Leading socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, author of The Future as Cultural Fact, talks to Times of India’s Madhavi Rajadhyaksha about an anthropology and urbanism of the future—and why, despite the many challenges, there are still reasons to be optimistic.
TOI: What is your latest book The Future as Cultural Fact about?
Arjun Appadurai: It indicates something I've realised recently—my own discipline, anthropology and other social sciences like sociology, largely see culture as a vehicle of the past, of heritage, memory, tradition, customs. Culture is occasionally seen as important for the present but almost never as far as the future is concerned—the result is, the future has been handed over to economics and other quantitative and predictive sciences.
I wanted to signal that the future is also highly variable. People have different visions, images and narratives of the future. Today, in cities like Mumbai, there's a lot of debate about heritage—but you won't see the language of conservation applied to what people want ahead. That's a huge oversight.
We'll have a better dialogue with economics, planning and design if we acknowledge that anthropology has something to contribute to the future.
TOI: How do you perceive the future?
Arjun Appadurai: My general interest is in issues of equity, inclusion and development. But as an anthropologist, I'm also deeply interested in diversity—I am not for a future which flattens and makes us all the same. Diversity, in religion, race, language or anything else, is a value. We must also respect and nurture diverse views. I'd like a future with true diversity, which means more stakeholders, more enthusiasm, more empowerment.
TOI: Does that involve reworking existing models of development?
Arjun Appadurai: Well, in the world of planned social change, all debates about social development tend to oscillate between two poles. One is excess trust in experts—planners, technologists, engineers, elites who have special training and are seen to hold the key. Or we veer towards the view that people have all the wisdom and should be allowed to do what they want. This is also an extreme and misplaced view as being poor, marginalised and always under threat doesn't provide the ideal conditions to have great visions of anything.
So, we need a dialogue between experts and ordinary people to ensure there's no unregulated, criminal or predatory form of runaway capitalism.
TOI: Are there good models for cities of the future?
Arjun Appadurai: The fabled Porto Alegre, Brazil, model of budgeting is a very good one. It shows how ordinary people can participate in the budget of their own city.
In India, we have Kerala's process of devolution of governance—it's not perfect but it has allowed for serious dialogue between national-level policies, state agencies and local voices.
The Right to Information is another huge area unfolding before us where there's collaboration.
TOI: There's also palpable cynicism regarding the future amongst people—how do you counter that?
Arjun Appadurai: Worldwide, there's a sense that politics has become debased and politicians are not to be trusted. As people have been exposed to more and more catastrophes, floods, terror, political violence, there's a feeling of helplessness that tends to be directed to political leadership.
In India, this is deeply compounded by the sense that virtually all politicians are corrupt—but yet, people do come out to vote. This shows there is a limit to cynicism—or there's some persistence of hope. The people I work with at the very bottom are very optimistic—if they are optimistic, what right do I have to be pessimistic?
Visit the Times of India to read the article in full.