Since its earliest appearance in the 1960s, the term globalization has been used to describe a process, a condition, a system, a force, and an age. To avoid both the indiscriminate usage of these concepts and the sloppy conflation of process and condition that encourages circular definitions, it is necessary to draw meaningful analytical distinctions between causes and effects. For example, the term globality refers to global phenomena as a social condition, whereas globalization signifies a set of social processes that are thought to transform our present social condition into one of globality. Indeed, like modernization and other verbal nouns that end in the suffix -ization, globalization captures the dynamic of development or unfolding along discernable patterns. At its core, then, globalization is about both new and intensifying forms of human interactions and interconnectedness that stretch across the planet.
At the same time, however, scholars have increasingly realized the dangers of conceptualizing globalization processes according to rigidly nested geographical scales separating the global from the national or the local. This crucial task of rethinking historically contingent categories of spatiality yields important insights into the nature of the mutual embeddedness of the global in the local, and vice versa. Hence, the fledgling academic field of global(ization) studies requires methodologies and theoretical models that engage not only global scalings but also attend to both national and subnational levels.
Since the first scholarly debates on globalization in the 1980s, globalization has remained a slippery and hotly contested concept. In spite of the remarkable proliferation of research programs, students of globalization have remained divided on the utility of various methodological approaches; the value of available empirical evidence for gauging the extent, impact, and direction of globalization; and, of course, its normative implications. The failure to arrive at a broad scholarly consensus attests not only to the contentious nature of academic inquiry in general but also reflects the uneven and contradictory nature of the phenomenon itself. Hence, there seems to be very little utility in forcing such a complex set of social processes as globalization into a single analytic framework.
The persistence of academic divisions on the subject notwithstanding, it is also important to acknowledge some emerging points of agreement. During the 2000s, in particular, there has been a noticeable convergence of scholarly views on the following three positions: (1) Globalization is actually occurring and can be defined according to certain characteristics. (2) Globalization is a long-term historical process that, over many centuries, has crossed a number of qualitatively distinct thresholds. (3) Globalization is a multidimensional set of social processes that cannot be reduced to its economic and technological aspects; it also contains crucial political, cultural, and ideological dimensions. The bulk of this essay will explore these three positions in some detail.
The Occurrence And Characteristics Of Globalization
During the 2000s, it has become increasingly evident that neither so-called hyperglobalizers who link just about everything to some transnational process nor so-called globalization skeptics who contend that globalization amounts to little more than “globaloney” have offered convincing arguments for their respective views. While the skeptics’ insistence on a more careful and precise use of the term has forced the participants in the globalization debates to hone their analytic skills, their wholesale rejection of globalization as a vacuous concept has often served as a convenient excuse—frequently offered in the name of scientific precision—to avoid exploring the actual phenomenon itself. In the early twenty-first century, many social scientists have converged on the position that the global transformation of social relations is real and can be appropriately subsumed under the general term globalization. However, rather than constructing grand narratives, many researchers have instead opted for methodological middle-range approaches designed to explore specific manifestations of globalization.
These more modest research initiatives have made it possible to identify four central characteristics of globalization. First, globalization involves the creation of new and the multiplication of existing social networks and activities that challenge traditional political, economic, cultural, and geographical boundaries. For example, the creation of satellite news corporations is made possible by the combination of professional networking, technological innovation, and political decisions that permit the emergence of new social orders that transcend parochial arrangements.
The second characteristic of globalization concerns the expansion and the stretching of social relations, activities, and interdependencies. Modern financial markets stretch around the globe, and electronic trading occurs around the clock. Gigantic shopping malls have emerged on all continents, offering those consumers who can afford them commodities from all regions of the world—including products whose various components were manufactured in different countries. Aided by new technology and economic deregulation, even criminal networks like terrorist cells have sprung up in dozens of nations on all five continents, ultimately turning groups such as al-Qaida into global terrorist networks capable of planning and executing attacks on a heretofore unimaginable scale. The same process of social stretching applies to less sinister associations, such as nongovernmental organizations, commercial enterprises, social clubs, and countless regional and global institutions and associations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the Common Market of the South, Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Economic Forum, Microsoft, and General Motors, to name but a few.
Third, globalization involves the intensification and acceleration of social relations. The Internet relays distant information in mere seconds, and satellites provide consumers with real-time pictures of remote events. The intensification of worldwide social interdependencies means that local happenings are shaped by events occurring far away and vice versa. The ubiquitous phrase that “globalization compresses time and space” simply means that things are happening faster and distances are shrinking dramatically. Indeed, the current rise of the global network society would have not been possible without a technological revolution—one that has been powered chiefly by the rapid development of new information and transportation technologies. Proceeding at an ever-accelerating pace, these innovations are reshaping the social landscape of human life.
Fourth, the creation, expansion, and intensification of social relations do not occur merely on an objective, material level. Thus, globalization also involves the subjective plane of human consciousness. People become increasingly conscious of growing manifestations of social interdependence and the enormous acceleration of social interactions. Their awareness of the receding importance of geographical boundaries and distances fosters a keen sense of becoming part of a global whole. Reinforced on a daily basis, these persistent experiences of global interdependence gradually change people’s individual and collective identities and thus dramatically impact the way they act in the world.
Thus, a comprehensive definition of globalization that reflects this general consensus on these four constitutive characteristics might look like this: Globalization refers to a multidimensional set of social processes that create, multiply, stretch, and intensify worldwide social relations while at the same time fostering in people a growing awareness of deepening connections between the local and the distant.
Globalization As A Process
The answer to the question of whether globalization really constitutes a new phenomenon depends upon how far back in time one is willing to extend the chain of causation. Some researchers consciously limit the historical scope of globalization to the last four decades of postindustrialism in order to capture its contemporary features. Others are willing to extend this timeframe to include the path-breaking socioeconomic and political developments of the nineteenth century. Still others argue that globalization really represents the continuation and extension of complex processes that began with the emergence of modernity and the capitalist world system some five centuries ago. And a few remaining scholars refuse to confine globalization to time periods measured in mere decades or centuries. Rather, they suggest that these processes have been unfolding for millennia, since about 10,000 BCE, when humans first settled on all five continents.
No doubt, each of these contending perspectives contains important insights. The advocates of the first approach have marshaled impressive evidence for their view that the dramatic expansion and acceleration of global exchanges since the early 1970s represents a quantum leap in the history of globalization. The proponents of the second view correctly emphasize the tight connection between contemporary forms of globalization and the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution. The representatives of the third perspective rightly point to the significance of the time-space compression that occurred in the sixteenth century with the capture of the Americas by European powers. Finally, the advocates of the fourth approach advance a rather sensible argument when they insist that any truly comprehensive account of globalization falls woefully short without taking into consideration ancient developments.
Regardless of one’s preference for a particular perspective, it can hardly be denied that scholars have increasingly turned toward history to make sense of globalization. While researchers in the early 1990s tended to emphasize the novelty of the phenomenon—sometimes dating its origins as late as the 1989 collapse of the bipolar world—the prevailing view in more recent years has shifted toward the longevity of these processes while recognizing that globalization has undergone dramatic changes and qualitative leaps at certain points in history. As a result, new periodization efforts have yielded much revised chronologies that tend to eschew conventional Eurocentric historical narratives and instead present globalization not as a linear, diffusionist process starting in the West, but as a multinodal, multidirectional dynamic full of unanticipated surprises, violent twists, sudden punctuations, and dramatic reversals.
Globalization As A Multidimensional Process
A multidimensional set of social processes, globalization cannot be reduced to its economic and technological aspects. It must be complemented by sustained explorations of its political, cultural, and ideological dimensions. This final point of agreement affirms the importance of presenting globalization as a multidimensional process. From its beginnings in the late 1990s, the academic field of global studies has been dominated by accounts focusing on economic and technological aspects of the phenomenon. To be sure, a proper recognition of the crucial role of these factors should be part of any comprehensive interpretation of globalization. But it is equally important to avoid the trap of technological and economic determinism. The burgeoning literature on various nonstructural aspects of globalization attests to the growing recognition of the centrality of ideas, subjectivity, and symbolic exchanges in the current acceleration of globalization processes. In general, researchers have identified three major dimensions of globalization: the economic, the political, and the cultural-ideological.
Economic globalization refers to the intensification and stretching of economic interrelations across the globe. Gigantic flows of capital and technology have stimulated trade in goods and services. Markets have extended their reach around the world, in the process creating new linkages among national economies. Huge transnational corporations, powerful international economic institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, and large regional trading systems like the European Union and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation have emerged as the major building blocs of the twenty-first century’s global economic order. Moreover, the liberalization of financial transactions has led to the deregulation of interest rates, the removal of credit controls, and the privatization of government-owned banks and financial institutions. Globalization of financial trading allows for increased mobility among different segments of the financial industry, with fewer restrictions and greater investment opportunities.
Most people associate economic globalization with the controversial issue of free trade. After all, the total value of world trade exploded from $57 billion in 1947 to an astonishing $6 trillion in the late 1990s. During the 2000s, the public debate over the alleged benefits and drawbacks of free trade reached a fever pitch, as wealthy Northern countries have increased their efforts to establish a single global market through regional and international trade-liberalization agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Free trade proponents assure the public that the elimination or reduction of existing trade barriers among nations will enhance consumer choice, increase global wealth, secure peaceful international relations, and spread new technologies around the world. While there seems to be some evidence for the increase of productivity as a result of free trade, it is less clear whether the resulting profits have been distributed equitably within and among countries. Many studies show that the gap between rich and poor countries is widening at a fast pace. Hence, free trade proponents have encountered severe criticism from labor unions and environmental groups, who claim that the elimination of social control mechanisms has resulted in a lowering of global labor standards, severe forms of ecological degradation, and the growing indebtedness of the global South. The emergence of large-scale social protests around the world attests to the pervasiveness of these dissenting views.
Political globalization refers to the intensification and expansion of political interrelations across the globe. These processes raise an important set of political issues pertaining to the principle of state sovereignty, the growing impact of intergovernmental organizations, and the future prospects for regional and global governance. Obviously, these themes respond to the evolution of political arrangements beyond the framework of the nation-state, thus breaking new conceptual ground. Contemporary manifestations of political globalization are apparent in the partial permeation of old territorial borders, in the process also softening hard conceptual boundaries and cultural lines of demarcation. Emphasizing these tendencies, hyperglobalizers have suggested that the period since the late 1970s has been marked by a radical “deterritorialization” of politics, rule, and governance. Considering such pronouncements premature at best and erroneous at worst, globalization skeptics have not only affirmed the continued relevance of the nation-state as the political container of modern social life but have also pointed to the emergence of regional economic and political alliances as evidence for new forms of territorialization. As each group presents different assessments of the fate of the modern nation-state, they also quarrel over the relative importance of political and economic factors.
A third group has tried to offer a synthesis that captures important insights from both hyperglobalizers and skeptics. Conceding that globalization has exerted a considerable influence on most national economies to follow the Anglo-American model, they nonetheless insist that there remain important differences among national economies. In short, capitalism does not develop toward a one-size-fits-all model but comes in several varieties. Members of this third group, who focus on Europe, have furnished empirical studies suggesting that the rise of the new global economy in the late 1980s neither led to the destruction of some of the central features of the traditional European welfare state nor eliminated the fiscal powers of nation-states. Thus, these scholars conclude that globalization appears to have had a differential impact on social and industrial policy in Europe.
Out of these disagreements, however, there have emerged three fundamental issues and themes that probe the extent of political globalization: (1) the curtailment of the power of the nation-state by massive flows of capital, people, and technology across territorial boundaries; (2) the search for the primary causes of these flows; and (3) the possible emergence of forms of global governance and extensive network of nongovernmental groups often described as “global civil society.” Indeed, political globalization is perhaps most visible in the rise of supraterritorial institutions and associations held together by common norms and interests. In this early phase of global governance, these structures resemble an eclectic web of interrelated power centers such as municipal and provincial authorities, regional blocs, international organizations, and national and international private-sector associations.
Cultural globalization refers to the intensification and expansion of cultural flows across the globe. The exploding network of cultural interconnections and interdependencies in the last decades has led some commentators to suggest that cultural practices, not the economy, lie at the very heart of contemporary globalization. Facilitated by the Internet and other new technologies, the dominant symbolic systems of meaning of the global age—individualism, consumerism, and various religious discourses—circulate more freely and widely than ever before. Since 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. In the early twenty-first century, cultural practices frequently escape fixed localities such as town and nation, eventually acquiring new meanings in interaction with dominant global themes. The thematic landscape traversed by scholars of cultural globalization is vast, and the questions they raise are too numerous to be fleshed out in this short essay. Some of the most important issues include the tension between homogenization, difference, and hybridization within and among various cultures; the crucial role of transnational media corporations in disseminating popular culture to all parts of the planet; the globalization of languages; and the impact of materialist and consumerist values on Earth’s ecological systems. Finally, cultural globalization contains important ideological aspects involving various norms, claims, beliefs, and narratives about the phenomenon itself. The heated public debate over whether globalization represents a good or a bad thing highlights the importance of ideology. As a result, various ideologies of globalism compete with each other in the struggle to shape public opinion around the world.
No doubt, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing political fallout have given an unexpected jolt to the contemporary struggle over the meaning and the direction of globalization. In general terms, one can discern two possible future trajectories of globalization. First, the expanding “global war on terror” might stop, or at least significantly slow down, even such a powerful set of social processes as globalization. There are already some early warning signs. More intense border controls and security measures at the world’s major air and seaports have made travel and international trade more cumbersome. Since 2001, calls for the tightening of national borders and the maintenance of cultural distinctiveness have been heard more frequently in public discourse. Second, it is also possible that the ongoing efforts to contain these violent forces of particularism might actually increase international cooperation and encourage the forging of new global alliances. As a result, there is the possibility that globalization may actually intensify. Given these conflicting prospects, it seems entirely appropriate to end this essay with the observation that the future of globalization hangs in the balance.
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