Global Studies and the Humanities

Notes on Global Studies and Critical Theory

Jan Nederveen Pieterse

Global Studies has tended to focus on how institutions manage and individuals experience the flow of goods, ideas, and artifacts across boundaries of various kinds, while Critical Theory tends to focus on the artifact and its communities of interpretation. How might the leading insights of Global Studies influence the further development of Critical Theory, which, especially in the realms of Post-Colonial and Cultural Studies? Can/should a humanities-inflected version of Global Studies act as a successor to Post-Colonial and Cultural Studies?

Critical theory in social science broadly parallels critical theory in humanities. A keynote of critical theory in social science is, following the Frankfurt school, an ‘emancipatory knowledge interest’, i.e. the touchstone of knowledge is whether it serves emancipation, writ large.

Keynotes of global studies thinking include approaches that are

  • Multicentric—i.e. rather than Eurocentric or west-centric
  • Plural—rather than singular (as in modernities rather than modernity)
  • Multiscalar—rather than privileging just the nation state
  • Multilevel—overcoming stratification bias (‘views from above’)

(Nederveen Pieterse 2013)

These are relevant in that as communities of interpretation widen and multiply so must the vantage points from which they, in turn, are comprehended.

We need more than ‘a humanities-inflected version of Global Studies’. Global studies cannot adequately deliver without humanities. Globalization is essentially increasing connectivity over time, which involves hardware (transport, communication, infrastructure) as well as software (subjectivities, institutions, norms). Trade languages, lingua franca are an example. The ‘commercial revolution’ of 1000 BCE was followed by the axial age of intercultural flourishing (800-300 BCE). The trading religions Buddhism and Islam accompanied the expansion of trade in Asia. The Levant trade was a precursor to and backdrop of the Renaissance.

Connectivity doesn’t deliver without accompanying cultural changes and subjectivities, the more so as connectivity becomes dense and complex. Ulrich Beck distinguished between cosmopolitanization (factual crossborder interplay) and cosmopolitanism (normative perspectives on crossborder interaction).

Global studies in relation to the humanities then broadly matches (and must match) social science reorientations and include:

  • Decentering—‘the centre of power is identical with the centre of truth’ (Havel 1985)
  • Thinking plural—rather than a canon, which implies a single center of power, the continuity of a classical tradition, crosscutting sensibilities are relevant (as in social history, feminist studies, Subaltern Studies)
  • An emphasis on idiographic rather than nomothetic knowledge
  • As communities of interpretation widen (aka ‘globalization’) so will the criteria of interpretation. In dialectical fashion this usually evokes both widening circles of identification (as in cosmopolitanism) and nativist reactions; building bridges and building walls.


Can/should a humanities-inflected version of Global Studies act as a successor to Post-Colonial and Cultural Studies?

A successor to postcolonial studies—yes, in that postcolonial studies is a sequel to decolonization and involves revisiting colonialism and perspectives on North-South relations in the wake of decolonization (critiques of ‘northern epistemologies’, plea for pluriversality, etc.). In the 21st century East-South relations (Asian drivers, China and Latin America, new Silk Roads, etc.) have become as important as North-South relations, a geoeconomic matrix change that requires retooling perspectives.

A successor to cultural studies—no because cultural studies is a field rather than a cluster of perspectives. Cultural studies is continually evolving and engages 21C dynamics. Much cultural studies is already multicentric (as in cultural studies in/of the Arab world, Latin America, etc.), multiscalar (ranging from local, national, crossborder, regional, global trends) and recognizes hybridity. Arguably, it is less often plural in outlook given the overhang of enduring paradigms and conceptualizations (e.g. binary thinking). 

If we conceive the Enlightenment as a European project, what reformulations of fundamental assumptions about the arts that originated in that era does the translation of the humanities into a global context require?

  • First of course we recognize dynamics internal to Europe and the West—such as complex readings of Enlightenment history (include the Romantics, race science, etc.), the dialectics of Enlightenment, poststructuralism (‘the dark side of reason’), postmodernism (narratives of the end of grand narratives), deconstruction.
  • Global studies reorientations include
  1. the theme of multiple Renaissances (Goody 2010)
  2. reforms and critical traditions in the nonwestern world (Tanzimat, Nahda, Meiji restoration, etc.)
  3. the influence of nonwestern culture and knowledge in Europe, informing the Enlightenment (e.g. Confucianism; Goody 1996, Clarke 1997, Marshall and Williams 1982)
  4. critique of Modernocentrism.
  • Science in the orient and China and its influence in the West (Needham 1956)
  • Chinoiserie, Turquerie, Egyptomania and Indophilia accompanied the Enlightenment
  • Orientalism followed the Enlightenment
  • Art and imagination have been decentered all along
    • The route to cubism went through the ethnological museum
    • Picasso: ‘primitive sculpture has never been surpassed’
    • Met exhibition Primitivism in 20th-Century Art; Magiciens de la terre, 1985
  • In the arts multicentric trends have been in motion for decades (decentering and proliferation of Biennales, Enwezor as curator of Kassel Documenta, etc.)
  • The rise of Asia has influenced art markets and so do other surplus economies such as the Gulf Emirates. Hong Kong and Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have become art hubs
  • This involves ongoing debates on ‘global art’ (Belting 2009)

If Global Studies exists in part to offer explanatory frameworks for global inequality (and formulate normative statements to redress that inequality), does it follow that a globally-inflected criticism of the arts will address and engage global inequality in access to artistic expression? How might such a criticism employ the means of direct intervention in cultural activity afforded by online platforms?

  • Global inequality per se is a 1990s theme that has been left behind by the rise of Asia and China.
  • [In advanced economies globalization and tech change are blamed for rising inequality while in emerging economies globalization and tech change are credited with lifting millions out of poverty. In the US and UK inequality has grown steeply over past decades while in Nordic European countries inequality has increased only marginally. The same variables, tech change and globalization, yield widely different processes and outcomes of inequality. What is required now is a multicentric approach that takes into account how general trends such as globalization and tech change have diverse impact in different regions and countries depending on different initial conditions and cultures of inequality]
  • If dynamics of inequality are diverse artistic expressions and engagements will be diverse as well
  • Traditional elites did not have to contend with digital irreverence (weibo)
  • Worker protests by second-generation rural migrants in China have been coordinated by mobile phone messaging (Honda, Foxconn, 2010). Blackberries served to coordinate riots in London (2011)
  • Ai Weiwei, Huang Yulong and cynical realism (Yue Minjun, Wan Jinsong) are among strands of contemporary art in China


Belting, Hans 2009 Contemporary art as global art: a critical estimate, in H. Belting and A. Buddensieg, eds. The Global art world: audiences, markets, and museums. Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 38-73

Clarke, J. J. 1997 Oriental Enlightenment: the encounter between Asian and Western thought. London: Routledge.

Goody, Jack 1996 The East in the West. Cambridge University Press

Goody, Jack 2010 Renaissances: the one or the many? Cambridge University Press

Marshall, P. J. and Williams, G. 1982 The great map of mankind: British perceptions of the world in the age of Enlightenment. London, Dent

Needham, J. 1956 Science and civilization in China, Vol 2. Cambridge UP

Nederveen Pieterse, J. 2013 What is global studies? Globalizations 10, 4: 499-514

Nederveen Pieterse, J. 2014 Asia rising: Welcome to the multipolar world, in Hyun-Chin Lim, W. Schäfer, Suk-Man Hwang, eds. Global Challenges in Asia: New developmental models and regional community building. Seoul, Seoul National University Press, 31-62

Nederveen Pieterse, J. 2014 Rethinking Modernity and Capitalism: Add Context and Stir, Sociopedia Colloquium (e-journal)