Cosmopolitan Anthropology as Responsibility to the Other

A cosmopolitan research method and agenda would need to reckon with the primordial otherness of the humans we encounter either face-to-face or indirectly. Thereby, it would have to internalize methodologically the ethical constitution of any form of subjectivity. In this perspective, it is unethical to turn the other into an object of knowledge. This means that the days of ‘the Nuer’, ‘Muslim women’, ‘Europeans’, and other categorical designations of human beings are over (which they, at least in metropolitan-style anthropology, are anyway). Collective labels should not be resurrected for political and strategic reasons either (apropos Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s ‘strategic essentialism’). It goes without saying that anthropologists still will want to make sense of why and how human beings themselves (including anthropologists) use collective and categorical terms for other human beings.

A cosmopolitan anthropology that is grounded in an ethics of alterity, however, will take the methodological issue one step further. It will not only object to collective categories for human beings, it will also desist from the sort of claims to intimacy with the other that appear here and there in the ethnographic record. Such claims are forged from pretending to take hold of someone else’s otherness and then marketing this otherness to the rest of the world. Cosmopolitan anthropology, more than anything, is about the responsibility toward the other.

Ronald Stade, p. 229 in:

Rapport, N., & Stade, R. (2007). A cosmopolitan turn – or return? Social Anthropology 15(2), 223-235.

6 thoughts on “Cosmopolitan Anthropology as Responsibility to the Other

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  3. Jen

    Could you elaborate on what he means by “cosmopolitan anthropology” / “metropolitan-style anthropology” and “ethics of alterity” ?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Good, this is a bit of a challenge, to try to be brief and not misrepresent what the author intended. The meaning of “cosmopolitan anthropology” is what the author is challenging, and he is challenging the dominant, liberal, Kantian ideas of a universalism that do not take particular ethnic identities to be worthy of serious respect, instead preferring to emphasize the individual. “Metropolitan-style anthropology” would seem to be referring to the main centres of production of anthropological knowledge existing today, with the U.S. in particular exercising a hegemonic role.

      The “ethics of alterity” can simply be translated as the “ethics of difference,” and this means recognizing and valuing the fundamental, primordial, and irreducible difference of other persons, recognizing their otherness which is what always separates them from me.

  4. Jen

    I read the full article to clarify, and I can see why you and others would critique some of the agendas….The vague “Everyone” proposed by some versions of cosmopolitan anthropology “human-individual expression” by stripping away individuality, especially if it has this as its project:

    “. . . aiming to secure the human: to nurture the opportunities of human–individual expression above and beyond the contingencies of social, cultural and historical circumstance” (224).

    Does “everyone” really want to be autonomous of culture and history, even if they could be? And not *everyone* agrees that it’s circumstance (religion?). “Cultural heritage” would be like picking from soup cans on a supermarket shelf. “Chicken or mushroom… chicken or mushroom…. Whatever.”

    Along with the points on “ethics of alterity,” I appreciate this sentence:

    “The figure of Everyone encourages anthropology not to mistake the rhetoric of cultural systems and distinctions for the individuality and the materiality of experience” (224).

    I’m sure I’ve done plenty of categorical stereotyping. You’d have to consciously think about it to avoid it. BUT, I still wouldn’t call a person an “everyone.” I’d call a person an “individual.” There’s gotta be something fundamentally wrong when people have to go through hoops to show that people are individuals.

  5. Frenchguy

    Hi Max,

    I am re-reading Alain Badiou’s “L’éthique, Essai sur la conscience du Mal”, 1993, [ethics, essay on the conscience of Evil].

    And I think he makes a very good, clear and strong critic of the so-called “ethics” of “human rights”.

    I find it so good that I wanted to share it with you.

    Further, it might be another good starting/grasping point, other than Levinas (who he also criticizes), for further critical (re/un)thinking of questions of “ethics”, and “anthropology”.

    A quote, that I try to translate from a french edition :


    We have seen that ethics [ N.B: mainstream ethics that he criticizes ], subordonnate the identification of that subject to the universal recognition of evil that is done to him. Ethics hence defines the human as a victim .

    One would say “You are wrong ! You forget the active subject, the one who intervene against barbary !”. So let’s be precise : the human is that which is able to recognize himself as victim .

    It is this definition that one must declare unacceptable. And this for three main reasons :

    1) First, because the state of victim, of suffering beast, of emaciated dying person, assimilate man to his animal sub-structure, to his pure and simple identity as a living. (…) Yes, humankind is an animal species. She is mortal and predatory. But none of these roles can singularize her in the world of the living. As a torturer, man is an animal abjection, but one must have the courage to say that, as a victim, he is generally not worthier. (…)
    That some [victims] nevertheless remains humans, and testify of it, is a proven fact. But precisely, it is always through an unbelievable effort, hailed by his witnesses – whom it awake to a radiant reconnaissance – as a resistance almost uncomprehensible, in themselves, of what does not coincide with the identity of victim . Here is Man, if one wishes to think him : in what makes that, as Varlam Chalamov says in his “stories of life in the camps”, he is a beast much more resistant than horses, not by his fragile body, but by his obstinacy to remain what he is, that is to say, precisely, something else than a victim, something else than a being-for-death, and so : something else than a mortal . (…)

    If one does not start from here (…), if one identifies Man to his pure reality as a living, one inevitably comes to the real contrary of what the principle seems to
    indicate. Because that “living” is in fact despicable, and one will despise him . Who do not see that in those humanitarian expeditions, interventions, unloading of charitable legionnaires, the supposed universal Subject is splitted ? On the side of victims, the distraught animal exposed on the screens. On the side of the benefactor, conscience and imperative. And why does that scission always put the same people in the same roles ? Who do not smell, behind that ethics leaned over the misery of the world, behind its Victim-Man, the Good-Man, the White-Man ? As the barbary of the situation is only thought of in terms of “human rights”, – when it is always a political situation, calling for a political thought-practice, and of which there is, on the spot, always, genuine actors -, it is perceived, from the heights of our apparent civil peace, as the uncivilized who demands, from the civilized, a civilizing intervention. And every intervention in the name of civilization requires a contempt of the whole situation, victims included. And that is why “ethics” is contemporary, after decades of courageous critic of colonialism and imperialism, of a sordid auto-satisfaction of “Westerners”, of the hammered thesis according to which the misery of the thirld-world is the result of his incompetence, of his how inanity, bref : of his sub-humanity.

    2) Secondly, because if the ethics “consensus” grounds itself in the recognition of Evil, then any attempt to gather men around a positive idea of Good, and even more so to identify Man by such a project, is in reality the source of evil itself . This is what we have been taught for fifteen years : any project of revolution, deemed “utopian”, turns, are we told, to totalitarian nightmare. (…) this sophistic is devastating. Because if it is only a matter of valuing, against an Evil recognized a priori, the ethical commitment, how will we envisage any kind of transformation of what is ? Where will man take the strength of the immortal being which he is ? What will be the fate of thought, of which we know that it is a positive invention, or it simply is not ? In fact, the price paid by ethics is a thick conservatism . (…) To pretend to forbid her [human] to represent the Good to herself, to ordonnate her collective powers, to work toward the advent of unsuspected possibilities, to think what can be, in radical rupture toward what is, is to forbid her, simply, humanity herself.

    3) Finally, through its negative and a priori determination of the Evil, ethics forbids the thinking of the singularity of situations, what is the necessary beginning of any properly human action.


    Further, he also criticizes Levinas.
    And the more common and dominant idea of a “ethics of difference” (he notably writes : “A first suspicion arises when we consider the fact that the apostle of ethics and of “the right to difference” are visibly horrified by any difference a bit sustained “).

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