Globalization (in a nutshell)


Jan Blommaert

Globalization refers to the process of increasing interconnectedness between different parts of the world, creating global modes of organization and conduct. This interconnectedness has ‘hard’ dimensions (economic, political, demographic, military etc.) as well as ‘soft’ ones (culture, language, religion etc.), and the key to the entire process is mutual influencing through borrowing, transfer, or power. This, we can say, is globalization-as-phenomenon.

Globalization also refers to a scientific awareness of these factual processes, which functions in that sense as a corrective to approaches privileging single states or regions in research, grouped under the label of ‘methodological nationalism. It is because of this awareness that we now refer to our societies as ‘globalized’. This, we can say, is globalization-as-paradigm. And while globalization-as-phenomenon is very old, globalization-as-paradigm is quite recent. The latter demands explanation.

The lens of methodological nationalism

The birth of modern science coincides with that of the modern nation-state, and the development of science was, for a long time, part of the development of the modern nation-state infrastructure. Historians would write the histories of their countries and leaders; sociologists would study the social organization of their countries, linguists would study and contribute to the standardization of the national language, ethnologists and folklorists would focus on the traditions and customs of the people living within the boundaries of the nation-state, and so forth. The modern nation-state was seen as the foundational and autonomous unit for studying and understanding society, and scientific tools such as statistics emerged (literally) as ‘the science of the state’ – a key tool for documenting and following developments within a country, as seen and judged by the state.

This focus on the nation-state was methodological also beccause it shaped deep-theoretical assumptions about the nature of societies. Certainly in the wake of the Romantic movement, nations were essentialized as sedentary communities of people joined by bonds of tradition and shared ancestry. The people currently living in, say, France, were defined as ‘French’ not purely on grounds of administrative belonging, but on grounds of shared essential characteristics – culture, ‘civilization’ , language, lineage and genealogy, religion, traditions, folklore and so forth. A similar sociological imagination was projected onto others as well, and early anthropology adopted it as the elementary frame for describing the ‘exotic’ Other.

To some extent, what emerged was a self-fulfilling prophecy: the stronger the nation-state became in terms of administrative and infrastructural integration – think of national education systems and compulsory national military service as examples – the more such countries became identifiable through things such as language and script, shared symbols and universes of knowledge (such as knowledge of the line of succession within the monrachy, knowledge of crucial victories in battles as moments in the history of the state, or knowledge of a national artistic and literary canon). In other words, the stronger state power became, the more the inhabitants of that state started resembling each other.

At the same time, evidently, such shared features were constructed – standard national languages certainly were – and imposed by the system of state governance, and much of what was proposed as essential sharedness rested on what Hobsbawm and Ranger called‘invented traditions‘. The supposed homogeneity and stability of the nation-state always covered a vastly more diverse and volatile reality. In addition, there was something profoundly paradoxical about the emergence of methodological nationalism: it occurred precisely at the time of rapid and vast globalization called, by Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, contradicting almost everything contained in the methodological-nationalist imagination. In spite of that, methodological nationalism remained influential throughout the 20th century. Globalization-as-phenomenon was, for a very long time, not accompanied by globalization-as-paradigm, but by exactly its opposite.

A quick history of globalization

Globalization-as-phenomenon is a very old process and any informed survey should include prehistorical migrations of populations across parts of the globe, spreading technologies, sociocultural practices and languages across vast spaces. We can recommend, as an example of work documenting such prehistorical movements and their effects, Jan Vansina’s study of the spread of Bantu languages across a large region in Africa. Historical processes of globalization should also include the formation of large empires through conquest and/or migration, such as the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, the empire of Alexander the Great as well as that of Persia, the Roman empire and the Visigoth migration in Late Antiquity, and the Muslim conquests after the 7th century. They should also include premodern large trade networks such as the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean Trade and the Viking network, all of which involved huge geographical scope and intensity of technological, sociocultural, political and religious influence and exchange. Observe that such trade networks usually involved aspects of military power as well – wealth and weaponry quite systematically went hand in hand in the history of globalization. And when weaponry is mentioned, technology becomes a topic demanding attention.

The early-modern European expansion and early colonialism (often called ‘discoveries’, as in ‘Columbus discovering America’ and ‘Captain Cook discovering Australia’) must be seen in that light, as an extension of worldwide trade networks to which some military power was added. In fact, much of the early Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch trade expansion made use of existing routes, centers and networks, and added new ones due to superior technology – improvements in ship building, navigation, cartography and gunnery enabled the Westward expansion towards the Americas as well as the sea route around the Cape towards the Indian Ocean trade area. This, then, led to the genesis of modern capitalism in Europe along with that of an embryonic global trader class and trading companies such as the Dutch East-India Company VOC, who laid the foundations of global capitalist expansion in the late 18th and 19th century.

This latter period is the beginning of high-modern globalization, culminating in Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire (1875-1914) in which huge territories were incorporated into European nation-state systems as colonial properties, of crucial importance for the growth and development of industrial capitalism in Europe. We shall return to this later. But we must remember that the world around the beginning of the 20th century was ruled by just a handful of nation-states, and there are very few present-day non-European countries that were never formally ruled as colonies, protectorates or mandate territories. When we see globalization as the increased interconnectedness between different parts of the world, the colonial era was definitely a rarely matched high point of globalization. But as mentioned before, it also led to the paradox of methodological (and, of course, political and military) nationalism.

This Age of Empire ended with the First World War (1914-1918), which, as the term indicates, was a global conflict with battlefields stretching from East Asia and East Africa to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean; and with a worldwide mobilization of military and economic forces in view of the war efforts. Soldiers from New Zealand, the USA, India and Senegal died in Flanders and Northern France and wheat imported from Argentina helped the British and French populations survive 1918. This world war heralded another stage in the history of globalization, that of global inter-state organizations such as the League of Nations and, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, 1917, the COMINTERN. The failure of such early attempts at global political governance became clear in the 1930s with the rise of Japanese imperialism in East Asia and that of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain.

The World War that ensued was even more global in scope than the first one, now with vastly more involvement from the two emerging superpowers, the US and the USSR, and including the Pacific Ocean as a major theater of operations. It led to the foundation of the United Nations as well as to that of the EU and postwar (and Cold War) military alliances with a global reach: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It led to a flurry of international treaties, organizations, conventions and agreements, and it led to the end of the colonial system. The Age of Empire was followed by an era of Global Alliances, and the latter was marked by an endless sequence of local wars that were never considered as constituting another ‘World War’, but that were all connected by similar drivers, actors and forces: Korea, Vietnam, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Middle East, Central America, and so forth. It was also marked by chronic political instability across the globe, with rebellions, contestation movements and military coups, brutal dictatorships, civil wars and famines. This stage of the history of globalization came to an end in 1989-1991, when the Soviet system in the USSR and its satellites collapsed and the global superpower binary of the Cold World vanished.

While technological developments marked and deeply influenced each stage of globalization in this very brief and sketchy history, the end of the Cold War coincided with a major technological innovation, the Internet. Prior to that, the rise of audiovisual mass media throughout the 20th century (and certainly that of TV from the 1960s on) had turned local events into global news and had created a new, global level of sociocultural and political circulation. Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, became a global celebrity in 1961 on black-and-white TV screens; the Beatles soon followed him; and the first landing on the moon in 1969 can be said to be the first worldwide live television event, watched in real time by people in places scattered across the world. The Vietnam War caused animosity worldwide (and fuelled rebellion and counterculture in very many places) because of spectacular global news reporting in the printed press and on radio and TV, and the famine in Ethiopia (with shocking images televised across the world) triggered the first global music charity event – Live Aid in 1985.

Nothing, however, could compare with what the Internet started offering in the early 1990s: a global system of information technology allowing a collossal increase of speed, volume and intensity, soon converted from a high-brow commodity into a mass-marketed one through the development of small computers and, in the 21st century, mobile and handheld devices enabling Internet access and content production. The present stage of globalization can therefore be described as the stage of digital globalization. It extended, deepened and made far more effective the previous layers of globalization – those of global trade networks, interstate organizations and empires. The present world maintains features of all these previous layers, now enveloped, connected and framed by a global infrastructure of digital technology.


As mentioned, globalization-as-paradigm came long after globalization-as-phenomenon. While the world was effectively globalized in the late 19th century, that didn’t mean that ‘the world’ was an live concept for those living in that globalized world, On the contrary. People lived in a world of nations, and even if such nations were global empires – think of the UK and France around the beginning of the 20th century – they were still seen as a nation and the rest of world was seen from that nation. It isn’t until mass media enabled the global and almost instant circulation of information, images and foci of attention, that the world became imaginable as a world rather than as a list of countries. And this required a World War as well as a transnational live mass media infrastructure.

The tipping point lies somewhere in the turbulent 1960s – the heyday of the Cold War, of decolonization, of Vietnam and the Beatles, and the beginning of television as the focus of cultural and knowledge circulation. Marshall McLuhan‘s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) described, early in the day, the phenomenon of global interconnectedness through new mass media technologies (and already predicted something like the Internet). And it was in the 1960s that issues from far away became ‘repatriated’ into the sociocultural and political lives of people elsewhere. The Vietnam war as well as the struggles for independence in the colonies became objects of protest and countercultural rebellion all over Western Europe, feeding into the intensity of the near-revolutionary May 1968 uprisings; nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and Nova Zembla led to the formation of an international peace movement crossing the lines of the Cold War and with prominent intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell and E.P. Thompson as its spokespersons; the American Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King as its icon, became an inspiration for peaceful antiracist movements globally; Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China inspired and influenced rebels and left-wing intellectuals worldwide including leaders of newly independent states such as Tanzania’s Julius K. Nyerere; and Viernam’s Ho Chi Minh as well as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became global heroes of a new youth counterculture, for whom the soundtrack was provided by the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez,

It was only when this wave of experienced globalization was set in motion that theories of globalization emerged, and the most formative one was (and remains) World-Systems Analysis developed by Immanuel Wallerstein and his associates. Wallerstein started from a problem that emerged in the wake of decolonization: the problem of development and underdevelopment of so-called Third-World countries and the new forms of economic and geopolitical dependency that appeared due to this problem. Wallerstein’s theory sees the world as a system of interconnected states and regions, within a global division labor characterizing globalized capitalism. Thus, we get centers, semiperipheries and peripheries in a dynamic, constantly shifting and layered global system. To give an example of the layering and instability of that system: in the field of automobile production, Japan is definitely a center in the world system, while it is a periphery in the field of English. And while China is a world center for the production of electronic and Hi-Tech commodities, it is a semiperiphery in the field of automobile manufacturing. Wallerstein argued that, in the age of advanced capitalist globalization, nation-states are more important than ever, because global capitalism needs individual governments to (de)regulate and enable what other governments do not allow or tolerate.

The end of the Cold War, and the advent of the worldwide web, triggered another wave of globalization theories. Here the most influential authors include Manuel Castells and Arjun Appadurai. Castells and Appadurai both produced extraordinarily accurate predictions of the kinds of societies that would emerge from this new era of intensified online-offline globalization. In The Rise of the Network Society (1996) Castells described the impact of new information and communications technologies on fields as widely divergent as economic production, labor relations, community life and identity construction. In Modernity at Large (1996), Appadurai in turn theorized global flows enabled by the new online technologies as a set of ‘scapes’ – think of ‘mediascapes’ – within which global formats and scripts circulate, to be realized locally through what he calls ‘vernacular globalization’: global formats turned into locally enacted formats of conduct, action and thought. Cultural forms are at once deterritorialized, and reterritorialized, ‘englobalized’ as well as ‘deglobalized’.

The lens of globalization

Globalization-as-paradigm, we can see, represents a fundamental rupture with the methodological nationalism of an earlier era. It is very hard now to think of any sociocultural phenomenon that is exclusively ‘local’ and not to any degree influenced by outside, nonlocal forces – an effect of the tremendous mobility of people, resources and symbolic representations characterizing this stage of globalization. This paradigm also enables us to look back now, and to recognize that mobility was always there. What is special about the current stage of globalization is not the fact that we are mobile now; but that we are more mobile, and more frequently so, and more intensely so, than our predecessors. And the fact that we are aware of that.




Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s