Contested Meanings of Globalization

© Dr. S A Hamed Hosseini, 2010

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Cite this Source: HOSSEINI, S. A. 2010. Contested Meanings of Globalization [Online]. Available: [Accessed on   /  /20   ]

It is now more than two decades that the concept of globalization, despite all controversies and disappointments about its usefulness, resist becoming an old-fashioned catchphrase. The concept of ‘globalization’ is at the center of our discussions and investigations in this course. It is important to know that there has never been any consent among social scholars on how to define and apply this concept; in many studies, the meanings of these concepts are either taken for granted or left unexpanded. Therefore, contributions to the globalization literature have added more confusion than clarification. It remains, however, essential to bear in mind that the diversity of perspectives can be a rich source of inspiration for researchers and the main disputed insights in defining this concept need to be reviewed and compared in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. In the following sub-section, I will briefly discuss the main sources of ambiguities around globalization and suggest a way to overcome them:

Globalization: an ambiguous concept?

‘Globalization’ is one the most problematic terms in social sciences, which became highly popular in the 1990s. It is vaguely defined in many studies; various realities (from economic liberalization to the Americanization of the world, from the expansion of information technologies to the growth of global poverty) have been considered as the actual manifestations of this term. In English language, there is a linguistic dilemma related to this concept. While some authors use ‘globalization’ as a transitive verb (meaning it requires a direct object like the globalization of Internet), others may prefer to use it as an intransitive verb (with no particular object that implies globalization is a phenomenon in itself). Besides, some prefer to use the term in a way that implies globalization is an intentional and planned act of globalizing a particular mode of development (like the globalization of a business by its owners and managers) and some other authors may prefer to use it as a transition to a new situation which is inevitable and no particular actors are in charge of this process. However, this linguistic ambiguity can be an advantage as in reality there is not a sharp division between globalization as an emerging condition and globalization as a project.

The word ‘globalization’ is derived from the term ‘global’, which implies all-inclusiveness, shrinking space and perhaps was manifested for the first time in the photographs of the earth taken from space (in the  1960s). It brings to mind a sense of ‘connectivity’ (that we are all in one another’s backyard). The notion of globalization found its way into sociology perhaps by Robertson’s work (1992) and became very popular in everyday conversations, academic publications and public discourses during the 1990s to the point that it was considered as the 1990s’ buzzword.

Globalization in Social Sciences

There are two common tendencies among social scientists in defining globalization:

(1)   There is an inclination to define globalization as a one-dimensional phenomenon mostly by referring to flows of trade, goods and capital, economic relations facilitated by new information and communication technologies; This type of definition, although provides a higher level of certainty when analyzing reality, fails to consider the complexity of global changes; in other words, globalization is reduced to economic change, and as a result, the political, cultural, social, and ecological dimensions are ignored. The following quote represents such a view:

“Whether in trade, finance, or the speed and scope of communication, the degree of interpenetration of national markets and cultures is unprecedented. We smoke Marlboro cigarettes, eat sushi, take-away pizza, and watch CNN wherever we are. English is emerging as the international language of communication whether it is for air trafficking control or scientific report … blue jeans, sweatshirts and trainers are ubiquitous.” (Hutton 1997: 55)

(2)   There is also a different tendency among social scientists towards defining globalization as a multidimensional phenomenon that includes cultural, political and economic aspects of global transitions. However, this definition, although more comprehensive than the former, runs the risk of ambiguity and abstractness. This can reduce the level of certainty and clarity in our analyses.  Social scientists with this orientation tend to define globalization in a more abstract way compared to the former vein. According to them, globalization can be defined as follows:

Intensification and acceleration of interactions, increasing interconnections, and interdependence among localities, integration into a unique system; or in general compression of time and space in all aspects of life;

The following quote represents the above view:

“for the vast majority of people, the basic fact of the modern world is that it is connected. Nowhere is remote in the way that so many places were remote a century, or even a generation ago … Today it is only the super rich who can easily escape other people, and even they depend on armies of assistants to protect their privacy.” (Mulgan 1998: 19)

These globalization theorists have attempted to save the term from becoming a buzzword by using it to refer to a multiplicity of global transformations. Globalization from this perspective is the “increasing scope and intensity of commercial, communicative, and exchange relations beyond national borders” (Habermas 2001: 66-7). Globalization describes a significant change in the organization of social relations through the burgeoning interdependence of social spaces. Held (1997) argues that “Globalization is a multidimensional phenomenon involving diverse domains of activity and interaction including the economic, political, technological, military, legal, cultural and environmental.” Although it has a very close link to capitalism, globalization cannot merely be reduced to the capitalist system and its material relations of production. However, such a broad conception has caused increased confusion when addressing many contradictory processes and has resulted in fragmentation rather than integration.

How to overcome conceptual ambiguities

One way to overcome this conceptual ambiguity is to consider ‘globalization’ as a tendency within social processes to expand beyond pre-established geographical and cultural boundaries. Therefore, it is always necessary to think about globalization not as a phenomenon in itself but as a process of something becoming global, i.e. the ‘globalization of something’. Therefore, it is recommended that we acknowledge there are many issues in the world that may cut across political and social boundaries. Consider the following facts:

  •       Today, CNN, McDonald’s, MTV, Harry Potter, Pop music, iPods, T-shirts, Chinese products, reach millions across the world.
  •      The 2008 mortgage crisis in the US affected interest rates in Australia
  •      Outbreak of SARS in Asia kills people in Canada in a matter of few days
  •      In 20th century, Asia experienced 69-fold increase in export
  •      Total sales of many TNCs are higher than the GDP of many countries
  •      Since the 1970s, there has been massive increase in world trade, FDI, export, world GDP.
  •      “Global daily turnover in currency markets rises to $3.2 trillion; US dollar involved in more than two-fifths of all currency transactions” (the Bank for International Settlements)

To what phenomenon/reality are these facts pointing altogether? You may answer to the integration and interconnectedness of the world due to the growing degrees of economic exchanges.

Therefore, it is recommended that we specify what we mean by globalization by referring to processes of global change or what we may define as ‘globalization processes’. By ‘globalization processes’, we refer to those transformative processes through which social relations and the flows of social entities – organized in different social sectors such as trade, knowledge, policy, technology, health, education, and finance – become ‘partially’ but significantly independent of any specific geographical space or territory. Certain objective facts can be specified as examples of such processes:

  •      The expansion of capital, trade and investment across the world;
  •      The transnationalization of class relations (the elite in China and South East Asia is now experiencing stronger and more cooperative connections to the elite or capitalist class in North America).
  •      The global extension of neoliberal socioeconomic policies and the related financial relations;
  •      The rise of mass culture (pop-culture) and mass production;
  •      The shift of power to transnational actors such as corporations;
  •      The growing importance of non-governmental actors and regional integration (the number of international non-governmental organizations and inter-governmental organizations has been increasing dramatically since the end of 1980s);
  •      The spread of universal values such as human rights and civil rights;
  •      The emerging supra-territorial environmental problems and risk society;
  •      The growing interdependence and interconnectedness of societies through the recent immense intensification of communicative relations;
  •      The vast spread of the consumerist values and global consciousness;
  •      The increasing waves of migration and the consequent multiplication and pluralization of world society.

Many studies today show that these processes have been asymmetrical, partial, and directed by power forces (Scholte 2000; Held and Kaya 2007). They have mostly resulted in counter-productive reactions as well as reformist and alternative-seeking responses from all over the world. Hence, we have to be aware that these processes have their own limits. Consider the following facts:

  •      Most of foreign investments circulate among the rich countries
  •      The value of trade has not significantly changed for the rich societies since 1913.
  •      States and local communities still have the agency to embrace or resist change
  •      Governments still have the authority to regulate or deregulate and to redistribute the benefits and losses
  •      There is a growing demand for redefining welfare states instead of weakening them
  •      There are main regional trading blocs: NAFTA, EU, ASEAN+ Japan + AusNZ (significance of intra-regional trade is growing)
  •      Russia, the US and the UK are responsible for 71 % of arms deals (in 2006)

What reality are these facts pointing to about globalization?


Habermas, J. (2001), The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, Technology Press., Cambridge: Massachusetts.

Held, D. (1997), Democracy and Globalization [online], Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. Available:, [Accessed 14 Dec. 2003].

Held, D. & Kaya, A. (eds.) (2007), Global Inequality: Patterns and Explanations. Polity Press, Malden; Cambridge.

Hutton, W. (1997), The State to Come, Vintage, London.

Mulgan, G. (1998), Connexity: how to live in a connected world, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Mass.

Robertson, R. (1992), Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture, Sage, London.

Scholte, J. A. (2000), Globalization: a Critical Introduction, St. Martin’s Press, New York.


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