Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large offers a provocative analysis of globalization in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with a particular focus on its cultural contents and consequences. Situating globalization in the context of what he views as the transition from an international to a postnational political order, Appadurai argues that the ease and frequency with which media and migrants cross borders is producing new ways of imagining and creating alternatives to the nation-state.
Appadurai’s work extends Benedict Anderson’s theorization about the role of “imagined communities” in the making of the nation-state into his own concept of “diasporic public spheres,” which he believes will bring about its demise. According to his analysis, these “diasporic public spheres” are forged in and through multiple overlapping “scapes” (ethnoscapes, financescapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes), the conduits of global flows which, he contends, facilitate transnational imaginings and make the nation-state obsolete. Appadurai’s scapes offer a useful way of thinking about the fluid and circuitous nature of goods, images, and human populations in the late-twentieth century, as well as the ways in which they encourage the reimagining of human communities. Appadurai substantiates his case for the role of imagination in the process of world-making by examining the uses of statistical measurement and census classification in the colonization of India, and in the “Indianization” of cricket in the transition of India from a colonial to a postcolonial order. While his case studies help to shed light on the interplay between institutional structures, media, and human imagination in historical political transformations, his prediction about the role of late-twentieth century scapes in the supposed demise of the nation-state is less convincing. Appadurai does not take sufficiently into account the ways in which these scapes may be mediated or produced by—and thus reinforce the power of—the state itself. An exploration of the involvement of state power in the many scapes of the late-twentieth century world might reveal possibilities for a changing political order in which the state is neither dismantled nor replaced but rather supplemented new political forms.
Part of Appadurai’s argument about the coming decline of the nation-state rests on his analysis of the increasingly transnational nature of cultural groups and the erosion of the hyphen connects nation and state. As populations move across space and across borders, as they reconstruct and reimagine their histories, Appadurai contends that cultural groups are becoming less tied particular geographic places. He calls for a translocal approach to anthropology which can take more fully into account the complexity of human lives in the contemporary world. Although he may underestimate the persisting importance of local spaces for many cultural groups, Appadurai’s point about the need for greater attention to the complicated, translocal, and global processes that affect the lives and imaginations of people worldwide is well taken. Indeed, the relationship between the global and the local in the contemporary moment of globalization deserves (and is receiving) extensive interrogation. Whether or not current global processes diminish the importance of the local or the national, they certainly will change the terms by which we understand them.