Engaging Globalization's DifferenceSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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We often think about extending connectivity when we consider globalization's challenge to universities. Some information revolutionaries have even suggested that electronically mediated distance learning could erase the difference between downtown and down under, at least when learning is asynchronous and English is the lingua franca. With that vision, the principal global engagement rests in overcoming the barriers to technologically mediated ties that enable us to reach unprecedented educational markets. But if we are not careful, the seduction of seamless scholarly connectivity could also lead us to overlook the challenge of difference produced by globalization itself.
This point was brought home to me when I attended the final meeting of Debasish Dutta's course on global design in the College of Engineering last fall. I had the pleasure of speaking with students from Seoul National University in South Korea and the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, who after months of interacting in simultaneous video connection gathered together in Ann Arbor at semester's end to solidify their virtual collaborations. Although I didn't conduct any systematic ethnography, I was struck by how cultural differences were both present, and absent, in their sense of the collaboration.
As part of their assignment, the students focused on how to design a coffee pot that would successfully manage different tastes. For example, Korea had to have a pot that would brew coffee instantly, while European and American tastes were stimulated with a slower roast.But one Norwegian student from Delft wondered about the overall goal itself. She asked whether the aim shouldn't be to design a pot that helped to express and refine local tastes, rather than design merely to accommodate them. Globalization of course produces a powerful incentive to homogenize, in what George Ritzer has called "MacDonaldization," but it also leads people to recognize their distinctions. Who wouldn't, after all, appreciate the difference between Rocquefort cheese and its nominal kin on the Big Mac? But the challenge of difference can go well beyond a matter of taste, and can become especially powerful when aesthetics and authority combine. This point is evident in Roberta Nerison-Low's contribution to this issue, summarizing the symposium "Art Treasures and Social Transitions."
In comparison to the virtual world, where mutual learning appears instantaneous and decentralized, in the art world the location of expertise was long grounded in the imperial center. The core's libraries and museums felt it not only their privilege, but also their responsibility to retrieve from particular locales art and scholarly treasures that were part of a global patrimony. But over the last century, a great deal of scholarly sense has recognized the importance of knowing treasures in their contexts. The revolution in information technology may have made the visual reproduction and preservation of these ancient manuscripts and artifacts more secure and widely available, but the debates over these treasures also offers terrific insights about the challenge of difference in globalization.
Extraordinary cultural treasures have enormous but consequentially different values. Those who would prize them for their autonomous aesthetics or especially for their commercial value can clash fundamentally with those who focus on their analytical implications. This contradiction is especially challenging in the wake of war. Zainab Baharani (a symposium participant) described how traders brought Mesopotamian antiquities from Iraq into the art world with misleading origins so as to avoid the embargo on Iraqi goods issued in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. Under these conditions, in order to analyze an object's meaning, the scholar must not only recognize the aesthetics and materials of ancient empires, but also the ways in which wars, embargos, and markets-both legal and illegal-mark their data. Moreover, those who value cultural objects as part of a global patrimony are often at odds with those who would identify them with, and sometimes against, their particular heritage. The world's response to the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist art in Afghanistan is an extraordinary example of this difference, but this kind of conflict also leads us into a broader consideration of the ways in which particular groups are implicated in the global community's own sense of itself. Here, research at the University of Michigan concerning the Yanomami becomes particularly illustrative.
Over the past year, Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado has consumed some parts of the academy, especially at the U-M. This popular text, or at least earlier galley versions of it, challenged not only the scholarly but ethical integrity of two researchers associated with the University of Michigan, the now deceased James Neel and the alumnus Napoleon Chagnon. An email by Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel to the American Anthropological Association wound up being forwarded across the world with additional distressing charges. Others responded by critiquing the charges as well as anthropology's own "culture wars." To an extraordinary degree, although the original charges focused on the harmful effects of American researchers on the Yanomami in Brazil and Venezuela, the debate quickly shifted into a discourse on the American Anthropological Association's ethical standards, and the research integrity of American researchers. In the fury that this debate has ignited, one could easily overlook those beyond America.
During one of a series of workshops organized by Fernando Coronil, Alcida Ramos from the University of Brasilia and Brazil's NGO Pro-Yanomami Commission made quite a powerful, and unsettling, point. Brazilian anthropologists and activists had long ago articulated many of Tierney's criticisms of Chagnon, but they had been overlooked not only by American media, but also by American anthropologists. Even in a discipline so attuned to the discussion of the human condition and cultural variation as anthropology, its recognition of global difference can sometimes pale before the preoccupations of the American academy.
However, while Ramos apparently "sided" with Chagnon's critics in her own charge of American academic ethnocentrism, she also shifted ground in her consideration of Neel. He was not just there to document, she said. He also helped provide vaccines to those in the middle of epidemics, an intervention beyond the scope of the American Anthropological Association's code of ethics. Of course Neel's work is not without its critics, but his example is useful to consider alongside a newly important dimension of academic globalization.
Over the past year, students in professional schools have become increasingly global in their reference and in their public engagements. Over the 2001 spring break, students from the Ford School for Public Policy went to the Czech Republic while other students from the Ford School and some from the Business School went to Cuba to examine different dimensions of national and global public policy. Students from the School of Public Health and the School of Social Work went to El Salvador to contribute to post-earthquake disaster relief. These student-driven initiatives represent a powerful resource that universities have at their disposal. This idealism and global commitment can be channeled to bring the world's different conditions into the heart of the University's scholarship, teaching and public service. But we must do more than fund their initiative. We must also consider the ways in which the institution itself might be reconfigured to bring the challenges of the world, and the capacities of the University, together. The legacy of Fred Cuny suggests one such example.
Fred Cuny was the world's leading emergency relief expert. He worked in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war, in what is now Bangladesh after typhoons, in Central America after earthquakes, among the Kurds in the wake of the Iraqi War; and in Somalia, Bosnia, and Chechnya among other places. He reached out to communities in dire need after disasters both natural and manmade. He is famous, for example, for redefining the refugee camp, so that it would not only meet basic safety and health needs, but also reflect and support the dispossessed communities it was designed to serve. He disappeared in Chechnya in 1995 while on a mission for the Open Society Institute to provide disaster relief in the middle of the first post-Soviet Russian war with Chechnya. In his memory, and in recognition of what Cuny did to save Sarajevo from capitulation to military siege in 1993, Robert J. Donia has provided start-up funds for the Fred Cuny Fellowship Program in Southeast European Studies. As part of a public inauguration of this doctoral fellowship program, members of Cuny's family and several of his friends, including Open Society Institute President Aryeh Neier, came to the University of Michigan in March to consider what Fred Cuny's example might suggest for a university with a commitment to public service like ours.
Neier described Cuny's brilliance in bringing together two streams of global engagement typically at a distance, humanitarianism and human rights. The former, seeking to relieve the suffering of communities in distress, is often obliged to work with governments and authorities on terms not of their own choosing. Human rights movements, by contrast, typically seek to maintain their independence from authorities in order to identify the violations often made by those very powers. Cuny transcended that difference, meeting the needs of communities in real distress, but in ways that would subsequently allow those very communities to have a greater chance of extending their rights. But this innovation depended on bridging streams of global engagement as well as combining competencies not typically joined. Not only did Cuny bring professional skills in engineering and planning together, but he also had to embed these transnational forms of expertise in an understanding of local politics and differences not always apparent to those who assume global leadership.
Cuny's example thus provides an important lesson for the University's global engagement. After a week abroad, students can recognize more clearly than ever that insight and especially assistance don't land easily by parachute. They find local politics and cross national differences to be more complex than they anticipate, and rarely the confirmation of their expectations. But this experience is not peculiar to them. Even for those dedicated to understanding local contexts, transnational contentions over ownership of antiquities and academic responsibility suggest another layer of complexity in the University's global engagement.
In this light, one might even return to the information revolution and consider not only how changes in bandwidth can lead to new degrees of global connectivity and identification with others. We might also consider how the new technologies' compression of time and space expresses the differences that globalization itself produces. One leading theorist is pessimistic, finding that the openness of early electronic space is being replaced by a Net focussed less on public goods than on power's interests. But the University's globalization and information revolution can be different. Instead of reflecting MacDonaldization, the university might channel its own course of globalization. Much like the coffee pot that refines local tastes, we might think of our global connections as opportunities to expand our own recognition of diversity. And as we engage those differences, we might also be reminded about the terms in which our identification with the world are set, both through the internet and on the other side of the digital divide.