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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger
Arjun Appadurai

(Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 2006) 112 pp, PB, 10.99, ISBN 0-822-33863-7

The period since the end of the Cold War has been marked by the materialisation of a truly global society, both technologically and economically. Within this era of unheralded globalisation there has been an advanced effort towards promotion of human rights, expansion of democratic rule, and significant capital gains. However, this time period also revealed a surge of violence in the form of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and structured political oppression never before witnessed. In Fear of Small Numbers, Arjun Appadurai analyses the complex dynamics of these issues and offers solutions to some of the most challenging dilemmas plaguing today?s society. Appadurai provides a conceptually unique framework for understanding root causes of global violence by bringing clarity to controversial issues such as globalisation, terrorism, and a growing worldwide malevolence towards minorities.

Appadurai suggests that much of the ethnic violence seen in the world today is not necessarily a ?clash of civilisations?, as suggested by Samuel Huntington, but rather a clash of world systems. To understand this clash of systems, Appadurai differentiates between the ?vertebrate? world with the ?cellular? world. The vertebrate world is the world of the nation-state defined by its structure - borders, military treaties, economic alliances, and international institutions of cooperation are all parts of a larger vertebral structure

The cellular (or invertebrate) world, on the other hand, functions through isolated units that do not adhere to national and/or geographical boundaries. Cellularity is a key aspect of many anti-globalisation movements, including more combative ones such as terrorist organisations, which thrive in this high-technological age and function in isolated pockets across the globe unconstrained by national boundaries. Therefore, as Appadurai suggests, Huntington?s theory is flawed because it is looking at a clash of two vertebrate societies rather than a clash between vertebrate and cellular worlds; a clash of global ideologies. Taking this into account, today?s warfare is no longer fought in open battles where the antagonists are clearly defined. For example, high profile conflicts such as those taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan are not wars fought against a common tangible enemy. Rather it is war against an ideology that has no formal vertebral structure, and therefore cannot be fought in the traditional sense.

Appadurai argues that modern society?s greatest weakness is nationalism because it is ultimately built on the notion of ?exceptionalism?, the belief that a national ethnic group is unique and ultimately different if not better than the rest. However, this ethnocentric mentality is not limited to fringe cellular groups such as the Klu Klux Klan or Al Qaeda terrorists. It is also deeply rooted in western liberal thought that Appadurai argues is becoming more and more ill-equipped to deal with the issues of multiculturalism brought on by globalisation.

Rather than enter the debate over globalisation, what Appadurai looks at as an inevitable process and in this book seeks to analyse the darker side of it: suicide bombings; American imperialism; anti-Americanism; the growing gap between rich and poor; and the difficulties that resilient, cellular organisations such as Al-Qaeda present to centralised, ?vertebrate? structures such as established states.

Al-Qaeda is a clear example of Appadurai?s concept of cellular global organisations. As opposed to following the so-called ?rules of warfare?, terrorism has successfully blurred the line between military and civilian space. Atrociously violent acts such as suicide bombings are becoming an increasingly common way of fighting the intangible enemy of western society, while at the same time successfully living up to its name of creating terror in people?s lives whether they be from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Oklahoma City. Terrorism opens us to the possibility that anyone may be part of these angry cellular groups and the fear of this uncertainty only further intensifies the fear and terror.

Appadurai believes that terrorism represents the worst side of globalisation. By organising themselves in flexible, decentralised cellular networks, terrorist groups directly threaten the survival of the nation-state. Today, terrorism is often directed at western society and the US in particular as a consequence of its perceived cultural and economic hegemony, as well as for its blatant misuse of military power around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Appadurai also sets out to explain why weaker, disempowered minorities become targets of fear and hatred by the more powerful majorities. The explanation offered is that there is an anxiety of incompleteness by the majority, deriving from the gap separating majorities from the myth of a national ?purity?. Majorities are reminded of the slim margins that allow them to maintain their dominance, contributing to fantasies of national incompleteness, rage and ultimately, a desire to purify the land of the minority. Minorities are perceived as a direct challenge to narratives of social cohesion and uniformity creating what Appadurai refers to as a predatory identity, where one group begins to feel that the existence of the other group is a danger to its survival that should be eliminated. Meanwhile, the modern nation-state has increased measures of classifying/surveying populations and accounting procedures which clearly define who gets classified as a national minority or majority, creating a greater sense of ?us? versus ?them?.

In addition, the anxieties created within the majorities are further exacerbated by the inequalities produced by globalisation breaking down national boundaries, clearly defined cultures and nationalities, and the widening gap between rich and poor. Under these conditions, issues surrounding minorities can ignite fundamental debates about gender, equality, legal citizenship and religious freedom. This hatred and fear, fed by state propaganda, economic hardship and migratory turmoil, can create a deadly combination and can even lead to the form of ethnic cleansing seen in Kosovo, India and Rwanda.

In Fear of Small Numbers, Appadurai makes unique conceptual contributions to a number of major questions about sources of global unrest, terrorism and ethnic strife, all in the context of an emerging global society. The ?geography of anger? refers to the increasing global struggle between forces of permanence and change, between cultural tradition and modernisation, fragmentation and homogenisation. It is further exacerbated by two distinct global ideologies: the ?cellular? model of capitalism and terrorism, and the ?vertebrate? model organised through the central spinal system of international cooperation, nation-states and economic coalitions. The book also takes a look at how this dark side of globalisation can create a deadly amalgamation in which the ?small number? minorities become both the victim and victimiser.

Appadurai, however, does see a glimmer of hope in the many grassroots activist networks around the world working towards positive socio-economic and political change. By taking a more cellular approach to community-building, these networks have a much greater capacity to counter the worldwide trends of terrorism and genocide than the current vertebrate structured approaches.


Aaron Mitchell, M.A. University of Greensboro



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