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Appadurai was born into a Tamil Brahmin family in Mumbai (Bombay), India and educated in India. He graduated from St. Xavier's High School, Fort, Mumbai, and earned his Intermediate Arts degree from Elphinstone College, Mumbai, before coming to the United States.
He then received his B.A. from Brandeis University in 1970.
He was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago where he received his M.A. (1973) and Ph.D (1976). After working there, he spent a brief time at Yale before going to the New School University. He currently is a faculty member of New York University's Media Culture and Communication department in the Steinhardt School. Some of his most important works include Worship and Conflict under Colonial Rule (1981), Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy (1990), of which an expanded version is found in Modernity at Large (1996), and Fear of Small Numbers (2006). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997.
His doctoral work was based on the car festival held in the Parthasarathi temple in Triplicane, Madras. Arjun Appadurai is member of the Advisory Board of the Forum d'Avignon, international meetings of culture, the economy and the media.
In 2004, after a brief time as administrator at Yale University, Appadurai became Provost of New School University. Appadurai's resignation from the Provost's office was announced January 30, 2006 by New School President Bob Kerrey. He held the John Dewey Distinguished Professorship in the Social Sciences at New School. Appadurai became one of the more outspoken critics of President Kerrey when he attempted to appoint himself provost in 2008 .
New York University
In 2008 it was announced that Appadurai was appointed Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development 
Appadurai is a co-founder of the academic journal Public Culture; founder of the non-profit Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR) in Mumbai; co-founder and co-director of Interdisciplinary Network on Globalization (ING); and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has served as a consultant or advisor to a wide range of public and private organizations, including the Ford, Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations; UNESCO; the World Bank; and the National Science Foundation.
Appadurai articulated a view of cultural activity known as the social imaginary. For Appadurai the imaginary is composed of five dimensions of global cultural flow:
He describes his articulation of the imaginary as:
The image, the imagined, the imaginary – these are all terms that direct us to something critical and new in global cultural processes: the imagination as a social practice. No longer mere fantasy (opium for the masses whose real work is somewhere else), no longer simple escape (from a world defined principally by more concrete purposes and structures), no longer elite pastime (thus not relevant to the lives of ordinary people), and no longer mere contemplation (irrelevant for new forms of desire and subjectivity), the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labor and culturally organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility. This unleashing of the imagination links the play of pastiche (in some settings) to the terror and coercion of states and their competitors. The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order.
Appadurai credits Benedict Anderson with developing notions of imagined communities. Some key figures who have worked on the imaginary are Cornelius Castoriadis, Charles Taylor, Jacques Lacan (who especially worked on the symbolic, in contrast with imaginary and the real), and Dilip Gaonkar. However, Appadurai's ethnography of urban social movements in the city of Mumbai has proved to be contentious with several scholars like the Canadian anthropologist, Judith Whitehead arguing that SPARC (an organization which Appadurai espouses as an instance of progressive social activism in housing) being complicit in the World Bank's agenda for re-developing Mumbai.
2006 Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
2002 Globalization (edited volume). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
2001 Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics. Environment and Urbanization, (Vol. 13 No. 2), pp. 23–43.
2001 La Modernidad Desbordada. (Translation of Modernity At Large) Uruguay and Argentina: Ediciones Trilces and Fondo de Cultura Economica de Argentina.
2001 Apres le Colonialisme: Les Consequences Culturelles de la globalisation. (Translation of Modernity At Large) Paris: Payot.
2001 Modernità in polvere. (Translation of Modernity At Large) Rome: Meltemi Editore.
1996 Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
1991 Co-editor (with M. Mills and F. Korom, Eds.), Gender, Genre and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
1988 Guest Editor, Special Issue of Cultural Anthropology on “Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory” (Vol. 3, No. 1).
1988 "How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India," Comparative Studies in Society and History (Vol. 31, No. 1): 3-24. 1987 Guest Editor (with Carol A. Breckenridge), Special Annual Issue of The India Magazine (New Delhi) on “Public Culture”.
1986 The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (edited volume). New York: Cambridge University Press.
1983 (Reprint). Worship and Conflict Under Colonial Rule: A South Indian Case. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
1981 Worship and Conflict Under Colonial Rule: A South Indian Case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Airoots Interviews Arjun Appadurai September 21, 2008.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 10 May 2011. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
- NYU Steinhardt Appoints Arjun Appadurai As Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication NYU, Monday, September 15, 2008.
- Public Culture Public Culture website
- "Disjuncture and Difference", Modernity at Large, 31
- Fear of Small Numbers by Arjun Appadurai (Duke University Press, 2006)
- Globalization edited by Arjun Appadurai (Duke University Press, 2001)
- Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy
- Modernity at Large by Arjun Appadurai (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)