Sign Up

Does Globalization Equal Westernization?

Can globalization’s fruits — and even its origins — be claimed by East and West alike?

March 25, 2002

Can globalization's fruits — and even its origins — be claimed by East and West alike?

Globalization is often seen as global Westernization. On this point, there is substantial agreement among many proponents and opponents. Those who take an upbeat view of globalization see it as a marvelous contribution of Western civilization to the world.

From the opposite perspective, Western dominance — sometimes seen as a continuation of Western imperialism — is the devil of the piece.

In this view, contemporary capitalism, driven and led by greedy and grabby Western countries in Europe and North America, has established rules of trade and business relations that do not serve the interests of the poorer people in the world.

But is globalization really a new Western curse? It is, in fact, neither new nor necessarily Western. And it is not a curse.

Over thousands of years, globalization has contributed to the progress of the world through travel, trade, migration, spread of cultural influences and dissemination of knowledge and understanding (including that of science and technology).

These global interrelations have often been very productive in the advancement of different countries. They have not necessarily taken the form of increased Western influence. Indeed, the active agents of globalization have often been located far from the West.

To illustrate, consider the world at the beginning of the last millennium rather than at its end. Around 1000 A.D., global reach of science, technology, and mathematics was changing the nature of the old world. But the dissemination then was, to a great extent, in the opposite direction of what we see today.

The high technology in the world of 1000 A.D. included paper, the printing press, the crossbow, gunpowder, the iron-chain suspension bridge, the kite, the magnetic compass, the wheelbarrow and the rotary fan. A millennium ago, these items were used extensively in China — and were practically unknown elsewhere. Globalization spread them across the world, including Europe.

A similar movement occurred in the Eastern influence on Western mathematics. The decimal system emerged and became well developed in India between the 2nd and 6th centuries. It was used by Arab mathematicians soon thereafter.

These mathematical innovations reached Europe mainly in the last quarter of the 10th century and began having an impact in the early years of the last millennium, playing an important part in the scientific revolution that helped to transform Europe.

The agents of globalization are neither European nor exclusively Western, nor are they necessarily linked to Western dominance. Indeed, Europe would have been a lot poorer — economically, culturally and scientifically — had it resisted the globalization of mathematics, science and technology at that time.

And today, the same principle applies, though in the reverse direction (from West to East). To reject the globalization of science and technology because it represents Western influence and imperialism would not only amount to overlooking global contributions — drawn from many different parts of the world — that lie solidly behind so-called Western science and technology, but would also be quite a daft practical decision, given the extent to which the whole world can benefit from the process.

Certainly, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were great achievements — and they occurred mainly in Europe and, later, in America. Yet many of these developments drew on the experience of the rest of the world, rather than being confined within the boundaries of a discrete Western civilization.

Our global civilization is a world heritage — not just a collection of disparate local cultures. When a modern mathematician in Boston invokes an algorithm to solve a difficult computational problem, she may not be aware that she is helping to commemorate the Arab mathematician Mohammad Ibn Musa-al-Khwarizmi, who flourished in the first half of the ninth century. (The word algorithm is derived from the name al-Khwarizmi.)

There is a chain of intellectual relations that link Western mathematics and science to a collection of distinctly non-Western practitioners, of whom al-Khwarizmi was one. (The term algebra is derived from the title of his famous book Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah.)

Indeed, al-Khwarizmi is one of many non-Western contributors whose works influenced the European Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The West must get full credit for the remarkable achievements that occurred in Europe and Europeanized America, but the idea of an immaculate Western conception is an imaginative fantasy.

The first printed book was an Indian Sanskrit treatise, translated into Chinese by a half-Turk. The book, Vajracchedika Prajnaparamitasutra (sometimes referred to as “The Diamond Sutra”), is an old treatise on Buddhism.

It was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit in the 5th century by Kumarajiva, a half-Indian and half-Turkish scholar who lived in a part of eastern Turkistan called Kucha but later migrated to China. It was printed four centuries later, in 868 A.D. All this involving China, Turkey, and India is globalization, all right. But the West is not even in sight.

All of this is why, in my view, the misdiagnosis — that globalization of ideas and practices has to be resisted because it entails dreaded Westernization — is so misplaced.

It only incites parochial tendencies and undermines the possibility of objectivity in science and knowledge. It is not only counterproductive in itself. Given the global interactions throughout history, it can also cause non-Western societies to shoot themselves in the foot — even in their precious cultural foot.

Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics. This article originally appeared in The American Prospect.

More on this topic