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Definition Debate

Current debates on the definition of globalization

 

The definition of globalization is the subject of much debate amongst globalization scholars.  This is in large part due to disagreement on the timing of its origins.  The field is largely divided into two separate camps with opposing views.  The first group argues that globalization is not a new phenomenon.  Its origins stretch into the distant past, and it is merely a continuation of a very old process.  For simplification, this group will be referred to as “the historians“.  The opposing group, who will be called “the contemporaries“, supports the view that globalization is a product of the contemporary world.  It is an unique entity which is discontinuous with the past. 

 

The historians argue that globalization is a process continuous with the past.  Their beliefs focus on economic and social arguments.  However, both of these are framed within the context of historical example.  They utilize examples from around the world, and advocate history as a tool to inform contemporary issues [1].

 

Hirst and Thompson are supporters of the historical economic argument for globalization.  They argue that “economic globalization is a myth“ [2].  What some term economic globalization is, in fact, a continuation of economic internationalization which began with technology in the 1860s [2].  What some perceive to be transnational companies, are in fact national companies which trade on a multinational scale [2].  And most importantly, major economic powers, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan are still able to exert influence and control over these so-called global markets [2].  This control is similar to the control exerted by Britain over the colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 

Image
The Battle of Lepanto, artist unknown. Public domain by age.
Many scholars cite British imperialism as the dawn of modern globalization.  Parsons emphasizes the importance of the “British imperial century“ (1815-1914) because of its role in rapidly disseminating British economy, politics, culture, and the English language [3].  He believes British imperialism lead to the creation of a “global network“ [3] of economic and cultural exchange which were the foundation for modern globalization.  Likewise, McClintock focuses on the importance of Western imperialism beginning with British colonial power [4].  Although her interest lies more in the gender implications, she, like Hopkins, feels history gives relevance to current discussions of political and economic policies.

 

Looking further back in time, there are scholars who see globalization as an even older event.  Hopkins discusses “archaic globalization“, which he describes as connections of people and ideas beyond the local or national level [1].  This includes the spread of religion, migrant labour, and industry.  This view of globalization as something very old is supported by Bennison who offers the example of Muslim universalism [5].  Due to the inherent ageographical nature of the Muslim faith, the spread of Islam can be viewed as an early example of globalization. 

 

The strength of the historians’ arguments lie in their abundance of historical examples.  Their interest in the use of the past to inform current thoughts and discussions is tempting because it avoids the egocentrism associated with the contemporaries’ argument of “we are special, globalization today is something new“.  However, the historians spend little time focusing on some of the methods modern globalization makes use of.  Although technology is mentioned, short shrift is given to information and communication technologies (ICTs) which, as will be describe later, may offer something different in both creating a new, digital space, but also with the speed at which they operate.  Furthermore, historians have undervalued the role of social actors, and the possibility of agency through globalizing processes.  These are some of the important points which the contemporaries use to strengthen their case.

 

The contemporaries hold the view that globalization today is different from the past.  It is not a continuum.  It is unique.  Their arguments emphasize the differences between the present and the past, and look to the implications of globalization on economy, politics, culture, and society in order to illustrate their point.

 

While the historians have Hirst and Thompson to argue that the economy today is not global, the contemporaries have Bordo and colleagues, and Bairoch to argue the opposing view [6, 7].  Bairoch argues that globalization is characterized by increasing exchange and networking of finance and industry beyond the level of the nation-state.  He views globalization as “an economic phenomenon implicating a strong international interconnection“ [7].  This is similar to Bordo and colleagues who argue that the integration of economies is greater now than previously, and that trade is more important today than a century ago [6].  Perhaps the differences between the historians and contemporaries is mainly semantics.  Both historians and contemporaries agree that today’s economy is highly integrated.  However, the difference remains that the contemporaries see today’s economic integration as something new, while the historians do not.

 

Part of this something new is the loss of boundaries, or deterritorialization.  Several authors coin terms to describe the reorganization of people both socially and politically.  Scholte calls this “respatialization“ [8].  Castells terms it “network society“ [9].  Hardt and Negri (2000) name it “Empire“ [10].  All of these scholars believe the decline of the nation-state and creation of connections at levels beyond the nation-state are unique to modern globalization.  Tomlinson advocates the deterritorialization of culture as an important consequence of globalization [11].  He characterizes globalization by the term “complex connectivity“ [11] whereby traditional ideas of space and time are lost.  He offers the example of airline travel contrasted with railway travel to illustrate this point [11].  When one travels by plane, geographic distance is not felt, but one can quickly be transported to another place and culture.  However, rail travel contrasts with this because geographic space is visualized, and change is seen and internalized. 

 

Deterritorialization involves not only the destruction of boundaries, but also the creation of new spaces.  New spaces are intertwined with advances in ICTs.  Castells characterizes network society by its abundance of informational networks [9].  The Internet and digital spaces are something new.  Although not physical spaces, they are part of the “space of flows“ [9] which allows for the movement of information, social processes, finance, and services.  Sassen agrees with Castells’ emphasis on ICTs [12].  Digital networks have the globalizing properties of decentralized access, simultaneity, and interconnectivity [12].  However, her interest is more in the role of ICTs in recapitulating social, cultural, and economic contexts [12].  Furthermore, ICTs contribute to the social agency possible with modern globalization.

 

The contemporaries discuss social agency and resistance as arising both in response to, and out of processes associated with globalization.  For example, Appadurai describes the ability of the Alliance, a federation of Mumbai housing activists, to move their local fight to the global level through the use of ICTs, networking, and politics [13].  Hardt and Negri describe biopower, or the ability of people to generate knowledge and action, as an element arising out of globalization which has the potential to create world democracy [14].  The emphasis on social actors and resistance is one of the strengths of the contemporaries’ argument.  They cite the development of global human rights as one of the most important developments from globalization.  This is something the historians, largely, do not consider.

 

Globalization is a process fraught with difficulties regarding its origin.  The historians purport that it is a process continuous with the past, and provide historical examples to illustrate the point.  The contemporaries disagree.  They argue that globalization has ruptured from the past and we are experiencing something new, especially with respect to the technology and speed with which globalization is occurring.  They emphasize the implications of globalization in creating social agency and resistance.  By virtue of the fact that these technologies did not exist in the past, the argument for uniqueness is amplified.  However, the strength of the historians in the form of previous example, is also one of the weaknesses of the contemporaries.  Current examples may prove less unique with time.  There is, furthermore, something worrisome about identifying globalization as something unique.  Because the researcher is both the subject and the object, it is difficult to be reassured that the contemporaries’ arguments are not formed by a need to feel especial in a large, complex world.  I do not intend to pass judgment on the correctness of either argument.  They both encourage further thought and discussion.  More than likely, the debate will remain, and be continued by the historians and contemporaries of the future.

 

 

 

The historians argue that globalization is a process continuous with the past.  Their beliefs focus on economic and social arguments.  However, both of these are framed within the context of historical example.  They utilize examples from around the world, and advocate history as a tool to inform contemporary issues [1].

Hirst and Thompson are supporters of the historical economic argument for globalization.  They argue that “economic globalization is a myth“ [2, p.5].  What some term economic globalization is, in fact, a continuation of economic internationalization which began with technology in the 1860s [2, p. 2].  What some perceive to be transnational companies, are in fact national companies which trade on a multinational scale [2, p. 2].  And most importantly, major economic powers, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan are still able to exert influence and control over these so-called global markets [2, p. 3].  This control is similar to the control exerted by Britain over the colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Looking further back in time, there are scholars who see globalization as an even older event.  Hopkins discusses “archaic globalization“, which he describes as connections of people and ideas beyond the local or national level [1, p. 4].  This includes the spread of religion, migrant labour, and industry.  This view of globalization as something very old is supported by Bennison who offers the example of Muslim universalism [5].  Due to the inherent ageographical nature of the Muslim faith, the spread of Islam can be viewed as an early example of globalization.

The strength of the historians’ arguments lie in their abundance of historical examples.  Their interest in the use of the past to inform current thoughts and discussions is tempting because it avoids the egocentrism associated with the contemporaries’ argument of “we are special, globalization today is something new“.  However, the historians spend little time focusing on some of the methods modern globalization makes use of.  Although technology is mentioned, short shrift is given to information and communication technologies (ICTs) which, as will be describe later, may offer something different in both creating a new, digital space, but also with the speed at which they operate.  Furthermore, historians have undervalued the role of social actors, and the possibility of agency through globalizing processes.  These are some of the important points which the contemporaries use to strengthen their case.

The contemporaries hold the view that globalization today is different from the past.  It is not a continuum.  It is unique.  Their arguments emphasize the differences between the present and the past, and look to the implications of globalization on economy, politics, culture, and society in order to illustrate their point.

While the historians have Hirst and Thompson to argue that the economy today is not global, the contemporaries have Bordo and colleagues, and Bairoch to argue the opposing view [6, 7].  Bairoch argues that globalization is characterized by increasing exchange and networking of finance and industry beyond the level of the nation-state.  He views globalization as “an economic phenomenon implicating a strong international interconnection“ [7, p. 197].  This is similar to Bordo and colleagues who argue that the integration of economies is greater now than previously, and that trade is more important today than a century ago [6, p. 6].  Perhaps the differences between the historians and contemporaries is mainly semantics.  Both historians and contemporaries agree that today’s economy is highly integrated.  However, the difference remains that the contemporaries see today’s economic integration as something new, while the historians do not.

 

Part of this something new is the loss of boundaries, or deterritorialization.  Several authors coin terms to describe the reorganization of people both socially and politically.  Scholte calls this “respatialization“ [8].  Castells terms it “network society“ [9].  Hardt and Negri (2000) name it “Empire“ [10].  All of these scholars believe the decline of the nation-state and creation of connections at levels beyond the nation-state are unique to modern globalization.  Tomlinson advocates the deterritorialization of culture as an important consequence of globalization [11].  He characterizes globalization by the term “complex connectivity“ [11, p. 1] whereby traditional ideas of space and time are lost.  He offers the example of airline travel contrasted with railway travel to illustrate this point [11, pp. 5-6].  When one travels by plane, geographic distance is not felt, but one can quickly be transported to another place and culture.  However, rail travel contrasts with this because geographic space is visualized, and change is seen and internalized.

Deterritorialization involves not only the destruction of boundaries, but also the creation of new spaces.  New spaces are intertwined with advances in ICTs.  Castells characterizes network society by its abundance of informational networks [9].  The Internet and digital spaces are something new.  Although not physical spaces, they are part of the “space of flows“ [9, p. 378] which allows for the movement of information, social processes, finance, and services.  Sassen agrees with Castells’ emphasis on ICTs [12].  Digital networks have the globalizing properties of decentralized access, simultaneity, and interconnectivity [12, p. 366].  However, her interest is more in the role of ICTs in recapitulating social, cultural, and economic contexts [12, p. 365].  Furthermore, ICTs contribute to the social agency possible with modern globalization.

The contemporaries discuss social agency and resistance as arising both in response to, and out of processes associated with globalization.  For example, Appadurai describes the ability of the Alliance, a federation of Mumbai housing activists, to move their local fight to the global level through the use of ICTs, networking, and politics [13].  Hardt and Negri describe biopower, or the ability of people to generate knowledge and action, as an element arising out of globalization which has the potential to create world democracy [14].  The emphasis on social actors and resistance is one of the strengths of the contemporaries’ argument.  They cite the development of global human rights as one of the most important developments from globalization.  This is something the historians, largely, do not consider.

Globalization is a process fraught with difficulties regarding its origin.  The historians purport that it is a process continuous with the past, and provide historical examples to illustrate the point.  The contemporaries disagree.  They argue that globalization has ruptured from the past and we are experiencing something new, especially with respect to the technology and speed with which globalization is occurring.  They emphasize the implications of globalization in creating social agency and resistance.  By virtue of the fact that these technologies did not exist in the past, the argument for uniqueness is amplified.  However, the strength of the historians in the form of previous example, is also one of the weaknesses of the contemporaries.  Current examples may prove less unique with time.  There is, furthermore, something worrisome about identifying globalization as something unique.  Because the researcher is both the subject and the object, it is difficult to be reassured that the contemporaries’ arguments are not formed by a need to feel especial in a large, complex world.  I do not intend to pass judgment on the correctness of either argument.  They both encourage further thought and discussion.  More than likely, the debate will remain, and be continued by the historians and contemporaries of the future.

_________________________________

1. Hopkins AG. The history of globalization - and the globalization of history? In: Hopkins AG, editor. Globalization in world history. London: Pimlico; 2002.

2. Hirst P, Thompson G. Globalization in question. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press; 1999.

3. Parsons T. The British imperial century, 1815-1914: a world history perspective. Rowman and Littlefield; 1999.

4. McClintock A. Imperial leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial conquest. New York: Routledge; 1995.

5. Bennison AK. Muslim universalism and western globalization. In: Hopkins AG, editor. Globalization in world history. London: Pimlico; 2002.

6. Bordo MD, Eichengreen G, Irwin DA. Is globalization today really different than globalization one hundred years ago. Working paper 7195. National Bureau of Economic Research; 1999.

7. Bairoch P. The constituent economic principles of globalization in historical perspective: myths and realities. International Sociology. 2000; 15(2): 197-214.

8. Scholte JA. Globalization: a critical introduction. London: Palgrave; 2000.

9. Castells M. The rise of the network society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; 1996.

10. Hardt M, Negri A. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2000.

11. Tomlinson J. Globalization and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1999.

12. Sassen S. Towards a sociology of information technology. Current Sociology. 2002; 50(3): 365-88.

13. Appadurai A. Grassroots globalization and the research imagination. Public Culture. 2000; 12(1): 1-18.

14. Hardt M, Negri A. Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press; 2004.

All references for this section