Literary and Critical Theory Arjun Appadurai
Mary Hancock, Elizabeth Weigler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0100


Arjun Appadurai (b. 1949), currently Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work draws on the methods and theories of anthropology, history, political economy, and cultural studies. His scholarship, while originally rooted in area studies of South Asia, encompasses programmatic work aimed at formulating conceptual rubrics and questions to guide comparative and critical cultural studies of globalization, development, politics, and economy. He writes for audiences of scholars, creative practitioners, and activists, and for a broader public. A central intervention has been his framing of globalization in ways that privilege the work of imagination and futurity in its constituent processes and institutions; to this end, he has emphasized the mobility of ideas, images, finance, and persons and the durable domains of translocal interaction (e.g., ethnoscapes, finanscapes) that such mobility produces, while downplaying the territorial and cultural fixity of nation-states and localities. A signature rubric, “public culture,” advanced in his own work and especially in the journal of that name, co-founded and co-edited with his late wife, Carol Breckenridge, captures the malleable, contested, and multiply mediated notion of culture that underlies this understanding of globalization. This conception of culture is also meant to signal how hope and aspiration may be articulated with everyday worlds of meaning and action. Over the past four decades, his published work has encompassed books and edited collections, journal articles, chapters, and commentaries. Much of that work has derived from collaborative projects involving both original research and editorial activities, several associated with the journal, Public Culture, and with the Cultures of Finance Working Group, based at New York University. Appadurai also co-founded, with Carol Breckenridge, PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research), a Mumbai-based research collective that works with urban Indian communities who are grappling with local impacts of urbanization and globalization. Appadurai’s ideas about culture, globalization, development, commodification, identity politics, and postcolonialism have influenced scholarship in many fields, from his own core disciplines to media and communications studies, postcolonial studies, architecture, urban studies, and political theory.


Appadurai’s published work can be organized into five major thematic clusters that include: (1) interdisciplinary and comparative studies of South Asian history, anthropology and development; (2) culturalist critiques of political economy; (3) work associated with the journal, Public Culture; (4) theorization of globalization; and (5) contributions as a public intellectual. His primary books, which include a monograph, essay collections, and edited volumes, are informed most closely by themes 1, 2, and 4. While these clusters follow a rough chronological order, many works straddle more than one cluster, owing to the continuities in his core research interests and intellectual vocabulary, and some clusters can be further subdivided by topic. No critical overviews of the entire corpus exist, but reviews, responses, and interviews, for example Bell 1999 and Steger and James 2015, have pointed to his role in generating diverse kinds of scholarship in anthropology, media studies, economics, history, and cultural studies, as well as in creative practice (e.g., videography, visual art). Reviews also offer windows on the critiques that Appadurai’s scholarship has attracted, including arguments that it has treated present-day globalization as both historically unprecedented and liberatory, that it has misrecognized the enduring power of national sovereignty and capitalist institutions, and that it lacks empirical testability. These criticisms are noted in Jones 2010, Rehtanen 2005, Rockefeller 2013, and in Rai 2018. Appadurai has responded to these criticisms in Appadurai, et al. 2001; Appadurai 2006 under Books, Edited Volumes, and Essay Collections; and in Steger and James 2015.

  • Appadurai, Arjun, Ashish Chadha, Ian Hodder, Trinity Jackman, and Chris Witmore. “The Globalization of Archaeology and Heritage: A Discussion with Arjun Appadurai.” Journal of Social Archaeology 1.1 (2001): 35–49.

    This interview revisited the arguments of Appadurai 1996 under Critique of Globalization and explored how archaeological projects were tied to nation-state genealogies and institutions and thereby positioned to negotiate the tensions between anthropological deconstructions of primordialism and its embrace in popular discourses and sentiments.

  • Bell, Vikki. “Historical Memory, Global Movements and Violence: Paul Gilroy and Arjun Appadurai in Conversation.” Theory, Culture & Society 16.2 (1999): 21–40.

    This conversation touched on the place-bound aspects of cultural theory, on critical race theory, and on the affordances of anthropological methods for understanding the performative elements of memory and belonging.

  • Jones, Andrew. “Cultural Thinking: Arjun Appadurai.” In Globalization: Key Thinkers. By Andrew Jones, 209–226. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2010.

    This chapter, in a textbook-style introduction to globalization studies, provides a synthetic review of Appadurai’s main contributions to globalization theory.

  • Rai, Swapnil. “Arjun Appadurai and Critical Cultural Studies.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Available online by subscription. This entry focuses on Appadurai’s influence on media and communication studies.

  • Rehtanen, Tehri. “A Man behind Scapes: An Interview with Arjun Appadurai.” Global Media and Communication 2.1 (2005): 7–19.

    This interview dealt with Appadurai’s impacts on new media theory.

  • Rockefeller, Stuart. “Appadurai, Arjun.” In Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. Edited by R. John McGee and Richard L. Warms, 22–25. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2013.

    This encyclopedia entry covers Appadurai’s major works and scholarly impacts, as well as the critical responses that his work garnered.

  • Steger, Manfred, and Paul James. “Interview with Arjun Appadurai.” In Globalization: The Career of a Concept. Edited by Manfred B. Steger and Paul James, 62–71. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    This interview provides a helpful overview of the intellectual roots of Appadurai’s theory on globalization and its continued revision and refinement.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.