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Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization
Oct 1, 2000

Arjun Appadurai

Abstract: Appadurai's work offers a very critical and deep analysis of modernity and globalization. He believes that no single theory can describe modernity's complexity, for he believes that a theory cannot be universalistic, and because societies are much messier than our theories about them. His focus is more on globalization's cultural dimensions, as opposed to its economic ones. In addition, he looks at globalization in terms of homogenization and heterogenization, for migration and media create both sameness and difference in today's globalized world. Migrating people and media, particularly television, produce different cultural spheres in different countries. As a result, he looks for irregularities as much as he looks for regularities in the modern or postmodern social world.

Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization

In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Appadurai examines new dimensions of globalization, particularly cultural ones. He argues that few theories describe modernity, and that all of them either declare or desire universal applicability. Looking at modernity and globalization from a historical context, he argues that modernity was very much a product of the Enlightenment. However, he is not convinced that the Enlightenment created modernity and made people wish to become modern (p. 1).

Modernism originated in the late-sixteenth century after the rise of capitalism. However, it is not limited to economic dimensions, for it also contains cultural and political ones. Becoming more visible after the Industrial Revolution, modernism eventually became the dominant culture of the West and then of the world.

The understanding and theorizing associated with modernity is very much a part of Western social science, for it was shaped by such leading Western social scientists as Karl Marx (d. 1883), Auguste Comte (d. 1857), Max Weber (d. 1961), and Emile Durkeim (d. 1917). Appadurai sees Western social science as problematic, for it reinforces the sense of a single moment (which he calls the modern moment) serving as a dramatic and unparalleled break between past and present. Western social science has focused on categorizing and typologizing traditional and modern societies, practices that Appadurai argues distort the meanings of change and the past, and assumes that the Western experience of modernity is universal.

Modernity, however, is irregularly self-conscious and unevenly experienced in different parts of the world. This causes Appadurai to disagree with modernization theory's identification of societies as modern vs. traditional, urban vs. rural, small family vs. large family, and so on, for he sees irregularities within so-called modern and traditional societies. He claims that modernity is experienced differently over space and throughout time. For instance, such modern metropolitan cities as Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Cairo experience modernity and tradition simultaneously. The same is true of Germany, the United States, or any other modern state in which both traditional and modern ways of life are practiced at the same time in different parts these countries.

Appadurai thinks that the media and population migration are the most important factors defining today's global world. He explores their joint effect on the work of the imagination, as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity. Both media and migration create specific irregularities. For example, he analyzes both print and electronic media, while claiming that electronic media, especially television, has been much more influential in terms of modifying cultural spaces and cultural worlds: Electronic media give a new twist to the environment within which the modern and the global often appear as flip sides of the same coin (p. 44). He believes that the electronic media's ability to transform the sense of distance between viewer and event transforms everyday discourse. It also shapes and reshapes society and the self in all different types of societies and people.

Migration is the second constitutive force. This is not limited to moving or migrating people; rather, he includes within this concept a process of transporting ideas, values, life styles, and everyday lives from the home of origin. As he puts it: When the story of mass-migration is juxtaposed with the rapid flow of mass-mediated images, scripts, and sensations, we have a new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities (p. 44).

Migrants create diasporic public spheres that confound theories that depend on the continued salience of the nation“state as key arbiter of important social changes (p. 4). For instance, Turkish guest workers in Germany watch Turkish movies and gather together to celebrate religious and traditional festivals. This is an irregularity in modern German society, as different cultural groups lead everyday lives that have nothing to do the dominant culture of the country in which they live.

When discussing migration, one must realize that the young or new generation are the agents of social challenge and change, not the elderly. The new generation experiences and pushes new ways of life, and is people's minds migrate along with their bodies and produce change.

Appadurai considers globalization as both cultural homogenization and, at the same time, cultural heterogenization (p. 32). He urges us to think of the new global cultural economy in terms of complexity, overlap, and disorder. Moreover, he is unsure if existing center-periphery models can address such complexity and irregularity. Nor is he convinced that traditional models, such as the pull“push migration model or surpluses and deficits, can explain the global cultural economy.

Therefore, he proposes a new framework for understanding the new global cultural economy's complexity and messiness. This consists of five dimensions of global cultural flows: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, techno-scapes, financescapes, and ideocapes (p. 33). He uses the suffix -scape to point out the fluid and irregular shapes of landscapes. These deeply perspectival constructs are inflected by nation-states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as religious, political, and economic groupings and movements confronting such groups as neighborhoods and families.

I am not going to discuss each cultural landscape. Suffice it to say, as Appadurai asserts, that these cultural landscapes are the building blocks for imagined worlds. He quotes this from Anderson's discussion of imagined communities. These worlds are socially and historically constructed by historically situated people and social groups all over the globe.

Appadurai disagrees with the idea that goods and services end in consumption. Calling it an illusion, he urges us to re-situate consumption in time and place. He especially focuses on history, periodicity, process, and how demand is produced and consumption is achieved. How do people make their preferences? How is demand produced?

Although people seemingly make free choices in their everyday lives, their choices are structured through the market. Everything is commodified, from food and medical care to transportation and housing, from education and leisure to body and knowledge. Everything is bought and sold in the capitalist market. Thus, it is important to know that commodities are socially constructed and humanly produced.

Expanding capitalism allowed scholars and philosophers to rework time and space. New philosophies showed social constructions of time and space. We know that they are not natural; rather, they are human constructions.

I conclude with a few words about knowledge“ relations. Appadurai proves that different cultural landscapes exist. It also is important to realize that all cultural landscapes are socially made, and that we produce those landscapes with our everyday practices, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Landscapes, maps, and cultural spheres are social products, and their construction reflects ongoing power relations. Appadurai deals with this when discussing how Britain measured its Indian colony (e.g., census and maps) to control it. The resulting knowledge served British imperial interests, not those of India. Maps as social texts were not used for social betterment, but as tools of social control.

As a result, Appadurai urges, if we are to understand today's cultural, economic, and political globalized world, we need to understand it in those time“ space contexts and knowledge“power relations that have shaped both its homogeneous and heterogeneous cultural, economic, and political realities

  • References:
  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.
  • Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.