The Retreat of Globalization? The Possible Impacts on the Future of Anthropology

Before beginning, more than the usual word of caution to readers: added to the usual grain of salt, one should keep in mind that what follows is speculation based on current trends and news, a scratching of the analytical surface that is not intended to pose as a summary derived from an extensive research project. Having said that…

I want to bring attention to two distinct bundles of issues that, together, could have a serious impact on institutional anthropology in the near future, focusing on Canada.

Demography and Social Change

One of these is that the much heralded boom in student enrolments, which did not lead to the massive hiring of full time faculty as was widely believed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is about to come to a halt in Canada, with a reversal projected. In a study done by Statistics Canada titled, “Postsecondary Enrolment Trends to 2031: Three Scenarios,” under at least two scenarios there will be a drastic decline in the post-secondary student population, starting as soon as four years from now. In the least drastic scenario, a massive decline occurs around 2030. In the third scenario, which still assumes a drop, the notion is that increasing the number of male post-secondary students would make up for any shortfall. (The latter is a tall order from where I see things, since it would require a cultural shift in the wider population, and a change in the image projected by anthropology: the vast majority of my classes consist of female students, and by majority I mean that there might be three male students in a class of 45. In addition, this seems to be a distinctive feature of anthropology from what I have seen thus far — the sociology half of our department sees many more male students, and many more “minority” students as well, and this is the second time that I have seen this in Canada.)

Going Un-Global: New Imperialism, meet New Localism

By now readers will have read, seen, heard the important news concerning the collapse of the Doha round of talks in the World Trade Organization, which have been occurring for most of this new millennium. It has become increasingly obvious that the BBC is determined to function as the (sometimes polite) propaganda arm of the new imperialism — in this instance, Europeans with vested European trade interests were featured by BBC reports as the only persons to speak about what this trade negotiation collapse means for the “developing world.” The claim was that the results would be greater poverty and famine, and the televised BBC reports were accompanied by a gratuitous array of images of African poverty, indulging in some vulgar stereotyping. The notion at work: these nations will now find it harder to “export their way out of poverty.”

This is counterintuitive to say the least: colonies and “former” colonies have been exporting their way into ever deeper levels of poverty for centuries. What roughly 100 “developing” nations stood for, leading to the demise of Doha, was the right to not import themselves into poverty, that is, enhancing their food security by seeking to protect their subsistence farmers against increasingly mega-sized, monopolistic agricultural producers. As we know, in the U.S. small family farms are marginal, and roughly 60% of farms are in fact owned by hedge funds. They use a tremendous amount of fuel for giant machines, and require vast amounts of petro-chemical inputs, not just damaging the environment but also resulting in soaring prices with the rising cost of fuel. (See “Against Globalization – Movements,” the concise collection of links down the sidebar.)

The point of this is that with the potential for maintaining current barriers, and perhaps creating new ones, trade globalization could be in for a strategic defeat with the rise of protectionism and bilateralism. I doubt this means the end of world capitalism, but it might mean there will be a decline in unfettered transnationalism.

In a June 16, 2008, article titled “Going Un-Global” in Inside Higher Ed, by George Morgan — which ironically was intended to be a sarcastic repudiation of anti-globalist tendencies, and might instead become a statement of prescient vision — the author spells out certain emergent changes, which gain credibility with the failure of Doha and today’s very emotional exasperation of some of the leading Euro-American participants of the WTO. Morgan notes the tendencies for increased challenges to the free movement of goods and people, and suggests that this will lead to a decline in the need for experts with multicultural knowledge. Disciplines that boast of producing graduates with cross-cultural knowledge will likely find few or no takers. Then Morgan begins his cavalcade, ranging as far as the decline in popular demand for university education, the renaissance of trades such as plumbing and bricklaying (we snobs see these as a step down in evolution), and that ironically universities will return to being the hallowed intellectual playgrounds of the very wealthy, where economically irrelevant disciplines will thrive unchallenged by any pressures to bend to market forces, and the ivory tower will be renewed.

As a game of prediction, Morgan’s piece is very entertaining and interesting. It could mean, if things develop seriously in the directions he loathes, that either anthropology is annihilated, or preserved as the sport of elites.

Either way, when discussing the “future of anthropology,” we will need to think in broader terms of global political economy, local demographic trends, prevailing cultural preferences, the social and ethnic backgrounds of students, and their gender, and after this complex series of considerations reflect on where we think we might fit if we want this discipline to continue as a university-based entity. As I have already noted elsewhere on this blog, I have yet to work in an anthropology department as such, and I graduated from one that no longer exists as such. Somehow, I manage to survive.