City & Society

Cosmopolitan Hagglers or Haggling Locals?

Salesmen, Tourists, and Cosmopolitan Discourses in Tunis



There has been much debate about the definition of cosmopolitan, but little attention has been paid to the underlying opposition of cosmopolitans to locals. Based on ethnographic work in the medina of Tunis, this article suggests that categories of local and cosmopolitan are discursively created and that the categorization of specific groups shifts depending on the context. I focus on a group of salesmen in the medina's tourist trade. These salesmen categorize themselves as sophisticated individuals who know about, and adapt to, the cultural practices of different tourist groups. They describe tourists as ignorant and inflexible. By contrast the tourists describe themselves in cosmopolitan terms and the salesmen as culturally determined locals. I suggest that while the categorization of cosmopolitanism depends on the opposition of cosmopolitan to local, the two are not commensurate terms. While cosmopolitanism refers to a cluster of attributes that individuals or groups ascribe to themselves, status as a local derives from being viewed by those who consider themselves to be cosmopolitans. The relation of cosmopolitanism to localness echoes earlier structured oppositions such as modernity to tradition, particularly with its implications of progress and homogeneity for the first category in contrast to the backwardness and heterogeneity of the second. By implication, cosmopolitans are sometimes seen as free from cultural constraints. I argue that cosmopolitanism is an ideological construction that always draws on specific contexts. Any group, given the appropriate circumstances, can be held as the local object of a cosmopolitan gaze.