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Review of International Studies (2002), 28, 199207 Copyright British International Studies Association

Reading the state from elsewhere: towards


an anthropology of the postnational
P E T E R M A N DAV I L L E

My aim in this review article is to advance the argument that some of the best
accounts of how we relate internationally are to be found outside the conventional
boundaries of international relations (IR). In a recent review article in this journal,
Kate Manzo also suggests that international relations might profit from a closer
engagement with examples of disciplinary boundary crossing located inor,
perhaps more accurately, betweenother fields of study.1 She advocates a widening
of the international imagination so as to incorporate categories of analysis and
approaches to the study of power usually seen as falling outside the remit of IR as it
is traditionally understood. It is, of course, the very nature of this traditional IR
that finds itself under question today. Manzo convincingly demonstrates how the
work of writers such as Roxanne Lynn Doty and Arturo Escobar refigures debates
about colonialism, race and development such that their intrinsic import to the
international is laid bare.2 Although I find myself in almost complete agreement
with Manzoparticularly as regards her point about mainstream IRs neglect of
other sites and forms of powerI want in this article to highlight a different,
although equally subversive, dimension of doing multidisciplinary work in
international relations. Where Manzos essay points to some of the ways in which
work outside IR contributes to previously ignored categories of analysis, I want to
suggest that increasingly today these other literaturesparticularly anthropology
but also postcolonial studiesactually have very important things to say about IR
theorys standard cast of conceptual characters (for example, the state, order,
transnationalism).3 By placing the insights of anthropological work in juxtaposition
with IR theory, I argue, the tensions and contradictions inherent in conventional
understandings of the territorially-bounded state begin to emerge. Furthermore, the
bottom-up lens deployed by this field of study reveals the multiplicity and creativity
of political practice in locations and spaces outside the remit of traditional IR, and
in this sense also helps us to better understand the possibilities contained within a
richer appreciation of the political.
1

Kate Manzo, The International Imagination: Themes and Arguments in International Studies,
Review of International Studies, 25 (1999), pp. 493506.
Roxanne Lynn Doty, Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations
(Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Arturo Escobar, Encountering
Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1995).
In this article I will focus only on the contributions of anthropology. Some possibilities for dialogue
between postcolonial studies and international relations have, however, been explored by Phillip
Darby in his The Fiction of Imperialism: Reading Between International Relations and Postcolonialism
(London: Cassell, 1998).

199

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Peter Mandaville

In the interests of brevity I will confine my comments to an examination of one


central category of IR theory, the nation-state. I begin by explaining how anthropologys approach to its subject matter and, more specifically, the state, has evolved
over the past decade from a relatively static conception of culture, identity and
political practice to the richer, more fluid characterizations that mark critical
anthropology today. My argument here, in short, is that writers of IR also need
to understand themselves as situated observers within a (continually moving)
field. Second, I then go on to show how the more recent critical literature in
anthropologyparticularly the work of Arjun Appaduraioffers us some possible
routes for thinking international relations (and, concomitantly, the meaning of
political practice) beyond the nation-state and towards a postnational politics. I
want to make clear at the outset that I am not in any way claiming that IR theory
has never questioned the terms and limits of its own discourse. Indeed, over the last
decade critical international theory has offered a series of important critiques which
challenge the assumptions underpinning IRs conventional categories of analysis.4
Rather, I am arguing that transnational anthropologywith its different starting
point, conceptual lens and orientation to the politicalis in a position to offer
unique insights that even critical IR theory (often burdened with the need to
deconstruct the canonical dogma of the discipline) misses.

The anthropology of relating internationally


As the nature of world politics changes, so the disciplinary components of the social
sciences also adjust themselves. Nowhere have these transformations been more
dramaticand, I would argue, more productivethan in the field of anthropology.
Over the last ten or fifteen years the literature(s) of this discipline have been witnessing an intense diversification of their investigative remit. We find, for example,
that the anthropological world is now concerned to take account of an everwidening array of peoples, places, processes and things. This shift comes not only
from changes in the social world, but is also linked to a greater epistemological
sophistication in the field of anthropologyparticularly the posing of new
questions about what it means to be, quite literally, in the field. There seems now to
be a wider vision as to what counts as anthropological knowledge, and also a greater
sense of self-reflexivity in the discipline. Drawing on critical and post-structuralist
thought, a number of anthropologists have recently embarked on projects which
seek to problematize the self/other and subject/object distinctions which have
traditionally served as the disciplines ordering principles. Anthropology has long
been concerned with writing difference; that is, of constructing the borders that
separate an observing (and somehow universal) we from a they dwelling in a
particular, local place distant from us in both time and space.
4

See, for example, James Der Derian and Michael Shapiro (eds.), International/Intertextual Relations:
Postmodern Readings of World Politics (New York: Lexington Books, 1989); R.B.J. Walker,
Inside/outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 1993); Michael J. Shapiro and Hayward R. Alker (eds.), Challenging Boundaries (Minneapolis
and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). For a recent example of critical IR drawing on
the Frankfurt School tradition, see Andrew Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community
(Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1998).

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201

It is particularly interesting in this regard to note that the relationship between


anthropology and the state possesses a special pedigree. Edward Said, among others,
has argued that the origins of the anthropological enterprise were intimately
connected with the maintenance of colonial apparatuses.5 Anthropological knowledge
is in this sense representative of a Foucaultian power/knowledge equation in which a
colonizing state provides patronage for those academic activities which produce forms
of knowledge conducive to the subjugation and control of colonized peoples. Even
after decolonization, the argument goes, the methodologies and categories of
anthropology continued to bear the traces of their colonial origins. It is therefore not
surprising to find that some of the most hard-hitting attacks on classical anthropology
come from the environs of postcolonial studies, particularly from those influenced by
the many and various forms of critical theory. Aside from these important epistemological critiques, there is also a somewhat more organic logic behind the
contemporary transformation of the field. Anthropology, as an official discipline,
writes Michael Kearney, is a constituent of the state, and as the boundaries and
construction of the nation-state change so should we expect to find a restructuring of
anthropology as a scientific field.6 Peoples and cultures are spilling over state borders,
and in the process of doing so reconstruct anthropological borders. Locales, as
anthropological sites, have become problematic. It has become increasingly difficult
if indeed it was ever possibleto study them as isolated, bounded spaces: people are
on the move and therefore anthropology must become mobile. In this sense
international relations is becoming a way of life rather than a form of state science.
Traditionally, instances of interaction between anthropology and international
relations have been far and few between. This can be explained to a large extent by
the ways in which these disciplines have been represented. International relations is
supposedly concerned with the lofty heights and intrigues of intergovernmental
forums, that is with various forms of important high politics. Classical anthropology, on the other hand, has functioned to provide us with academic accounts of
strange and exotic peoples living in far-away villagesplaces which are somehow
without politics, where instead we find only kin-groups, rites of passage, and violent
rituals. There is, however, actually a great deal of discursive overlap between
anthropology and international relations in that they are both fields whose more
traditional variants specialize in the construction of othersexotic cultures in one
case, and enemies of the nation-state in the other. As Kearney notes:
Among the official academic disciplines anthropology is unusual in the degree to which it has
been assigned responsibility for articulating differentiation, and thus engaging in the
intellectual/symbolic reproduction of differentiation, on a global scale, with respect to less
developed peoples as compared with us.7

This statement also functions as a remarkably accurate description of what goes on


in much of international relations. There is a striking resemblance, for example,
between the traditional anthropological categories of home and field and IRs
construction of domestic and foreign. Fieldwork (or the diplomatic mission), for
example, allows us to venture forth and gain information about them.
5
6

Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1995).


Michael Kearney, Borders and Boundaries of State and Self at the End of Empire, Journal of
Historical Sociology, 4 (1991), p. 53.
Kearney, Borders and Boundaries, p. 64.

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Peter Mandaville

Yet there are those who argue, and I would tend to agree, that in certain contexts
anthropology is particularly well-placed to undertake political analysis, functioning
as it does with a more holistic understanding of what and where the political might
be located. One of the few writers to encourage dialogue between anthropology and
IR, Dale Eickelman, notes that:
[a]nthropologists have a notion of politics more applicable to many Third World situations
than those disciplines that identify the political primarily with formal institutions. One
strength of anthropology is that the discipline is attuned to discerning the political voices and
roles of social actors less talkative than the elite, even if their significance is denied,
ignored, or suppressed by the state elite or by political leaders. Anthropologists take seriously
the views of the non-elite on politics, economic development, state authority, nation, and
religion and how these are perceived in the context of ordinary lives and implicitly limit what
political leaders can successfully propose and accomplish.8

He goes on to emphasize that official policymaking circles prefer to consume forms


of knowledge which have been produced as clearly defined, unambiguous facts
even in situations where information is sparse. This is an environment in which the
overriding imperative is to know in order to control. But, of course, brief reports
are not always sufficient for thinking the unthinkable or challenging accepted ways
of doing things.9 Ambiguity and the need to interpret is to be avoided at all costs.
Anthropology is hence useful only in so much as it can provide information about
the Other, but loses all utility as soon as it asks us to consider the Other.
Eickelman offers some strong criticisms of the ways in which foreign policy
makers go about constructing the objects of their policies, but his programme for
the incorporation of anthropological perspectives into IR does not go nearly far
enough. To some extent we can put this down to the late Cold War context in which
he was writing. For example, he suggests that anthropology provides a superior
analysis of political dynamics in a country such as Oman. He notes that this is one
of the few states in which a traditional regime successfully countered a Communist
insurgency and regained popular support. What jars slightly today, however, is his
assertion that for this reason alone the country merits further inquiry.10 Eickelmans
account of anthropology and IR also does not touch on the question of how the
two disciplines should respond to the rapid increase in globalizing and transnational
processes. He does not encourage a widening of his own discipline, nor is he
sufficiently vocal about the need for a shift of emphasis in international relations.
His preference seems to be more for the application of anthropological methods to
the categories and spaces of traditional IR (in short, add anthropology and stir).
Although mainstream IR today has not moved substantially beyond the orientation articulated above, anthropology has, fortunately, started to incorporate greater
self-reflexivity in its discourse on culture, identity and the state. The seminal book in
this regard is undoubtedly James Clifford and George Marcuss edited volume
Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. This project drew together

9
10

Dale F. Eickelman, Anthropology and International Relations, in Walter Goldschmidt (ed.),


Anthropology and Public Policy: A Dialogue (Washington, DC: American Anthropological
Association, 1986), p. 35.
Eickelman, Anthropology and International Relations, p. 40.
Ibid., p. 37. Perhaps Eickelmans emphasis on Omans communist fighting prowess also had
something to do with the books intended audiencepresumably US State Department policymakers.

Reading the state from elsewhere

203

a number of anthropologists (and commentators on ethnography) who for several


years had been experimenting with critical and intertextual methodologies in their
own work. The essays in Writing Culture see culture as composed of seriously
contested codes and representations; they assume that the poetic and the political
are inseparable, that science is in, not above, historical and linguistic processes.11
The book seeks to problematize the ways in which peoples are represented through
ethnographic activity. The anthropologist is deprived of his Archimedian privilege
and resituated as an active agent (rather than a passive observer) in the construction
of peoples and cultures.
There is no longer any place overview (mountaintop) from which to map human ways of life.
Mountains are in constant motion. So are islands: for one cannot occupy, unambiguously,
a bounded cultural world from which to journey out and analyze other cultures. Human ways
of life increasingly influence, dominate, parody, translate, and subvert one another. Cultural
analysis is always enmeshed in global movements of difference and power. How [then] can
ethnographyat home or abroaddefine its object of study in ways that permit detailed, local,
contextual analysis and simultaneously the portrayal of global implicating forces?12

I take this to be one of the central problems of sociopolitical inquiry at the present
time, one that is central to IR and which anthropologyI hope to showcan help
us to illuminate. How can we understand the ways in which particular social and
political practices stretch and reshape themselves over distances? What happens
to culture when it travels? I want to argue that a richer appreciation of these
phenomena can be gained by adopting what we might call an epistemology of
unboundedness. A number of writers in transnational anthropology have already
begun to deploy this mode. But what does this approach have to offer? Can
international relations travel along some of the same routes? I want to go on now to
highlight some of the ways in which a transnational anthropology, by shifting
discourse away from international or global processes and looking instead at
translocal forms of political life, is better placed to provide us with effective ways of
thinking about a world marked by profound sociocultural transformation.13

Translocal anthropology and postnational forms of life


I mentioned earlier that critical approaches to anthropology have contributed to our
understanding of the translocal by recognizing the increasing unboundedness of
community. I also want to say something, though, about how anthropology
contributes to this endeavour through its own particular conception of the political.
More traditional anthropologists have not been predisposed to look for politics in
11

12
13

James Clifford, Introduction: Partial Truths, in James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.), Writing
Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986),
p. 2.
Clifford, Introduction: Partial Truths, p. 22.
The notion of translocality is borrowed from Arjun Appadurai. See his Sovereignty Without
Territoriality: Notes for a Postnational Geography, in Patricia Yaeger (ed.), The Geography of
Identity (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996). For an attempt to deploy the notion
of translocality in an IR context, see Peter Mandaville, Territory and Translocality: Discrepant
Idioms of Political Identity, Millennium, 28 (1999), pp. 65373.

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Peter Mandaville

the form of the state. Traditionally, they have seen themselves as working in a social
space well below and far removed from the state. The peoples they have studied
have not been represented as possessing the sorts of political cultures that produce
and sustain state forms. The tendency of anthropologists to constitute the anthropological field as a space devoid of politics and unconnected to wider political
contexts has, however, recently been criticized by those ethnographers working in the
critical genre of Clifford and Marcus Writing Culture. One of the major contributions of the critical turn in anthropology has been to urge anthropologists to
recognize the political in other forms of social life.
Of greatest import to international studies is the way in which critical anthropology reveals the political dimensions of various transnational social forms, some of
which seem to challenge the limits of the political as defined by the modern state.
Michael Kearney, for example, notes the ways in which contemporary transnational
processes blur the social, cultural and epistemological categories of modernity. For
him, transnationalism has two meanings: One is the conventional one having to do
with forms of organization and identity which are not constrained by national
boundaries, such as the transnational corporation. But I also wish to load onto the
term the meaning of transnational as postnational in the sense that history and
anthropology have entered a postnational age.14 He is alluding here to that quality
of transnationalism which I find most promising, but which is also the most difficult
to theorize: the possibility of new forms of postnational politics. It is in this context,
I want to argue, that we should view transnationalism as a space of resistance in that
it allows us to reimagine the boundaries of political community and to question
hegemonic notions of the political. As Basch et al. argue:
[B]y conceptualizing transnationalism, not as flows of items and ideas, but as social relations
constructed by subordinated populations, we may be contributing to social movements that
think beyond what is deemed thinkable. Transnational spaces, overflowing with daily life
experiences that are not congruent with hegemonic boundaries of identification, provide a
terrain for new and different subjectivities and public descriptors.15

It is in this sense that we might begin to think of transnationalism as possessing


certain emancipatory qualities which allow us to move towards a political imaginary
beyond the categories and requirements of the territorial state. The quality of
emancipation derives from being able represent oneself and to be recognized as
speaking with a legitimate voice within public spheres that do not conform to the fixed
boundaries of the state. This is necessary because transnationalism creates forms of
political identity which do not fit the taxonomies of political modernity. Hybridity and
cultural melange often feature heavily in these spaces, and such syncretisms give rise
not only to new postnational forms but also to reformulated understandings of what
and where the nation can be. As I understand it, then, the transnationalor, in my
preferred terms, the translocalis a space in which new forms of (post)national
identity are constituted, and not simply one in which prior identities assert themselves.
Forms of political identity are heavily contingent, and hence the boundaries of our
imagined communities can be shifted through reimagination.
14
15

Kearney, Borders and Boundaries, p. 55.


Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller and Cristina Szanton-Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational
Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States (Amsterdam: Gordon and
Breach, 1994), pp. 2901.

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205

So what happens when these shifts occur? What might a postnational politics look
like, and how can anthropology help us to theorize it? I want to point to the
importance of what Arjun Appadurai calls ethnoscapes in the emergence of postnational political forms. By this term he refers to the landscape of persons who
constitute the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles,
guest workers, and other moving groups and individuals [which] constitute an
essential feature of the world and appear to affect the politics of (and between)
nations to a hitherto unprecedented degree.16 I would go further and argue that
these ethnoscapes do much more than simply affect politics between nations; they
actually constitute forms of politics unto themselves. These postnational politics
question the boundaries of statist political community by giving rise to political
identities disembedded from the context of the territorial nation-state. For
Appadurai a key dynamic in the emergence of postnational politics is to be found in
the relationship between these ethnoscapes and the increasing prevalence of
deterritorializing processes. This is a notion which covers more than the obvious
cases of transnational corporations and capital flows. It also refers to flows of
people and forms of identity which are increasingly capable of transcending the
boundaries of state and territory. Furthermore, the fragmenting qualities of
transnational processes are such that disparities between place and purpose become
features of daily life: For many national citizens, the practicalities of residence and
the ideologies of home, soil and roots are often disjunct, so that the territorial
referents of civic loyalty are increasingly divided for many persons among different
spatial horizons: work loyalties, residential loyalties, and religious loyalties may
create disjunct registers of affiliation.17 In other words, the state becomes relativized: increasingly these days, political life is elsewhere.
Asserting that the hyphen which links nation and state is now less an icon of
conjuncture than an index of disjuncture, Appadurai goes on to examine the ways in
which these disjunctures in the imagination of political community might be seen as a
constitutive aspect of postnational politics. He does so by relating the uncoupling of
nation and state to deterritorialization: One major fact that accounts for the strain in
the union of nation and state is that the nationalist genie, never perfectly contained in
the territorial state, is now itself diasporic [and] is increasingly unrestrained by ideas
of spatial boundary and territorial sovereignty.18 One might be tempted here to
point out the extent to which so many contemporary political movements state their
goals in nationalist terms. Appadurais preference, however, is to read situations such
as those found in Serbia, Sri Lanka, Punjab or Nogorno Karabakh as trojan
nationalisms. He means by this that avowedly nationalist projects such as these are
so heavily permeated with sub-, trans- and even non-national elements as to render it
almost impossible to speak of a nationalism outside transnationalism.19 Territorial
nationalism, he claims, is the alibi of these movements and not necessarily their
basic motive or final goal.20 This point is then further elaborated in connection with
a critique of the limits of our current national imaginaries:
16
17
18

19
20

Basch et al., Nations Unbound, pp. 2901.


Arjun Appadurai, Sovereignty Without Territoriality, p. 47.
Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 1601.
Ibid., p. 165.
Ibid., p. 165.

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Peter Mandaville

Although many antistate movements revolve around images of homeland, soil, place, and
return from exile, these images reflect the poverty of their (and our) political languages rather
than the hegemony of territorial nationalism. Put another way, no idiom has yet emerged to
capture the collective interests of many groups in translocal solidarities, cross-border
mobilizations, and postnational identities. Such interests are many and vocal, but they are still
entrapped in the linguistic imaginary of the territorial state.21

There are thus actually existing social forms and arrangements that might
contain the seeds of more dispersed and diverse forms of transnational allegiance
and affiliation.22 Appadurai argues that there exist formations of finance, recruitment, co-ordination, communication and reproduction that go beyond mere
transnationalism to verge on the truly postnational.23 In this regard he cites the
importance of various Christian, Hindu, and Muslim organizations as examples of
full-service global movements that seek to alleviate suffering across national
boundaries while mobilizing first-order loyalties across state boundaries.24 Rather
than conforming to stereotypified media images of fundamentalism, perhaps these
are more humane motives for affiliation than statehood or party affiliation and
more interesting bases for debate and cross-cutting alliances.25 In this regard, I
would also argue that these sorts of affiliations need to be seen as important forms
of politics in their own right. Transnational anthropology, it seems to me, is the
mode of inquiry best placed to appreciate this fact.
What shortcomings can we identify in Appadurais approach? Several writers have
pointed to limitations here. Basch et al., for example, offer an indirect but valid
criticism of theorists such as Appadurai who celebrate the unboundedness of
community. An approach which stresses the contingency of cultural boundaries,
they suggest, runs the risk of ignoring the importance which boundaries can play in
many political contexts:
To develop a perspective that emphasizes the constructed nature of bounded units is not to
deny the significance of boundaries once they are constructed. Boundaries, whether legally
created borders, as in the case of nation-states, or socially forged created boundaries, as in
instances of group ethnicities, once conceptualized, are given meaning and sentiment by those
who reside within them. They acquire a life of their own. Conceived as culturally distinct,
these social constructions persist and therefore shape and influence peoples behavior and
daily practices.26

Karen Fog Olwig has also raised questions about certain aspects of Appadurais
work. She worries that a mere reorientation of anthropology from the village to
transient sites may lead us to focus on the more short-lived and flimsy contexts of
modern life and therefore risk exaggerating its transient and uprooted character.27
While she undoubtedly has a point here, there is a sense in which Olwig is also
missing the point. As I read them, most transnational anthropologistsand certainly
21
22
23
24
25
26
27

Ibid., p. 166.
Ibid., p. 20.
Ibid., p. 167.
Ibid., p. 168.
Ibid., p. 176.
Basch et al., Nations Unbound, p. 33.
Karen Fog Olwig, Cultural Sites: Sustaining a Home in a Deterritorialized World, in Karen Fog
Olwig and Kirsten Hastrup (eds.), Siting Culture: The Shifting Anthropological Object (London:
Routledge, 1991), p. 35.

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207

those sympathetic to Clifford and Marcusare not arguing for a simple reorientation of anthropology from local village to transnational space. Rather, their
argument is that increasingly today all localities, be they island villages, world cities
or a system of sovereign states, need to be viewed as spaces of movement and
transnational diffusion. [T]he importance of embedding large-scale realities in
concrete life-worlds, writes Appadurai, [is to] open up the possibility of divergent
interpretations of what locality implies.28
In this article I have sought to argue that transnational anthropology provides us
with some of the conceptual starting points for beginning to write international
relations beyond the nation-state. By identifying political practices and forms of life
which inhabit the interstices between (and across) bordered statesembodied in the
notion of translocalityanthropology helps us to recognise the existence of notions
of the political that tend to fall through the top-down, hierarchical net of conventional IR theory. Furthermore, as I have suggested above, the first delineations of
a postnational orientation to the political are beginning to emerge out of
contemporary anthropological writing. My recommendation is not, however, simply
to attempt a wholesale incorporation of anthropological theory into IRan exercise
likely to create something thoroughly unwieldly. Rather, I want to encourage
scholars of IR to recognise that when viewed from the perspective of the various
anthropologies discussed above, world politics appears to be something more
something far beyondthe mediation of anarchy by sovereign units; world politics
becomes something far more messy and far more rich.

28

Appadurai, Modernity at Large, p. 55.