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Beyond platitudes of globalisation

A review of Ulf Hannerz: Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London: Routledge 1996. 200 pp.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, spring 1997

 It may have seemed a passing fad when the term was suddenly on everybody's lips around 1990, but the evidence so far is that the exploration of, and controversies over, globalisation are here to stay. As many anthropologists writing on globalisation have made it clear, at least on the programmatic level, studies of global or spatially disembedded phenomena pose no threat to small-scale ethnography (Roland Robertson once coined the term glocalisation to counter such criticism), nor are we merely dealing with the return of diffusionism. Global connections created by world capitalism and mediated by contemporary communication technology present our discipline with real and enduring challenges, leading -- in the views of some -- to the breakdown of dichothomous thinking and to a fundamental reworking of the concepts of culture and society. On a more general level still, this trend in anthropology can be seen as an attempt to operationalise philosophical perspectives of postmodernity, such as Baudrillard's notions of simulacra and Lyotard's work on incommensurability, by confronting them with real life situations.

Ulf Hannerz is a prominent member of this club. Having moved from urban anthropology to the study of transnational systems, he has in recent years contributed significantly and prolifically to the anthropology of globalisation. Transnational Connections sums up his work from the last decade, and it may well be seen as a companion volume to his epistemologically and methodologically oriented Cultural Complexity (1992). A collection of essays and papers of diverse origins, the new book does not present a single coherent argument; what is offered instead, is a series of interrelated arguments underpinned with ethnographic examples -- to use one of his own favoured metaphors, it is the work of a fox rather than that of a hedgehog. Like the sociocultural phenomena he discusses, Hannerz' own essays are hybrids, sometimes bordering on travel writing and academic journalism, but incessantly engaging with core issues in social theory. The book contains a few well-known pieces, notably "Cosmopolitans and locals in world culture", as well as several penetrating discussions of cultural flows versus reified cultures and purity versus impurity, clarifications of the notion of cultural creolisation and its relationship to linguistics, a thought-provoking comparison between anthropologists and foreign correspondents, a critical assessment of the role of nationhood in an age of globalisation, engaging discussions with other theorists of modernity, and a few very enjoyable pieces on the role of world cities. Hannerz is careful to emphasise that globalisation is not tantamount to cultural homogenisation, and that globalisation does not imply that persons acquire a global identity, but rather that cultural diversity is being organised in new ways in an age of near-universal modernity. Despite the celebratory tone of several of the essays, he also goes out of his way in order to remind the reader that globalisation and creolization are the products of world capitalism and colonialism, and thus do not imply an utopian state.


Some of the most important analytic tools in Hannerz' enterprise are derived from role theory and urban sociology. Modes of social and cultural integration are depicted by way of network and scale analysis, which enable him to indicate the uneven and situationally variable integration into transnational fields of communication and exchange. Emphasising the unbounded character of culture, Hannerz is concerned to argue that "a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world", and that integrative processes take place in many overlapping fields simultaneously. This perspective, of course, differs markedly from Durkheimian sociology and its many offshoots, including structuralism. Grounded in micro-sociology and an actor-centred approach, his analyses are nevertheless closer to Luhmannian system theory than, for example, to postmodernist deconstruction. Although he does not discuss it implicitly, Hannerz' perspective seriously undermines the concept of boundaries in the study of social identities.

The strength of Hannerz' work on globalisation so far does not lie in original ethnography -- here he largely draws on the work of others -- but in his ability to develop syntheses and analytical frameworks, sometimes at the risk of understating conflicts between theoretical perspectives, but always in an impeccably dialogic and well-informed way. The essays in the book are always engaging and enlightening, often entertaining and original, more infrequently merely titillating, and very rarely irritating. Rightly classified by the publisher as "cultural studies/anthropology/sociology", the book is accessible to, and deserves to be read by, a wide readership inside and outside of anthropology. For anthropologists, these sharply focused, brief and thought-provoking essays ought to make for perfect bedside reading. Transnational Connections cannot be counted among Ulf Hannerz' major works, but it is a very fine minor work gently pushing the limits of ethnographically grounded inquiry further into the comparative study of global modernity and local modernities.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1996