Keith Hart on Wed, 27 Nov 2002 08:54:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> studying world society

This short essay was written as an epilogue for The anthropology of
transnational flows: methodological issues, Thomas Hylland Eriksen
(editor), forthcoming. I share it with nettimers because I would like to
develop it further.

Keith Hart

Studying world society

Cosmopolitan Right shall be limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality
[the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives
on someone else's territory].
The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal
community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in
one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right
is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the
unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a
universal right of humanity.
Immanuel Kant      Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch (1795)

Anthropologists are now studying transnational society, as this volume
demonstrates admirably. For some time now I have been wondering what it
would be like to study world society (see the Appendix on Terms of
Association). These brief concluding notes point to some of the methods we
might adopt to that end. Method comes from Greek meta-hodos, meaning before
(or after) the road, preparation for a journey or perhaps its destination.
Each of us makes an idiosyncratic journey through life and absorbs a
personal version of society in the process. The life journeys of
anthropologists are more varied than most. So, what version of society do
we end up with and how? Could it be improved upon if some of us made it an
explicit vocation to study world society as such? 

Our journey is both outward into the world and inward into the self. Each
of us, as Durkheim (1912) said, is at once collective and individual.
Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells
inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of
everyday life. Writing is one way we try to bring the two into some mutual
understanding that we can share with others. Ethnographic fieldwork,
requiring us to participate in local society as we observe it, adds to our
range of social experience, becomes an aspect of our socialization, brings
lived society into our sources of introspection. Now it is feasible for
some individuals to leave different social experiences in separate
compartments; but one method for understanding world society would be to
make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences.
If a person would have an identity, would be one thing, oneself, this
entails an attempt to integrate all the fragments of social experience into
a more coherent whole, a world in other words, as singular as the self.

So there are as many worlds as there are individuals and their journeys;
and, even if there were only one out there, each of us changes it whenever
we make a move. This model of Kantian subjectivity, at once personal and
cosmopolitan, should be our starting point; but it will not do for the
study of world society. For much of my professional life, I have shadowed
the African diaspora through an Atlantic world whose defining moment was
slavery: England, Ghana, the Cayman islands, Liberia, the USA, Canada,
Jamaica, South Africa, France, Scotland, Brazil, Norway. At some point --
it was actually in Jamaica 1986-88 -- I realized that what I was learning
in the Caribbean helped me to integrate the other three legs of my journey
to date (Europe, West Africa and  North America), to see a pattern of
relations. I saw how America was 'new', Europe and Africa 'old' and the
Caribbean somehow both; and my guide was C.L.R. James who had traveled
between all four points himself, leaving behind a series of books that were
a revelation to me (Grimshaw 1992). 

I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica reading a collection of James's
occasional writings on cricket. The place had once belonged to Errol Flynn.
My daughter was playing on the edge of the sea. James had been Neville
Cardus's deputy as the Manchester Guardian's cricket correspondent in the
1930s. I found myself reading about my father's heroes in the Lancashire
cricket team of that period as if it was today's sports news. I had been
devouring everything I could by James since I came to Jamaica to help
establish a new graduate school for social science research. I knew that he
had lived in Lancashire when he left Trinidad for Britain. It occurred to
me that we had lived in the same places -- the Caribbean, Britain, America,
Africa -- in a different sequence, at different times and with very
different trajectories. Now, watching my daughter play on that exotic
beach, with my father's stories from childhood coming alive again, the gap
between this old black man and myself was collapsed into a single moment by
the compelling immediacy of James's prose. Generation and racial difference
were erased in an epiphany of timeless connection. I felt compelled to meet
him and so I wrote the first and only fan letter of my life.
I trace my self-reinvention as an anthropologist, the origin of this short
essay, to that moment. I have long felt that the collective slogans under
which my anthropologist colleagues make professional claims on the public
are much less rich and interesting that their individual lives. And, if we
look at the papers of this volume, it is not obvious that 'ethnography' is
their common source. Marianne Lien's paper is methodologically very
coherent and does make the case for repeated fieldwork visits over time to
the same heterogeneous and globally connected place. But, although
Christian Krohn-Hansen refers to two books by anthropologists and
indirectly to his own Caribbean research, his essay is a complex rumination
on national identity that smacks more of the study than the field. Signe
Howell reflects on her personal and professional concern with adoption, on
missionaries, colonialism and human rights, the Hague convention etc. Sarah
Lund lived in the United States as a Norwegian American and was still
planning to do fieldwork there when she wrote her paper. And so on. This is
not to say that I or any of these authors don't have a complex relationship
to the ethnographic tradition, just that our methods and sources are much
broader and more idiosyncratic than we often let on.

Some time after my Jamaican epiphany, I was able to place myself at
different  points in my Atlantic journey by an act of the imagination, even
in several places at once. I  think of this visualizing process as
'cubist', the ability to see the picture from several perspectives at once
(Berger 1992). Caribbean people, whose history of movement has never given
them the security of viewing the world from one place, developed this
capacity without benefit of art or anthropology. Perhaps I learned this
cubist practice from following the Africa diaspora through the main points
of their Middle Passage. Atlantic history has some claim to being the
crucible of modern world history; but it is not the world. Nor is movement
in the world -- transnational flows or whatever -- the world itself. 

How can we approach world society as a whole? Well, we can give it a
singular name. Bush the Elder announced, after the fall of the Berlin Wall,
that we now live in a New World Order. Later, in their bestseller of that
name, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri announced the arrival of  Empire
(2000), a united form of global sovereignty meant to supervise a
neo-liberal world economy. Immediately, the destruction of the World Trade
Centre played on television screens everywhere and we learnt that we were
all to be part of Bush the Younger's 'war on terrorism', even if this
hardly seemed to be the denationalized version of universal sovereignty
Hardt and Negri had in mind (Kapferer 2002). It does not pay to confuse
social reality with simple ideas; and I for one think of the unity of world
society more as a potential than as a fact..

We tend to think and talk of society as an economy these days.
Globalization is usually taken to refer to the reduction of political
barriers to trade and the consequent freedom of capital to move where it
will. Certainly networks established through buying and selling are more
far-reaching than ever before, lending some credibility to the idea of a
'world market'. And money itself, increasingly detached from any objective
form, circulates the globe without territorial restriction, a rising tide
capable of swamping national economies at any time (Hart 2001). This
apotheosis of capital is closely tied to the development of global
communications. The convergence of telephones, television and computers
into a single digital technology has already produced as its great symbol
the internet, the network of networks, expanding faster than any previous
innovation in this field. Mobile telephones have brought instant
communication to places where expensive landlines were underdeveloped. And
global TV audiences for major sporting events are well over the 2 bn mark,
meaning that as many people now sometimes watch the same thing at once as
were alive on the planet in 1945.

Mention of the population explosion should remind us that statistics were
invented to allow states to count their people. It would have seemed odd in
1861 to generalize in quantitative terms about some feature of the Italian
people as a whole; but we now easily absorb the information that Italian
women have the lowest fertility rate in the world. United Nations
organizations have been collecting statistics about world population for
some time; but we are not yet habituated to think in terms of them, except
perhaps for the total (six billions and climbing).  Quantity has been made
social in some areas more than others. Counting heads, money, time or
energy is more plausible than measuring the quality of life, for example,
although this has not prevented many from attempting the latter task. 

When it comes to saying something about world society using these
indicators, there is much controversy concerning the measures used. But the
real issue is whether we think the present condition of humanity is
scandalous or not. Thus Robert Wade (2001), against the prevailing
orthodoxy that the liberalization of markets is the best antidote to
poverty, has attempted to establish that world society is growing more
unequal. I have suggested (Hart 2002) that the world is divided into a club
of rich countries (the OECD) constituting about 15% of the global
population and the rest, the poor masses who have hardly any money to spend
(45% have less than $2 a day to live on). Moreover, this division is marked
by race, region, age and gender as well as by wealth, leading me to argue
that contemporary world society resembles nothing so much as the old regime
of pre-revolutionary France.

We can say something about the changing morphology of human society too.
Anthropologists have known about social networks at least since the
Manchester School (Bott 1954). But the idea that social relations are now
more readily constituted as open-ended networks than as closed corporate
hierarchies (see the Appendix under 'society') is more recent. No-one has
done more to argue the case than Manuel Castells (2001:1-2):

"A network is a set of interconnected nodes. Networks are very old forms of
human practice, but they have taken on a new life in our time by becoming
information networks, powered by the Internet. Networks have extraordinary
advantages as organizing tools because of their inherent flexibility and
adaptability, critical features in order to survive and prosper in a
fast-changing environment. This is why networks are proliferating in all
domains of the economy and society, outcompeting and outperforming
vertically organized corporations and centralized bureaucracies. Networks
were primarily the reserve of private life; centralized hierarchies were
the fiefdoms of power and production. Now, however, the introduction of
computer-based information and communications technologies, and
particularly the Internet, enables networks to deploy their flexibility and
adaptability, thus asserting their evolutionary nature. At the same time,
these technologies allow the coordination of tasks, and the management of
complexity. This results in an unprecedented combination of flexibility and
task performance, of coordinated decision-making and decentralized
execution, of individualized expression and global, horizontal
communication, which provide a superior organizational form for human

The implications of this idea for the study of world society are profound,
even if its premises may be challenged. Is this the catalyst inaugurating
Kant's Perpetual Peace, the cosmopolitan society whose human preconditions
he explored in his Anthropology (1798), for the sake of which he invented
the name of our discipline? Are we reaching the end of a world system of
territorial states? If so, how will the law be administered? One way would
be for networks to constitute themselves as self-regulating clubs. Notions
of justice can be disseminated without a centralized administration. Nor
should we imagine that network society is necessarily non-hierarchical or
open, for that matter. A recent popular science text, Linked: the new
science of networks (Barabasi 2002) claims that 'scaled networks' in a wide
range of fields -- social, technological and biological -- conform to a
mathematical model known as a power rule in which a few nodes (hubs) are
highly connected and most are only weakly so. Think of the air transport
network of the United States, for example, with its O' Hares and thousands
of small airports. Such a model would explain why, left to its own devices,
a world economy made up of unregulated market networks is becoming more
connected and more unequal at the same time (Hart 2001).

It is not as if the problem of managing the infrastructure of world society
would be entirely new. We already have the precedent of global institutions
devised in the twentieth century, after the first and second world wars.
But there are others too. Several countries or federations of states are so
large, so diverse and so self-contained as to constitute worlds in their
own right. The United States, Russia, China, India and Brazil come to mind,
while the European Union is the most dynamic political experiment on the
planet. We could add to these examples some of the larger states formed in
temperate zones by the British and Spanish empires or indeed any polity
predicated on combining diversity. If we want to imagine what a world
society might look like, we could examine these cases and ask which
features should be adopted on a more inclusive scale. For our task is to
make a better world society than the one we have, defined as it is by the
myopia of national consciousness (Fanon 1959). We will discover that the
modern principle of federalism is as old as that of the nation-state and
much better suited to wide political association. The original word for
society itself, societas, was for the Latins a loose-knit federal network,
much less centralized than the constitution of the United States or

Making a better society means using the imagination for purposes of
fiction, the construction of possible worlds out of actual experience. And
this should remind us that thinking about the macrocosm is made easier
through contemplation of microcosms. Alienation is an inability to make a
meaningful link between ourselves and the world; and we need symbolic
devices to bridge that gap. Works of fiction provide us with such devices.
Novels and movies compress the world into a narrow stereotyped format that
we enter subjectively on our own terms. In doing so, we encounter history
without that crushing sense of being overwhelmed by remote forces. Whereas
old versions of the universal (the Catholic church, European empire,
economics) sought to dominate and replace particular varieties, the new
universal will only be reproduced through cultural particulars. Great works
of fiction show us this new concept of the universal, becoming more general
as they plunge deeper into the circumstances of particular times and
places. I have long thought that an anthropology of fiction would ask, not
how specific works represent real societies, but how they construct
convincing worlds of their own. The same question could be posed of the
best ethnographies. And as a precedent for such an enquiry we could turn to
Rousseau's extraordinary inventions of the 1760s: the Social Contract,
Emile, the New Heloïse and the Confessions, through which he revolutionized
European thinking about politics, education, sexuality and the self, each
time with a new genre of fiction and each time pointing to a better world.

If society is hard to imagine, because it is inside us, not out there as we
often believe, then we can follow Durkheim's prescription and make an
external object of it, as nature (Durkheim 1912). The world may be
considered scientifically as an ecology, a biological system, our habitat
and home; and humanity is that part of life on earth that can think, the
frontal lobes of the biomass. This confers on our species a certain duty of
stewardship (Rappaport 1999). And it does seem that a green political
agenda is more likely to mobilize humanity to do something about worsening
world conditions than any attempt to address global social problems
directly. I like to pose the following hypothetical question. Which news
item is more likely to provoke the public's moral indignation: grey seals
dying of oil pollution in the North Sea or a Mozambican killed by skinheads
in East Germany? It is really no contest, since nature is out there and
racism is inside all of us. Again, if global warming does melt the ice
caps, the fate of coastal cities will be urgent enough perhaps to provoke
some sort of global framework for collective action to materialize
eventually. Humanity has apparently survived the threat of nuclear
holocaust, for now, in part because it provoked a substantial international
peace movement. Here then is one likely focus for a world society animated
by activist networks -- the mitigation of global risks (Beck 1992).

At another level, the last half century saw us leave the planet's surface
for the first time and generated concrete images of how the earth looks
from outer space, a powerful symbol of human unity indeed. And natural
science locates that unity in an intellectual vision that has given us,
among other things, the machine revolution whose uneven development is the
underlying fact of the last two centuries, drawing humanity into ever
closer association. There are those (e.g. Latour 2002) who would assimilate
this 'mononaturalism' and its twin, a condescending multi-culturalism (we
understand the unity of nature, so they can have their little cultures) to
a vision of western imperialism. Certainly there are few anthropologists
today ready to sign up for the hegemony of natural science. So here too we
have a pressing topic for discussion when we study world society.

What has anthropology been until now and what might it become? It began in
the eighteenth century as a philosophy of human nature, asking what
humanity has in common that might replace the arbitrary social differences
of the old regime as a basis for living together. This Enlightenment vision
underpinned the democratic revolutions of the period. The dominant paradigm
shifted in the nineteenth century in order to explain a western imperialism
fueled by machines. The Victorians found the world to be constituted as a
racial hierarchy and they studied it by means of evolutionary history.
After the first world war, the principle of nationalism was established
everywhere and anthropology's chief method shifted as a result to
ethnography, to writing about peoples considered to be naturally bounded
units, symbolic microcosms of the nation-state. There was no world society
as such in the twentieth century, just the wars of nations and their
subsequent attempts to form associations with themselves as principal

So what might anthropology become in the twenty-first century? My guess is
that the general premise of universal movement will lead people to seek
stable order in the least and most inclusive levels of human existence,
that is in the self as an identity and the world as a unity; and especially
in the construction of a meaningful relationship between the two. This is
close to Durkheim's idea of religion as a bridge between the known and the
unknown. We are each unique personalities and the world is, at least
potentially, composed of humanity as a whole. We have hitherto put an
enormous effort into exploring the varieties of classification and
association that mediate these extremes. This was not the priority of the
liberal founders of anthropology and it may not be the priority of students
in future. If I were to name what the focus of a future anthropology might
be, I would choose 'subjects in history' or perhaps 'self-in-the-world'. 

There would be plenty of scope in such an anthropology for a world history
whose antecedents cross-cut the discipline's previous periods and
paradigms. Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of
Inequality among Men (1754) could well be taken as the basic text for an
historical anthropology of unequal world society, with Morgan (1877) and
Engels (1884) providing nineteen century versions of the same and Jack
Goody, among others, updating the project for late twentieth century
audiences (Hart 2003). But our contemporary concern with subjectivity will
require such grand narratives to be accompanied by individual and
collective life histories of the sort pioneered by Sidney Mintz in Worker
in the Cane (1960) and Richard Werbner in Tears of the Dead (1991). Or they
could be expressed in the form of novels and movies, of course.

Finally one might ask what anthropologists would actually do when they
study world society. Let us assume that ethnographic fieldwork of the kind
that we are now familiar with will remain an important source of
professional knowledge. But this practice is coming under considerable
political pressure (Grimshaw and Hart 1995). Each us of us will try to
resolve this problem in our own way. In my own case, I restricted the
method of prolonged fieldwork to one stay in Ghana of two and half years,
when I started out. Since then, I have preferred to visit new places under
the auspices of a job rather than as a researcher. People expect visitors
to do something for them these days and I would rather struggle with the
bias of a known public position than try to explain that I am not a CIA
spy. I have been most often a teacher or a development consultant in the
employ of governments or international agencies. For the last five years, I
have lived in Paris without either a job there or any pretension to
carrying out local research. Wherever I am, I read a lot and I write. In
recent years, I have begun to explore the possibilities of the internet, of
web searches and e-mail. It is becoming ever more feasible to make
universal connection without physical movement, without leaving home. All
of this adds up to social experience. I make an anthropology out of that.
Fortunately, I have had institutional support for this pretension. As Meyer
Fortes said, after he helped to set up his trade union, the Association of
Social Anthropologists of the U.K., "Social anthropology is what social
anthropologists do" and he had the means of establishing their credentials.
I am acutely aware that this trajectory is not readily available to others
entering the discipline now. I just hope that each takes personal advantage
of the historical opportunities and is not crushed by the constraints. 

I  have made a case in this Epilogue for research and writing in
anthropology to be existentially motivated. The truth of social experience
is always local, but we need to extend ourselves to grasp what kind of
world society we live in. Such a global society is constituted by power
relations, but the bridge to an understanding of our common humanity is
moral. Morality is the ability to make personal judgements about the good
and bad behaviour of people, including ourselves. Anthropology ought to be
a means of helping us to do that more effectively. There is no guarantee
that people in the future will want to employ experts on the human
condition trading under a five-syllable word of Greek origin. But if they
do, I hope they will ask anthropologists to make world society personally
meaningful for their students and the public.

Appendix        Terms of Association

Associate       To connect or join together; combine.
Society         The totality of social relationships linking a large group
of human beings 
Societas        (Latin) A league of allies committed to mutual support in
the event of an 
attack on one of them (sokw-yo from root sekw- to follow)
Société         (Medieval French) A bounded unit with a single centre, i.e.
a state
State           Society centralized as a single agency
Territory       The land and waters under the jurisdiction of a state
Nation          A people who share a state
Federation      A union in which power is divided between a central
authority and the constituent political units
Corporation     A group of people combined into or acting as o
ne body
Community       A sense of belonging to a group; people united by a common
Social Network  An open-ended, often informal set of interconnections
Market          A social network constituted by buying and selling
The Internet    The network of networks; the system of global
Civilization    The ethical, rational and cultural standards by which a
great people live
Humanity        A collective noun for all people, past, present and future;
a quality of kindness
World           The earth with its inhabitants; universe; human society;
people as a whole; 
all that relates to or affects the life of a person.
World society   The totality of social relationships linking the
inhabitants of earth 

[Based loosely on The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,


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