Sunday, January 27, 2008

What is global about globalization?

Of course we live in a globalizing world. But what does that really mean?

One point that might be made emphasizes the local and the regional rather than the global. This is the observation that every part of the world is undergoing its own process of social change in a distinctive way. China, Brazil, and Nigeria are experiencing very different processes of economic growth and change. Mexico, Kenya, and Sri Lanka are coping with different forms of insurgency and ethnic conflict. India, Spain, and Guatemala witness very different social processes affecting peasants and rural society. So we might say that the whole world is changing -- but with different processes and dynamics everywhere. On this line of thought, the global world is really just a patchwork of the many peoples, regions, and processes that are found in various countries.

What is genuinely global is the working of a handful of large social processes of change that have effects in virtually every part of the globe. These mechanisms serve to convey causation rapidly throughout the globe -- sometimes with integrative effects and sometimes with the effect of creating new sources of conflict. International trade and investment, and the international institutions that support these, are the most obvious such processes. But the cultural interconnections that are facilitated by new technologies of communication, transportation, and entertainment represent another factor with global influence. The fact that people in virtually every country on the planet can interact in the blogosphere is one manifestation of the global reach of the internet. The fact that missionaries, revolutionaries, and executives can travel easily from Los Angeles to Seoul and La Paz is a token of the rapid transmission and diffusion of ideas. And the transmission of the carriers of violence and aggression is likewise a global phenomenon -- from Pakistan to London and from Washington to Baghdad. And the websites that serve as the nucleus of extremist groups demonstrate the global reach of small groups of violent activists.

Another source of global integration is the seriousness of the problems the world faces as a whole: climate change, new epidemic diseases, financial system insecurity, social violence, and warfare. Global warming and avian flu pandemic will plainly demonstrate interdependence -- even as these disasters will predictably have very different consequences in different parts of the world.

So there are real strands of social connection that justify us in saying the world is becoming more global. But still we might say that the language of globalization is sometimes overdone. It is true that there are significant international forces that operate to bring the peoples of the world into closer contact and interdependency. But it is also true that cultures, societies, and peoples are historically situated and particular. And if we are to understand these particular processes, we need to consider the particular social fabric in which they unfold.

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