Chapters 18 & 19: Global Changes and the Role of Anthropology


All cultures change. Cultural anthropology’s roots lie in the synchronic study of culture, or a one-time snapshot with little attention paid to the past. This early approach led to a view of cultures as timeless. The field has moved away from such approaches and is studying cultures with a diachronic (across-time) approach. This chapter examines contemporary cultural change shaped by globalization. Cultural anthropologists are interested in how globalization will create, transform, disrupt or damage cultures worldwide. As traditional and industrial cultures are drawn into this larger process, how will they negotiate change? Remember, there are two processes of change, independent invention (creation of something entirely new) and diffusion (the spread of new ideas through culture contact).


There are a number of different ways to refer to the different regions of the world.


Anthropologists interested in globalization and change have helped to develop a number of theories or models that describe that change. There are five models by which change can be achieved. We are interested in this change because we are often involved in directed change used to improve human welfare, what we call development.

  1. Technological development – traditional technology gives way to the application of scientific knowledge and techniques developed in the industrialized West.
  2. Agricultural development – a shift in emphasis from subsistence to commercial farming. Cash cropping replaces farming for their own use. They become enmeshed in global markets for selling their products and purchasing food and other goods they need. They are thus at the mercy of the international markets and price swings in selling their food products.
  3. Urbanization – population movements from the rural to the urban, attended by all the social problems of poverty and crowding.
  4. Industrialization – a growing reliance on machines and fossil fuels while human and animal power becomes less important.
  5. Telecommunication – a growing reliance on electronic and digital media to share news, commodity prices, cultural features, and political opinions. Information flows freely.


Human populations have always interacted with each other through trade, exploration, and migration. Many cultures benefited from these interactions, but frequently they left disease, slavery, and cultural disruption in their wake. Despite this long-standing history of contact, we can’t deny the intensity of such contact has increased tremendously since the advent of modern transportation, new telecommunication technologies and massive immigration and refugee flows.


Colonialism consisted of a small group of European countries that ruled and exploited foreign nations all over the Global South. The current globalized system has essentially been built on that earlier system. Many anthropologists are interested in how the current structure of globalization is a continuation of that earlier system, which includes many of the same patterns of power and inequality. To understand how globalization is based in part on unequal levels of power and unequal distribution of resources, anthropologists often turn to analyzing power.


Globalization is not just the closer integration of cultures worldwide. Unfortunately, it also disrupts many traditional cultures, destroying the social organizations and methods by which they previously dealt with change and adversity. States, companies and even very wealthy individuals can use hard and soft power to arrange things to their own advantage. When this kind of structural power works to undermine the well being of others through repression, environmental destruction, poverty, hunger, illness and death, it is called structural violence. The outcomes of structural violence are numerous, including:


It is important to note that the processes that constitute globalization do encounter opposition from a variety of movements and organizations. Resistance exists both in developed and less developed countries. Sometimes this resistance is manifested in an attempt to reclaim traditional activities (revitalization movements). Other times, it might take the form of grassroots movements or radical protest groups. Still other times it can lead to migration or refugee flows. The new communication technologies that exist have given many groups, traditional and radical, the ability to organize and get the word out about structural violence and inequalities.

Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples often struggle for recognition and rights. Many of these people are parts of distinct nations as opposed to the 192 states in the world. Some of these groups have reacted to being part of larger state systems by resorting to non-violently organizing self-determination movements or taking up armed struggle to achieve their goals, such as self-determination, autonomy, independence or equitable distribution of economic resources.

Structural violence has led to worldwide migration. Migration is nothing new to humans, but the rate of migration and the growing interconnectedness of the world give human migration in the present era a completely different flavor.

Women and Globalization - Women are of concern when it comes to change due to globalization because they see less of the benefits and more of the costs. Many directed development projects were aimed at men and bypassed women. This bias increased gender inequality. There is now a greater focus on the issue, with a subsection of development called Women and Development. In many regions, women have achieved status gains and improved their welfare by forming organizations. Additionally, as a result of female migration and the spread of education for all, women and girls are being treated more equitably worldwide.


Because of our cross-cultural perspective, cultural anthropologists are in a unique position to discuss human rights. The UN has a Declaration of Human Rights, but different states recognize different rights. We often include the right to practice cultural traditions, which moves the definition from meeting basic human needs to a recognition that even though someone might not be physically hungry, they can culturally and spiritually starve without the meaning given to them by their cultural practices. Development and human rights are linked. When states and international organizations design and decide which projects are enacted, with little input from locals, they can run afoul of those people’s rights to make decisions about their lives. Also, there are many unintended consequences to development projects. Furthermore, development projects frequently lead to environmental degradation, which erodes local people’s abilities to make a living and practice their traditional cultures.


While anthropologists have important roles to play in blowing the whistle on human rights abuses, they also must work as advocates for minority groups, bringing to bear their considerable expertise. This moves anthropology from studying what is, to working on what should be. As our discipline moves from collecting information on others and controlling that information in Western academia, to incorporating locals into our research and giving them free use of the products of such research, we are well on our way to democratizing our field and making it one of advocacy instead of just observation and accumulation of knowledge.