Anthropologists to study humanity’s biggest crises

A new research project looks at how some of our world’s most serious crises are interconnected and what can be done about them. “It is about time that anthropology begins to address the large issues confronting humanity”, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: It is crucial to understand the contemporary world as a whole, and not just a segment of it, in order to begin to deal with its challenges. Photo: private

Eriksen is Principal Investigator for Overheating: An anthropological history of the early 21st century or The Three Crises of Globalisation. The EU-funded research program at the Institute for Social Anthropology (SAI) at the University of Oslo has just started up.

Together with his team of currently six anthropologists he will explore the ways in which the three major crises of globalisation are perceived and responded to in a variety of localities worldwide and among different groups in society. The three crises are related to (1) economy-finance (2) culture-identity, and (3) climate-environment.

The researchers will do fieldwork in localities ranging from the sub-Arctic to tropical deserts and among groups ranging from the poor via the activist segment to the rich and political decision-makers. They will also try to find answers to questions like “Who is responsible for the crises?” and “What interests are at stake?”

These crises are - this is a basic premise of the project - interconnected and cannot be studied separately from each other as this usually is the case.

– It is crucial to understand the contemporary world as a whole, and not just a segment of it, in order to begin to deal with its contradictions and challenges, Eriksen explains.

To make anthropology a major partner in the conversation about the state of the world

By comparing findings from their fieldwork around the world, and by linking up with other kinds of research, the researchers aim at “developing an original and alternative perspective on globalisation, and to produce knowledge which can be used to make a difference”.

– One main goal is to try to make anthropology a major partner in the ongoing intellectual conversation about the state of the world. It is required of us today to make our small ethnographies speak to larger issues.

These fundamental questions have so far not been combined in an interdisciplinary research project grounded in ethnographic methods, Eriksen stresses:

– Although a vast amount of literature on globalisation exists, no satisfactory body of work synthesising global perspectives with the anthropological emphasis on seeing the world from distinctly local vantage points exists yet.

– There are many useful overviews by scholars like Castells, David Harvey, David Held and John Urry, but they tend to be weak as regards local variations. Financial bubbles for example burst and create unemployment in South Korea as well as in Greece, but local understandings and reactions differ. It is precisely this knowledge gap that the present project aims to fill, Eriksen says.

– One of my favourite books is Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History (1982), a history of colonialism seen from the perspective of the colonised peoples. Wolf indicated how a global anthropology is possible and demonstrated the virtues of the anthropological approach, where the empirical locus is on local lifeworlds, which are then interweaved with the large-scale processes of global capitalism and colonial expansion. My ambition is to do to the early 21st century what Wolf did to the colonial period.

– In order to do this, we need to leave the cocoon of locally-based anthropology, learn from historians, economists and political scientists, and connect our high-octane ethnography to other bodies of knowledge that is not based on first-hand observation or conversations. In the case of globalisation this has to mean integrating ethnography with cultural history and macrosociology.

– This must be your most ambitious project so far - both in terms of scope of the project (“large questions”) and methodologically as well?

– Definitely. But in a certain sense, it has been in the making for a very long time. I have studied local reactions to global processes for many years, whether on ethnicity in the Caribbean or postmodern identity politics in Europe; and it occurred to me some years ago that it would be possible to build a global history of the early 21st century with some of my earlier work as a point of departure.

The connections between racism, economic uncertainty and environmental deterioration

– Why did you call the project Overheating?

– Heating and in particular overheating capture both the Zeitgeist and observable realities witnessed in climate change, in the depletion of natural resources, the growth of slums and intensified tensions and clashes between different cultural groups, whether due to international migration or domestic economic rearrangements. It calls attention to accelerated change and a heightened level of activity.

– How are the three crises of globalization  interconnected?

– Partly they are conceptually interconnected because “overheating” metaphors are being used about all three crises; financial markets are “melting down and need cooling”, identities are “hot” or “hot-headed”, and the climate is also heating up. Generally, the feeling is that since things have gone global, they are out of control.

– Some connections are obvious. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda cannot be understood without knowledge of colonial and postcolonial identity politics, economic stagnation and environmental deprivation owing to rapid population growth.

– Xenophobic tendencies tend to be boosted by economic uncertainty. The mobility of people, leading to new frictions in the realm of culture and identity, is directly connected to environmental deterioration as well as economic processes (deregulated neoliberal capitalism, inequality, poverty etc).

– It could be said that all three crises represent crises of reproduction. People everywhere feel that they are unable to continue living their lives the way they would prefer to. The World Social Forums, which bring together a motley crew of trade unionists, indigenous organisations, environmental activists, students and so on from around the world, indicate that what you could call the neoliberal hegemony is identified as an obstacle to the good life. The uprisings in the Arab speaking world and the Occupy Movement, although they are in some ways quite different from each other, are similarly reactions to, broadly speaking, a crisis of reproduction.

– Is Norway one of the countries that will be studied?

– Not initially, but we have projects in Australia and Canada which can shed light indirectly on Norway; both are located at sites where extractive capitalism (mining in Australia, tar sand in Canada) creates a series of dilemmas and conflicts concerning both identity, the economy and the environment in ways in which could be compared to Norway.

– However, we are keen to include a project based in Scandinavia. I would not rule out that Norway is a relevant candidate here, with its increasing polarisation around issues of identity, its reliance on fossil fuel exports and the traditionally strong, positive relationship to nature among Norwegians.

"Understanding the world is necessary in order to change it"

– Why should people without university degree be interested in the Overheating project?

– Because, as Marx famously said, understanding the world is necessary in order to change it. This is a basic research project, but it has many obvious applications. Our aim is not to produce new terminologies or to say things in unnecessarily complicated ways. On the contrary, we want to be accessible and oriented towards dialogue inside and outside of the academy.

– What are you especially looking forward to or excited about?

– Seeing how far we can integrate different methodologies and, to some extent, different disciplines in a common intellectual endeavour. We cannot rely entirely on ethnographic methods, but they remain essential; after all, one of our aims is to demonstrate the shortcomings of the standard literature on globalisation by offering a superior account.

– Also, I’m excited about doing simultaneous fieldwork and coordinating our efforts as we go along, which we plan to do. Finally, I’m curious to see to what extent our research will make sense to the people we do fieldwork with.

– Can you tell us about your own project, in the Caribbean it seems? Back to your roots?

– Well, actually, it turns out that I’m going to Australia instead, but that wasn’t decided until I knew who else would be in the project. Since we have two projects in the Americas now - Peru and Canada - I decided to go somewhere else for the sake of geographic diversity.

– So I’ll be going, it seems, to the Dampier peninsula in remote north-western Australia, an area with expanding mining operations, a fragile ecosystem, a complex situation regarding aboriginal groups in the area, and a very vocal tourist lobby as well as a well organised environmental movement. Seems overheated enough in most senses of the term; when I last checked, they were organising a demonstration against a planned gas hub on the peninsula; and the temperature was forty degrees in Broome. 

"One of the last resorts for truly free, inquisitive research"

– Some fun facts about being funded by EU?

– The ERC Advanced Grant is a great institution, one of the last resorts for truly free, inquisitive research with no strings attached. The application process is unbureaucratic, there are no requirements regarding network building or international collaboration, and I’ve been able to hire the people I wanted the most. I have been given to understand that other EU funded projects function in very different ways.

– Last words to the readers in front of the screen?

– Actually, yes. Being able to work on the Overheating project for five years is a fantastic privilege, the opportunity of a lifetime. I can only hope that we will be able to contribute something meaningful to the world, and not just to anthropology, as we proceed. 



Thomas Hylland Eriksen: The need for anthropology and the three crises of globalisation (Keynote, Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) annual conference, Brisbane, 26 September 2012) (pdf)

Short descriptions of all the projects


By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published Feb. 4, 2013 4:48 PM - Last modified Sep. 17, 2020 12:16 PM