The Globalization Theories

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What is Globalization?

Globalization refers to 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.

Theories of Globalization

Since the mid-1980s, social theorists have moved beyond the relatively underdeveloped character of previous reflections on the compression or annihilation of space to offer a rigorous conception of globalization. To be sure, major disagreements remain about the precise nature of the causal forces behind globalization, with David Harvey (1989, 1996) building directly on Marx's pioneering explanation of globalization, while others (Giddens, 19990; Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999) question the exclusive focus on economic factors characteristic of the Marxist approach. Nonetheless, a consensus about the basic rudiments of the concept of globalization appears to be emerging.

First, contemporary analysts associate globalization with deterritorialization, according to which a growing variety of social activities takes place irrespective of the geographical location of participants. As Jan Aart Scholte observes, "global events can -- via telecommunication, digital computers, audiovisual media, rocketry and the like -- occur almost simultaneously anywhere and everywhere in the world" (Scholte, 1996: 45). Globalization refers to increased possibilities for action between and among people in situations where latitudinal and longitudinal location seems immaterial to the social activity at hand. Even though geographical location remains crucial for many undertakings (for example, farming to satisfy the needs of a local market), deterritorialization manifests itself in many social spheres. Business people on different continents now engage in electronic commerce; television allows people situated anywhere to observe the impact of terrible wars being waged far from the comfort of their living rooms; academics make use of the latest video conferencing equipment to organize seminars in which participants are located at disparate geographical locations; the Internet allows people to communicate instantaneously with each other notwithstanding vast geographical distances separating them. Territory in the sense of a traditional sense of a geographically identifiable location no longer constitutes the whole of "social space" in which human activity takes places. In this initial sense of the term, globalization refers to the spread of new forms of non-territorial social activity (Ruggie, 1993; Scholte, 2000).

Second, recent theorists conceive of globalization as linked to the growth of social interconnectedness across existing geographical and political boundaries. In this view, deterritorialization is a crucial facet of globalization. Yet an exclusive focus on it would be misleading. Since the vast majority of human activities is still tied to a concrete geographical location, the more decisive facet of globalization concerns the manner in which distant events and forces impact on local and regional endeavors (Tomlinson, 1999: 9). For example, this encyclopedia might be seen as an example of a deterritorialized social space since it allows for the exchange of ideas in cyberspace. The only prerequisite for its use is access to the Internet. Although substantial inequalities in Internet access still exist, use of the encyclopedia is in principle unrelated to any specific geographical location. However, the reader may very well be making use of the encyclopedia as a supplement to course work undertaken at a school or university. That institution is not only located at a specific geographical juncture, but its location is probably essential for understanding many of its key attributes: the level of funding may vary according to the state or region where the university is located, or the same academic major might require different courses and readings at a university in China, for example, than in Argentina or Norway. Globalization refers to those processes whereby geographically distant events and decisions impact to a growing degree on "local" university life. For example, the insistence by powerful political leaders in the First World that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should require that Latin and South American countries commit themselves to a particular set of economic policies might result in poorly paid teachers and researchers as well as large, understaffed lecture classes in San Paolo or Lima; the latest innovations in information technology from a computer research laboratory in India could quickly change the classroom experience of students in British Columbia or Tokyo. Globalization refers "to processes of change which underpin a transformation in the organization of human affairs by linking together and expanding human activity across regions and continents" (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999: 15). Globalization in this sense is a matter of degree since any given social activity might influence events more or less faraway: even though a growing number of activities seems intermeshed with events in distant continents, certain human activities remain primarily local or regional in scope. Also, the magnitude and impact of the activity might vary: geographically removed events could have a relatively minimal or a far more extensive influence on events at a particular locality. Finally, we might consider the degree to which interconnectedness across frontiers is no longer merely haphazard but instead predictable and regularized (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999).

Third, globalization must also include reference to the speed or velocity of social activity. Deterritorialization and interconnectedness initially seem chiefly spatial in nature. Yet it is easy to see how these spatial shifts are directly tied to the acceleration of crucial forms of social activity. As we observed above in our discussion of the conceptual forerunners to the present-day debate on globalization, the proliferation of high-speed transportation, communication, and information technologies constitutes the most immediate source for the blurring of geographical and territorial boundaries that prescient observers have diagnosed at least since the mid-nineteenth century. The compression of space presupposes rapid-fire forms of technology; shifts in our experiences of territory depend on concomitant changes in the temporality of human action. High-speed technology only represents the tip of the iceberg, however. The linking together and expanding of social activities across borders is predicated on the possibility of relatively fast flows and movements of people, information, capital, and goods. Without these fast flows, it is difficult to see how distant events could possibly posses the influence they now enjoy. High-speed technology plays a pivotal role in the velocity of human affairs. But many other factors contribute to the overall pace and speed of social activity. The organizational structure of the modern capitalist factory offers one example; certain contemporary habits and inclinations, including the "mania for motion and speed" described by Dewey, represent another. Deterritorialization and the expansion of interconnectedness are intimately tied to the acceleration of social life, while social acceleration itself takes many different forms (Eriksen, 2001; Scheuerman 2004). Here as well, we can easily see why globalization is always a matter of degree. The velocity or speed of flows, movements, and interchanges across borders can vary no less than their magnitude, impact, or regularity.

Fourth, even though analysts disagree about the causal forces that generate globalization, most agree that globalization should be conceived as a relatively long-term process. The triad of deterritorialization, interconnectedness, and social acceleration hardly represents a sudden or recent event in contemporary social life. Globalization is a constitutive feature of the modern world, and modern history includes many examples of globalization (Giddens, 1990). As we saw above, nineteenth-century thinkers captured at least some of its core features; the compression of territoriality composed an important element of their lived experience. Nonetheless, some contemporary theorists believe that globalization has taken a particularly intense form in recent decades, as innovations in communication, transportation, and information technologies (for example, computerization) have generated stunning new possibilities for simultaneity and instantaneousness (Harvey, 1989). In this view, present-day intellectual interest in the problem of globalization can be linked directly to the emergence of new high-speed technologies that tend to minimize the significance of distance and heighten possibilities for deterritorialization and social interconnectedness. Although the intense sense of territorial compression experienced by so many of our contemporaries is surely reminiscent of the experiences of earlier generations, some contemporary writers nonetheless argue that it would be mistaken to obscure the countless ways in which ongoing transformations of the spatial and temporal contours of human experience are especially far-reaching. While our nineteenth-century predecessors understandably marveled at the railroad or the telegraph, a comparatively vast array of social activities is now being transformed by innovations that accelerate social activity and considerably deepen longstanding trends towards deterritorialization and social interconnectedness. To be sure, the impact of deterritorialization, social interconnectedness, and social acceleration are by no means universal or uniform: migrant workers engaging in traditional forms of low-wage agricultural labor in the fields of southern California, for example, probably operate in a different spatial and temporal context than the Internet entrepreneurs of San Francisco or Seattle. Distinct assumptions about space and time often coexist uneasily during a specific historical juncture (Gurvitch, 1964). Nonetheless, the impact of recent technological innovations is profound, and even those who do not have a job directly affected by the new technology are shaped by it in innumerable ways as citizens and consumers (Eriksen, 2001: 16).

Fifth, globalization should be understood as a multi-pronged process, since deterritorialization, social interconnectedness, and acceleration manifest themselves in many different (economic, political, and cultural) arenas of social activity. Although each facet of globalization is linked to the core components of globalization described above, each consists of a complex and relatively autonomous series of empirical developments, requiring careful examination in order to disclose the causal mechanisms specific to it (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999). Each manifestation of globalization also generates distinct conflicts and dislocations. For example, there is substantial empirical evidence that cross-border flows and exchanges, as well as the emergence of directly transnational forms of production by means of which a single commodity is manufactured simultaneously in distant corners of the globe, are gaining in prominence (Castells, 1996). High-speed technologies and organizational approaches are employed by transnationally operating firms, the so-called "global players," with great effectiveness. The emergence of "around-the-world, around-the-clock" financial markets, where major cross-border financial transactions are made in cyberspace at the blink of an eye, represents a familiar example of the economic face of globalization. Global financial markets also challenge traditional attempts by liberal democratic nation-states to rein in the activities of bankers, spawning understandable anxieties about the growing power and influence of financial markets over democratically elected representative institutions. In political life, globalization takes a distinct form, though the general trends towards deterritorialization, interconnectedness across borders, and the acceleration of social activity are fundamental here as well. Transnational movements, in which activists employ rapid-fire communication technologies to join forces across borders in combating ills that seem correspondingly transnational in scope (for example, the depletion of the ozone layer), offer an example of political globalization. Another would be the tendency towards ambitious supranational forms of social and economic lawmaking and regulation, where individual nation-states cooperate to pursue regulation whose jurisdiction transcends national borders no less than the cross-border economic processes that may undermine traditional modes of nation state-based regulation. Political scientists typically describe the trend towards ambitious forms of supranational organization (the European Union, for example, or North America Free Trade Association) as important recent manifestations of political globalization. The proliferation of supranational organizations has been no less conflict-laden than economic globalization, however. Critics insist that local, regional, and national forms of self-government are being rapidly supplanted by insufficiently democratic forms of global governance remote from the needs of ordinary citizens, whereas their defenders describe new forms of supranational legal and political decision as indispensable forerunners to more inclusive and advanced forms of self-government.