The term globalization is used in a variety of contexts by different people to mean different things. While the adjective form global (of, relating to, or involving the entire world) and the verb globalize (to make worldwide in scope or application) are fairly clear, the specific meaning of the noun globalization is more ambiguous. If you do a Google books search, you will find thousands of books - some of which seem to be trying to capitalize on globalization as a hot topic and which have little to do with anything most of us would consider globalization.

This essay will cover some of the ways in which the term globalization is commonly used.

Globalization as an Economic Phenomenon

The term globalization is commonly framed in terms of economics. A typical economic definition is:

the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets

The contemporary popular use of the word globalization to reference an economic phenomenon is commonly attributed to a 1983 Harvard Business Review article by Theodore Levitt titled The Globalization of Markets, although the Oxford English Dictionary notes use of that term in other contexts as early as 1930.

Marston et al (2011, 22) identify six key factors of globalization that are primarily economic:

Globalization as an Social Phenomenon

In terms of social theory, globalization can be defined in a more general sense as:

...fundamental changes in the spatial and temporal contours of social existence, according to which the significance of space or territory undergoes shifts in the face of a no less dramatic acceleration in the temporal structure of crucial forms of human activity.

Globalization has affected the geographies of life (spatial contours) in where people live, where they travel, what they buy, what foods they eat, what music they listen to, what they do for a living etc.

Globalization as an Temporal Phenomenon

Globalization has affected the speed and timing of life (temporal contours) in how quickly information, ideas, and money can travel, and how quickly we must respond to changes initiated from different places across the globe.

This can be seen as another aspect of Time-Space Compression, where the delays and frictions of space that once kept daily life at a human pace and scale have been removed, speeding up life to an electronic pace and scale.

Rather than being seen as something new, the current era of globalization can be seen as just the latest in a series of waves of globalization. John Rennie Short (2015, 177-187) sees three major waves of globalization:

Globalization as Discourse of Fear

Globalization is often presented as something to be feared:

Each of these are examples of a discourse, which is "a mode of organizing knowledge, ideas, or experience that is rooted in language and its concrete contexts (as history or institutions)." Discourses incorporate words and images that reinforce a narrative (story).

One negative discourse surrounding globalization is The Race To the Bottom:

Discourses can also be pleasant:

Discourses are often incomplete. While globalization presents challenges, it also presents opportunities. There are winners and losers. A critical perspective on discourses will help you discern the perspectives, biases and agendas that are often masked or unconsciously promoted.

Globalization Doesn't Really Exist

Ritzer (2010, 34-36) notes that there are many scholars that assert that there really is no such thing as globalization. He refers to these people as Skeptics and contrasts their position to Globalists in the following ways:

Skeptics Globalists
Globalization is a fashionable buzzword for an ancient process where different parts of the world relate to each other. Genghis Khan was globalization. Columbus was globalization. Regardless of its history, the many aspects of globalization are unique to our time and can therefore be regarded as different from the past.
There is no such thing as globalization because much of the world's population exists outside of, and is even actively excluded, from the processes generally associated with globalization. It is almost impossible to find any part of the world totally unaffected by globalization in some way.
Globalization may be receding as nation-states reassert their identity - as exemplified by the rise of nationalist and anti-immigrant political parties around the world. National borders are becoming less relevant as money, people and ideas flow across borders with increasing volume and speed. Strength or weakness of nations has nothing to do with the global scope of globalization processes.
The term globalization is an oversimplification of many complex processes. There is no one process of globalization, but rather many globalizations and many ways of thinking about globalization (economic, political, environmental). There are multiple processes of globalization, but they can be seen as sub-processes of a larger process called globalization.
The multinational corporation is a myth. Most multinational corporations (like Daimler in Germany or Toyota in Japan) retain a focus on their home countries and economies. It is regional blocks of nations, like the G-8 or EU, that are growing in power. Strong ties to home nations do not mean that the influence of multinational corporations in other countries is not extremely strong and growing, such as with multinational oil companies drilling across the globe.
The most significant international relationships are those between specific national governments. Geopolitical relationships have many layers beyond just relationships between national governments, such as with multinational corporations, multilateral organizations like the United Nations, supranational organizations like the European Union, financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, or non-governmental organization (NGOs) like the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
The idea of global aesthetic homogenization is an exaggeration. There are still very distinct regional identities that appear very foreign outside of those regions - such as the absence of any real influence from Bollywood films in the United States. Communications technologies are breaking down specific national identities, with different regions simply adding regional flavors to a growing common aesthetic vocabulary - such as different national variations on electronic dance music.

Globalization as an Empty Signifier

Globalization is an empty signifier - a word that means different things to different people and has no commonly agreed meaning on its own. Like the empty signifiers sustainable and green, the term globalization is attached to a wide variety of phenomena (sometimes quite carelessly) and can be used as a euphemism to disguise underlying assumptions and values that might not be attractive on further examination. As such, you should always consider who is using the word and the context they are using it in to understand more clearly what they are trying to say.

The term empty signifier comes from semiotics (the study of meanings) and is associated with anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) and philosopher Jaques Lacan (1901-1981). There is a debate about whether some signifiers should be considered truly empty or simply ambiguous, although in regards to globalization for the purposes of this class we will assume the former. We will encounter many empty signifiers this semester.


Appandurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimension of Globalization Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marston, Sallie A., Paul L. Knox, Diana M. Liverman, Vincent Del Casino Jr., and Paul Robbins. 2011 World Regions in Global Context: People, Places, and Environments (4th Edition). New York: Prentice Hall.

Emmerson, Charles. 2013. Eve of Disaster: Why 2013 eerily looks like the world of 1913, on the cusp of the Great War. Foreign Policy Magazine, 4 January.

Levitt, Theodore. 1983. The Globalization of Markets Harvard Business Review May

Ritzer, George. 2010. Globalization: A Basic Text. Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell.

Robertson, Roland. 1990. Mapping the global condition: Globalization as the central concept. In Mike Featherstone, ed. Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity. London: Sage.

Short, John Rennie. 2015. Human Geography: A Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.