The Caribbean Research Paper

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The Caribbean lies at the heart of the Western hemisphere and was pivotal in Europe’s rise to world predominance. Yet the islands that once marked the horizon of the West’s self-perception, as well as the source of its wealth, have been spatially and temporally eviscerated from the imaginary geography of Western modernity. The physical incorporation and symbolic exclusion of the Caribbean from the imagined time-space of “modernity” has made certain ideas of “the West” viable, and they must therefore inform any effort to describe the Caribbean within the social sciences. Since their inception, the social sciences have used non-Western places as counterfoils for Western modernity—they have been viewed as “backward” or “traditional” places against which processes of modern progress, urbanization, industrialization, democratization, rationalization, individualization and so on could be gauged. Yet the Caribbean has never fit easily into such dichotomous visions of the world, for it was always a product of modernity and was in many ways postmodern avant la lettre (before it existed). The anthropologist Sidney Mintz has argued that the Caribbean was “the first part of the nonWestern world to endure an era of intensive Westernizing activity.” Thus, “the Caribbean oikumenê became ‘modern’ in some ways even before Europe itself; while the history of the region has lent to it a coherence not so much cultural as sociological” (Mintz 1996, p. 289).

Mintz supports a processual definition of the Caribbean as an oikumenê (ecumene, or “inhabited land”), a historic unit that is “an interwoven set of happenings and products” (Mintz 1996, p. 293). Franklin Knight likewise argues that “the sum of the common experiences and understandings of the Caribbean outweigh the territorial differences or peculiarities” (Knight 1990, p. xiv). The geographical region includes the islands of the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas, as well as the coastal areas of Central and South America that have been politically and culturally linked to the Caribbean by processes of colonization, plantation development, and migration. It is also sometimes extended to include far-flung diasporas, especially in Europe and North America. While there are quite distinct traditions of study linked to areas such as the British West Indies, the French West Indies, or the Spanish Antilles, there has also been an increasing amount of comparative and crossregional research. And while there are differences in the study of dependencies or colonies versus independent states, the Caribbean as a whole can be understood as being marked by complex and uneven processes of imperial decline, postcolonial nation-building, and regional integration.

Above all, the Caribbean was constituted by the global mobilities of colonization, slavery, and the transatlantic plantation system. With the rise of the sugar “plantation complex” the region was marked by the displacement of indigenous peoples by those arriving from northern and southern Europe, eastern and western Africa, and, later, the Indian subcontinent, China, and the Levant. Being more deeply and continuously affected by migration than any other world region, the essence of Caribbean life has always been movement. The very idea of this dispersed and fragmented region as a single place— and its naming and contemporary material existence—are constituted by mobilities of many different kinds, including flows of people, commodities, texts, images, capital, and knowledge. Thus, the Caribbean exists at the crossroads of multifaceted networks of mobility formed by the travels of both people and things, as well as by those people and things that do not move. Alongside the work of capitalist expansion and contraction associated with commodities such as tobacco, sugar, coffee, rum, salt, cotton, indigo, and, later, bananas and tropical fruit, the Caribbean has also been indelibly shaped by the work of imagination and culture-building over the past five hundred years.

Creolization is one of the crucial elements of Caribbean culture building, conceived as a process of indigenization, hybridization, and contested “creation and construction of culture out of fragmented, violent and disjunct pasts” (Mintz 1996, p. 302). Later, the arrival of Caribbean migrants in the metropoles such as London, New York, Toronto, and Miami allowed for the emergence of new kinds of pan-Caribbean identifications, arts movements, musical amalgams, and cultural events like Carnival. This region, more than any other, has long been at the forefront of transnational processes through its uprooted people, Creole cultures, and diasporas traveling across the world. It thus became central to the theorization of transnationality, diaspora, and postmodernity in the 1980s, and to the subsequent emergence of Black Atlantic studies and world history in the 1990s. Social scientists studying globalization turned to Caribbean theoretical concepts such as transculturation, creolization, and marronage to describe contemporary global cultural processes, even while they ignored some of the historical specificity and nuances of these concepts within Caribbean studies.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the region is enmeshed in complex mobilities, including circuitous migrations of people and diverse cultures; transnational flows of capital investment and financial services; technologically mediated flows of information, communication, and intellectual property; and unpredictable global risks and threats to security (e.g., drugs, diseases, criminals, hurricanes). These new mobilities and immobilities, both intra- and extra-Caribbean, are transforming the nature, scale, and temporalities of families, local communities, public spaces, governance structures, and individuals’ commitments to a specific nation. Caribbean mobilities and moorings are paradigmatic of the complex rescaling of urban, national, and regional space. Daily practices of commuting, accessing goods for consumption, moving through public spaces, and communicating with the diaspora help to perform the presences and absences, the proximities and distances, that inform the lived experience of spatiality in the Caribbean and its transnational diasporas.

Global risks associated with criminal activities, terrorism, environmental disasters, and other security issues are also producing new modes of surveillance and the governance of local mobilities within and outside of the region, with significant impact on forms of belonging and exclusion, of connection and disconnection. Thus, Caribbean societies—and the idea of the region as a whole—are being rescaled and respatialized by changes in the infrastructure of transportational and informational mobility, and cultural practices of travel and migration. Understanding exactly how the contemporary Caribbean is being both “demobilized” and “remobilized,” and both deregulated and re-regulated, within the processes of urban, state, regional, and global restructuring can enable social scientists to move beyond the imagery of states as spatially fixed geographical containers for social processes, and to question scalar logics such as local-global. Thus, a rethinking of the processes that are remaking the Caribbean in the twenty-first century will be crucial to advancing the social sciences’ approach to area studies and global studies in ways that finally move beyond its Eurocentric origins and assumed forms of territoriality.

Bibliography:

  1. Basch, Linda, Nina Glick Schiller, and Constance Szanton Blanc. 1994. Nations Unbound: Trans-national Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach.
  2. Benitez Rojo, Antonio. 1996. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, 2nd ed. Trans. James E. Maraniss. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  3. Kempadoo, Kamala. 2004. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge.
  4. Klak, Thomas, ed. 1998. Globalization and Neoliberalism: The Caribbean Context. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  5. Knight, Franklin W. 1990. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Mintz, Sidney. 1996. Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikumenê. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2 (2): 289–310.
  7. Sheller, Mimi. 2003. Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies. London: Routledge.

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