Social Anthropology

On ‘appropriation’. A critical reappraisal of the concept and its application in global art practices 1

Arnd Schneider a1a2
a1 Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of East London, Longbridge Road, Dagenham RM8 2AS, United Kingdom Email:
a2 Institut für Ethnologie, Universität Hamburg, Rothenbaum chaussee 67/69, 20/48 Hamburg, Germany

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This paper discusses critically the concept of ‘appropriation’ and evaluates the usefulness of applying the term in the analysis of cross-cultural communication in a global world. Specifically, I look at contemporary art practices that involve the ‘appropriation’ of ideas, symbols and artefacts from other cultures. Early twentieth century theories of cultural change and cultural contact (in German-speaking anthropology, the United States and Britain) were clearly interested in the ‘migration’ of particular elements (symbolic and material) across cultural boundaries, but suffered from a holistic view of bounded cultures. Recent theories of cultural globalisation on the other hand do not pay sufficient attention to the individual actors (as opposed to groups of individuals) in cross-cultural contact. Hybridisation, creolisation, transculturation and other concepts focus more generically on mixtures of different cultural practices in entire societies, but less on individual strategies. Appropriation then is reevaluated as a hermeneutic procedure, an act of dialogical understanding, by which individual actors negotiate access to, and traffic in, symbolic elements which have no fixed meaning.


1 I am grateful to Peter Flügel, Jonathan Friedman, Stuart Morgan, Vivian Schelling and Chris Wright for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. I also benefited from the comments of three anonymous reviewers for this journal. A first version of this paper was delivered at the Biannual Conference of the German Society of Anthropologists, Heidelberg, 3–7 October 1999. I am grateful to Dorle Dracklé for having invited me. The paper is integrated into the research projects on ‘Artists as anthropologists. Recent trends of globalisation’ (University of East London) and ‘Globalisation, indigenous influences, and art production in Buenos Aires’ (University of Hamburg) [Schneider 1999], as well as into a book project, Crossing borders. Contemporary artists and anthropology by Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright. The support of the German Research Council (DFG) for the period 1999–2002 (Senior Research Fellowship) is gratefully acknowledged.