‘Defining’ globalization

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In his (c2003) Globalization: A Very Short Introduction, Manfred B. Steger offers an incredibly lucid account of the subject. I really enjoyed it and (as with all the books in this series), found it quick and easy to read, as well as helpful in providing a kind of cognitive framework around which to work…. Steger explains:

Since its earliest appearance in the 1960s, the term ‘globalization’ has been used in both popular and academic literature to describe a process, a condition, a system, a force, and an age. Given that these competing labels have very different meanings, their indiscriminate usage is often obscure and invites confusion. For example, a sloppy conflation of process and condition encourages circular definitions that possess little explanatory power. For example, the often-repeated truism that ‘globalization [the process] leads to more globalization [the condition]’ does not allow us to draw meaningful analytical distinctions between causes and effects. Hence, I suggest that we use the term globality to signify a social condition characterized by the existence of global economic, political, cultural, and environmental interconnections and flows that make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant. Yet, we should not assume that ‘globality’ refers to a determinate endpoint that precludes any further development. Rather, this concept points to a particular social condition that, like all conditions, is destined to give way to new, qualitatively distinct constellations. For example, it is conceivable that globality might be transformed into something we could call ‘planetarity’ – a new social formation brought about by the successful colonization of our [-p.8] solar system. Moreover, we could easily imagine different social manifestations of globality: one might be based primarily on values of individualism and competition, as well as on an economic system of private property, while another might embody more communal and cooperative social arrangements, including less capitalistic economic relations. These possible alternatives point to the fundamentally indeterminate character of globality; it is likely that our great-grandchildren will have a better sense of which alternative is likely to win out.

Conversely, the term globalization should be used to refer to a set of social processes that are thought to transform our present social condition into one of globality. At its core, then, globalization is about shifting forms of human contact. Indeed, the popular phrase ‘globalization is happening’ contains three important pieces of information: first, we are slowly leaving behind the condition of modernity that gradually unfolded from the 16th century onwards; second, we are moving toward the new condition of (postmodern) globality; and, third, we have not yet reached it. Indeed, like ‘modernization’ and other verbal nouns that end in the suffix ‘-ization’, the term ‘globalization’ suggests a sort of dynamism best captured by the notion of ‘development’ or ‘unfolding’ along discernible patterns. Such unfolding may occur quickly or slowly, but it always corresponds to the idea of change, and, therefore, denotes the transformation of present conditions.

Hence, scholars who explore the dynamics of globalization are particularly keen on pursuing research questions related to the theme of social change. How does globalization occur? What is driving globalization? Is it one cause or a combination of factors? Is globalization a uniform or an uneven process? Is globalization extending modernity or is it a radical break? How does globalization differ from previous social developments? Does globalization create new forms of inequality and hierarchy? Notice that the conceptualization of globalization as an ongoing process rather than as a static condition forces the researcher to pay [-p.9] close attention to shifting perceptions of time and space. This explains why globalization scholars assign particular significance to historical analysis and the reconfiguration of social space.

To argue that globalization refers to a set of social processes propelling us towards the condition of globality may eliminate the danger of circular definitions, but it gives us only one defining characteristic of the process: movement towards greater interdependence and integration. Such a general definition of globalization tells us very little about its remaining qualities. In order to overcome this deficiency, we must identify additional qualities that make globalization different from other sets of social processes. Yet, whenever researchers raise the level of specificity in order to bring the phenomenon in question into sharper focus, they also heighten the danger of provoking scholarly disagreements over definitions. Our subject is no exception. One of the reasons why globalization remains a contested concept is because there exists no scholarly consensus on what kinds of social processes constitute its essence.

Despite such strong differences of opinion, however, it is possible to detect some thematic overlap in various scholarly attempts to identify the essential qualities of globalization processes [a statement, Steger goes on to discuss….]” (pp.7-9)

“…globalization involves the intensification and acceleration of social exchanges and activities. The Internet relays distant information in mere seconds, and satellites provide consumers with real-time pictures of remote events. As Anthony Giddens notes in his definition, the intensification of worldwide social relations means that local happenings are shaped by evens occurring far away, and vice versa. In other words, the seemingly opposing processes of globalization and localization actually imply each other. The ‘local’ and the ‘global’ form the endpoints of a spatial continuum whose central portion is marked by the ‘national’ and the ‘regional’.” (p.11)

“As images and ideas can be more easily and rapidly transmitted from one place to another, they profoundly impact the way people experience their everyday lives. Today, cultural practices frequently escape fixed localities such as town and nation, eventually acquiring new meanings in interaction with dominant global themes.” (p.70)

“…globalization is an uneven process, meaning that people living in various parts of the world are affected very differently by this gigantic transformation of social structures and cultural zones. Hence, the social processes that make up globalization have been analysed and explained by various commentators in different, often contradictory ways.” (p.13)

“Like all social processes, globalization contains an ideological dimension filled with a range of norms, claims, beliefs, and narratives about the phenomenon itself. For example, the heated public debate over whether globalization represents a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing occurs in the arena of ideology.” (p.93)

“Glowing neoliberal narratives of globalization have shaped a large part of public opinion around the world, even where people’s daily experiences reflect a less favourable picture.” (p.96)

“Today, neoliberal decision makers have had to become expert designers of an attractive ideological container for their market-friendly political agenda. Given that the exchange of commodities constitutes the core activity of all market societies, the discourse of globalization itself has turned into an extremely important commodity destined for public consumption.” (p.96)

“The neoliberal portrayal of globalization as some sort of natural force, like the weather or gravity, makes it easier for globalists to convince people that they must adapt to the discipline of the market if they are to survive and prosper.” (p.100)

“Once large segments of the population have accepted the globalist image of a self-directed juggernaut that simply runs its course, it becomes extremely difficult to organize resistance movements. As ordinary people cease to believe in the possibility of choosing alternative social arrangements, globalism’s capacity to construct passive consumer identities gains even greater strength.” (p.103)

“Even if one were to accept the central role of the economic dimension of globalization, there is no reason to believe that these processes must necessarily be connected to the deregulation of markets. An alternative view might instead suggest linking globalization to the creation of a global regulatory framework that would make markets accountable to international political institutions.” (p.99)

“The dominant ideology of our time, globalism has chiselled into the minds of many people around the world a neoliberal understanding of globalization, which, in turn, is sustained and reconfirmed by powerful political institutions and economic corporations. Yet, no single ideology ever enjoys absolute dominance. Gaps between ideological claims and people’s actual experience may usher in a crisis for the dominant paradigm. At such a time, dissenting social groups find it easier to convey to the public their own ideas, beliefs, and practices.

As the 20th century was drawing to a close, antiglobalist arguments began to receive more attention in the public discourse on globalization, a process aided by a heightened awareness of how extreme corporate profit strategies were leading to widening global disparities in wealth and well-being Between 1999 and 2001, the contest between globalism and its ideological challengers erupted in street confrontations in many cities around the world, climaxing in an unprecedented terrorist attack on the Unites States that claimed over 3,000 lives. Who are these antiglobalist forces?” (p.113) Steger then responds to this question, dividing the antiglobalists into two groups – which he groups under the terms ‘Particularist protectionism’ and ‘Universalist protectionism’ – and separates according to the following logic, which is fascinating on several levels: “…let us keep in mind that these groups must be distinguished not only in terms of their political agendas but also with regard to the means they are willing to employ in their struggle against globalization – means that range from terrorist violence to nonviolent parliamentarian methods.” (p.115) [Can we divide the ‘democracies’ of the world according to the same criteria???]

“Without question, the terrorist attacks of 11 September have seriously impacted the shape and direction of those social processes that go by the name of globalization. ” (p.134)

Ref: Manfred B. Steger (c2003) Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

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