Anthropology and Multiple Modernities

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Anthropology never had an easy relationship with the concept of modernity. The “reflexive turn” which developed during the 1980s and 1990s tackled the concept of modernity as a culturally constructed narrative underlying Western self-assumptions of self and other– assumptions that needed to be unpacked and left behind. The debate was an essential part of a disciplininary reflexivity reconsidering anthropology’s epistemological and political roots in that very modernity. From the mid 1990s modernity was, somewhat surprisingly, reintroduced as a useful if not necessary conceptual tool, as the concept was pluralized into a variety of forms: multiple modernities, parallel modernities, manifold modernities, alternative modernities, competing modernities, reflexive modernities, early modernities, other modernities – the list still unfolding.

By reviewing various attempts to conceptualise “modernities” over the last 10 years, this paper wishes to address the analytical usefulness of this conceptual development. What is it about these concepts that make them useful as we try to capture the World today? Rather than providing any substantial definitions as to what those modernities are about (or what they are not about), anthropologists have used ethnographies to demonstrate how modernities are lived and constructed differently in different cultural contexts. To a very large extent, anthropologists intend these multiple modernities to refer to the interplay between local and global configurations. However, if the current pluralizing of modernity ultimately serves to describe the variety of cultural forms that co-exist in the World today, the analytical value of the concept risks being watered down, and little is gained in perspective. Arguably, other concepts would have served the purpose better.
This paper will tentatively argue that if anthropology wishes to embrace the concept of multiple modernities, it could profitably do so by taking more seriously the intellectual trajectory that paved the way for the idea of “multiple modernities”. This trajectory moves outside anthropology as a discipline, and has important roots in Max Weber’s comparative sociology, elaborated for example by Shmul Eisenstadt. If anthropology, as Arjun Appadurai argues in Modernity at Large, wishes to contribute to a new social theory of modernity, it would need to tackle the theoretical luggage that the modernity concept does carry with it, referring to social dynamics and problematics that are indeed not simply everywhere. This does not imply a return to ethno-centric notions of Western modernity. Quite the contrary: it implies recognising the various sources of these multiple modernities.

Publikationsdato4 dec. 2006
StatusUdgivet - 4 dec. 2006
BegivenhedTranscending postcolonial conditions: Towards Alternative Modernities: Towards Alternative Modernities - University of Cape Town , Cape Town, Sydafrika
Varighed: 3 dec. 20067 dec. 2006


KonferenceTranscending postcolonial conditions: Towards Alternative Modernities
LokationUniversity of Cape Town
ByCape Town

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