Debate On Whether Cultures Are Becoming Homogenised Cultural Studies Essay

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Firstly, I shall start by analysing homogenisation and heterogenisation processes, and by introducing the notion of seeing cultures as multi-layered. This section is followed by a discussion of polarisation, showing the possibility of cultures being divided in two or three distinct regions, lacking any commonality. Lastly, I shall give examples why it difficult to measure cultures, and shall touch on the challenge of identifying the trajectory of globalisation.

Homogenisation & Heterogenisation

Taking a unilayered view on culture can easily result in limited equations such as homogenisation does not equal homogenisation, since homogenisation evokes heterogenisation, and both processes are occurring at the same time. Yet, by using Ram's concept (2004) of the one-way institutional homogenisation and two-way symbolic heterogenisation level enables us to differentiate where homogenisation and heterogenisation are taking place. Let's consider some examples to grasp this concept. In Ram's example, Falafel, Israel's national dish, which was on its demise, experienced a renaissance through the arrival of hamburgers. He argues that McDonaldisation represents homogenisation on the institutional level (victory of foreign culture) and the renaissance of falafel represents heterogenisation on the symbolic level (victory of local culture). The examples of the tattoo culture in Japan (Yamada, 2009), and the Toraja culture (Volkman, 1984) exhibit a similar pattern. In the Japanese culture, tattoos have long been appreciated, particularly since earlier beginnings of the mid 18th century, when so called full body suits tattooing started. This culture has been evident in the population groups of lovers, geishas, prostitutes, and criminals. Yet, the Meiji Restauration in 1868 led to Westernisation and changed Japanese attitudes towards tattoos. What was initially viewed as spiritual and stylish suddenly changed to be viewed as abhorrent. Japanese tattoo culture, however, experienced a renaissance through incorporating American one point tattoos. In the case of the Toraja, an ethnic group in Indonesia, lengthy funeral ceremonies experienced a revival. Through improvement in mobility, thousands of Torajans immigrated to Massakar and other places in the 1930s to find jobs. Most of them were open-minded, well-educated young people that had converted into Christianity. When they came back to Toraja they did not try to eradicate traditional funeral practises and replace them with Christian or more cosmopolitan values, in the contrary they were the main promoters to revive the tradition.

It is important to understand that the above mentioned revivals did not merely bring back a dying tradition. However, they brought back an old tradition with redefined meanings. This is particularly evident in the case of falafel, which lost its unique taste, is nowadays served indoor, and produced in a standardised manner. Therefore, the feelings attached to buying a falafel are very likely to have changed compared to 50 years ago. Furthermore, one-point tattoos do not bear the same spiritual meaning as full body suits tattoos, and funeral ceremonies in Toraja are nowadays more a practice to attract tourists, and showing off wealth. Put simply, they lost its spiritual meaning and authenticity.

Ram's concept is a very useful, differentiated concept for understanding the forces that shape cultural homogenisation and heterogenisation. Nevertheless, it is limited in its assumption that homogenisation on the institutional level is a 'one-way street' (Ram, 2004, p. 24). Yet, it is much more a two-way street with different proportions of power as the 'expressive symbolic level' (ibid., p. 23).


Contemporary scholars such as Appadurai (2006) and Lieber & Weisberg (2002) question Samuel Hunington's theory of 'Clash of Civilisations'. Appadurai claims that the theory is flawed since it leaves only geography, instead of emphasising ideology. He therefore suggests renaming the polarisation theory into Clash of Ideocide. Furthermore, Lieber & Weisberg argue that the clash is rather within than between cultures. I prefer Appadurai's, Lieber, and Weisberg's views, because they shifted the topic from the ethnic to an ideological level and acknowledge deterritorialisation, which will be discussed in the next section. Even though, Hunington's concept is flawed, he might be correct with his notion of polarisation. As an example let us consider Axelrod's (1997) experiment in the field of cultural convergence, which contributed to shed some light on this debate. He developed a mathematical model, which he used to find out how many stable homogenised states remain at the end of the experiment (a run). His model is based on the assumption that the more similar cultures are to each other, the more likely they will eventually homogenise. The number of stable homogenised regions at the end differed depending on the run. His findings indicate amongst others that polarisation increased the more cultural features (cultural dimensions) were used, because of the higher probability of being similar on one of the features. However, the more traits were attached to a feature the more stable homogenised states resulted at the end, meaning less polarisation. For instance, a feature could be the language people speak, and the traits the various alternative languages that might be spoken in that particular state. This model, however, has its limitations like any other model. In my opinion, the model correctly assumes that similar cultures are more likely to become homogenised. But it lacks to consider the inverse effect of heterogenisation, which we could observe in the examples of falafel, Toraja, and tattoo culture. Additionally, his attempt to simulate interconnectedness resulted in regional- rather than global interconnectedness. Nevertheless, the experiment demonstrates that polarisation can take place under certain conditions, and that the outcome of polarisation is ambiguous. This supports the transformalist's view that the massive shake out, caused by globalisation, remains uncertain (Giddens, 1996).

It is doubtful that cultures become polarised at an ideological level, as individuals have the desire to distinguish themselves from others by nature (Axelrod, 1997). However, it is conceivable that future events, which people associate with religion, could indeed lead to a Clash of Ideocide, leaving two or three clear distinguishable, unharmonisable, and antagonised cultures.

Complexity of measuring culture

Even though, plenty of research has been done in the field of measuring cultures, e.g. by Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner (2008) or Geert Hofstede (2003), present studies provide us with limited results. To think that we can measure cultures "rests on the assumption that there is in any case a definable, lived national culture"(Held, 1999, p. 369). Yet, "being British or American does not define who you are: It is part of who you are" (Legrain, 2003, p. 6). Furthermore, societies do not share values and interests. They are rather contradicting social structures, which are constantly trying to find compromises (Castells, 2009).

The phenomenon of deterritorialisation is also particularly making it difficult to determine the trajectory of globalisation. This concept represents the uncoupling of territory and culture through world interconnectedness (Held, 1999). A few clicks suffice to connect with the world and get exposed to the 'foreign'. However, according to Wolfgang Welsch's concept of Transculturality (1999) there is nothing absolutely foreign anymore, since everything is within reach. A notion which is in accordance with Appadurai's view that there is no distinct we and they anymore (2006). Yet, 'foreign' cultures are not within reach for everyone. There exist huge inequalities between countries and within societies when it comes to internet access (Held, 1999; ITU, 2009). In this context one could ask to which extent the not-haves influence the country's elite, which is connected to the world? And how much do 'foreign' television programmes and homepages influence a society? To answer this question one could utilise Giulianotti and Robertson's concept regarding migration strategies (2007). It assumes that individuals use strategies to either accept or reject foreign ideas and practices. Taking that as a basis, we can conclude that individuals do not passively absorb foreign cultural traits. They either actively absorb them because of preference or convenience or actively reject them. Let's consider an example to illustrate the complexity of this subject. Think of a Norwegian businessperson who newly drinks coffee at Starbucks in Oslo. Does that tell us how 'American' he has become, if at all? Did the meaning he attaches to coffee change in any way? From this example it should get clear that by only analysing hard facts, such as counting the number of McDonalds, BMWs, Swiss Watches, etc. in a country cannot give us a comprehensive answer of how homogenised cultures are. However, it is beyond doubt that the explicit cultural layer is influencing the implicit one; the question is rather to which extent. To determine the magnitude of this influence is indeed a tough nut to crack.

As we discussed earlier in this section, societies are contradicting social structures comprising people with different cultures. Therefore, one can assume that different personalities take different decisions in rejecting and accepting 'foreign' cultural traits. Let's assume an example of a French citizen that regards himself as cosmopolitan, speaks seven languages, travels around the world but is fighting in the front line for rigorous migration policies in his country. In this case he welcomes global cultural flows to France, with the exception of unqualified immigrants and refugees, which make part of the ethnoscape - one of Appadurai's five cultural flows (Appadurai, 2002). In contrast, another French citizen might feel responsible to help those people in need, however, might reject any foreign ideology that is not in accordance with his religious view. Who in this case is now the 'cosmopolitan' and who is the 'heartlander' (Goh, 1999)? This favouritism towards particular types of globalisation flows is also evident in the example of the Israeli businessperson Ezer Weizman. He was a renowned car importer with strong business connections to the US. Yet, he fought at the forefront against "the three 'Ms': McDonald's, Michael Jackson and Madona" (Ram, 2004, p. 18). The same particularistic behaviour shows the Indian elite that basically hates American lifestyle, however, sends their children to US universities and tries to pursue the American dream (Appadurai, 2006). In the Middle-East this phenomenon is called Muslim schizophrenia (Lieber & Weisberg, 2002). The final example to illustrate my point, uses the case of the Russian youth who welcomes technological advances such as iPods but does not want to emulate the spiritual nature of American lifestyle (Macgregor, 2008).


This essay demonstrated the complexity of this topic and showed that polarisation, homogenisation, and heterogenisation are simultaneously shaping contemporary society. I therefore support the view of the transformalists who believe that the direction of the 'shake out', caused by globalisation, remains uncertain.

Nevertheless, we might ask which concept is more prevalent in contemporary society. In my opinion it is homogenisation, since the homogenisation process on the structural level is very intense and the heterogenisation process, like Ram stated, rather symbolic. The homogenisation process is mainly driven by communication technology, education, human rights culture, business' attempt to eliminate difference, and the desire to increase efficiency through latest technology. It can be expected that those drivers of homogenisation will continue to shape society in the future. Homogenisation, however, will neither reach its pure form nor remain static, as people want to distinguish themselves by nature and will actively reject foreign cultures.

At this point, I want to emphasise that the homogenisation trend might shift in some decades towards a dominance of heterogenisation or polarisation. Issues like climate change, wars, shifts in economic and political power, and dramatic events that people associate with religion could have unpredictable outcomes.