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:
- International Division of Labor: Manufacturing is now decentralized and located all over the world. North America, Europe and Japan increasingly specialize in high-tech manufacturing and information services. Manufacturers choose where to locate based on Comparative Advantage
- Internationalization of Finance: Banking and financial markets are now global in scope. Large economies have dramatically increased investments in smaller economies over the past few years. These networks of finance are interconnected around the clock by information technology. Control of these networks is centered in a handful of Global Cities, including New York, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo.
- New Technology Systems: Innovations in computing, communications, and transportation technology have extended the reach of media, finance, and industry around the globe, resulting in a geographical reorganization of postindustrial economies like the United States.
- Homogenization of International Consumer Markets: Materialism increasingly dominates developed and developing societies, which includes increased borrowing, deferred parenthood, smaller families, and consumption of luxury goods. These practices and values are transmitted around the world through films, music, international television networks and the Internet.
- The Transnational Corporation: Business organizations now operate across international borders, fostering globally integrated economic activity while reducing the influence of national governments to regulate or control the practices of these corporations.
- Transnational Economic Integration: All of these forces have tied the economies of the world's countries together so that local problems effect the entire world population - as evidenced by the global scope of the economic crises in 1997 and 2008.
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.
- Items that used to be made in another state are now made on the other side of the planet.
- Foods that used to be available only in season are now shipped across the globe and are available all year around
- Cuisines once associated with very specific locations are now available in restaurants across the globe
- After starting with a single restaurant in California in 1948, McDonalds now has over 36,000 restaurants in over 100 countries
- Local economies have been transformed, so that people often have to travel to distant cities or countries to find work and support their families, often at great risk to their lives
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:
- First Wave: Following the Columbian Encounter of 1492
- Decimation of the indigenous population in the Americas
- African slave trade
- Dispersal of American plant and animal species around the world
- Second Wave: 1865 to 1970
- Economic globalization and free capital mobility
- Transport and communications - railways, steamships and the telegraph
- Two world wars leading to the formation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods organizations
- Third Wave: 1970 to today
- Global financial system and ideology (neoliberalism)
- Global production chains and labor markets
- Inexpensive global electronic communication
Globalization as Discourse of Fear
Globalization is often presented as something to be feared:
- American jobs are offshored to low-wage nations that effectively undercut American wage and safety standards
- Foods grown in countries with lax safety and environmental enforcement threaten our health and the health of our families.
- Multinational oil companies are accountable to no one but their shareholders and take unnecessary drilling shortcuts that threaten the environments of countries that are powerless in the face of their economic might
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:
- Manufacturing costs are lower in countries with lots of poor people willing to work for low salaries, and governments who do not impose costly environmental protection regulations on manufacturers
- As manufacturers move to the countries with the lowest production costs, wages and environmental standards have to be reduced in order to compete
- Standards of living and environmental standards get reduced globally in a downward spiral
Discourses can also be pleasant:
- The Walt Disney company attempts to create a discourse around the Disney brand of happiness, fun, family and friendship
- Disney theme parks are clean, exciting and brightly colored - a refuge from the dirty, boring and dangerous world outside the magic kingdom
- Promulgation of this discourse allows Disney to attract patrons and make money for their shareholders - a win, win for everyone!
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:
|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. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/01/04/why_2013_looks_a_lot_like_1913
Levitt, Theodore. 1983. The Globalization of Markets Harvard Business Review May http://hbr.org/1983/05/the-globalization-of-markets/ar/1
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.