GLOBALIZATION A Very Short Introduction

Manfred B. Steger
A Very Short Introduction
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Chapter 1
Globalization: a contested
Although the term ‘globalization’ can be traced back to the early
1960s, it was not until a quarter of a century later that it took the
public consciousness by storm. ‘Globalization’ surfaced as the
buzzword of the ‘Roaring Nineties’ because it best captured the
increasingly interdependent nature of social life on our planet. At
the end of the opening decade of the twenty-first century, there
were millions of references to globalization in both virtual and
printed space. Unfortunately, however, early bestsellers on the
subject – Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations,
Benjamin Barber’s Jihad Versus McWorld, or Thomas Friedman’s
The Lexus and the Olive Tree – had left their readers with the
simplistic impression that globalization was the inevitable process
of a universalizing Western civilization battling the parochial
forces of nationalism, localism, and tribalism. This influential
assumption deepened further in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and
the ensuing Global War on Terror spearheaded by an ‘American
Empire’ of worldwide reach. As a result of this rigid dichotomy
that pitted the universal against the particular and the global
against the local, many people had trouble recognizing the myriad
ties binding religious-traditionalist fundamentalisms to the
secular postmodernity of the global age.
As an illustration of this narrow perspective, let me introduce a
bright history major from one of my Global Studies courses.
‘I understand that “globalization” is a contested concept that refers
to the shrinkage of time and space,’ she quipped, ‘but how can
you say that religious fanatics who denounce modernity and
secularism from a mountain cave somewhere in the Middle East
perfectly capture the complex dynamics of globalization? Don’t
these terrible acts of terrorism suggest the opposite, namely, the
growth of reactionary forces that undermine globalization?’
Obviously, the student was referring to Saudi-born Al-Qaeda
leader Osama bin Laden and his associates whose videotaped
statements condemning the activities of ‘infidel crusaders and
Zionists’ were the steady diet of worldwide broadcasts in the years
following the 9/11 attacks.
To be fair, however, I could not help but be struck by the sense of
intellectual urgency that fuelled my student’s question. It showed
that globalization in all its dimensions remains an elusive concept
without real-life examples capable of breathing shape, colour, and
sound into a vague term that continues to dominate the
twenty-first century media landscape. Hence, before delving into
necessary matters of definition and analytical clarification, we
ought to approach our subject in less abstract fashion. Let’s begin
our journey with a careful examination of the aforementioned
videotapes. It will soon become fairly obvious why a
deconstruction of those images provides important clues to the
nature and dynamics of the phenomenon we have come to call
Deconstructing Osama bin Laden
The most infamous of the bin Laden tapes was broadcast
worldwide on 7 October 2001, less than a month after the collapse
of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. The recording bears no
date, but experts have estimated that it was made about two weeks
before it was broadcast. The timing of its release appears to have
been carefully planned so as to achieve the maximum effect on the
Globalization: a contested concept
1. Osama bin Laden on Al-Jazeera Television, 7 October 2001
day the United States commenced its bombing campaign against
the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (‘The Base’) forces in Afghanistan.
Although Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants were then
hiding in a remote region of the country, they obviously possessed
the hi-tech equipment needed to record the statement. Moreover,
Al-Qaeda members clearly enjoyed immediate access to
sophisticated information and telecommunication networks that
kept them informed – in real-time – of relevant international
developments. Bin Laden may have denounced the international
‘crusaders’ with great conviction, but the smooth operation of his
entire organization was entirely dependent on information and
communication technology developed in the globalizing decades
of the waning 20th century.
To further illustrate this apparent contradiction, consider the
complex chain of global interdependencies that must have existed
in order for bin Laden’s message to be heard and seen by countless
TV viewers around the world. After making its way from the
secluded mountains of eastern Afghanistan to the capital city of
Kabul, the videotape was dropped off by an unknown courier
outside the local office of Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based television
company. This network had been launched only five years earlier
as a state-financed, Arabic-language news and current affairs
channel that offered limited programming. Before the founding of
Al-Jazeera, cutting-edge TV journalism – such as free-ranging
public affairs interviews and talk shows with call-in audiences –
simply did not exist in the Arab world. Within only three years,
however, Al-Jazeera was offering its Middle Eastern audience a
dizzying array of programmes, transmitted around the clock by
powerful satellites put into orbit by European rockets and
American space shuttles.
Indeed, the network’s market share increased even further as a
result of the dramatic reduction in the price and size of satellite
dishes. Suddenly, such technologies became affordable, even for
low-income consumers. By the turn of the century, Al-Jazeera
Globalization: a contested concept
broadcasts could be watched around the clock on all five
In 2001, the company further intensified its global reach when
its chief executives signed a lucrative cooperation agreement
with CNN, the leading news network owned by the giant
multinational corporation AOL-Time-Warner. A few months
later, when the world’s attention shifted to the war in Afghanistan,
Al-Jazeera had already positioned itself as a truly global player,
powerful enough to rent equipment to such prominent news
providers as Reuters and ABC, sell satellite time to the Associated
Press and BBC, and design an innovative Arabic-language
business news channel together with its other American network
partner, CNBC.
Unhampered by national borders and geographical obstacles,
cooperation among these sprawling news networks had become so
efficient that CNN acquired and broadcast a copy of the Osama
bin Laden tape only a few hours after it had been delivered to the
Al-Jazeera office in Kabul. Caught offguard by the incredible
speed of today’s information exchange, the Bush administration
asked the Qatari government to ‘rein in Al-Jazeera’, claiming that
the swift airing of the bin Laden tape without prior consultation
was contributing to the rise of anti-American sentiments in the
Arab world and thus threatened to undermine the US war effort.
However, not only was the perceived ‘damage’ already done, but
segments of the tape – including the full text of bin Laden’s
statement – could be viewed online by anyone with access to a
computer and a modem. The Al-Jazeera website quickly attracted
an international audience as its daily hit count skyrocketed to over
7 million.
There can be no doubt that it was the existence of this chain of
global interconnections that made possible the instant broadcast
of bin Laden’s speech to a global audience. At the same time,
however, it must be emphasized that even those voices that oppose
modernity cannot extricate themselves from the very process of
globalization they so decry. In order to spread their message and
recruit new sympathizers, apparent ‘antiglobalizers’ must utilize
the tools provided by globalization. This obvious truth was visible
even in bin Laden’s personal appearance. The tape shows that he
was wearing contemporary military fatigues over traditional Arab
garments. In other words, his dress reflects the contemporary
processes of fragmentation and cross-fertilization that Global
Studies scholars call ‘hybridization’ – the mixing of different
cultural forms and styles facilitated by global economic and
cultural exchanges. In fact, the pale colours of bin Laden’s mottled
combat dress betrayed its Russian origins, suggesting that he wore
the jacket as a symbolic reminder of the fierce guerrilla war waged
by him and other Islamic militants against the Soviet occupation
forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
His ever-present AK-47 Kalashnikov, too, was probably made in
Russia, although dozens of gun factories around the world have
been building this popular assault rifle for over forty years. By the
mid-1990s, more than 70 million Kalashnikovs had been
manufactured in Russia and abroad. At least fifty national armies
include such rifles in their arsenal, making Kalashnikovs truly
weapons of global choice. Thus, bin Laden’s AK-47 could have
come from anywhere in the world. However, given the astonishing
globalization of organized crime during the last two decades, it is
quite conceivable that bin Laden’s rifle was part of an illegal arms
deal hatched and executed by such powerful international
criminal organizations as Al-Qaeda and the Russian Mafia. It is
also possible that the rifle arrived in Afghanistan by means of an
underground arms trade similar to the one that surfaced in May
1996, when police in San Francisco seized 2,000 illegally imported
AK-47s manufactured in China.
A close look at bin Laden’s right wrist reveals yet another clue to
the powerful dynamics of globalization. As he directs his words of
contempt for the United States and its allies at his hand-held
Globalization: a contested concept
microphone, his retreating sleeve exposes a stylish sports watch.
Journalists who noticed this expensive accessory have speculated
about its origins. The emerging consensus points to a Timex
product. However, given that Timex watches are as American as
apple pie, it seems rather ironic that the Al-Qaeda leader should
have chosen this particular chronometer. After all, Timex
Corporation, originally the Waterbury Clock Company, was
founded in the 1850s in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, known
throughout the nineteenth century as the ‘Switzerland of America’.
Today, Timex has gone multinational, maintaining close relations
to affiliated businesses and sales offices in sixty-five countries. It
employs 7,500 employees, located on four continents. Thousands
of workers – mostly from low-wage countries in the global South –
constitute the driving force behind the corporation’s global
production process.
Our brief deconstruction of some of the central images on the
videotape makes it easier to understand why the seemingly
anachronistic images of an ‘antiglobalist’ terrorist in front of an
Afghan cave do, in fact, capture some essential dynamics of
globalization. To be sure, in his subsequent taped appearances,
Osama bin Laden presented himself more like a learned Muslim
cleric than a holy warrior. In a September 2007 tape, he even went
so far as to show off his neatly trimmed and dyed beard. But even
this softened image of one of the world’s most famous mujahideen
(‘holy warriors’) doesn’t change the overarching reality of
intensifying global interdependence: the tensions between
localism and globalism have reached unprecedented levels
precisely because the links connecting them have been growing
faster than at any time in history. The rise of worldwide terrorist
organizations like Al-Qaeda represents but one of the many
manifestations of globalization. Just as bin Laden’s romantic
ideology of a ‘pure Islam’ is itself an articulation of the global
imaginary, so has our global age, with its insatiable appetite for
technology, mass-market commodities, and celebrities, indelibly
shaped the violent backlash against globalization. Our
deconstruction of Osama bin Laden has provided us with a
real-life example of the intricate – and sometimes contradictory –
social dynamics of globalization. We are now in a better position to
tackle the rather demanding task of assembling a working
definition of a contested concept that has proven to be notoriously
hard to pin down.
Towards a definition of globalization
‘Globalization’ has been variously used in both popular and
academic literature to describe a process, a condition, a system,
a force, and an age. Given that these competing labels have
very different meanings, their indiscriminate usage is often
obscure and invites confusion. For example, a sloppy conflation
of process and condition encourages circular definitions that
explain little. The often repeated truism that ‘globalization [the
process] leads to more globalization [the condition]’ does not
allow us to draw meaningful analytical distinctions between
causes and effects.
Hence, I suggest that we adopt the term globality to signify a
social condition characterized by tight global economic, political,
cultural, and environmental interconnections and flows that
make most of the currently existing borders and boundaries
irrelevant. Yet, we should neither assume that globality is already
upon us nor that it refers to a determinate endpoint that
precludes any further development. Rather, this concept signifies
a future social condition that, like all conditions, is destined to give
way to new constellations. For example, it is conceivable that
globality might eventually be transformed into something we
might call ‘planetarity’ – a new social condition brought about by
the successful colonization of our solar system. Moreover, we
could easily imagine different social manifestations of globality:
one might be based primarily on values of individualism,
competition, and laissez-faire capitalism, while another might
Globalization: a contested concept
draw on more communal and cooperative norms. These possible
alternatives point to the fundamentally indeterminate character of
The term globalization applies to a set of social processes that
appear to transform our present social condition of weakening
nationality into one of globality. At its core, then, globalization is
about shifting forms of human contact. Indeed, any affirmation of
globalization implies three assertions: first, we are slowly leaving
behind the condition of modern nationality that gradually
unfolded from the eighteenth century onwards; second, that we
are moving towards the new condition of postmodern globality;
and, third, we have not yet reached it. Indeed, like ‘modernization’
and other verbal nouns that end in the suffix‘-ization’, the term
‘globalization’ suggests a sort of dynamism best captured by the
notion of ‘development’ or ‘unfolding’ along discernible patterns.
Such unfolding may occur quickly or slowly, but it always
corresponds to the idea of change, and, therefore, denotes
Hence, academics exploring the dynamics of globalization are
particularly keen on pursuing research questions related to the
theme of social change. How does globalization occur? What is
driving globalization? Is it one cause or a combination of factors?
Is globalization a uniform or an uneven process? Is globalization a
continuation of modernity or is it a radical break? How does
globalization differ from previous social developments? Does
globalization create new forms of inequality and hierarchy? Notice
that the conceptualization of globalization as a dynamic process
rather than as a static condition forces the researcher to pay close
attention to shifting perceptions of time and space. This explains
why many globalization scholars assign particular significance to
historical analysis and the reconfiguration of social space. Indeed,
the crucial insights of human geographers have played a major role
in developing the field of Global Studies. Most importantly, these
scholars point out that old geographical scales that distinguish
sharply between ‘local’, ‘national’, ‘regional’, and ‘global’, no longer
work in a complex, networked world where these scales overlap
and interpenetrate each other. Indeed, the best place to study the
‘global’ is often the ‘local’ – reflected, for example, in ‘global cities’
like New York, London, Tokyo, and Shanghai.
Finally, let us adopt global imaginary as a concept referring to
people’s growing consciousness of belonging to a global
community. This is not to say that national and local communal
frameworks have lost their power to provide people with a
meaningful sense of home and identity. But it would be a mistake
to close one’s eyes to the weakening of the national imaginary. As
the global imaginary erupts with increasing frequency within and
onto the national and local, it destabilizes and unsettles the
conventional parameters of understanding within which people
imagine their communal existence. As we shall see in later
chapters, the rising global imaginary is also powerfully reflected in
the current transformation of political ideologies – the ideas and
beliefs that go into the articulation of concrete political agendas
and programmes.
To argue that globalization constitutes a set of social processes
enveloped by the rising global imaginary and propelling us
towards the condition of globality may eliminate the danger of
circular definitions, but it gives us only one defining characteristic
of the process: movement towards greater interdependence and
integration. Such a general definition of globalization tells us
little about its remaining qualities. In order to overcome this
deficiency, let us identify additional qualities that make
globalization different from other sets of social processes. Yet,
whenever researchers raise the level of specificity in order to
bring the phenomenon in question into sharper focus, they also
heighten the danger of provoking scholarly disagreements over
definitions. Our subject is no exception. One of the reasons why
globalization remains a contested concept is because there exists
Globalization: a contested concept
no scholarly consensus on what kinds of social processes
constitute its essence.
After all, globalization is an uneven process, meaning that people
living in various parts of the world are affected very differently by
this gigantic transformation of social structures and cultural
zones. Hence, the social processes that make up globalization have
been analysed and explained by various commentators in
different, often contradictory ways. Scholars not only hold
different views with regard to proper definitions of globalization,
they also disagree on its scale, causation, chronology, impact,
trajectories, and policy outcomes. The ancient Buddhist parable of
the blind scholars and their encounter with the elephant helps to
illustrate the academic controversy over the nature and various
dimensions of globalization.
Since the blind scholars did not know what the elephant looked
like, they resolved to obtain a mental picture, and thus the
knowledge they desired, by touching the animal. Feeling its trunk,
one blind man argued that the elephant was like a lively snake.
Another man, rubbing along its enormous leg, likened the animal
to a rough column of massive proportions. The third person took
hold of its tail and insisted that the elephant resembled a large,
flexible brush. The fourth man felt its sharp tusks and declared it
to be like a great spear. Each of the blind scholars held firmly to
his own idea of what constituted an elephant. Since their scholarly
reputation was riding on the veracity of their respective findings,
the blind men eventually ended up arguing over the true nature of
the elephant.
The ongoing academic quarrel over which dimension contains the
essence of globalization represents a postmodern version of the
parable of the blind men and the elephant. Even those few
remaining scholars who still think of globalization as a singular
process clash with each other over which aspect of social life
constitutes its primary domain. Some Global Studies experts
2. The globalization scholars and the elephant
argue that economic processes lie at the core of globalization.
Others privilege political, cultural, or ideological aspects. Still
others point to environmental processes as the essence of
globalization. Like the blind men in the parable, each
globalization researcher is partly right by correctly identifying one
important dimension of the phenomenon in question. However,
their collective mistake lies in their dogmatic attempts to reduce
such a complex phenomenon as globalization to a single domain
that corresponds to their own expertise. Surely, one of the central
tasks for Global Studies as an emerging field must be to devise
better ways for gauging the relative importance of each dimension
without losing sight of the interconnected whole. Fortunately,
more and more researchers have begun to heed this call for a
genuine multidimensional approach to globalization that avoids
pernicious reductionism.
Despite such differences of opinion, it is nonetheless possible to
detect some thematic overlap in various scholarly attempts to
identify the core qualities of globalization processes. Consider, for
example, the five influential definitions of globalization (see box).
Globalization: a contested concept
‘Globalization can thus be defined as the intensification of
worldwide social relations which link distant localities in
such a way that local happenings are shaped by events
occurring many miles away and vice versa.’
Anthony Giddens, Former Director of the
London School of Economics
‘The concept of globalization reflects the sense of an immense
enlargement of world communication, as well as of the
horizon of a world market, both of which seem far more
tangible and immediate than in earlier stages of modernity.’
Fredric Jameson, Professor of Literature,
Duke University
‘Globalization may be thought of as a process (or set of
processes) which embodies a transformation in the spatial
organization of social relations and transactions – assessed in
terms of their extensity, intensity, velocity and impact –
generating transcontinental or interregional flows and
networks of activity, interaction, and the exercise of power.’
David Held, Professor of Political Science,
London School of Economics
‘Globalization as a concept refers both to the compression of
the world and the intensification of consciousness of the
world as a whole.’
Roland Robertson, Professor of Sociology,
University of Aberdeen, Scotland
‘Globalization compresses the time and space aspects of
social relations.’
James Mittelman, Professor of International Relations,
American University, Washington
These definitions point to four additional qualities or
characteristics at the core of the phenomenon. First, globalization
involves the creation of new, and the multiplication of existing,
social networks and activities that cut across traditional political,
economic, cultural, and geographical boundaries. As we have seen
in the case of Al-Jazeera, the creation of today’s satellite-news
corporations is made possible by the combination of professional
networking, technological innovation, and political decisions that
permit the emergence of new social orders that transcend
nationally-based arrangements.
The second quality of globalization is reflected in the expansion
and the stretching of social relations, activities, and
Today’s financial markets reach around the globe, and electronic
trading occurs around the clock. Gigantic and virtually identical
shopping malls have emerged on all continents, offering those
consumers who can afford commodities from all regions of the
world – including products whose various components were
manufactured in different countries. This process of social
stretching applies to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network as well as to
less sinister associations such as non-governmental organizations,
commercial enterprises, social clubs, and countless regional and
global institutions and associations: the United Nations, the
European Union, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, the
Organization of African Unity, Doctors Without Borders, the
World Social Forum, or Google, to name but a few.
Third, globalization involves the intensification and acceleration
of social exchanges and activities. As the Spanish sociologist
Manuel Castells has pointed out, the creation of a global ‘network
society’ required a technological revolution – one that has been
powered chiefly by the rapid development of new information and
transportation technologies. Proceeding at breakneck speed, these
innovations are reshaping the social landscape of human life. The
Globalization: a contested concept
Internet relays distant information in real time, and satellites
provide consumers with instant pictures of remote events. The
intensification of worldwide social relations means that local
happenings are shaped by events occurring far away, and vice
versa. In other words, the seemingly opposing processes of
globalization and localization actually imply each other. Rather
than sitting at the base and the top of conventional geographical
hierarchies, the local and global intermingle messily with the
national and regional in new horizontal scales.
Fourth, as we emphasized in our discussion of the global
imaginary, globalization processes do not occur merely on an
objective, material level but also involve the subjective plane of
human consciousness. The compression of the world into a single
place increasingly makes global the frame of reference for human
thought and action. Hence, globalization involves both the
macro-structures of community and the micro-structures of
personhood. It extends deep into the core of the self and its
dispositions, facilitating the creation of new individual and
collective identities nurtured by the intensifying relations between
the individual and the globe.
It seems that we have succinctly identified some of the core
qualities of globalization. Compressing them into a single sentence
yields the following very short definition of globalization:
Globalization refers to the expansion and intensification of social
relations and consciousness across world-time and world-space.
Before we draw this chapter to a close, let us consider some
objections raised by those scholars who belong to the camp of the
‘globalization sceptics’. Their objections range from the accusation
that fashionable ‘globalization talk’ amounts to little more than
‘globaloney’ to less radical suggestions that globalization is a much
more limited and uneven process than the sweeping arguments of
the so-called ‘hyperglobalizers’ would have us believe. In many
ways, the most radical globalization sceptics resemble the blind
scholar who, occupying the empty space between the elephant’s
front and hind legs, groped in vain for a part of the elephant.
Finding none, he accused his colleagues of making up fantastic
stories about non-existent things, asserting that there were no
such animals as ‘elephants’ at all. Since evidence pointing to the
rapid intensification of worldwide social relations has been
mounting in the 2000s, I will resist delving into a detailed
refutation of those few remaining sceptics who deny the existence
of globalization altogether.
Still, globalization sceptics performed the valuable service of
forcing global studies scholars to hone their arguments. One of the
most challenging questions posed by globalization sceptics is a
historical one: is globalization a modern phenomenon? Some
critics would respond to this question in the negative, insisting
that the concept of globalization has been used in a historically
imprecise manner. In a nutshell, this thoughtful group of sceptics
contends that even a cursory look at history suggests that there is
not much that is ‘new’ about contemporary globalization. Hence,
before we explore in some detail the main dimensions of
globalization in subsequent chapters of this book, I suggest we
give this weighty historical argument a fair hearing. Indeed, such a
critical investigation of globalization’s alleged novelty is closely
related to yet another question hotly debated in Global Studies.
What does a proper chronology and historical periodization of
globalization look like? Let us turn to Chapter 2 to seek answers to
these questions.

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