutions are founded on. He refers to Walter Benjamin (1978) who pointed out "that any legal order that claims a monopoly of the use of violence has to be founded by some power other than itself, which inevitably means, by acts that were illegal according to whatever system of law came before it".

And about Ancient Greece and democracy:

It is of obvious relevance that Ancient Greece was one of the most competitive societies known to history. It was a society that tended to make everything into a public contest, from athletics to philosophy or tragic drama or just about anything else. So it might not seem entirely surprising they made political decision-making into a public contest as well. Even more crucial though was the fact that decisions were made by a populace in arms.

UPDATE: The whole text is now available in The Anarchist Library: There Never Was a West Or, Democracy Emerges From the Spaces In Between


Amartya Sen: Democracy Isn't 'Western' this text was also debated on Savage Minds

Amartya Sen: Democracy as a Universal Value (pdf) (Journal of Democracy 10.3 (1999) 3-17)

David Graeber: Reinventing Democracy

Review of Graeber's book: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology - What's the point of anthropology conferences?


  09:41:11, by admin   . Categories: anthropology (general), cyberanthropology, internet, websites

Deep Thoughts - new anthropology blog by Denise Carter

Is there life after a PhD? and Internet Nicknames – what’s in a name? are the titles of the first entries in a new anthropology blog by Denise Carter.

She has recently completed her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Hull, UK. Many might know her as frequent poster in anthropology email-lists. She's particularily interested in internet and its effect on our daily lives. Her doctoral research is an ethnographic account of my three years living and working in a virtual community.

>> continue to Denise Carter's blog

Her blog is included in the overviews over anthropology blogs http://www.antropologi.info/blog/ and http://www.antropologi.info/feeds/anthropology


  00:36:35, by admin   . Categories: Us and Them, anthropology (general), cosmopolitanism

What's the point of anthropology conferences?


I'm back from the conference Anthropology and Cosmopolitanism at Keele University (1h from Manchester, UK). As I've learned from entries on Savage Minds, job hunting and networking are a main point of anthropology conferences arranged by the AAA (American Anthropological Association). Luckily, this wasn't the case with the conference I've attended last week: The main purpose seemed to be socialising - without ulterior motives: The participants were very friendly and open people. It seemed to be that I've talked at least to the half of all participants.

The topic - cosmopolitanism - seemed to have attracted a certain kind of people. "There are nearly no Americans here", one delegate wondered. Usually, lots of Americans attended conferences arranged by the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth. What I found most striking: The largest part of all delegates were migrants!

Nearly none of them is working at a University in the country they were born. I met an anthropologist from Sri Lanka who's working in the USA, another anthropologist working in Canada, originally from Turkey but - as she said - "a product from Norway". There were quite a lot of German anthropology migrants living in the UK, and from Switzerland and Italy. A woman wore a badge with "Aberdeen University" on it. Of course, she told me that she's from Malta!


Many participants appreciated the social events. In contrast to other conferences, nobody left the venue after the day's final lecture. There was nowhere to go as the University of Keele is a kind of academic ghetto, located far away from the nearest village. And the lectures actually lasted until 11 o'clock at night! I especially enjoyed these less formal after-dinner lectures - held by Elizabeth Colson (see picture to the right), by Andre Beteille and a debate on Robert Hayden’s ‘Shared Shrines, Syncretism and Tolerance’ in the old library (see image below), published in Current Anthropology.

old library

But concerning the topic of the conference, I wonder if I might have learned more if I had stayed at home and read the papers on my own. There were many very weak presentations: Most paper-givers read their papers monotonously and went over time. There was never enough time for discussion. Furthermore, generally three or four papers were read one after another without any breaks in between! It reminded me of the worst seminars during my first year at university.

Several participants left these panels before they ended. After a short walk in the sun, I met a young PhD-student. He was as frustrated as me: "It's my first and probably my last conference", he told me.

I wondered: Is the main purpose of a conference to deliver a paper in order to get it listed on one's CV as John McCreery supposes while we discussed the topic How To Present A Paper?

"If you want to be considered a serious academic you have to read your paper. That's standard and just the way it is", one of the elder anthropologists informed me.

Some papers haven't even had much to do with the topic of the conference (a few paper-givers admitted it openly!).

On the last day of the conference, Keith Hart said (maybe too harshly?): "Anthropologists don't care for cosmopolitanism. It's just an excuse to come together. We're not engaging in the world. We don't talk about Iraq and Iran. Our detached discourse lacks wider relevance."

As I've found out afterwards, Keith Hart had said something that many delegates agreed with. The organisers had asked great questions about cosmopolitanism, but we haven't heard many concrete answers. I missed debates about moral and ethical issues: Recently, several magazines and newspapers have discussed cosmopolitanism as an answer to the growing polarisation between socalled Western values and the socalled Islamic world. After the controversy around the Mohammed-cartoons, mainstream-media loved talking about culture and religion wars and Huntingtons clash of civilisation. But maybe we should have talked more about cosmopolitanism? Is this correct? Is cosmopolitanism a better alternative than multiculturalism? If yes, how could anthropologists contribute to a more peaceful, just, cosmopolitan world?

Nobody addressed these questions. Rather, extreme relativism prevailed. French anthropologist Benoît de L'Estoile for example, argued, we shouldn't define the term cosmopolitanism by its moral qualities (openness to the world, empathy etc). graeber It is in his view problematic to define some people as good (cosmopolitans) or bad (non-cosmopolitans).

Nevertheless, there were many interesting papers (among others by David Graeber, see image to the left). I'll have a look at them during the following days and weeks, (I hope) and will try to summarize some of the discussions.

See also my earlier post For an Anthropology of Cosmopolitanism.

UPDATE 2: A heavily edited version of this text was published in Anthropology Today august 2006. You can read the text here on my personal homepage


Summary of David Graeber: There never was a West! Democracy as Interstitial Cosmopolitanism

Owen Sichone: Poor African migrants no less cosmopolitan than anthropologists

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Cosmopolitanism is like respecting the ban on smoking in the public


Do anthropologists have anything relevant to say about human rights?

Anthropology News April focuses on the topic anthropology and human rights. Both anthropologists and non-anthropologists have been asked to answer the question: Do anthropologists have anything useful or relevant to say about human rights?

In Gerald F Hyman's view (Director, USAID Office of Democracy and Governance), anthropologists contribute little to the development of human rights themselves or a human rights regime because anthropologists are skeptical of normative claims.

Sheila Dauer from amnesty international makes a similar point, criticizing the idea that human rights are a Western idea and than introducing them might even be a neocolonial act:

When anthropologists support the idea that the changes the changes people are working for on the ground that are based on human rights standards are “Western” or “neocolonial,” they are using the same argument used by governments and others in power to repress less powerful sectors of society—ethnic and racial minorities, women and other groups. Within the human rights movement, conceptualizing human rights standards as universal is now thought of as bringing local meanings into dialogue with human rights standards to mutually reinterpret them and to find ways they can apply locally—a kind of cultural negotiation.

(related see Democracy Isn't 'Western' by Amartya Sen that also was debated on Savage Minds)

Victoria Sanford calls for "activist scholarship":

It is not uncommon within the academy for lived experience to be dismissed as unscientific or not relevant to real, objective scholarship. This is completely backwards because it is the academy that needs to be relevant to the reality of lived experience.

Advocacy and activism do not diminish one’s scholarly research. On the contrary, activist scholarship reminds us that all research is inherently political—even, and perhaps especially, that scholarship presented under the guise of “objectivity” is often little more than a veiled defense of the status quo. Anthropologists can do better than that. We can and should use our expertise to support rights claims in the communities where we work.

She has a nice homepage with lots of pictures and several articles about her conflict and peace research in Guatemala and Colombia.

Veena Das is sceptical. Institutional transformations in the universities in the US and elsewhere are threatening the kind of free inquiry on which critical understanding rests:

I see a far greater threat to anthropology’s capabilities for engaging politically difficult questions based upon good evidence from everyday practices that govern research in universities than from direct censorship.

>> read thw whole article in Anthropology News

UPDATE (9.10.06):
The October 06 issue of Anthropology News asks the question Do Anthropologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Promote Human Rights?


Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights Committee for Human Rights by the American Anthropological Association

"We have a huge responsibility to give back to the places we study from"

Annelise Riles: Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage

Sally Engle Merry: Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way)

Conference blogging: "Quit using the word ‘culture’ wherever possible"

On the recent conference by the Society for Applied Anthropology, Mary Odell Butler from Battelle suggested that anthropologists ought to quit using the word ‘culture’ wherever possible, according to Judd Antin at Technotaste who writes:

"The larger and more interesting point she made, is that talking about culture instead of more specific perceptions or processes, is a scapegoat. It relieves us of the burden of talking about specific ideas, habits, and histories. She gave an example that I remember well. Contrast these two statements:

Many African-American women have developed a culturally-based perception that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.


Many African-American women have learned through their experience and that of their friends and family that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.

Culture, in other words, is too often a gloss for actual perception and practice. Why not call a rose a rose?"

>> read the whole post on TechnoTaste

Judd Antin has written two more posts about the conference: Wednesday Morning at SfAA and SfAA 2006: To Start. There was no press coverage (no surprise). Jen Cardew at anthroblogs did some conference blogging, but the notes aren't especially reader-friendly.

Jen made an interesting remark about getting in touch with people at conferences. It's an advantage to be a smoker:

I would like to note that the only people who have approached me, or that I have approached at the conference thus far have been smokers outside on a smoke break. I am actually thankful that I am a smoker right now, what a wonderful social tool! I'm kind of shy, so it is not too often that I approach people to chat.

Jen has also written about Smokers as a Subculture


Emphasis on ‘culture’ in psychology fuels stereotypes, scholar says

The Culture Struggle: How cultures are instruments of social power

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Savage Minds: An old warhorse revisited: Do we need another book about culture?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Why culture should be brought back in

The Secret Society of Anthropologists


  23:57:27, by admin   . Categories: religion cosmology, Us and Them, Europe, migration

Interviews on Christians and Muslims, Class, Immigration History and Black Feminism

Four interviews that I've conducted for the research program "Cultural Complexity in the new Norway" have been translated into English:

The sacred space between Christians and Muslims - Interview with Oddbjørn Leirvik
Leirvik has been involved in inter-religious dialogue since the middle of the 1980s: "I want to investigate the space in between. The space between Christians and Muslims. I wonder whether there is an open landscape which we share and which nobody has control over."

- Class, equally as important as ethnicity - Interview with Ivar Morken
For special needs educationalist Ivar Morken cultural complexity is just as much about class differences in a Norwegian valley as it is about immigration from distant lands.

Collecting immigrants’ life histories - before it’s too late - Interview with Knut Kjeldstadli
In the three volume “Norsk innvandringshistorie” ( A History of Immigration in Norway) the historian Knut Kjedstadli, showed that it is wrong to believe that Norway was a homogeneous society before the arrival of Pakistanis and Somalis.

In pursuit of "black feminism" in Norway - Interview with Beatrice Halsaa
What is the relationship between ethnic Norwegian and non-ethnic Norwegian feminists or immigrant women? This is one of the big questions that Beatrice Halsaa, leader of the Centre for Women's Studies and Gender Research (SKK) is interested in.

  12:49:18, by admin   . Categories: politics, Us and Them, anthropology (general)

Riots in France and silent anthropologists

What anthropologists failed to do, a few thousand burned cars made possible: Public debates on inequality, discrimination and post-colonialism. In the recent volume of Anthropology Today (subscription required), Didier Fassin criticizes anthropologists for their silence during and after the november 2005 riots in France. Anthropologist Keith Hart reminds us in a comment to this article on the marginality of French anthropology and a recent letter to oppose anthropology’s apparent demotion within the administrative structures of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique).

Didier Fassin writes:

During and after the events historians, sociologists, demographers, writers and intellectuals intervened in the public sphere, expressing comprehension if not of the rioters’ actions then at least of the problems they experienced. (...)
Anthropologists remained peculiarly silent. Just as we had done during the impassioned debate on the prohibition of the Islamic veil, we kept quiet when the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, permanent secretary of the Académie Française, suggested that the main cause of the riots was polygamy in African families – a proposal subsequently reiterated by right-wing political leaders. The academically marginal but professionally dynamic Association Française des Anthropologues organized two meetings a few weeks after the events, but significantly invited sociologists to speak.

In Didier Fassins view, anthropologists could have foreseen these events. After having done fieldwork on relations between police and youth in the suburbs of Paris, the explosion and spread of violence was no surprise to him, he writes.

The riots gave French society the opportunity for a public confession of the long-denied policies of economic inequality, residential segregation and racial discrimination. France was beginning to admit that its integration paradigm had become a cover for the denial of its institutional racism. For the first time the French started to consider theirs a post-colonial society. Though long evident to many foreign scholars working on France, French anthropologists were the last to realize what was happening according to Fassin. He explains:

Suddenly, a previously unacknowledged colour bar was discovered. The word ‘ghetto’, previously banned from French vocabulary on the grounds that it reflected a specifically American reality, became common in editorials. Newspaper articles and television reports revealed how difficult it was for Arabs or Black people to get a job or a flat, how they were stigmatized at school and humiliated by the police. What thousands of pages of academic and administrative literature failed to do, a few thousand burned cars made possible.

Anthropologists had little to say on these subjects for two reasons in Fassins view:

(1) Very few anthropologists were working on the banlieues, on immigration or inequality: This relates to the history of the discipline in France and its predominant epistemological position. Anthropology in France is above all the study of the present of remote societies. Even when French anthropologists became interested in their own society, they tended to analyse its traditional aspects:

When a few of us turned to the study of politics, most described it in terms of rituals and institutions, comparing them with the display and organization of power in African societies. Scientific analyses have certainly been rich and sometimes innovative, but seldom related to the issues that we face in our own societies today.

(2) Many anthropologists found their beliefs and the ideals of the French society uncomfortably challenged: Isn't France a secular and colorblind society?

The reluctance of anthropologists to recognize the existence of racial and religious discrimination in France is thus as problematic as the paradigms they do engage with. (...) Many still resist acknowledging this reality and prefer to ironize about what they see as an excessive display of victimhood. (...) Racial and religious issues remain difficult for many of us to raise when it comes to actual practices because they confront our values with a reality we would rather avoid.

Keith Hart comments Fassins article. He explains French anthropology’s weak engagement with ethnic / social inequality among others by "general divisions and elitism characteristic of higher education there".

He compares different national traditions in anthropology:

If French anthropology seems to be beleaguered these days, Brazilian anthropology, having once been confined largely to Amazonia, is now booming as a source of investigation and commentary on mainstream urban society. Scandinavian anthropology offers a flourishing model of public engagement. Anthropology is a major operation in India and Nigeria today, being mainly concerned with ‘tribal’ populations and internal cultural diversity. Anthropologists in the USA and Britain have organized themselves quite effectively as professional guilds, but there is little public knowledge there of what they do (try using ‘anthropology’ as a keyword for email alerts from the New York Times); and the discipline’s relationship to the universities is precarious.

>> read Keith Hart's comment (updated link)


Who Are the Rioters in France? Anthropology News January incl comments by Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Cicilie Fagerlid

More and more anthropologists, but they're absent from public debates - "Engaging Anthropology" (1)

Racism: Five Major Challenges for Anthropology


Popular IT-anthropologists: Observe families until they go to bed

Intel recently advertised four anthropologist openings and had more than 300 applicants, including top-notch researchers from the best schools according to Union Tribune San Diego. The newspaper portrays several IT-anthropologists, among others Anne Kirah who is heading a team of eight anthropologists at Microsoft:

She focused on immigrants and refugees in her anthropology graduate studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. Today, she takes notes on people's daily lives, from Japan to France and Australia, in her role as Microsoft's chief anthropologist. Data from the families she studies led the company to add several features to the Vista operating system, due out next year.

Much of the team's research is conducted without a link to a specific product:

The anthropologists will typically spend two days with people, or families, who have agreed to let them into their lives. Kirah will knock on the subject's door at the hour when they wake up and stay with them until they go to bed.

For anthropologists who wonder if they need to be a computer geek in order to work as an IT-anthropologists: When Anne Kirah was ansked if she was interested to work for Microsoft she "thought Microsoft made chips, and I didn't really know what a chip was."

INTEL-anthropologist Genevieve Bell compares academic and business life:

One of the biggest differences between her Intel research and university studies is that she doesn't have to spend a lot of time writing grant proposals, she said. And instead of teaching in a Stanford classroom, she's introducing social science to engineers in meeting rooms, she said. “I'm doing vibrant, rich, rewarding work that's intellectually exciting,” Bell said. “I'm giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't be in the conversation.”

Also a former suicide-prevention counselor (Kelly Chessen) were engaged by a computer company - that actually specializes in data-recovery:

While the counseling of computer-crash victims might sound humorous, a hard-drive meltdown can create despair on the same level as the suicide hotline, Chessen said. She has taken calls from people who have just been fired over lost data or who are facing the loss of years of work or the demise of an entire small business.

“We've had people talk about taking their lives if their data can't be restored,” Chessen said. “A lot of my job is really just listening to people, even when they're angry and yelling. I help give them hope.”

>> read the whole story in the Union Tribune

>> Microsoft and the Australian tribe - Interview with Anne Kirah (ABC Radio Australia)

(all links updated 3.1.17)


INTEL is hiring more than 100 anthropologists

INTEL and Microsoft conference "a coming-out party" for ethnography

INTEL-ethnographers challenge our assumptions of the digital divide

Office Culture - good overview about corporate anthropology in FinancialTimes

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