. An A-Z of theory Arjun Appadurai | Ceasefire Magazine

An A-Z of theory Arjun Appadurai

In a new addition to his "A to Z of theory" series, political theorist Andrew Robinson introduces the work of Arjun Appadurai, a major voice in globalisation studies.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, April 22, 2011 0:00 - 9 Comments

By Andrew Robinson

Arjun Appadurai is recognised as a major theorist in globalisation studies. Coming from a theoretical background in Marxist cultural studies, his work operates within a theoretical framework which assumes an increasingly borderless global economy.

Appadurai is highly insightful in seeing the disjunctures or lack of fit, the out-of-joint nature of many of the relations among different global flows today. He also provides an important analysis of the causes of the growing problem of majoritarian bigotry which is affecting so much of the world, not least Britain.

Appadurai’s best-known work is the article ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’. In this work, he claims that the world has now become a single system with a range of complex subsystems. Appadurai is broadly opposed to the account of globalisation as cultural imperialism which fuels much of dependency theory and world-systems analysis.

He believes there is also a ‘scalar dynamic’ in which lower scales are frightened of being absorbed in the imagined communities of higher scales. He is concerned that ideas of homogenisation can be used by local power-holders to distract from their own dominance.

Furthermore, he thinks capitalism has undergone fundamental changes and is now ‘disorganised’ and post-Fordist.

Marxist approaches tend to focus on articulations, connections and similarities. Appadurai’s alternative theory focuses instead on disjunctions, or points at which different logics or processes go in different directions and cause ruptures, tensions or conflicts.

In Appadurai’s theory, there are five main ‘scapes’ of global culture: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes. Each of these ‘scapes’ is constructed by particular perspectives, created by social actors as imagined worlds similar to Benedict Anderson‘s idea of the nation as imagined community.

Appadurai believes that we now live in such globally imagined worlds and not simply in locally imagined communities. We also live in a world in which deterritorialisation, the breaking-down of existing territorial connections, is a major force.

Ethnoscapes arise from multi-directional movements between local settings, including those of refugees and other migrants. Such groups are rarely able to form fixed imaginary identities because of constant movement. Technoscapes arise from rapid technological diffusion and flow across national boundaries. Appadurai believes these flows are increasingly complex and multi-directional, in contrast to older models of technological dependency. Finanscapes arise from rapid financial flows and the emerging global political economy.

Mediascapes are results of the diffusion of the ability to produce media images and the global spread of media images themselves. Mediascapes are deemed to provide ‘large and complex repertoires’ of images and narratives to local groups around the world, which are used in creating local narratives, and providing metaphors through which people live.

Fictional and factual representations often blur into each other in providing such repertoires. Ideoscapes are similar combinations of images used by states and opposition movements. They are often constructed from variants of Enlightenment ideas such as rights and democracy, used as ‘keywords’ in local ideologies.

Appadurai believes that global diffusion and new technologies have loosened the coherence of the Northern ideology in which these concepts were originally held together, turning them into elements for new combinations. Different ‘contextual conventions’ deploy each concept differently in each setting, giving it a different local meaning.

Local receptions of meaning will vary with the rough translations given to various concepts, the resonances with elements of local cultures and the different balance of hearing, seeing and reading in each context.

The relations among the ‘scapes’ create the contemporary cultural field. The different ‘scapes’ are in disjuncture. Each follows different trajectories which are ‘non-isomorphic’ – they are not similar in form. As a result, they destabilise one another.

For example, a dominant ideoscape in a particular nation-state can be challenged by very different deployments of similar concepts in the mediascape, and by population movements in the ethnoscape. Global ethnoscapes such as the ideas of Hindu and Sikh diasporas can reinforce or undermine ideoscapes in India. An imagined homeland providing a mediascape for a diaspora can create new local ideoscapes at their sites. Finanscapes create ethnoscapes through investors’ movements, and new local combinations through grey markets.

Pro-democracy movements involve clashes between ideoscapes. In small countries, there is often also a clash between local ideoscapes and global mediascapes. Finanscapes, which subordinate local states to global financial power, undermine local ideoscapes and states.

Mediascapes of consumerism sometimes overwhelm national political ideoscapes. New wars link mediascapes such as violent movies to aspirations for imaginary community. Ethnoscapes slip through borders and between states. An anomaly of the current period is that senses of primordial belonging to particular places have been globalised. They are now spread through diasporic groups.

Appadurai believes that it is the disjunctures between the ‘scapes’ which provide the conditions for global flows. Money, commodities and people chase each other all over the world seeking new combinations.

The composition in each site is different depending on the openness or closure and the specific construction of each of the ‘scapes’.
Also, the primacy of production in Marxist theory no longer holds.

Production has been supplemented by a fetishism of the consumer. Indeed, production has itself become a kind of fetish, concealing subordination to global flows behind local control of production.

Consumption similarly creates illusions of agency and control which conceal global power. The consumer is at most a chooser, but appears to be an actor or creator through illusions spread by advertising.

Nations and states are closely related, but contested between groups with ideas of nationhood who seek to capture states, and states who seek to capture ideas of nationhood. Appadurai believes the relation between nation and state is now disjunctive, and nations and states are in constant conflict.

Because of ‘disorganised capitalism’ and the disjunctures between labour, finance and technology, national volatilities and state vulnerabilities come into conflict.

States have to let in hostile ideas to become open to global flows. States are thus ‘under siege’. Too much entry of global forces and they are threatened by revolt; too little and they exit the global field.

States seek to manage their position by ‘repatriating’ and ‘exporting’ those global flows which they can capture and localise. There is thus a constant struggle by sameness and difference to draw on one another – ‘mutual cannibalisation’.

This field of disjunctive ‘scapes’ has both positive and negative effects. Torture, ethnocide, refugee flows and ethnic pogroms are among the negative effects. Positive effects include expanded horizons of aspirations, the spread of useful technologies such as healthcare, pressures on states from global public opinion, and transnational social movement alliances.

Although some issues around ethnocide and the like are already present in it, ‘Disjuncture and Difference’ is generally viewed as a rather positive take on globalisation.

Appadurai gives more of a sense of the dark side of globalisation in his book, ‘Fear of Small Numbers’. In this book, he argues that globalisation has led to a proliferation of local hatreds and genocidal impulses. He rejects the standard argument that ethnic and religious identities emerge in reaction to globalisation, to defend local sites. Rather, he argues that the same processes producing global power also produce these kinds of effects.

Appadurai believes there is a virtually worldwide impulse towards genocide and violence against minorities, with fear serving as the basis for campaigns of group violence. He refers to a wide range of different movements, from Islamophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice in Europe and America, through political Islam and Hindu communalism, to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, to the ideology of Laurent Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire, known as ‘autochthony’.

This phenomenon arises from an underlying international struggle between ‘vertebrate’ (hierarchical, arborescent) and ‘cellular’ (networked, rhizomatic) social forms. States (and national in-groups) are viewed as the main bearers of a vertebrate form. States don’t necessarily have a centralised hierarchy in practice, but they always rely on fixed, regulative norms and signals, which function like a trunk.

The state seeks to maintain this trunk in a context where it is increasingly interconnected with cellular forms of global economics. States encourage violence against minorities, and identify with the US ‘war on terror’, because it is politically useful to be able to label minorities as terrorists.

The fear of cellular opposition groups, such as terrorists, provides an excuse for state intrusion into civil society. The state pursues a kind of war in everyday life against cellular power-structures. Appadurai thus creates a sense of a global social war between state forces and networked social forces.

The work sets out to explain why small minorities are often targeted for violence and hatred. He argues that it is, on the surface, mysterious that small, weak groups can be the target of anger when they are relatively harmless. The reason he gives is that permanent minorities are a constant problem for narratives of majority rule. According to Appadurai, the dangerous idea of a ‘national ethnos’ is fundamental to the modern state. This idea – that there is a common community akin to an ethnic group which is the basis for the nation-state – is always dangerous. But it becomes especially so in times of uncertainty, such as today.

This idea is dangerous because it leaves a gap between two categories which are meant to be equivalent – the nation as an identity-group and the nation as a numerical aggregate. Minorities exist in a grey area between citizenship and abstract humanity, part of the numerical aggregate of the nation but not the identity-group. They exist between the image of a pure national whole and the reality of the condition of majorities as one group among others.

Hence, they come to symbolise the gap between majority and purity, or between majority and totality. For Appadurai, all majoritarianisms (i.e. identifications with categories of a majority) contain within themselves the seeds of genocide, because majorities can be mobilised against the fear of becoming or being treated as a minority.

The fear of small numbers usually occurs around ethnic or religious identity-categories. Appadurai rejects the view that such ethnic identities are pre-modern, and the Hobbesian and Realist view of low-level intergroup conflict in all societies. According to Appadurai, majorities and minorities are inventions, resulting from modern procedures such as census-taking and population mapping.

Indeed, his account of ethnic and religious conflict is notable for doing entirely without explanations in terms of ‘ancient hatreds’. Such conflicts are, for Appadurai, a fundamentally modern or postmodern phenomenon.

Violence against minorities is not simply a consequence of competing interests or different beliefs. Rather, it is a means whereby a majority can use an antagonistic construction of identity to ward off its own uncertainties, through violence against demonised others. Hence for Appadurai, majorities need minorities in order to exist. They need minorities as their shadow, as the target of the violence they unleash.

Minorities are targeted through a process known as the ‘narcissism of minor differences’, an overemphasis on small differences so as to define the self more rigidly. Minorities become discursive flashpoints for the anxieties and uncertainties arising from globalisation, particularly the tensions between global flows and local everyday situations.

These tensions have made the gap between majority and totality more anxiety-inducing for people with majoritarian identities. In such situations, majority identities become ‘predatory’. In Appadurai’s terminology, this means they seek the extermination of other social categories close to their own.

This process happens through a cross-reading of small everyday grudges and wounds with a larger narrative of inter-group conflict. Taking the example of Hindu communalism or Hindutva in India, which is extremely hostile to Indian Muslims, Appadurai argues that majoritarian discourses play on global flows (such as labour migration by Indian Muslims to the Gulf) and external threats (such as Pakistan) to give an extraneous significance to intergroup conflicts.

Minorities are distrusted, assumed to be covering their everyday reality with a mask. This discourse enables them to initiate violent attacks, such as the social cleansing of slums and street-traders, while concealing class and caste divisions within the Hindu constituency.

Minorities serve a function as scapegoats against whom anxieties can be acted-out. States and in-groups displace their own fears of marginality and decline onto minorities, who are portrayed as the source of the gap between the idealised self-image and the reality of uncertainty. Fear of minorities is used as a way to channel the desire to exorcise newness and uncertainty in response to global flows.

Social uncertainty combines with ideological certainty to create pressures towards ethnocide. Appadurai also believes there is a growing tendency towards ‘ideocide’. Entire peoples, countries, ideologies or ways of life are declared to be outside humanity. As a result, they are subjected to ‘social death’ – either direct destruction, or complete silencing and derecognition. The war against Afghanistan is taken to be an extreme example of this phenomenon, seeking to destroy a cellular network by destroying an entire landmass.

This produces a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence. Violence against minorities leads to violence by minorities. Minorities ‘morph’ into threatening forces by identifying with the labels attached to them. On a global scale, resentment against America is growing because of American control over such things as professional advancement.

Appadurai argues that cellular forces have certain kinds of social power, through cellular organisations. For instance, political Islam is terrifying to states because it portrays Muslim minorities as part of a terrifying global power. According to Appadurai, such movements threaten the nation-state as a global model of political power. They are, however, limited as opposition movements in that they reproduce the fear of small numbers in their attitude to outsiders. Appadurai believes the world is undergoing a proliferation of cellular alternatives which surround and throw into question statist and nationalist moralities. He uses the example of the social movement Shack/Slumdwellers International which he says has created a shadow urban government across many cities in India, creating a ‘third space’ outside the logics of the state and terrorism.

It is interesting that, like other scholars of globalisation and hybridity such as Stuart Hall, Appadurai has evolved from a view of globalisation as a force for affirmative hybridity to a more nuanced position in which violent reactions against hybridity are also recognised.

This seems to have been a common pattern, triggered in part by the loss of faith in globalisation over time. This said, Appadurai was always aware of issues such as communalism. It is his emphasis, rather than his views, which have changed.

One problem with his account is the absence of a clear model of systemic power. Even though problems such as US hegemony are recognised, Appadurai’s theory is uncomfortably unaware of overall imperial dynamics and ongoing hierarchical organisations of global power.

Appadurai broadly treats globalisation as a set of changes and forces, ignoring its origins in particular political projects and asymmetrical power-relations. Capitalism is strangely invisible in this account, with people and money chasing each other all over the world as if they really are autonomous forces, rather than one being an incarnation of the alienated labour of the other.

Appadurai is also rather prone to use complexity as an excuse for ignoring or denying structural forces. The implication is that it’s all too complicated, high-speed and multi-directional for anything to be made sense of beyond the level of simply recognising its complexity. Yet today’s complex global systems are also systems with clearly observable power-asymmetries, which are structurally reproduced in spite of local variation.

It is true, for instance, that technological flows are now multi-directional, but it is also true that powers over intellectual property and technological research are concentrated in the established core countries.

It is true that different regimes spin ‘democracy’ in different ways, but the global media is selective in terms of which of these spins continue to count as ‘real’ democracy in spite of the various anti-democratic add-ons.

It is true that dense connections and flows occur through a web of global cities, including some in the South, but it is also true that command-and-control functions over the global economy remain concentrated in the core.

And it is true that consumption of homogenised products is given a local touch in each country or region, but it is equally true that such local supplementation is permitted only conditional on the flows of profit continuing to head towards the core.

Also strangely absent here is the sense of exclusions, of the parts of the world ‘forcibly delinked’ from capitalism’s global flows, and the local populations held in place by restrictions on their ability to move. It is mentioned briefly in relation to extreme cases such as North Korea, but seems to be denied in the case of marginal groups such as slum-dwellers.

This is a revealing gap, since the composition of cellular movements, both majoritarian and minoritarian, draws heavily on such groups. It is hard to understand such phenomena without considering the role of patron-client networks in consolidating political power.

This also raises the question of whether all ‘fears of small numbers’ are alike. On a purely ideological level, the dynamics of Hindu communalism, political Islam, Ivorian autochthony and European xenophobia are rather similar. On a structural level, however, there is a large difference between citizens of former imperial powers resenting postcolonial diasporas deemed to threaten their dominance, and members of historically excluded groups who fantasise about the restoration of an imagined Golden Age.

While in the former case, completely different sources of exclusion (such as class) are misconstrued as problems of losses to minorities, in the latter case, a real history of colonial trauma and real structural relations of oppression are being channelled into reactive identities.

Even in his recent work, therefore, Appadurai’s world is too ‘flat’, missing the dynamics of world-systemic power.

The vertebrate-cellular distinction repeats Deleuze’s arborescent-rhizomatic distinction, and Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s networks and hierarchies, in a slightly different accent. One alteration Appadurai has made is to recognise that state power does not always require a strong ‘trunk’ of an institutional kind. It nevertheless requires a weak ‘trunk’ in terms of recognisable rules and signals.

This helps to reconcile the network-hierarchy model with the work of scholars such as Joel Migdal. But isn’t it also true of capitalism? The recognisability of acts of exchange as forms of imagined equivalence is central to capitalist processes, however cellular.

The contrast between states and global capitalist forces is not, therefore, cellular versus vertebrate, but two different kinds of scales of vertebrate system. Appadurai’s theorisation of the differences between what he seems to see as good and bad kinds of cellular networks is also underdeveloped in ‘Fear of Small Numbers’. There is a need to think about how varieties of cellular power differ from one another: about the difference between cellular power deployed to reproduce or destroy hierarchies for example, and the differences between capitalistic cellular power which rests on last-instance equivalence and anti-capitalist cellular power with no such last-instance referent.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.


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Apr 22, 2011 13:40

Love this series and another great article, what would you identify as the causes of majoritarian bigotry in britain in an Appaduraian context?

Apr 25, 2011 5:56

Well, first off we have globalisation (and neoliberalism), which disrupts old certainties and in the British case, also ruins a lot of the established industries. Then we have a kind of post-imperial decline which a lot of British people have never come to terms with. I think we’d also have to add in the peculiar authoritarianism of Thatcherism (as a form of backlash politics and recomposition), the corrosive effects of the “Third Way”, the impact of the discourse of the “war on terror”, the social power of the tabloids, and a kind of post-60s-wave backlash coming from the ‘old good subjects’, in which nostalgia for the 1950s or earlier is a central theme.

Interscalar conflicts are expressed in Europhobia. The ‘gap’ in the ‘national ethnos’ would be associated with Muslims and other minorities, viewed by majoritarians as outside the ethnos due to minority status and visible difference – which of course is exaggerated in order to create the narrative of threat. (Muslims are the favourite figure, but periodically it is asylum seekers, black ‘gangs’, Eastern Europeans, working-class ‘chavs’, or even ‘layabouts’ or ‘hippies’ who provide the scapegoat). One finds majoritarians explicitly expressing views that the British/white majority is being turned into a minority, being subordinated to foreign laws (European Court rulings, sharia law…) or being discriminated against with regard to various minorities. Such claims make no sense on an empirical level, but a lot of sense in Appadurai’s framework: the fear of small numbers is closely connected to the fear of minority status, which in this case, is partly a sideways reinscription (people have been disempowered by global capital) and partly a scalar issue (the British are a minority in Europe, hence the European Court setbacks).

The gap between reality and the idealised self-image actually comes from two main causes: the fact that the imperial era (and more broadly, the social-corporatist era) is over, and the fact that people have been dispossessed by global capital (the promises of Thatcherism have not come true). I look at the latter a bit here: http://www.e-ir.info/?p=3952 In the dominant narrative, however, the loss is portrayed as a loss to immigrants, Muslims and other minorities. Councils aren’t funding libraries because they’re housing thirty-strong terrorist migrant families in mansions instead. The response is to try to ‘go back’ to a mythical age of ‘clips round the ear’, ‘real’ punishments, draconian school regimes and so on, to restore the greatness of this era.

The struggle between ‘vertebrate’ and ‘cellular’ forms has several manifestations – the fear of ‘terrorism’ (global cellular networks), ‘crime’ (gangs and other counter-powers in poor areas), dissent (such as autonomous zones and protests), and more amorphous varieties of chaos (indiscipline, the decline of values, ‘broken Britain’, etc); the struggles by reactionary groups to re-impose the old 50s-type social regime, as opposed to a neoliberal regime which, on the surface, recognises a right to ‘be oneself’, and especially as opposed to the New Left; and issues around the loss of power to financial forces, which often get mapped onto the question of the loss of sovereignty to the EU or to global human rights regimes. The type of bigoted nationalists who are at the heart of majoritarian prejudice seem to be absolutely convinced of a catastrophic breakdown which fuses together issues across the entire spectrum of vertebrate vs cellular, with authoritarianism (the reassertion of the vertebrate in more absolute terms) as the catch-all solution. What’s strange is, however much they get their own way, they always seem to be convinced they’re losing, their efforts are being sabotaged, the problems are getting worse. Part of this can be put down to the distortion-effects of the tabloids (the exception turned into the norm by exaggerated coverage), part of it to the fact that no amount of authoritarianism will bring past regimes back to life, but I wonder if it also suggests that the underlying anxiety is independent from the issues it’s mapped onto.

Apr 27, 2011 22:00

Awesome response, thanks :).

Your last point is very interesting and I have thought the same, I tend to think that it’s due to economic elitism/neoliberalism. The majoritarians will always think they are being attacked, or think they are losing out because they really are – the value of their labour is taken from them and remunerated at a lesser rate than its worth, TV is shit (I swear its gotten worse as I’ve grown up), the pub is expensive, there doesn’t seem to be any escape, things really do seem to be getting worse for the majority of people (that is the true majority i.e. not the top percent of society, not the majoritarians) and all I see is the people who make it worse participating in the exaggerated coverage.

I don’t know, I don’t know if there is any empirical evidence saying things are worse, all I know is that I’m not that happy with my job or the money I get, and it’s not like there’s anything worth spending it on anyway. Maybe the majoritarians are becoming more aware of the inherent injustices within their existences and are reacting out of guilt! I doubt it, but I wish it was true.

Jun 24, 2011 15:27

It’s interesting to hear these things from your own local knowledge. I feel much the same way, but it would be hard to think that some people feel this way given the current ‘mediascape’. What you’re saying is true for quite a wide stratum of people I think, and a lot of them are being drawn into anti-minority sentiments by the displacement of these feelings ‘sideways’. I’ve heard of one case for instance, a working-class community in another city, where the local library had been shut (council cuts), had then been bought up by an overseas Muslim foundation from the Gulf (there were very few Muslims in the area), and Muslims were coming in to use the new centre from outside the area, taking up space in the supermarket car-park – there was huge anger about it, people claiming the council had deliberately closed the library to give it to the Muslims and that Muslims were going to take over the area, and now they were losing their car-park as well… all untrue of course, but easy to see how it became iconic of neglect of the area, and how a class or popular issue got misconstrued as a ‘race’ issue. The areas with large Muslim populations are doubtless neglected as much or more (and the foreign foundation would just be looking for a cheap building), but people are seeing their own services run down and cross-reading this with mediascapes which allege another community e is benefitting, and then mapping in their local experiences and grievances to

In terms of aggregate evidence, yes, there’s evidence of things getting worse, although the effect is uneven and it depends what measures are being used. It also depends what population section/s we’re talking about – what you’re saying sounds like a The working-class, the marginalised poor, and the rural poor, especially outside the South of England, are getting worse-off very rapidly, whereas the skilled workers and middle-class in the Home Counties are better-off than they were 30 years ago. Average GDP is supposedly rising (from £4000 to £5000 between 1997-2007), but the rise is concentrated in the “middle class”, mainly in the sanctuary-towns around London, and a lot of it is “fictitious” (financial sector growth rather than wages etc). Inequality is getting greater, and the poor are getting poorer. It’s not just the absolute income though, it’s all the other stuff. Public services are underfunded, all the measures such as class sizes and illiteracy are rising. Public services, benefit entitlements, healthcare and so on are big issues in people’s life-security, and these have been reduced. Jobs are less secure. More jobs are ‘service sector’ – things like retail and call-centres. Unionisation rates are way down. Fewer people feel economically stable enough to start families (the birthrate is declining). Most people are in tons of debt as well. I think the growing social repression and disempowerment must eat away at people as well. Electoral participation is down a lot on 20 years ago. Fear of crime is rising a lot faster than actual crime rates – which I think is a register of not knowing one’s neighbours and so on. I think people are half-aware of some of the repression, but in small ways amounting to increases in stress. I agree about TV, though it’s impossible to quantify, but it could be due to funding cuts – there seems to be a huge amount of reality-TV, docusoaps, barely veiled propaganda shows (Cops with Cameras etc) and cheap content, and a lower proportion of dramas (though remember TV is also losing viewers, and advertising revenue, to the Internet)… pubs are sharply in decline with a great many closing, partly due to changing consumer habits (e.g. mobility hurts local pubs; supermarkets undercut pub prices), partly to over-regulation, partly to “sin taxes”. In my experience at Nottingham, the quality of university has fallen dramatically (by roughly a grade-class), and accessibility to working-class people has decreased greatly as well (reduced to a quarter or less of the pre-top-up-fees level). I also get the feeling that journalism is lower quality than it was 30 years ago, social movements are at an all-time low, and politics is more homogenised (people have less sense of power or choice). What’s happened to the local/grassroots music scene is also saddening. Then there’s the sheer lack of hope which seems to have set in. Also have a look at https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/new-in-ceasefire/in-theory-precarity/ and http://andyrobinsontheoryblog2.blogspot.com/2011/04/precariat-and-cuts.html, my take on changes in work and society and their psychological and social impact, and http://www.e-ir.info/?p=3952 on elections and disempowerment.

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