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Appearing first in the 1960s, ”globalization” has become a central but contested sociological concept. Although the origins of globalization can be found in the distant past, the concept was used widely after the end of the cold war, after which it was possible at least to imagine a ”borderless” world in which people, goods, ideas, and images would flow with relative ease. The global division between capitalism and state socialism gave way to a more uncertain world in which capitalism was the dominant economic and social system. This coincided with the development of digital communication technologies from the late 1980s and their dramatic consequences for socioeconomic organization and interpersonal interaction. Global restructuring of states, financial systems, production technologies and the politics of neoliberalism in turn accompanied these developments, creating previously unprecedented levels of transnational interdependence.
Globalization is not a single process. Economic globalization refers to such things as the global dominance of transnational corporations, global finance, flexible production and assembly, and the rise of information and service economies. Political globalization refers to the growth of international organizations, subnational regional autonomy, post-welfare public policies, and global social movements. Globalization is a cultural process, exemplified by the growth of global consumption cultures, migration, tourism, media and information flows, and transnational identities. Digital communication facilitates the experience of spatially distant events at the same time (sometimes called ”instantaneity”), while creating a complex range of social interconnections along with a partial collapse of boundaries within national, cultural, and political spaces. However, the meaning and significance of globalization remains far from clear. There are globalization optimists such as Friedman (2000) and Ohmae (2005) who see a ”borderless world” increasing human potential, but others are more pessimistic and critical of globalization’s consequences (e.g., Falk 1999). Some such as Urry (2003) and Giddens (1999) regard globalization as an emergent process sui generis, while Rosenberg (2000) rejects this view arguing that what is called ”globalization” is the effect of complex social, economic, cultural and political changes.
Globalization does not simply refer to increasing global interconnections but also to socio-spatial restructuring. For example through privatization and deregulation during the 1980s and 1990s various governance functions shifted from governments to the corporate world. Global financial cities then become strategic sites for the acceleration of capital and information flows, and increased in importance and power relative to nation-states. There have emerged new ”corridors” and zones around nodal cities that are increasingly independent from their environs (Sassen 1996). But there remains considerable debate over the relationship between states and globalization (Ray 2007).
There are many theories of globalization. Robertson emphasizes ”global consciousness,” referring to ”the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole” (1992: 8). This provokes new cultural conflicts for example between universalism and particularism. Religious traditions can be mobilized to provide an ultimate justification for one’s view of the world – thus ”fundamentalist” groups combine traditionalism with a global agenda. A globalized world is thus integrated but not harmonious.
For Giddens the concept of time-space distantiation is central. Locales are increasingly shaped by events far away and vice versa, while social relations are disembedded, or ”lifted out” from locales. For example, peasant households in traditional societies were largely self-sufficient and money was of limited value. Modernization replaced local exchange with universal money exchange, which simplifies otherwise impossibly complex transitions and enables the circulation of complex forms of information and value in abstract and symbolic forms. Money exchange establishes social relations across time and space, which get intensified with globalization. Similarly, expert cultures arise as a result of the scientific revolutions bringing increases in technical knowledge and specialization. Specialist knowledge is then globally organized while increased social distance is created between professionals and their clients. As expert knowledge dominates globally, local perspectives become devalued and modern societies are reliant on expert systems. Trust is increasingly crucial to both monetary and expert systems and is the ”glue” that holds modern societies together. But where trust is undermined, individuals experience ontological insecurity and a sense of insecurity with regard to their social reality.
Giddens (1999) also describes globalization as a ”runaway world” which ”is emerging in an anarchic, haphazard fashion.” The global order is the result of an intersection of four processes -capitalism (economic logic), the interstate system (world order), militarism (world security and threats), and industrialism (the division of labor and lifestyles). However, Giddens does not say what the weight of each of these factors is and whether they change historically.
Similarly, David Harvey emphasizes the ways in which globalization revolutionizes the qualities of space and time. As space appears to shrink to a ”global village” of telecommunications and ecological interdependencies and as time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is, so we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds (1990: 240-2). Time-space compression is driven by flexible accumulation and new technologies, the production of signs and images, just-in-time delivery, reduced turnover times and speeding up, and both de- and reskilling. Harvey points for support to the ephemerality of fashions, products, production techniques, speedup and vertical disintegration, financial markets and computerized trading, instantaneity and disposability, and regional competitiveness.
For Urry the changes associated with globalization are so far-reaching that we should now talk of ”sociology beyond societies.” The alleged decline of the nation-state in a globalized world results in the redundancy of the concept of ”society” as a territorially bounded entity, which in turn shakes the foundations of the discipline. In its place Urry proposes new socialities of space (social topologies), regions (interregional competition), networks (new social morphology), and fluids (global enterprises). Mobility is central to this thesis since globalization involves the complex movement of people, images, goods, finances, and so on that constitutes a process across regions in faster and unpredictable shapes, all with no clear point of arrival or departure.
Despite the contrasting theoretical understandings of globalization, there is some measure of agreement that it poses new opportunities and threats. For example, globalization offers new forms of cosmopolitanism and economic growth but also increased global risks such as ecological crisis, global pandemics, and international crime and terrorism (Beck 2000). Globalization may be seen as encroachment and colonization as global corporations and technologies erode local customs and ways of life, which in turn engenders new forms of protest and assertion of local cultural identity. By contrast with globalization enthusiasts it can be argued that global patterns of inequality have become increasingly polarized. The global ”war on terror” further dents the idea of a ”borderless world.”
Globalization has been the focus of extensive social movement activism, especially to neoliberal globalism represented by bodies such as the WTO. Such activists include churches, nationalist parties, leftist parties, environmentalists, peasant unions, anti-racism groups, anarchists and some charities. Glasius et al. (2002) identify the emergence of a ”global civil society” exemplified by the growth of ”parallel summits” such as the 2001 Porto Alegre meeting in Brazil to protest against the Davos (Switzerland) World Economic Forum. These are organized through multiple networks of social actors and NGOs operating on local and international levels. Many activists are not necessarily opposed to globalization as such but to economic neoliberalism intent on constricting local lifestyles in the pursuit of profit. For anti-globalization critics, globalization creates a ”borderless” world for capital and finance but not for labor, since increasingly severe immigration controls exist in most developed countries while labor often lacks basic rights. If we take a broad view of globalization, though, these movements are themselves part of the process by which global solidarities (albeit rather weak and transitory ones) come to be formed.
- Beck, U. (2000) What Is Globalization? Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Falk, R. (1999) Predatory Globalization: A Critique. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Friedman, T. (2000) The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Anchor Books, New York.
- Giddens, (1999) Runaway World. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Glasius, M., Kaldor, M., & Anheier, H. (eds.) (2002) Global Civil Society 2002. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Harvey, (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Ohmae, K. (2005) The Next Global Stage: Challenges and Opportunities in our Borderless World. Warton School Publishing, Philadelphia.
- Ray, (2007) Globalization and Everyday Life. London, Routledge.
- Robertson, R. (1992) Globalization. Sage, London.
- Rosenberg, R. (2000) Follies of Globalization Theory. Verso, London.
- Sassen, S. (1996) Cities and communities in the global economy: rethinking our American Behavioral Scientist 39 (5): 629-39.
- Urry, (2003) Global Complexity. Polity Press, Cambridge.