In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modernity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Religion, Secularism, and Modernity
  • History, Time, and Temporality
  • Postcolonial Conditions
  • Gendered Modernities
  • Genealogies of the Modern Individual
  • Modernity as a Relationship to Capitalism
  • Modernity and the Recalibration of the Senses
  • Modernization Theory and “Development”
  • Modernity as Epistemology
  • Governmentality and Bureaucracy
  • Technologies, Infrastructures, and Socialities
  • Science
  • Humanitarianism and the Rights of the Human
  • Securitization and Risk
  • Biopolitics
  • The New Anthropology of Economy and Finance
  • Journals
  • Web Resources

Anthropology Modernity
Brian Silverstein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0167


While the discipline of anthropology coalesced in the late 19th century around the study of purportedly “non-Western” (which usually meant non-modern) peoples, much of this work nonetheless sought to say something about the so-called modern West, if only by way of contrast. Much early anthropological writing tended to avoid whatever effects the anthropologist’s society was having on those he studied (and this was a time when the vast majority of anthropologists were men); where such effects were noted, they were generally lamented as being destructive of the “other’s” cultural authenticity, or even of their culture altogether. Anthropological studies of modernity, by contrast, at a minimum situate peoples and locales in the context of broader forces, with their inherent disparities of power. Usually such studies address, even if indirectly, how social forms and subjectivities in a given place have been changing in relation to these broader histories and flows. Perhaps more than in some other areas of anthropology, “meta-level” reflection on the effects of modern (including anthropological) knowledge on the peoples anthropology studies have tended to be part of such work. This points to the dual nature of the relationship between anthropology and modernity. In addition to anthropological studies of modernity, attention has been paid to the ways in which anthropology is a peculiarly, one might say quintessentially modern undertaking, for instance by pointing to the contexts of empire and colonialism in Europeans’ encounter with cultural “others,” or the discipline’s relationship to racialist—not to mention blatantly racist—frameworks for thinking about human difference, or simply the attempt to ground theorization about human nature in a truly comparative science. Work written by anthropologists explicitly focused on something called modernity is a more recent phenomenon. Anthropologists tend not to approach modernity as a period of time, but more as either an ethos, akin to something cultural, albeit a cultural formation making rather unique claims to acultural universality (universal applicability of its knowledges, norms, and truths—and not simply as a result of a projection of Western power), or as a complex assemblage of culture, knowledge, and institutions interacting and coproducing one another. Thus, on the one hand, while anthropology has been in a unique position to view the career of modernity and the forms it takes around the world, on the other, the discipline’s methods and epistemologies have been influential in recent attempts by several disciplines to analyze characteristically modern social forms. A great deal of work read by and influential among anthropologists has been done by scholars working in other disciplines, especially history, philosophy, geography, literature, gender studies, and the study of politics, to name only a few.

General Overviews

A few works are self-conscious attempts by anthropologists and colleagues to reflect on modernity and its careers in various locales around the world. Some are edited volumes of articles examining modernity and globalization (Inda 2005, Inda and Rosaldo 2008) or epistemological reflections through cases from throughout the world (Mitchell 2000, Ong and Collier 2005, Rabinow 2003, Taylor 1995). Others are wide-ranging discussions of the nature of modernity (Appadurai 1996, Giddens 1990, Latour 1993, Wagner 2012), while Adelkhah 2000 and Crary and Kwinter 1992 look at the emergence and careers of characteristically modern technologies and administrative apparatus in different times and places.

  • Adelkhah, Fariba. 2000. Being modern in Iran. Translated by Jonathan Derrick. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Written in the mid-1990s, Adelkhah examines the articulation of modern techniques of administration and government (taxes, urban renewal, etc.) with more longstanding discourses and practices in Iran.

  • Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    A collection of the author’s essays on the new era of mass migration and information circulation, with particular attention to their effects on imaginaries and nation-states.

  • Crary, Jonathan, and Sanford Kwinter, eds. 1992. Incorporations. New York: Zone.

    Textual and visual essays (a few of which are by anthropologists) of varying lengths on 20th-century ways of representing and intervening on bodies, collectivities, and subjectivities, especially in light of developments in sciences, engineering, and the arts.

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The consequences of modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A classic statement emphasizing social institutional and organizational aspects of modernity.

  • Inda, Jonathan Xavier. 2005. Anthropologies of modernity: Foucault, governmentality and life politics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470775875

    A collection of essays broadly inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, on topics including colonialism, neoliberal technologies of government, technopolitics, biosocialities, and the politics of death.

  • Inda, Jonathan Xavier, and Renato Rosaldo, eds. 2008. The anthropology of globalization: A reader. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A collection of articles by prominent anthropologists exploring the relationship between culture and global flows of people, information, goods, and capital.

  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Argues that moderns as such make a distinction between nature and culture, but the world they have created continually undermines that distinction.

  • Mitchell, Timothy, ed. 2000. Questions of modernity. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    Collection of essays by prominent authors on the emergence of modern social forms outside of Europe. Mitchell’s introductory essay is a useful overview of epistemological issues attending the study of modernity, including the world-systems-infused notion that modernity is a product of global reticulations that in turn produced a sense of “self” in the West; thus the “West” would be a product of modernity, not vice versa.

  • Ong, Aihwa, and Stephen J. Collier. 2005. Global assemblages: Technology, politics and ethics as anthropological problems. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A collection of original essays exploring the often-indeterminate nature of emergent formations of knowledge and power. The chapters generally operate with the framework of assemblages, in philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s sense of “dispositif,” an interconnected set of forces and actors about which one makes few if any assumptions about agency, but rather undertakes empirical enquiry to ascertain this.

  • Rabinow, Paul. 2003. Anthropos today: Reflections on modern equipment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Reflections by a prominent anthropologist on both the present situation and the intellectual and conceptual resources that can be brought to bear on a contingent practice of an anthropology of the contemporary.

  • Taylor, Charles. 1995. Two theories of modernity. Hastings Center Report 25.2 (March–April): 24–33.

    DOI: 10.2307/3562863

    A classic account by the Canadian philosopher conversant with anthropology. Taylor lays out what he terms the “acultural” and “cultural” accounts of modernity: the former being an understanding of modernity as universalist, what is left when we strip away error and “come to see” the world as it really is (in light of science), while the latter sees the emergence of modernity as something akin to the emergence of a new culture, with particular worldviews, lifestyles, and moral orientations.

  • Wagner, Peter. 2012. Modernity: Understanding the present. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    An accessible overview of approaches to the question of what it means to be modern.

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