Globalization, Culture and Identity

© Dr. S A Hamed Hosseini, UoN, 2010                                             SOCA6120                                          15-April-2010

Cite this piece: Hosseini, S. A. (2010), Globalization, Culture and Identity [online]. Available:, [Accessed xx/xx/20xx].


Do we live in a culturally converging world? What are the cultural consequences of globalization? “In terms of Culture, is Globalization an opportunity or a threat?” as asked by UNESCO[1]. If globalization means greater integration and/or interconnection, would this overwhelm the world’s cultural diversity? Does globalization encourage cultural homogenization, polarization or hybridization? These are perhaps the most important questions that can be asked when it comes to examine the effects of globalization on culture. However, similar to the key questions that we have asked in the previous weeks of discussion about the other aspects of global change, these questions can be scrutinized themselves. What do we mean by globalization? What do we mean by culture? Is it fair/wise to think that globalization is a phenomenon independent from cultural changes? Wouldn’t these questions depoliticize our understanding of cultural change (at the global level) by not addressing the self interested powerful forces behind change that aim to influence cultural interactions and interconnections? Considering such concerns, then perhaps it is always necessary to ask ourselves how our cultural behaviors are shaped/influenced, by whom, in whose interest and to what ends. This means that we need to be aware of power relations underlying cultural changes at both the local and global levels.

What is Culture?

We have already discussed the notion of globalization and recognized that even if we define it as a process of greater social and economic integration, this has not been natural, neutral, and inclusive. The notion of culture needs to be scrutinized too. Culture is not only one of the most complicated words in English language (Williams 1958), but has also been evolving historically. Culture is generally defined as a set of shared values, norms, attitudes, goals, practices, knowledge, and conventions. For a long time (especially among early anthropologists), culture was used to be applied to primitive, native, and tribal societies implying each locality has its own cultural particularities. The end of colonization period and the rise of independent nation-states in the 20th century expanded the scope of using this concept to refer to nationally shared values and norms. While localists may still emphasize the local nature of culture, arguing that the nationalistic conceptions of culture ignore local/communal diversities, globalists, in contrast, argue that cultures are now less attached to their local and national contexts and have become more and more homogenized or hybridized due to the recently accelerated social interconnections. Economic liberalization, new information and communication technologies, as well as the increasing rates of migration have all contributed to the emergence of cosmopolitan cultures and cosmopolitanist identities.

However, looking deeper into the reality of cultural changes implies that taking such a local vs. global dualism is not necessary. Culture is a multidimensional phenomenon. As discussed by Skelton and Allen (1999: 4), culture “as representation, as discourse, as practice, as product, as action, as explanation … is not just about high and low, not about product and audience, not just about ways of doing something. It is of course all of these.” Cultures evolve through interactions. Therefore, culture is not just about where we are (spatially and chronologically), but also how ‘we’ (vs. ‘they’) interact with the other societies/communities. Culture is not a sphere separate from other dimensions of social life (e.g. the political and the economic), but also is a component of all social actions, including the economic and political ones. For instance, in a consumerist culture, as Naomi Klein argues (2000), branding is not just about naming products, for instance. Branding is also about constructing fluid cultures of consumption, life styles, identities and even representing social divisions. The rich and the poor, the youth and the aged, can be easily identified by their life style and the brands that they consume.

If culture is about constructing and propagating meanings and identities, then we can assume culture as a field of contention (a battleground) where different forces contest with each other over controlling this process of meaning/identity construction in a way that would serve their interests. This is because culture plays a central role in economic, social and political developments. One way to use culture as a means to pursue political and economic goals is to commercialize culture by reducing it into exchangeable cultural commodities and turning people into passive consumers of cultural goods. Commodities, in turn, carry ideas, values and shape identities. Therefore, they carry the identity of those who create and distribute them; they become signifiers of prestige and represent individuals’ social status. A significant body of literature on the impacts of globalization on culture focuses on such processes of cultural commodification. While some scholars/intellectuals are critical of this reality, others have already accepted it and used it to show how trad in cultural goods has evolved in the recent decades and they would like to consider the growth in this type of trade as an indicator for cultural homogenization. The global market value of cultural and creative industries has been estimated at 1.3 trillion USD and is rapidly expanding as reported by UNESCO (2005). According to the report, between 1994 and 2002, international trade in cultural goods increased from 38 billion USD to 60 billion USD.[2]

Nevertheless, the same report shows the very unequal nature of such a highly commodified cultural globalization. Three countries (i.e. the United Kingdom, the United States and China) produced 40 percent of the world’s cultural products in 2002, while Latin America and Africa together accounted for less than four percent according to a new report published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2005). Between 1994 and 2003, the UK was the biggest single exporter of cultural goods in that year (USD 8.5 billion) followed by the USA (USD 7.6 billion) and China (USD 5.2 billion). “The USA was the biggest importer of cultural goods” in 2002 “(USD 15.3 billion), followed by the UK (USD 7.8 billion), and Germany (USD 4.1 billion).”[3] The report also shows that there is a significant gap between the developing and developed world in terms of value of importing or exporting cultural products despite the total growth in trade. UNESCO’s 2009 report on cultural diversity clearly shows the imbalances between the developed and developing world in terms of media and cultural production, exports and imports (UNESCO 2009: 131).

UNESCO (2009) UNESCO World Report: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue, Paris: United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, p. 131

UNESCO (2009) UNESCO World Report: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue, Paris: United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, p. 132

Despite the global expansion of Internet, “90% of the world’s 6000 languages are not represented on the Internet.” [4] In generating such a significant disparity among regions, corporations play a great role. “In 2006 the six largest multimedia and transnational ‘cultural’ corporations — Disney, Time Warner, General Electric, Sony, Vivendi and Bertelsmann — generated about US$320 billion in annual revenue. Generally speaking, there has been a concentration of power in the hands of a few global media players, notably AOL, News Corporation, CNN, MTV and Google, in addition to those cited above” (UNESCO 2009: 131). Considering the very imbalanced nature of cultural globalizations, some prefer to use the term ‘cultural imperialism’ to describe the current status quo (Schiller 1969, 1989, 1996).

“Today, a handful of giants dominates global media and telecommunications”, writes Warf (2007: 91).[5] However, no matter how powerful are these forces (e.g. mass media, corporations, states), culture is too complex to be successfully planned from above; there are many other interfering forces with different interests; people are not passive audience; and collective actions and resistance can create alternative bases for challenging cultural hegemony. As expressed in the UNESCO’s 2009 report on cultural diversity, “While it is undeniable that globalization has played an integrative role as a ‘window on the world’, mostly to the profit of a few powerful international conglomerates, recent shifts prompted by technological innovation and new consumption patterns are spurring new forms of ‘globalization from below’ and creating a two-way flow of communication and cultural products” (UNESCO 2009: 131).


Klein, N. (2000). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (1st ed.). London: Flamingo.

Schiller, H. I. (1969) Mass communications and American empire, New York,: A. M. Kelley.

____ (1989) Culture, Inc. : the corporate takeover of public expression, New York: Oxford University Press.

____ (1996) Information inequality: the deepening social crisis in America, New York: Routledge.

UNESCO (2009) UNESCO World Report: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue, Paris: United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.

UNESCO (2005) Reaching the Marginalized, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UNESCO (2005) International Flows of Selected Cultural Goods and Services, 1994-2003, Montreal: UNESCO.

Skelton, T. and Allen, T. (1999) Culture and global change, London: Routledge.

Warf, B. (2007) ‘Oligopolization of Global Media and Telecommunications and its Implications for Democracy’, Ethics, Place & Environment, 10 (1): 89-105.

Williams, R. (1958) Culture and society, 1780-1950, London: Chatto and Windus.


[2] Entitled, International Flows of Selected Cultural Goods and Services, 1994-2003, the report analyses cross-border trade data from about 120 countries on selected products, such as books, CDs, videogames and sculptures. It presents new methodology to better reflect cultural trade flows, contributing to UNESCO’s effort to collect and analyse data that clearly illustrate the central role of culture in economic, social and human development.

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] “The political dimensions of corporate consolidation in telecommunications are aptly demonstrated by the case of Rupert Murdoch, the capo di tutti capi of the media industry. Murdoch began his career in Australian newspapers in the 1950s, expanding into British tabloids in the 1960s and the US media market in the 1970s (Shawcross, 1993). By 2002 Murdoch owned more than 750 businesses in more than 50 countries, although three-quarters of the firm’s earnings come from the US. As chair of the News Corporation, Murdoch runs an enormous media empire that stretches across the planet, including:

  • 175 newspapers and magazines, such as Australia’s Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, and Sunday Telegraph; News of the World and The Sun in London; the Times of London; the New York Post (purchased in 1976, sold in 1988); San Antonio News Express; the Weekly Standard (1995), edited by famed neoconservative Bill Kristol and avidly read by the Bush administration; the Boston Herald; the Chicago Sun-Times (1983); and TV Guide (1988);
  • HarperCollins Publishers;
  • 35 local television stations that reach 44% of the US population;
  • 11 national and 22 regional cable and satellite channels (including Fox News, the leading cable news network in the US), and also FX and the National Geographic channel;
  • Twentieth Century Fox production studios (1985);
  • Britain’s Sky satellite network (1989), which also purchased British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990;
  • Asia’s Star TV network (1993), including China’s Phoenix InfoNews, which is modeled after Fox News in the US; and
  • PanAmSat Corporation, the satellite owner that most US cable systems rely on for the signals they relay to homes (Fallows, 2003).”


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