Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
Visual History

Critical World began in 2000 with Bob White, who was teaching in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  White was awarded a small grant from the College of Social Sciences at UCSC to begin work on what was initially conceived as an on-line resource for teaching about the phenomenon of world music.



White brought these plans with him to the University of Montreal, where he began teaching in 2001.  After discussing the idea with Marcel Savard, a graduate student in anthropology with considerable experience in project management and multi-media production, they decided to reactivate the project, but this time with a stronger focus on research.

In the fall of 2003, Critical World received a 3-year research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and the first steering committee was formed with the participation of Steven Feld (U of New Mexico), Jocelyne Guilbault (UC-Berkeley), Denis-Constant Martin (CERI, Paris) and Tim Taylor (UCLA).

A considerable amount of time was spent thinking about how to present the project in a way that would be visually appealing, not only to attract a large community of artists and researchers but also in the interest of exploring aesthetics from a critical perspective.  Building gradually from the initial visual design, each subsequent version of Critical World presented a different visual motif and a different means of organizing the menus and content.

Early versions of the project divided the content into different activity areas and flash animation was used to present the main menus, which were organized around a floating tree structure.


During this period the layout and the color scheme also went through a process of simplification.

At this point in the production process, we began working with the possibility of using a database to manage the material for Critical World.  This database, combined with a custom-designed interface called an administration panel, would enable the production team to add and modify content on a regular basis without having to consult with the programmers.  At this point, many of the now common tools of Web 2.0 were not yet widely available but our programmers (Benjamin Trepanier and Charles Hamel) were able to create these tools themselves.

An important change occurred in the web interface when Marcel began experimenting with the idea of scanning objects related to the themes of music and globalization.  This procedure, which enabled us to develop a “tradi-moderne” visual aesthetic for the project, combined the colors of wood and metal to create a particular atmosphere that we believed would reinforce the idea of how history and political economy are brought to bear on cultural encounters in a time of globalization (see the project entitled “Music and Globalization”).

The creativity that was unleashed during this period of the project provided us with a set of visual cues to distinguish between the different sections of the website, but it also reinforced the idea that our relationship to other musical cultures is mediated through various types of objects and institutions, as in the example of the djembe, which became the central visual motif for the on-line laboratory.

Flash animation represented certain possibilities in terms of consulting media, but it also entailed certain limitations, since this technology requires a high-speed internet connection for proper viewing and a considerable investment in terms of programming.  To ensure that the project would be useful in places where access to the internet is limited, it was decided to eliminate the flash menus and return to a traditional structure based on html.

In the winter of 2004 the first production team was formed.  Made up primarily of graduate students from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montreal, this group played an active role in testing the tools and generating the preliminary content for the project (click on “Previous Teams” under the “Team” menu). It was also during this period that Critical World organized its first conference (for more on the conference, including videos, visit the project “Critical Worlds 1”).  The conference featured academics and artists from over a dozen countries and laid the groundwork for future collaborations on music and globalization (this conference resulted in the publication of an edited volume, see the project “Music and Globalization”).

After a changing of the guard, the new production team began to work on a revamped version of Critical World that was officially launched during a ceremony in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montreal in January 2006 (click on the project “Critical World Launch”).

The project continued in this form for several years until, in 2011, two new researchers joined the coordination team:  Vincent Mirza (Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Ottawa) and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (Department of Anthropology, Laval University).  After several meetings to discuss future orientations for Critical World, Mirza and White decided to broaden the scope of the project, keeping a focus on ethnographies of globalization but using the material of popular culture as the central subject matter of the laboratory.  Henrion-Dourcy joined the team the following year.

Since the mid-2000s, web-based media technologies have made leaps and bounds in terms of quality and accessibility and this rapid evolution led us to rethink the platform used to house Critical World.  Following concerns that the previous versions of the web interface were too dark and the navigation too cumbersome, we decided to convert all the Critical World content into a WordPress format and completely change (once again) the project’s visual design:

From here we have every reason to believe that the project will take other interesting twists and turns and we hope that all those interested in Critical World will follow these developments over time.  To cite the prophetic words of Marcel Savard: “We are not starting over, we are just continuing.”