The Emerging Worlds Initiative

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas of progress and modernization both created the concept of culture and relegated it to a nostalgic role as backward-looking sentiment. Anthropologists of all the subfields studied “vanishing worlds.” In the last thirty years, however, such certainties have been challenged. Grand theories of human behavior that depended on the idea of a universal man have begun to fray around the edges. Heterogeneity, disjuncture, and surprising articulations of difference jump to our attention, calling out for ethnographic investigation. In this context, scholarly discussions have turned toward culture defined not as “tradition,” but as the world-making networks, geographies, innovations, meanings, and assemblages that are carrying us into the future. Our proposed program in “Emerging Worlds” takes advantage of this moment of revitalization to articulate the shape of a new disciplinary paradigm.

Across the social sciences, scholars are responding to emergent scientific and social dilemmas by turning to the concept of culture and the diverse methods anthropologists employ. In psychology, the study of non-Western people has drawn attention to anthropological tools. In political science, the “perestroika” movement re-introduced ethnography and comparative area studies. In sociology, anthropological theory has gained new traction. Anthropological concepts and approaches have been taken up in the humanities and the arts as well. Such disciplinary turns grow from a challenging new set of social configurations that affect both scholarly and lay understandings of the present, past, and future: the demise of certainties about progress and modernization.

Consider the problem of “globalization.” In the early 1990s, the term carried hopes for a singularly transformed world: Once-isolated nations would become circuits of global connection. As the decade progressed, critics emerged from every side, leaving the concept in tatters. The clearest perspective, perhaps, came from anthropologists immersed in long histories and broad geographies: Contemporary global encounters carve one channel in a long history of multiple, overlapping, partial globalizations, from the Silk Road to the Muslim diaspora. This perspective illuminates the past as well as current contests over the shape of history (Christian, secular, or Muslim?) and the making of regional distinctions. 

Whatever the scale of study (global, regional, or local; everyday life, historical, or longue durée), and whatever the unit of study (landscape, material assemblage, network, commodity chain, performance, artistic genre, food practice, memory, mind, gossip, sexuality, scientific lab, NGO, religious idiom or practice, social movement or encounter, race, diaspora, nation, community, tribe, or evolutionary niche), UCSC archeologists and cultural and physical anthropologists explore, analyze, interpret, and write about emerging worlds, not vanishing cultures. Under the rubric “culture and power,” our program during its first fifteen years pioneered new forms of ethnography, re-theorized the object of anthropological inquiry to comprehend power, inequality, heterogeneity, contingency, and continuous change, and engaged conceptual innovations within and beyond the discipline. With our new programmatic focus, “emerging worlds,” we will carry this work forward and forcefully articulate anthropology’s distinctive commitment to the study of world-making practices, past, present, and future.