Global Ethnography

Book Review

Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World
review by Heidi Anderson

The prose in Michael Burawoy’s introduction to Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World is so smooth that it slid right past my comprehension, not to mention my interest. Fortunately, the book has nine authors besides Burawoy.

An “ethnography,” for the uninitated, is an anthropological study in which the ethnographer lives and works with a small group of people in order to study their culture from the inside out. Ethnographers have a complex identity as biographers, foreign exchange students, and political activists. They also remain in close contact with their fellow anthropologists via e-mail—the book is dedicated to “Eudora.”

Overall, the book is organized as a set of nine ethnographies, three in each of three categories. The ethnographies present thought-provoking snapshots of life at the end of the millennium, concentrating on the effect of globalization on local communities. The quickening pace of communication and accelerating flow of ideas is restructuring capital around the world. As insulating institutions—welfare states, labor unions, cultural safeguards—crumble in response to global pressures, people are forced to adapt their lives to a new order. Those dependent on the old infrastructure are left stranded, while the rest must learn to play out their ancient struggles and age old conflicts against a modern global backdrop.

Global Ethnography makes no secret of its socialist slant. The picture on its front cover shows a Seattle World Trade Organization protester in the rain, facing down an army of faceless policemen. The book devotes a lot of its energy to wailing about the “neoliberalism” which has replaced the New Deal, “tax and spend,” and unionist movements of the past. Unfortunately, politics obscure the real meat of the book. Nevertheless, two stories in particular caught my attention.

The first, written by Teresa Gowan, is a collection of biographies of homeless men who push recycling carts through San Francisco and Berkeley. Lost relics of better times, they testify that hard work is not all that it takes. Gowan brings them to life, showing that these men were once blue-collar workers with jobs, homes, even families—but not the resources to rebound after several strokes of disaster. Meanwhile, the changing economy has transformed the world around them. As the military reduces its role as a mass employer for unskilled workers, a rising prison industry rushes in to fill the vacuum. This, coupled with the impossible rents and information economy of the Bay Area in the 90’s, leaves these fallen workers with nowhere to turn. They are left with only a work ethic to march them from can to bottle to recycling center in search of professional dignity.

My favorite ethnography is Sheba George’s portrait of female Christian nurses from Kerala, India who are now living with their families in the United States. Nursing in Kerala is seen as a “dirty” occupation for women, partly because it involves touching unknown men. It is a well-paid occupation, however, and a current worldwide shortage of nurses makes it relatively easy for them to emigrate, bringing their families with them. Their husbands are caught in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, a working wife brings certain economic benefits. On the other, she breaks all conventions of the man being the breadwinner and unquestioned head of the household. Many of these men once held respected professional jobs in India, but are now relegated to laboring in blue-collar jobs, looking after the kids, and cleaning the house. To bolster their self esteem, they take on leadership positions in church–going as far as to set up a new congregation if necessary. But in this way they further stigmatize themselves, because it is only the husbands of nurses who join church committees, and they are accused of “playing” while their wives work.

There is no clear, satisfying outcome to any of the ethnographies, and so it is not surprising that the concluding section of the book, while wordy, is not particularly convincing. Despite sweeping declarations such as “our grounded globalizations are the antidote to skeptics without context, radicals without history, and perspectivalists without theory,” the conclusion will probably have lost its relevance fifty years from now. Historians of the future may very well skim the academic comments to get at the ethnographies themselves. Which is, incidentally, my advice for the contemporary reader.

Heidi Anderson