Globalization Theory 2000+: Major Problematics

Roland Robertson. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.


There has been a veritable explosion of interest in the theme of globalization and adjunct matters in recent years. Much of this has been confined to academia, but rapidly at the end of the twentieth century it became very much more than an academic issue. From the late 1980s it became a topic of great political and economic policy concern and, in fact became one of the most frequently used terms in political and business discourse. In turn it penetrated the discourse of ideological and everyday life. Thus to survey the present debate about globalization in a relatively short space is a daunting task. While the same might well be said of a number of other areas of sociology, there are features of the explosion of interest in and discourse about globalization that tend to make comprehensive discussion of this theme rather different.

First, the debate about globalization cuts across a considerable number of disciplines—including sociology, anthropology, political science and international relations, comparative literature, religious studies, business studies, cultural and communication studies, geography, feminist studies, ethnic studies and history. This gives rise to the issue of transdisciplinarity—not simply interdisciplinarity or even multidisciplinarity. Transdisciplinarity means a transcendence of disciplinarity, although it certainly does not mean the obliteration of perspectives deriving from the conventional academic disciplines. Secondly, even within the social sciences, as normally conceived, the discussion of globalization has become remarkably extensive and is embracing an increasingly broad range of general themes, such as globality, modernity and post-modernity, globalism, capitalism and culture. To encompass just this literature succinctly would be very difficult in my allotted space. Thirdly, there is a particularly formidable hurdle to surmount in coming to terms with the intellectual complexity of globalization as an analytical viewpoint. This has much to do with the disjunction between the political, journalistic and financial rhetoric of globalization and serious ‘academic debate as to whether globalization … delivers any added value in the search for a coherent understanding of the historical forces which, at the dawn of the new millennium, are shaping the sociopolitical realities of everyday life’ (Held et al., 1999: 1).

The third of these problems centres upon the extensive representation of globalization as an economic—at best, a politicoeconomic—phenomenon. The current tendency to regard globalization in more or less exclusively economic terms is a particularly disturbing form of reductionism, indeed of fundamentalism. Nowadays invocation of the word ‘globalization’ almost automatically seems to raise issues concerning so-called economic neoliberalism, deregulation, privatization, marketization and the crystallization of what many call a global economy (or global capitalism). Indeed, this is an important topic in its own right—namely, how and why the notion of globalization has come to be used so economistically, most notably in the field of business studies, even though during the early 1980s a much more comprehensive perspective had been developed in such disciplines as sociology (particularly the sociology of religion) and anthropology.

But it is an undeniable fact that around the world the idea of globalization very often now connotes the shifting of control and influence over economic affairs from the local (including the national) to the global, with an attendant sense that ‘no one person, country or institution can exert exclusive political control …’ (T.L. Friedman, 1999: 161); even though the rapidly increasing thematization of governance in an era of globalization (however defined) constitutes a growing academic and political response to the latter (Held, 1995; Sassen, 1998). This is also true of the spread of anti-global movements (Castells, 1997: 68-109; Robertson, 1992). These have have been evident for some time, but they came dramatically into view at the controversial meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December 1999. These involved large but not complementary, demonstrations against the WTO and a rift within the WTO between relatively rich and poorer, ‘developing’ countries. That these demonstrations should have taken place on American soil is not surprising. The most obvious reason is the blame heaped upon the government of the USA for its dominance within the WTO. But a second reason is less obvious and more interesting. This concerns the strength and extent of political and religious anti-globality in the USA itself. It might well be said that the USA is the home of opposition and resistance to globalization, in spite of the widely held view that globalization is an American project. In fact, it has by now become appropriate to talk of the globalization of anti-globalism. Mention of anti-globalism—a major problematic in its own right at this time—raises the question as to what in fact we mean by globalism. Beck (2000: 117-28) rightly, in my view, highlights what he calls ‘the errors of globalism’ in terms of its strong support for world marketization, ‘so-called’ free world trade, and the like. But while this is, indeed, a core aspect of globalism and (anti-globalism) at this time, we would be remiss sociologically were we not to think also of globalism and anti-globalism in more directly cultural (including religious) terms. For there is a widespread view that globalization, however defined, is crushing ‘local’ traditions and identities. People adhering to this position frequently speak of their opposition to globalism or, particularly in the USA, to ‘one-worldism’ (Robertson, 2000). On the other hand, the slogan ‘global resistance to global attack’ was evident in some May Day demonstrations in 2000.

In spite of objections to economistic reductionism, it should be made clear that I most certainly take the socioeconomic consequences of globalization, as it is widely (if misleadingly) understood in primarily economic terms, with great seriousness. To state this in a very different way, much of the current debate about globalization now takes the form of analyses of global capitalism and the inequalities and social tensions that it is seemingly producing both intra-societally and inter-societally. These are very significant issues and to neglect them would be myopic and, indeed, irresponsible (Mazur, 2000). Having said this, it should also be noted that the opposition to what is often called the neoliberal economic conception of the global economy is in some respects a calculated vehicle for the revival of Marxist or neo-Marxist perspectives in the world arena. (This is not to condemn such opposition but merely to underline the broad significance of it.) From yet another perspective, the promotion of and the opposition to neoliberal conceptions of globality increasingly constitute an ideological battleground. In the present context my strategy is to consider these sorts of issue from an analytic perspective—in the belief that social scientists should never suspend or bracket this in the service of ideological polemic; regardless of their moral and ideological commitments or, for that matter, their opportunistic ambitions. As I have remarked before, the discourse of globalization inherently carries with it the danger that it may become (is becoming?) a ‘playground’—as well as an ideological battleground—for the display of all kinds of self-indulgent, solipsistic statements about the time in which we live (Robertson, 1992). Thus the debate about the globalization paradigm (Robertson, 1991) urgently requires analytical, or analytical-critical, rigour in the face of chicness, as well as ideological flippancy, and talk of ‘the third way.’ The latter, associated particularly in the UK with the names of Blair and Giddens, is an impediment to serious confrontation with the theme of globalization.

An example of the confusion we now face is provided, within the domain of social theory, by the influential figure of Bourdieu, who seemingly adheres to the crudest of anti-globalization postures. While we may well have no weighty objection to his suggestion that global neoliberalism is ‘the utopia (becoming a reality) of unlimited exploitation’ (Bourdieu, 1998: 94-105) it is, on the other hand, almost impossible to believe that such a widely acclaimed and influential sociologist should be so out of touch with the discussion of globalization and global change that has increasingly come to the forefront of much of social-scientific debate, as well as the discourse of the humanities, during the past thirty years or more. The French intellectual and political tendency to conceive of globalization as an American project partly accounts for this (cf. Mathy, 1993). None the less, Bourdieu’s ignorance of the work of major sociologists and anthropologists not only in the USA, but also in Europe, Oceania and elsewhere, on such issues as globalization, globality and globalism is, unfortunately, not unsymptomatic of the perspectives of some other major figures in contemporary social theory. The fact is that the study of globalization—more generally, global change—has been promoted or, at least, adopted by leading social scientists (whose numbers are undoubtedly growing fast) but is still neglected by others.

This reluctance on the part of some conspicuous and/or highly regarded social theorists to engage directly with the globalization debate is regrettable for a number of reasons. Among the latter should be emphasized the following. Social theory still suffers—at least, implicitly—from a confinement to national or societal contexts, in spite of the continuing interest in the work of the classical theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, much of the work of the classical theorists did neglect crucial features of globalization, but none the less much of classical sociology of the period 1880-1920 and of the sociology that immediately preceded it was extensive in spatial, not to say temporal, scope. Some of those sociologists, particularly Weber, did not even acknowledge en passant some of the most crucial developments that were—even in his own time—making the entire world into a single place (Robertson, 1993). It would appear that the problem of Orientalism (as well as Occidentalism) played an important role in this. Weber’s attitude towards the ‘Orient’ constituted a modified extension of the relegation by Hegel and Marx of the latter to a less than significant role in world history. Marx’s Asiatic mode of production finds a strong echo in Weber’s claim that the mystical other-worldliness of Hinduism and Buddhism constituted a barrier to general global-human progress (Robertson, 1985). In this connection it is crucial to recognize the ‘cultural dynamics’ involved in the making of contemporary ‘world society.’ The ‘invention’ of Europe, Africa and Latin America and North America and so on are examples of global cultural dynamics (cf. Lewis and Wigen, 1997).

The fashionable concern with Eurocentricism and Orientalism (in the negative sense) has blinded us to the (mis)representation of ‘the West’ (Europe minus USA or USA minus Europe) in Asia (including the Middle East), Africa and in Latin America. To put it as simply as possible, we now have to deal with the ‘deconstruction’ and the various, competitive forms of ‘construction’ of the whole world in which we live and have our being (Lewis and Wigen, 1997). Having said this, it seems clear that as the concern with globalization, in its comprehensive and multidimensional sense, grows those aspects of the pre-classical and classical sociologists’ work that did involve globalization-relevant themes are now being given increasing attention. This is particularly true of Marx, on the one hand, and Durkheim and Mauss, on the other. While little attention was paid to such developments as faster sea and land travel, the telegraph, the time-zoning of the world, and numerous other phenomena so crucial to the pace and extent of globalization during much of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth centuries (Kern, 1983), the increasing compression of the world was an evident feature of their work (Kilminster, 1997). Nevertheless much needs to be done in promoting discussion of the work of early sociologists from a global standpoint.

Key Problems of the Inclusive Globalization Paradigm

The discourse of globalization in sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and political science, including international or postinternational relations (Rosenau, 1990: 3-20), and other disciplines, by now extends well beyond the discussion of globalization per se. The actual word ‘globalization’ is not always in favour among writers who none the less have made significant inputs to the field of what might loosely be designated as global studies. Within sociology this is true of the major contributions from the world-systems analysis of Wallerstein (for example, 1974/1980/1989) and his followers, which have focused almost entirely upon the economic aspect of the long making of the modern world capitalistic system (Chase-Dunn, 1989). Nor has globalization been prominent in the lexicon of world society theory, whose leader has been Meyer, with his emphasis on cultural and institutional aspects of the consolidation of ‘world society’ (Boli and Thomas, 1999; Meyer et al., 1997). It should be noted that world society theory was in its origins a cultural-institutional reaction to the economic emphasis of the world-systems school(s), the latter evolving basically from the fundamental Marxian problems of accounting for the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the possibility of socialism-in-one-country (Stalin) versus the view that socialism can only succeed on a global scale (Trotsky).

One could continue at length in indicating the ways in which contributions to the debate about globalization do not involve the use of this actual word. Indeed, it is possible to detect an increasing reluctance to use the term even among those who previously used it eagerly—precisely because of the distortions and reductions involved in its ‘popular’ usage, which has by now most certainly been globalized! Some scholars now prefer ‘transnational’ to global or ‘transnationalization’ to globalization, precisely in order to avoid the simplistic global-capitalistic connotations of the latter term or to get away from its buzzword status. This is so even though economic globalization does not necessarily have to mean capitalistic globalization (sustained ironically by heavily bureaucratic apparati such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), as world-systems analysis has shown. For the latter is for the most part dedicated to world socialism. None the less the extensive use of the notion of globalization to refer to the growth of bureaucratically sustained world capitalism or to the heavily economic concerns of the world-systems approach has resulted in large part in the preference in some quarters for the focus on transnationality rather than globality (for example, Hannerz, 1996). However, the position adopted here is that the idea of globalization as strongly thematized in the early 1980s by sociologists, anthropologists and a few others should be upheld—if necessary, in direct defiance of those who would reduce it mainly to economic processes.

In any case, regardless of the degrees to which globalization as a motif is embraced or eschewed, a number of pivotal issues have emerged in the mounting debate about the interconnectedness of the world as a whole and the concomitant increase in reflexive, global consciousness, these being the two essentially defining features of globalization (Beck, 2000; Robertson, 1992). These include the following.

When Did Globalization Trends Begin?

The contention here is that globalization has been a very long historical process, extending over many hundreds, indeed thousands, of years. In very sharp contrast there are those who see it as a distinctively recent process, confining it, in its narrowest sense, to the so-called post-Cold War years since 1989 and the rapid spread subsequently of organized global capitalism. There are also some discussants who see globalization as something which has been occurring particularly during the past two hundred years or so—making it, in effect, almost synonymous in origin with what is frequently referred to as the Industrial Revolution in the West (notably Britain) of the late eighteenth century. The preference for the view that globalization has been a very long-term process should become more apparent in the pages which follow. Having said that, however, it is necessary to emphasize that globalization has only taken a particular, discernible form during the past five centuries or so (Robertson, 1992). In this context, form involves the idea that the world has increasingly taken a particular overall shape consisting of nation-states; individual selves; the system of international relations; and humankind. Alternatively, when people define what they mean by the (human) world they may well use one or more of these basic components of the form of the world as their basic image of what the world consists of in the most elemental sense. There are, then, four fundamental ways of viewing the world as a whole. But to insist that one of them, or less than four of them, is the world, constitutes a type of reductionist fundamentalism (Robertson, 1992: 61-84).

What Drives the Globalization Process? What is Its ‘Motor Force’?

For many contributors to the globalization debate, to those who might prefer to talk more generally about global change or the formation of Wallerstein’s modern world-system (Wallerstein, 1974/1980/1989) the answer is, in diffuse terms, economic change—more specifically, the inexorable development and spatial expansion of world capitalism. The present author has not infrequently been accused of neglecting the economic, capitalistic factor; and, in a certain way, I plead guilty to this lacuna in my work over the past thirty years or more. However, there are specific reasons for this downplaying of the economic, in favour of the cultural. One of these arises from weariness with the economic determinism of much of social science—not in the sense that the significance in sociocultural change of the ‘march’ of capitalism is denied, but rather because of my objections to the reification of the very notion of capitalism in general, as well as the closely related reification of modernity.

Even more important, it is becoming clear to an increasing number of analysts that the economic is becoming cultural and the cultural is becoming economic (Jameson, 1998a, 1998b; Ray and Sayer, 1999). Hence my own emphasis upon the different forms of capitalism is closely intertwined with what has often been cast as ‘the cultural turn.’ The latter is itself bound-up with the matter of commodification. The recognition, in recent years, of commodification as a central feature of the connection between culture and the economy is closely related to globalization, particularly because transnational corporations have a vested interest in promoting sales in a variety of different cultural contexts in an age of consumerism. Jameson (1998b: 69) makes an important point when he argues that ‘the ibidinalization of the market …—the reason why so many people feel that this boring and archaic thing is sexy—results from the sweetening of this pill by all kinds of images of consumption as such: the commodity, as it were, becoming its own ideology ….’

There is no straightforward answer to the question as to the driving force of globalization. One dimension, such as the cultural (or religious) has been more important than others at certain historical moments, while the economic or the political have been powerful at other times. But generally it is best to say that over the long haul there has been no single motor force (cf. Held et al., 1999) and that the question of causation in this respect is a matter for comparative and historical study with regard to particular places and periods.

Does Global Change Involve Increasing Homogeneity or Increasing Heterogeneity, or a Mixture of Both?

Here the proposition is that it is a mixture of both, but given the very widespread support for the homogenization position it is crucial to consider carefully the heterogeneity aspect, in terms of the idea of difference-within-sameness (Robertson, 1995a). I have developed the concept of glocalization in order to deal systematically with specific aspects of this characteristic of the world arena. This is closely connected to the relation between culture and economy which has just been mentioned. It has also been proposed that the ongoing interpénétration of the universal and the particular is the most general characteristic of global change (Robertson, 1992, 1994, 1995a). The concept of glocalization is vital in coming to terms with the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity dispute (cf. Barber, 1995; Robertson, 1995a). And it must be acknowledged that in this respect we have much to learn, ironically, from the discipline of business studies, in spite of the latter’s central role in the promotion of the idea that globalization is basically a matter of economic policy and strategy. Specifically, global marketing requires, in principle, that each product or service requires calculated sensitivity to local circumstances, identities, practices and so on. This approach to the practical implications of globalization teaches us that globalization is not an all-encompassing process of homogenization but a complex mixture of homogenization and heterogenization.

What is the Relation between the Local and the Global?

To some extent I have indicated my position on this question in the preceding paragraph. However, it may be best here to express my stance by invoking its opposite. In their important book Global Transformations, Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, and Perraton ask the question ‘what is “global” about globalization?’ (1999: 15). They state that ‘globalization can be taken to refer to those spatio-temporal processes of change which underpin a transformation in the organization of human affairs by linking together and expanding human activity across regions and continents.’ This somewhat parallels Urry’s (2000) emphasis upon “scopes and flows” as the pivotal characteristics of globalization. However, the perspective of Held and his co-writers more definitely suggests, unlike Urry, that the local stands at one end of a continuum, at the opposite end of which is the global. Suffice it to say at this juncture that there are good grounds for arguing that in a certain sense the local is an extra-local product. To put it very simply the local is globally—certainly translocally—produced and reproduced. The crucial question which Held et al. pose concerning the meaning of the term global must be deferred, although at this stage the preliminary point should be made that the degree of systemicity suggested by the employment of this word is a crucial issue. In other words, when we speak of worldwide change moving in a certain direction, how do we characterize the ‘entity’ which is changing or being formed? Or is the word global to be viewed more as a condition, the condition of globality (Robertson, 1984)?

Is the Modern Nation-State Being Undermined by Processes of Globalization?

Here the thesis is that the nation-state has been a critical aspect of globalization during the past two and a half centuries and that is has been sustained and encouraged by a global political culture (Meyer, 1980; Robertson, 1992). This stands in sharp contrast to the frequently advanced claim that there is an inevitable opposition between nationalism and globalization. However, the strength of the globewide norm of national self-determination which has underpinned the ubiquity of the nation-state since around the mid-nineteenth century, accelerating sharply as part of the peace settlement following the World War of 1914-1918, significantly weakens this claim. This is not to deny that there are some respects in which the nation-state is being undermined by specific features of the globalization process.

Overall, my view is that the nation-state is being simultaneously weakened and strengthened (Sassen, 1996). The respects in which it is being weakened include the following: (a) the increasing significance of transnational corporations (Sklair, 1991); (b) migration flows and the rise of post-national membership (cf. Soysal, 1994) and forms of citizenship, including the increasingly discussed notion of global citizenship which take citizenship out of its traditional national ‘iron cage’; (c) the mounting concern with issues that transcend the nation-state’s effective reach, notably environmental matters and the rise of megacities which straddle two or more nation-states, thus leading to crucial problems of governance (Held, 1995); (d) the growing strength of supranational institutions—the UN and its various affiliated organizations (such as UNESCO), the IMF, GATT, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and so on; (e) the striking increase in and the influence of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs); (f) the crystallization of an extensive concern with human rights issues, this being a vital example of the increasing penetration of the internal affairs of nation-states by external agencies; and (g) the rapid increase of political interest over the past twenty years or so in the rights of ‘first nations’ (or indigenous peoples), the globally coordinated presence of these on the international scene presenting a threat to the conventional form of the nation-state.

However, in spite of these, and still other, trends the nation-state remains the central and most formidable actor in world affairs generally. A good example of this is the degree to which national interests and conflicts between states continue to dominate the functioning of the European Union (EU). Or, to take another case, it is nation-states which are held responsible for the implementation of human rights, even though there are cases—for example, within the European Union—where the legal decisions of the relevant agency within the EU are directly binding. Generally, it can be said that in spite of a salient erosion of some of the nation-states functions by and large those who speak of the demise of the nation-state do not have a convincing case. The viability of the nation-state depends to some extent on its ability to increase its tolerance for what McNeill (1986) has called the polyethnic norm, as opposed to the ethnic cleansing which we have witnessed in the Balkans, Central Africa and elsewhere in recent years.

How Does Modernity Relate to Globalization and Globality?

This is a question of considerable importance in contemporary social and cultural analysis, one which has been high on the agenda of debate since the publication of Giddens’ The Consequences of Modernity (1990). In this book the author argues that globalization has been a consequence of modernity, a position which has great weaknesses (for example, Robertson, 1992: 138-45). Contra Giddens, it is the condition of globality and the process of globalization which have constituted the vital setting for the emergence of modernity and for modernization. Indeed, it was largely the failure to attend carefully to the global circumstance which led to the demise of the modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s (Nettl and Robertson, 1968; Wallerstein, 1974/1980/1989); and it is more than ironic that the revival of interest in modernization—be it all in the form of ‘reflexive’ modernization—should have as one of its major advocates a sociologist who has become well-known, in large part, through his opposition to the kind of sociology underlying the idea of societal and individual modernization. (For a much more positive view of Giddens on globalization, see Tomlinson, 1999.) Clearly, such crucial aspects of the overall globalization process as the growth of the ‘world religions,’ voyages of discovery, early map-making, the spread of the Gregorian calendar, and so on were both pivotal attributes of globalization and preconditions of different types of modernity. One should also take into account in discussing the relationship between modernity and globality recent claims that we are entering a ‘global age’ (Albrow, 1996), an age which supersedes the epoch of modernity. We also cannot entirely ignore the subsiding claim that we now live in a postmodern age, for whereas ‘the global turn’ has largely subsumed and ‘defeated’ the interest in postmodernity and postmodernism of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, much of analytic and interpretive value has been acquired from the postmodern moment. Much of what has been discussed in the debate about postmodernity and postmodernism has been incorporated into and recast in the contemporary debate about globality, globalization and globalism (Beck, 1992; 2000: 86ff).

The list of issues which I have identified above as ‘key problems of the globalization paradigm’ is by no means exhaustive. During the past few years numerous theoretical and/or empirical topics have been added to the agenda of global studies. On the theoretical side mention should be made of the ideas concerning risk society and of reflexive modernization (e.g. Beck, 1992,1999, 2000) and a cluster of closely intertwined and contested perspectives such as subaltern and postcolonial studies. On the more empirical side mention should be made of the increasing interest in migration and the creation of diasporas, these having a strong bearing on the question of the future of the nation-state (Sassen, 1999); postnational and global citizenship (e.g. Soysal, 1994; van Steenburgen, 1994); the new electronic media and global mass media (e.g. Porter, 1997); new social movements; human rights (e.g. Lauren, 1998); ecology and the environment (e.g. Elliott, 1998); and so on. In fact there are few areas of contemporary social science that have not been greatly affected by the globalization paradigm. There are by now numerous individuals applying one or another form of globalization theory inter alia to sport, science, museums, the novel, the cinema, cuisine, health and medicine, the heritage industry and tourism; while few disciplines in the social sciences and humanities remain insulated from the global perspective. And this list could easily be extended. In sum, most of the central topics in the social sciences, contemporary history and cultural studies are increasingly connected to the issues involved in or surrounding the theme of globalization and globality. As was argued at the outset in the broadest sense globalization is a dominant site of transdisciplinarity—a site upon which very significant disciplinary mutations are occurring and where borders between disciplines which have been rigidified during the twentieth century are being loosened and transcended.

The three themes I wish now to consider in closer detail are the following: the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity dispute; the relationship between the global and the local; and the connection between globality and modernity.

More on the Homogeneity Vs. Heterogeneity Dispute

This is perhaps the most contentious of the debates in the current discussion and analysis of globalization and it is in part related to the economic—or as I have described it, economistic—conception of globalization. This is because those who regard globalization as an economic process—as opposed to a more encompassing one—tend also to think that with (capitalistic) economic globalization there also comes a homogenizing tendency, which in its strongest form amounts to the Americanization of the world—a view which can be found on both the ideological left and the right (Robertson and Khondker, 1998). To repeat, the economistic conception of globalization goes more or less hand in hand with the homogenization thesis. However, this is not to say that there is a perfect one-to-one relationship here anymore than there is pure symmetry between those who lean toward the heterogenization thesis and a more-than-economic conception of globalization. In addition, we have to be mindful of the point that was made earlier concerning global marketing and advertising. In his important book on this theme, de Mooij argues against business schools holding to the ‘common assumption that there are a few global, homogenous target groups’ (1998: 287). Giving the example of jeans (often held up as a paradigmatic case of Americanization and global standardization), de Mooij (1998: 288) maintains that ‘students worldwide wear jeans, but the type of jeans they wear and personal grooming are slightly different.’ He goes on to point out that Spanish students do not wear torn jeans, unlike Dutch students. Designer jeans are preferred by Spanish students and they are typically worn, says de Mooij, with fashionable jackets. But in spite of the ‘stylishness’ of jean-wearing among young Spanish people, students from El Salvador are found to be critical of Spanish students for being badly dressed.

Thus there are an increasing number of people directly involved in global marketing and advertising who emphasize strongly that the production and promotion of goods and services on a global scale requires close, ongoing attention to cultural differences. As is insufficiently recognized, relatively few global or near-globally marketed goods or services are in fact sold in a standardized form. Thus, the frequent talk about the McDonaldization of the world (Ritzer, 1997, 2000) has to be strongly tempered by what is increasingly known about the ways in which such products or services are actually the basis for localization, as is well demonstrated in the recent book edited by Watson titled Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (1997) and by surveys of the various ways in which American films and TV programmes are received and interpreted in different parts of the world (e.g. Tomlinson, 1991).

The book by Tomlinson which I have just mentioned is in fact titled Cultural Imperialism. It is a sophisticated discussion of the main discourses of cultural imperialism, each of which the author finds to have deficiencies. In the last chapter of his book Tomlinson persuasively concludes that globalization, in its most comprehensive sense, transcends the debate about cultural imperialism and is a preferable term. This, broadly speaking, is the position advocated here. The stance of the present chapter with respect to the homogenization argument, which is often stated as Westernization, or even simply Americanization, is, then, that the argument is remarkably unsubtle and lacking in a seriously analytical mode of enquiry. One of the most basic—perhaps the most fundamental—of the relevant deficiencies is the equation of globalization with Westernization, or Americanization. One should conceptually separate these two notions and thereby acknowledge that globalization has to do with the making of the world as a whole into a single place. The process of globalization when considered multidimensionally—as having political, cultural and further aspects other than the economic—then includes numerous phenomena that are not related, certainly not directly, to what is problematically called Westernization. Use of the concept of globalization thus provides an exploratory space in which one can include all kinds of cultural flows from Asia to the West or from the South to the West and so on (Tomlinson, 1999).

This kind of consideration also raises the issue as to whether the USA is culturally isolated, as opposed to hegemonic in the world as a whole. For while much of what has originated in the contemporary world—films, music, fast-food restaurants and the like—has done so in the USA, the USA is, on the other hand, relatively isolated from the world in a variety of respects, including the display of the erotic; the practice of killing young legal offenders and capital punishment generally; its gun culture, and so on. That Hollywood films, American popular music, etc. have had a great impact in the shaping of world culture cannot be denied, but flows into the USA have been substantial: Chinese, Italian and various other cuisines; African, Latin American and European music; and various other cultural forms. And it should not be forgotten that Hollywood was largely shaped by Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe.

What is often interpreted as ‘Americanization’ in the UK and continental Europe is really a pastiche of American popular culture, unrecognizable in its crassness as ‘American’ to anybody who has lived in the USA for any length of time. Thus what we see in various parts of the world is a series of hyper-American theme parks. This is not the same as the oft-mentioned Americanization.

There are, in any case, a number of ways in which the world is displaying increasing heterogeneity, as opposed to sameness. Tourism, with its standardized way of emphasizing alleged uniqueness, is a particularly good manifestation of the difference-within-sameness that increasingly characterizes the modern world, along with ‘strange’ conjunctions of cultural phenomena conventionally thought of as incompatible. This is often referred to as hybridization.

More on the Relationship between the Global and the Local

As I argued earlier, the spatial conceptualization of the local standing at the opposite end of a continuum from the global is deficient—although the significance of the spatial dimension of the globalization process certainly cannot be eschewed (Robertson, 1995a). The attractions of making a clear distinction between the local and the global are based upon the widespread perception that the global, or even the regional or the national, constitutes an undermining of control on the part of much smaller social collectivities. Thus there is much current literature of a broadly economic or ecological nature which is directed against the global economy or the processes of globalization (e.g. Mander and Goldsmith, 1996). I can readily sympathize with this in the relatively simple terms in which polemics of this type are stated. Disempowering local collectivities or localized individuals is not something to be desired. The idea that globalizing forces are overwhelming not merely local control but also what are often called indigenous culture and tradition is certainly very widespread. But, again, as superficially attractive as this standpoint may be, it fails to get at the analytic problems with enough sophistication.

For a start, it must be recognized that ideas about home, locality and community have been extensively spread around the world in recent years. In a word, the local has been globalized and the stress upon the significance of the local or the communal can be viewed as one ingredient of the overall globalization process (Robertson, 1997). This surely attenuates the tendency to think of the local as the opposite of the global. Secondly, it is virtually a commonplace to say that when we talk about the process of globalization or the condition of globality we are speaking in macro-sociological terms, while in speaking of quotidian, ‘small-scale’ interaction we are operating in a micro-sociological frame. Yet these characterizations are very misleading. Much of what is thought of as being personal or as pertaining to the individual life cycle is in fact sustained by a global culture and transmitted mainly through the educational institutions of contemporary societies (Meyer et al., 1997), institutions which are remarkably isomorphic on a global scale. In other words, notwithstanding significant and particular differences from society to society there is much general similarity between the various institutionalized individualisms of the contemporary world.

Globalization is as much about people as anything else. And it is this very issue that Lin (1998: 191) invokes in addressing the theme of ‘bringing the local back in’ in her study of the nexus between the transnational and the local in New York’s Chinatown. The biographies and interactions of migrants, to look at people from different vantage points, are equally a crucial feature of globalization (cf. Sassen, 1999). This is to be seen in such different contexts as the experiences and writings of foreign correspondents (Hannerz, 1996: 112-26), the everyday interactions between participants in the affairs of a large stock exchange, or encounters between tourists from very different cultural backgrounds. Once one has begun to appreciate this so-called micro dimension then one can very easily produce a multitude of examples of ‘the local in the global and the global in the local’ (Robertson, 1995a: 32). As Susan Stanford Friedman (1998: 110) has said, we must ‘break down the geopolitical boundaries between home and elsewhere by locating the ways the local and the global are always interlocked and complicitous.’

This brief review of the major problems involved in the relationship between the global and the local would most definitely be incomplete without pointing up the significance of the human ‘creation’ of locality, for many people speak as if locality is something that is, so to speak, given to us. This is what may be called geographic essentialism (Robertson, 1995a). Locality is actually the product of boundary-making, including map-making, that has proceeded over the centuries. Moreover, in relatively recent times, during the past one hundred years or so, the world as a whole has been subjected to the institutionalization of World Time, involving the establishment of the Greenwich Meridian, the International Dateline, and the time-zoning of the world and the countries (with changing borders) within it. The everyday conception of the local is contingent upon the idea that there is indeed something beyond the local. Or, to put it another way, the universal must precede the particular—a proposition which may well run contrary to everyday common sense, but which is, none the less, not easily refuted.

Appadurai’s discussion of the production of locality (see also Robertson, 1995a) is centred upon ‘locality as a phenomenological property of social life, a structure of feeling that is produced by particular forms of intentional activity and that yields particular sorts of material effects’ (Appadurai, 1996: 182), to which he adds, in connection with the link between neighbourhood and locality, the importance ofcontexts. Appadurai also explores the idea of neighbourhoods as translocalities. The latter are neighbourhoods which in one sense are in particular nation-states but which in another sense extend well beyond that context. Tourist locations constitute but one example of translocalities (Appadurai, 1996: 192). In addition, as part of the general globalization process, the new forms of electronic communication are giving rise to virtual neighbourhoods or communities, these being examples of the way in which identification and participation are increasingly deterritorialized (Porter, 1997).

Early in this discussion it was declared that the question of what is meant by the word ‘global’ must be addressed. Broadly speaking, there are two general meanings of the term global, used adjectivally. On the one hand, it can refer, as it all too often does, simply to geographical range. Thus, there is a growing tendency for sociology textbooks to claim to be global merely because a considerable number of societies are invoked. At its best, this approach represents an increasing concern with comparison. But comparative analysis is by no means the same as global analysis; although, unfortunately, there is very little opportunity here to consider the complex and critical question of the difference between the two (cf. Crow, 1997). At this point it can only be said here that globalization greatly affects canonical forms of comparative analysis, because the latter have in effect depended on the idea that all societies are ‘islands’—with little, if any, direct interaction among them.

On the other hand, ‘global’ should have a direct reference to an entity, usually to the world as a whole. Moreover this entity should have some degree of systemicity. This does not mean that one has to go to the lengths of conceiving of the world as a world-system, as Wallerstein has advocated. It is preferable to speak of the world as becoming a ‘single place’ or to speak of globalization as a process of formation of a global field (Robertson, 1992).

Anti-global sentiments, actions and movements will certainly persist, probably grow. None the less the analyst of such phenomena and of global life generally must be careful to explore—indeed convey to the wider public—the drastic simplifications involved in seeing the local-global distinction in dichotomous terms. Emphasizing the inevitable global dimension of very many contemporary sociocultural phenomena should not be interpreted as an ideological decision in favour of the global over the local. Our definitions and our concepts have not yet been sufficiently refined so as to deal with, for example, the ways in which the spread of anti-global movements inexorably involves them in becoming global. This is the case with indigenous movements which have banded together on a worldwide basis to oppose the destruction of local life by global and globewide agencies.

More on the Relationship between Modernity and Globalization

The book which sparked much of the recent discussion of this issue was, as has been indicated, Giddens’ The Consequences of Modernity (1990). It should be remarked initially that there is something unsatisfactory about thinking of a process—namely, globalization—being a consequence of a condition, modernity. With this in mind, perhaps the more fruitful way of tackling the issue would be in terms of exploring the relationship between modernity and globality. Having said this one can see, however, how all three terms can be used together, as in Albrow’s conception of globalization as a transitional process between modernity and globality (Albrow, 1996: 75-96).

Much of what is meant by the term globality is implied in my present discussion, but I have said virtually nothing concerning modernity—about which many hundreds, if not thousands, of books or articles have been published just in the past fifteen years or so. I will restrict myself here to a tiny portion of the debate about modernity and globality.

In great contrast to the multitude of attempts to define a single modernity (and/or postmodernity), there is a strong counter-position. Graubard (1998: viii) argues that ‘only in superficial ways is the contemporary world uniform, where earlier traditions and habits have for all practical purposes been extinguished.’ Graubard goes on to maintain that ‘the concept of difference may be as essential to an understanding of contemporary modernities, of late-twentieth century societies, as it was of earlier ones, less obviously joined by advanced communication technologies.’ While Graubard appears to be lacking an understanding of the ‘thickness’ of the uniformity of the late-twentieth-century world as a whole, as well as an appreciation of the complexity of comparison in a rapidly globalizing world, his position is none the less a welcome antidote to those who depict it as a single homogenous globalized modernity. In fact Giddens’ talk of the consequences of modernity is deficient on its face precisely because he apparently sees only one modernity—that which has issued from the West during the past two hundred years or so. The most cogent position is one that emphasizes that even though Europe was the site of ‘original’ modernity, it has expanded to different parts of the world in different ways, in conjunction with relatively autonomous change in different areas of the world. To be even more specific, prior to the modern period of the past two hundred years or so, the various civilizational complexes of the world had been moving along their own trajectories of change but within the overall context of a more and more compressed global arena.

Eisenstadt and Schluchter (1998: 5) have convincingly argued that what they call the ‘cultural codes’ of modernity have been formed by the ongoing interaction between those codes, as well as their encounters with new and external challenges. The centrepiece of their contribution to this theme is that ‘several modern civilizations have emerged, all multicentred and heterogeneous, all generating their own dynamics’ (Eisenstadt and Schluchter, 1998: 3). More succinctly, ‘modernity has spread to most of the world but has not given rise to a single civilization’ (1998: 5). There are undoubtedly a number of purely semantic issues at stake in this general debate. But perhaps the following will make matters more clear.

In their helpful statement on paths to early modernities Eisenstadt and Schluchter (1998: 3) state that the relationships between civilizations, particularly modern ones, have ‘never been stable’ and that what has been considered ‘the reference society for others has shifted continuously.’ The introduction of the theme of ‘reference societies’ is crucial. In fact it has been a pivotal theme in some of the work on globalization over the past thirty years or so (cf. Nettl and Robertson, 1968). What I call either selective emulation (cf. Cohen, 1987) or cross-societal emulation (Westney, 1987) is probably the central empirical phenomenon in the multidimensional, long historical theory of globalization. For it encapsulates the dynamics of the ways in which social formations imitate (to varying degrees selectively) or reject cultural, social, political and other attributes from different areas of the world—from near or from far. This historically continuous process has over hundreds, or thousands, of years cumulatively created the condition of globality, which, to repeat, may be defined, on the one hand, as increasingly reflexive consciousness across the world of both variety as well as global singularity, and, on the other hand, as concrete institutional interdependence and isomorphism.

Selective emulation (or rejection) precedes and has helped make modernity—more accurately, modernities. Cross-societal emulation has become an institutionalized feature of all forms of modernity (Robertson, 1995b). It is the primary dynamic of globalization, in the sense that the processes of imitation and rejection have been so crucial in the history of civilizations and societies. Not that all of this has been undertaken voluntarily. A great deal of contemporary modernity has been imposed—as in the case of the virtual extinction of indigenous people in much of the Western hemisphere; or it has arisen in response to the Western challenge (Therborn, 1995). None the less, a critical attribute of the contemporary world as a whole is the global institutionalization of quotidian comparison. This ranges from the tourist or traveller comparing the attractions of different locations to the league tables that are compiled by governments or supernational agencies. This, incidentally, brings us again into contact with the way in which considering the world as a whole affects comparative sociology. For the focus on ‘world society’ means that we must now pay much more attention to the ways in which various categories of collective and individual actors make comparisons. We must compare comparisons. We must also address much more the interactions between social formations, both small and large.

Returning directly to the issue of modernity and its forms, one can do no better than quote Appadurai and Breckenridge (1995: 1), who argue strongly against the widespread idea that ‘Americanization or commodification or McDonald’s … is seducing the world into sameness and creating a world of little Americas …’ Their assumption, then, is that modernity is indeed a global experience, but that ‘this experience is as varied as magic, marriage, or madness, and thus worthy of scholarly attention and, more generally, of comparative study.’


At this time, when there are almost 10 million entries for ‘global’ on the World Wide Web (and undoubtedly this number is growing on a daily, if not hourly, basis), I have attempted to distill the paramount concerns in the debate among academics in this ‘Tower of Babel.’ As has been pointed up at various places in my discussion, the overriding difficulty in the analysis of globalization at present is the disjunction between those who take an inclusive, multidimensional approach to globalization and those who focus almost entirely upon economic globalization. The fact that the latter word has become so prominent in political and everyday talk about economic change has made the situation much more complicated. Even those—such as the present author—who are convinced that globalization is far more encompassing than the growth of modern globewide capitalism have now to face the fact that reactions to globalization as seen in these narrow terms are unavoidably objects of sociological study, as is the way in which this ‘thin’ economistic approach has gained so much ground during the past fifteen years or so.

The study of and the normative advocacy of resistance to what some have called ‘globalization from above’ (for example, Falk, 1999: 127-36) is clearly providing a relatively new perspective on the themes I have been addressing in this chapter. Against the idea of globalization from above has been counter-posed the conception of ‘globalization from below.’ The advocacy of globalization from below takes, to put it all too simply, two major forms. On the one hand there is the right-wing, often violent and racist, form which has become particularly evident in the USA in recent years. On the other hand, there is the left wing perspective, of which Falk is a good example. Falk (1999: 134) argues that ‘the democratic spaces available to resist globalization-from-above tend to be mainly situated at either local levels of engagement or transnationally.’ In this connection, Falk rightly draws attention to the ‘flow of gatherings’ which have accompanied a considerable number of recent international conferences some of them under the auspices of the United Nations. Among these have been the recent, somewhat dramatic, meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle (1999), the Rio Conference on the Environment and Development (1992), the Vienna Conference on Human Rights and Development (1993), the Istanbul Conference on Habitat and Development (1996), and a number of conferences on women and development (the most recent being the meetings in New York). Falk sees the activities of groups attending these conferences, but denied formal access because of their not having ‘statist credentials,’ as none the less having considerable impact. He goes so far as to say, perhaps a little optimistically, that these extra-conference activities represent ‘a new sort of participatory politics that had little connection with the traditional practices of politics within states and could be regarded as fledgling attempts to constitute “global democracy”’ (Falk, 1999: 134).

Thus what Falk (1999: 137) calls ‘the historical unfolding of economic globalization in recent decades’ (emphasis added) has become the focus of attempts to address such themes as global civil society and global citizenship. These important issues should not, however, blind us to the wider and long-historical matters which fall under the rubric of globalization. By now there have appeared a considerable range of books dealing synoptically with globalization in its broadest sense (for example, Appadurai, 1996; Axford, 1995; Axtman, 1998; Beyer, 1994; Buell, 1994; Held et al., 1999; Lechner and Boli, 2000; Robertson, 1992; Sklair, 1991; Waters, 1995—to name but a small number). These arrive at such problematics as global civil society, global citizenship and human rights and global ethics via intellectual routes other than the nature and consequences of global or international capitalism (Hirst and Thompson, 1996). These routes include such issues as direct interests in dealing analytically with a particular topic such as sport (for example, Maguire, 1999), a concern with civilizational differences (e.g. Huntington, 1996; Roudometof and Robertson, 1995), normative commitment to an aspect of the future of the human species (for example, Sachs, 1993), and religiomoral commitment to peace and justice (for example, Dower, 1998; Kung, 1991, 1998). Here, again, this is a highly and almost randomly selective list.

There is obviously a plethora of themes and problems associated with the global turn. And it must be stressed strongly that the global turn is not simply an aspect of contemporary sociology. Whether one uses the specific term, globalization, or not, an expanding number of individuals from a wide spectrum of disciplines are currently speaking, in different ways, of our now being in a global age, or epoch. This is also leading to a questioning of many canonical assumptions and viewpoints and is creating a new sociologically informed concern with global history (Robertson, 1998) as well as a sociological history which rejects the conventional society-centred sociology of much of the twentieth century (Mann, 1986/1993). The idea of the end of societality in sociology, however, is not the same as subscription to the end-of-the-nation-state thesis.

The approach adopted here has been primarily sociological. However, as has been intermittently remarked, the study of globalization and related themes, is of increasing necessity, transdisciplinary.