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Anthropology as Cosmopolitan Study

By , Director, Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies, Concordia University, Montreal
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj
‘Cosmopolitan study’ is that Kantian anthropology of humanity which considers ‘the human’ to exist as a complex singularity over and above proximal categorizations and identifications of nation, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, locale, and so on. Professor Nigel Rapport, Founding Director of Concordia’s Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies, and Canada Research Chair in Globalisation, Citizenship and Justice, examines the concept of cosmopolitanism for ®.

A ‘cosmopolitan’, for Kant, was a citizen of two worlds, polis and cosmos: local community and a 'worldwide community of humankind'. The latter held out the promise of peace among ‘the nations’. 

Ulrich Beck (2002) offers a clear statement of contemporary ‘cosmopolitanism’: at once a manifesto and a prognosis. According to Beck, the human condition can only be understood by treating the global and the local not as polarities but as mutually implicating principles that influence relations and identities across boundaries as well as within them; production, memory, pleasure, anxiety, wherewithal are ‘glocal’ phenomena. An individual’s experiential space, for instance, does not coincide with what is classified either as ‘local’ or as ‘national’. The individual actor is, in Nietzsche’s phrasing, a ‘wandering encyclopaedia’: one who creates, reflects upon, compares, critiques and combines a contradictory array of rationalities and moralities. Competing world-views interpenetrate and are exchanged in an individual life, moment by moment. This continuous negotiation of and with otherness, by way of an individual’s ‘dialogic imagination’, Beck calls 'a cosmopolitan perspective'. On the level of community, ‘cosmopolitanization' entails a quality of social and political life where ‘internal globalization’ makes any seeming collective container of identity --nation, culture, ethnic group, gender, church-- porous and partial. 

Of course, one must beware the ‘cosmopolitan fallacy’ of assuming that apprehending human diversity translates easily or directly into respect or even tolerance, never mind a sense of cosmopolitan responsibility. The cultural-fundamentalist reaction to liberalism and secularism may suggest the opposite to be the case. Certainly, globalization is dialectical and non-linear. It involves centrifugalism at the same time as centripetalism; religious fundamentalism, ethnic nationalism and identity politics as well as ecumenicism and humanism. Notwithstanding, Beck is confident of the possibility of what he calls ‘a higher amorality’: an ironic accepting of difference over and above the final vocabularies and founding principles --reason, God, good, nature-- to which individuals may be at the same time fundamentally attached.

Cosmopolitanism is not to be confused 
with multiculturalism

Cosmopolitanism should not be confused with multiculturalism, then. Multiculturalism urges 'dog, cat and mouse to eat from the same plate' (Mario Vargas Llosa), as if cultures were sub-species, as if individuals were dependent on cultural spheres, and as if cultural ‘homelands’ were sacrosanct, self-sufficient unities of language, land and heritage (e.g. Tully 1995). By contrast, 'cosmopolitanism presupposes individualization' (Beck 2002:37): the individual actor existing beyond particular communitarian arrangements, at liberty to be the author of identity. ‘Cosmopolitan solidarity’ bespeaks sociability and integration (‘aggregation’, better) based on individuality, diversity and irony. 

It was Kant, too, who first formulated ‘anthropology’ as a modern project: a science of humankind. His pupil, Johann Herder, reacted dialectically (and ‘romantically’) against the notion and claimed there was no such thing to know: only Germans and French and so on, humans ensconced in communities of blood and soil. Nevertheless, the ‘enlightened’ notion that humanity comprises a complex singularity --which might be better known, whose lot might be bettered, and whose existence was the guarantor of that very communitarian (cultural) diversity which might obscure the human from surface view-- became paradigmatic both for science and for ethics in the ensuing centuries. 

Ethically, ‘humankind’ embodied an opposition to the ideology of an ancien regime which insisted on essential differences of nature and of worth between patrician and plebian, man and woman, French and German, Christian and Jew. Scientifically, ‘humankind’ embodied a premise and a promise that a knowledge which transcended the despotism of the merely customary, commonsensical and revelatory was an appropriate goal. Even critics of Kantian notions of the ‘thing-iness’ of existence, such as Nietzsche (‘the entire scientific procedure has pursued the task of dissolving everything thing-like (material) into movements’(1994:27)), allowed themselves to dwell in the enlightened belief that human science possessed the capability of illuminating the symbolic construction of the world and, ‘for moments at least lift[ing] us (...) above the whole process [of culture]’ and hence ‘com[ing] to the true essence of the world and knowledge of it’ (1994:24). 

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Our bodies, Our selves?

In Act III, scene I of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596), after a lifetime in the ghetto and the elopement of his daughter with a Christian suitor, Shylock delivers the following monologue:

"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

The recent film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino (2004), brought me back to the text, but a liberal, post-Holocaust reading of Shakespeare’s words is, apparently, not so easy to infer as correct. With Edward I’s expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, very few remained in Shakespeare's time; it is likely that he never met a Jew. 1594 had, however, seen the show-trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez, a Jewish-Spanish Court Physician to Queen Elizabeth, on charges of treason. Anti-Spanish sentiment was rampant in England at the time, and the trial saw an upsurge of anti-Semitism. Also, in 1589, Shakespeare’s rival, Christopher Marlowe, had written The Jew of Malta in which Barabas, a scheming and sinister profiteer, loses his daughter’s affection and poisons the nuns of a convent. What might have been Shakespeare’s intention? To critique Marlowe's anti-Semitic caricature through a humane portrayal of Shylock? Or himself to enjoy the success of complying with contemporary English prejudices? On this latter reading, it is only in terms of lowest common denominators --the body’s base workings (‘organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions’) as opposed to its higher, intellectual faculties-- that the Jew could claim common humanity with the Christian. Jew and Christian meet as animal bodies but only Christian conventions lead the way to transcendent souls. (Through the sacrament of Christian marriage, for instance, the female Jewish body comes to be physically transmogrified into a Gentile one.) 

Besides the ambiguities surrounding Shakespeare’s positioning vis-à-vis (what were to become) Enlightenment versus Romanticism perspectives, it is interesting that the same distinction between animal appetite and moral consciousness was to service the concept of homo duplex that Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (and then a deal of twentieth-century anthropology) deployed in order to characterize the effect of socialisation on identity. ‘We become fully human, moral, social (on occasion individual) only under the influence of the consciences collectives of particular cultural milieux. That which forms the base material of social life and cultural traditions --human bodies-- is overwritten (transmogrified) by the particular social structures, religions, habituses and discourses under whose aegis social life is morally conducted.’

Do humans become human within culture or does 
their humanity transcend cultural particularities?

According to George Stocking (1992:347,361), the discipline of anthropology has been dialectically torn between 'the universalism of “anthropos” and the diversitarianism of “ethnos”' throughout its modern history. Are human beings to be regarded as the same insofar as they all inhabit different cultural worlds or over and against their inhabiting such worlds? Do they become human within culture or does their humanity (consciousness, creativity, individuality, dignity) transcend cultural particularities? For Stocking, despite attempts to synthesise the dialectic, the epistemic divide between ‘enlightened’ and ‘romantic’ assumptions shows no signs of disappearing. 

Critiquing contemporary relativism and identity politics (what he called the ‘inside-out colonialism of Edward Said’), Ernest Gellner took a forthright stand on the issue: ‘we are all human (...). Don't take more specific classifications seriously’ (1993:3). Even between ‘consenting adults’, categorization was a dangerous practice, Gellner quipped, while the ideology of relativism (both cognitive and moral) was tragic nonsense. People ought not to be frozen into social categories. The global diffusion of scientific knowledge permitted liberation from want, and raised the possibility of a global ‘moral decency’ --‘beyond culture’-- so advancing the prospects of ‘mobility, equality and free choice of identity’ (Gellner 1973:72, 1993:3). 

‘Cosmopolitanism’ would appear to me a useful concept for identifying a certain anthropological agenda (ethical, scientific) in relation to the ongoing Enlightenment/Romanticism divide. One does not intend a master-trope or panacea, but the concept is workable for claiming a particular history of inscribing the human and a future project. ‘Cosmopolitan study’ is that Kantian anthropology of humanity which considers ‘the human’ to exist as a complex singularity over and above proximal categorizations and identifications of nation, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, locale, and so on. It encompasses an ontological project --defining the singularly human-- and a methodological project --gaining access to the human-- and a political-cum-moral project --securing the human. 

Globalism makes the singularity of the human more apparent (as well as more violently resented). It makes a communitarian rhetoric of historically determined, collective and coercive cultural identities --and the related claim that individuals who exit such a collectively secured life-world must find themselves ontologically devastated, without social anchor or cognitive guarantee-- more visible as propaganda. The notion that selfhood is constituted by, and forever tied to, particular cultural milieux, particular beliefs and practices, particular histories, habits and discourses, appears as the ideology of those who would lobby for ghetto gates and walls, a cultural apartheid. 

For many --Nietzsche’s ‘wandering encyclopaedias’-- this is offensive. Whether from village Nigeria, Lagos, London or Tel Aviv, Ulf Hannerz attests (1990), ethnography is replete with accounts of a ‘cosmopolitan orientation’: a drive to assert personal autonomy with regard to culture, never surrendering or swearing absolute allegiance to any one. Such cosmopolitanism may be more apparent today because of the proliferation of transnational social networks, but the existence of a ‘cosmopolitan competency’ to ironize communitarian rhetorics of absolutism is not dependent on such networks or a consequence of them. A ‘cosmopolitan ideal’ imbues working-class Jamaican life, Huon Wardle reports (2000), while Pnina Werbner recounts the ‘multiple modalities’ by which a cosmopolitan openness may be exercised and expressed amid the mediations of status and class (1999:23). 

For the cultural fundamentalist, notwithstanding, it is globalism which is offensive. There is resentment against a cosmopolitan orientation which would cast doubt on absolutist notions of communitarian belonging and traditional truths, and set the individual free to engage ironically with culture. And here we revisit liberalism’s longstanding issue with the illiberal: how to treat claims that would threaten the conditions of irony and of freedom, refusing to see communities and traditions as matters of individual achievement and of ongoing human creation. The latter formulation is, however, crucial. 

Anthropology as cosmopolitan study therefore pursues three pedagogic and political ends. First is the recognition that the constituent units of humanity are individual actors --energetic, self-conscious, intentioning-- not collectivities, their discourses and symbolic classifications. The variable nature of cultural ideologies of personhood --dividualism, individualism, homo duplex-- should not obscure individuality as a human universal. Second is the necessity of distinguishing particular manifestations of cultural traditions from the transcendent capacities of individuals (together and apart) to live and change those traditions. Cultural traditions, ideologies and communities should not be conflated with, or be accorded equivalent respect to, the concrete lives of individual actors who embody those traditions and communities at particular times --and who may (and should have the right to) pursue alternative habituses. Third is the securing of those legal conditions where individuals have a right to their own ideologies (religion, rhetoric, culture, symbology) qua ideology, freely and continually chosen --Gellner’s ‘consenting adults’-- but do not have the right to impose this as truth on others who do not choose to belong, or would now choose differently. 

Iris Murdoch would define 'goodness' in a moral society as abstaining from visiting one's desires upon others so that they may come into their own. Anthropology as cosmopolitan study recognises individuals as possessing an ‘existential’ power to construe their lives as their own projects (Rapport 2003). It aspires to that global moral environment where more and more might know their lives as their own achievement --continually preferred and possibly exchanged-- not an ascription. 


Beck, U. 2002 'The Cosmopolitan Society and its Enemies', Theory, Culture and Society 19(1-2): 17-44. 

Gellner, E. 1973 Cause and Meaning in the Social Sciences, London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul. 

----   1993 'The mightier pen? Edward Said and the double standards of
inside-out colonialism', Times Literary Supplement February 19: 3-4. 

Hannerz, U. 1990 'Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture', Theory,
Culture and Society 7(2-3): 237-51. 

Nietzsche, F. 1994[1878] Human, All Too Human, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

Rapport, N. 2003 I am Dynamite: An Alternative Anthropology of Power,
London and New York: Routledge. 

Stocking, G. 1992 The Ethnographer's Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 

Tully, J. 1995 Strange Multiplicity, Cambridge: Cambridge University

Wardle, H. 2000 An Ethnography of Cosmopolitanism in Kingston, Jamaica, Lampeter: Mellen. 

Werbner, P. 1999 ‘Global Pathways: Working-Class Cosmopolitans and the Creation of Transnational Ethnic Worlds’, Social Anthropology 7(1): 17- 35.

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