Globalization: A theoretical Overview

© Dr. S A Hamed Hosseini, UoN, 2010

As discussed before, ‘globalization’ is one of the most widely used, most hotly debated and the most problematic concepts in social sciences. There is no an overarching agreement among theorists and intellectuals in different areas of social sciences on how to define the concept. In fact, there is a broad range of interpretations; from considering globalization as a new modern condition which has emerged since the 1970s (or according to others even later since 1989) to considering it as an historical process which can be traced back to the 16th century’s discovery of the Americas and the rise of colonialism or according to some even earlier to the period when the world religions extended their global reach. Whereas according to some of these historical accounts, there is nothing new and surprising about today’s globalization, others prefer to divide the history of globalization into a few waves (cycles) and may consider the most recent wave as highly distinctive. According to these historical interpretations, globalization has been cyclically in rise and demise throughout its history and therefore today’s evidence of growing global integration due to the explosion of new communication technologies and free trade networks can demise and rise again in future.

Despite the diversity of interpretations, some common threads can still be found among different definitions of globalization. Globalization as a concept implies the globality of a phenomenon. It implies a sense of integrity, interconnectedness, and supra-territorialization (i.e. going beyond the established boarders based on territorial authorities, autonomies or sovereignty). It implies a belief in the integration of the world as a single space for converging economic, cultural and political relations; an integration at the expense of national independence. It may imply that the recent rapid increase in the ‘quantity’ and the speed of interactions among territorial bodies across the world has finally ended up with a new ‘quality’ where none of these bodies can solve their major problems independently; that there are emerging forces like transnational corporations, transnational organizations and networks (whether peaceful like the Amnesty International or violent like Al-Qaeda) which act beyond the established territorial boundaries, with minimum accountability or dependence to any single nation-state. While some intellectuals and analysts (known as globalists or hyper-globalists) have extensively supported these claims, there are also moderate voices and, of course, some sceptics who cast doubt on either the extent of change (Hirst, et al. 2009) or even the usefulness of concept itself (Rosenberg 2000; Rosenberg 2005).

The claims about the ultimate integrity of world have been strongly questioned from the beginning in all areas of economy, culture and politics. One may argue that, even if we ignore the rising poverty and inequality in some developed societies, the beneficiaries of globalization are no more than one fifth of the world population at best (McMichael 2008). Counterevidence has been used to refute globalist claims. While some have questioned the conceptual utility of globalization for understanding the complexity of current global changes, some others (mostly Marxists and Post-Marxists) have also attacked the idea of globalization as a new political language that serves the new interests of imperialism; as a political economic agenda or ideology invented by the American think thanks, widely propagated by the media pundits, and finally regurgitated by the Third World elites in order to justify the capitalism’s new agenda for extending its reach across the world (Beck, et al. 2003).

Among those who believe in the utility of globalization as a concept, some prefer to limit their scope to certain processes like the expansion of free trade and the deregulated financial relations. These intellectuals, while developing more applicable and less abstract definition, are criticized for ignoring the multidimensionality of current global changes and reducing them to one-dimensional, linear, quantified or reified processes. In contrast, those who prefer broader meanings of globalization by acknowledging the multidimensionality of global changes are still far behind reaching an effective agreement.

This course is not wedded to any particular perspective and it does not consider any theory as sufficient. While developing a critical view through reviewing theories in this course, we acknowledge the contribution of each perspective in casting lights on different aspects of current global transformations. Globalists are right when they refer to the processes through which different parts of the world are getting more interconnected and interdependent. However, skeptics (or internationalists) are also right when they question the assumed global integrity and the globalist exaggerations of the power of transnational forces exercised beyond the authorities of nation states.  This will lead us to admire moderate voices known as ‘transformationalists’ who take a fairer position and stress on the partiality of change. They argue that integration is not complete, that globalization has transformed nation states but has not relinquished them. However, there are still some crucial questions that need to be answered by these moderates. What degree of political and economic integration is sufficient to be considered as the state of globalization rather than of internationalization? Have all territorial bodies been equally incorporated into an integrated global system? If the concept of globalization refers to uncertain, incomplete, partial, and multidimensional social changes, why should we still insist on the usefulness of this concept as an all-encompassing term?

The common problem with these three waves or grand perspectives is that they all aim to develop a general, universal, and ending definition about the very nature of what they call ‘globalization’. This general definition for globalists and sceptics is certain while for transformationalists is uncertain. However, in fact, there is not enough empirical evidence and logical justification to support a general definition.

Of course, there has been a great increase in the amount of communications and connections. Perhaps there are stronger forces today that pursue integrity and there are greater capacities for convergence. However, at the same time the social and cultural divisions have also been widened, inequality within and between countries is still a significant issue, and national agents are still able to play significant roles. There are also some tendencies to dominate the change, to take the advantage of changes, to make profit out of change and to manipulate people’s understandings of change. In addition, risks, diseases, terrorism, serious environmental and health problems, and gender and sexual vulnerabilities have proved to be associated with current global transformation. However, ordinary people have not been just mere bystanders; while many are the victims of these global changes, they have also shown their capacity to respond, resist or redirect the change.

Accordingly, there are some essential questions that we need to bear in mind when reviewing globalization theories and studies. How is the notion of globalization defined? Is globalization defined as a reality or an ideological discourse for securing the interests of a powerful group? Is it defined as a long-term historical process with/without new characteristics? Or simply a modern condition which has emerged out of nowhere? Is globalization defined as a project which is directed by some agents, or as an inevitable, irreversible process with no one in charge? Is the concept of globalization used to describe certain social changes at the global level or to explain the cause roots of those changes? Ironically, globalization is used by some analysts as both the cause and the object of change.  These analysts, tautologically, use the notion of globalization not only to refer to some certain social changes, but also to explain the emergence of these changes.

I, personally, do not think that the concept of globalization can be used to refer to many contradictory, uneven multidimensional transformations. However, I assume it can still be useful if it is defined as a relative ‘orientation’ in social change rather than a phenomenon per se. Therefore, one needs to clearly modify the concept in terms of its object. This will require us to talk always about the ‘globalization of something’ rather than merely globalization. Therefore, the ‘globalization of something’ can be employed to refer to those processes with a strong tendency towards transcending/bypassing the pre-established imagined or real borders.

For instance, the so-called free trade has become a global issue from centuries ago. It has become more intense among societies and has weakened the autonomy of nation-states in regulating their relationships (especially for those which have joined the WTO). However, the globalization of trade has faced its limits; it has not been an irreversible trend; it has not been evenly established, liberalized or experienced among the nations. Not all nations have equally benefited from this partial process. Not all nation states have become fully involved in networks of free trades and not all have exercised same authority in directing the trade and investment. The same holds true for the globalization of ecological problems. Environmental problems are now more global than before. They are globalized, since they are no longer rooted in the activities of any particular community (unlike the environmental crises in ancient civilizations in Easter Islands or Mesopotamia caused by the mismanagement of resources). However, not all societies are equally responsible for these environmental problems; not all societies are equally paying the price; and not all societies (and even not all members of any particular society) are equally exposed to the ecological dangers and hazards.

Accordingly, we can speak of the globalization of production, technology, democracy, American/western culture, consumerism, English language, labour, drug, violence, tourism, sex industry, viral diseases, etc. Each of these processes, ‘globalization’ is only a tendency which is partial, uneven, incomplete and faced with counter tendencies. Sceptics ignore the importance of such a growing tendency in today’s social changes. Although aware of these complexities, transformationalists are still influenced by a globalist language; they prefer to theorize a broad range of contradictory phenomena under a single universal concept.

References

Beck, U., et al. (2003) Global America? the Cultural Consequences of Globalization, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Hirst, P. Q., et al. (2009) Globalization in Question, Cambridge: Polity.

McMichael, P. (2008) Development and social change : a global perspective, Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press.

Rosenberg, J. (2000) The Follies of Globalisation Theory: Polemical Essays, London; New York: Verso.

____ (2005) ‘Globalization Theory: A Post Mortem’, International Politics, 42 (1): 2-74.

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One Response to “Globalization: A theoretical Overview”

  1. Lucius Koski Says:

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