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Globalization and Cultural Convergence

How is globalization changing our own culture?

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Takeaways


  • Globalization cannot be rejected because it represents a transformation that we ourselves have brought about — and which has already transformed us.
  • The narcissism of minor differences that directs our attention to convergences (or divergences) in elements of style or fashion distracts us from this more profound convergence on so many other levels.
  • The emergence of transnational standards in diverse areas of social life will obviously affect the diversity of ways that people live together and thus how they form cultural connections.
  • It is striking that in this moment of global integration producing massive convergence in economic, linguistic and institutional standards, that we should be so worded about restaurant chains and pop music.
  • We should understand concerns about cultural homogenization as revealing a broad transformation in the ways of thought and life.

In a great deal of the popular literature on cultural globalization, we find an unproductive debate that sets two compatible views against each other in a contrived conflict.

On the one hand, some authors point to an increasing convergence on specific forms of artistic, culinary, or musical culture — usually, but not exclusively, moving from the United States, via newly global media, to the rest of the world.

Against this view of “Americanization” or “McDonaldization,” other authors point to a number of distinct but related phenomena that they take to be countertrends or rebuttals to the claim that the world is becoming increasingly uniform — for example, the fact that cultural borrowing occurs in multiple directions, as with the appropriation of non-Western and non-American cultural forms by a global audience.

The problem with these two views is not that either of them is wrong — indeed, they may both be right — but that they are uninteresting because they focus on relatively superficial elements of cultural globalization.

No one can deny that American media forms have spread around the world or that these forms have been taken up and altered by the people to whom they have been transmitted.

Both views are superficially right, and both miss the most significant uniformity generated by globalization: in our ways of thinking and living.

Instead, we should understand concerns about cultural homogenization as revealing a broad transformation in the ways of thought and life available to people today — a transformation that marks the real convergence in our time and which is, across significant swathes of the world, already a fait accompli.

Indeed, while this convergence in ways of thinking and living may extend to influence cultural forms like music or food, it need not necessarily do so.

It is striking that in this moment of global integration producing massive convergence in economic, linguistic, and institutional standards, we should be so worded about restaurant chains and pop music, neglecting much more significant issues.

Famously, Sigmund Freud argued that nationalist rivalries between neighboring countries reflected the “narcissism of minor differences,” a pathological focus on relatively trivial distinctions driven by the desire to keep at bay an anxiety-provoking recognition of fundamental sameness.

Perhaps our focus on relatively superficial aspects of cultural globalization reveals a similar dynamic.

For in the midst of profound and wide-reaching global integration at all levels, we have been reduced to worrying about the menu at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in China and analyzing the pop lyrics of global youth culture.

Many of the causes of this deeper convergence can be captured in a network power framework. The emergence of transnational standards in diverse areas of social life will obviously affect the diversity of ways that people live together and thus how they form cultural connections.

The network power of a dominant standard can produce pressure toward uniformity, one result of which may be the loss of local standards.

As global networks of sociability drive forward to convergence on many different fronts, they leave in their wake a greater uniformity in our formerly diverse ways of making the world, our ways of thinking and living.

The narcissism of minor differences that directs our attention to convergences (or divergences) in elements of style or fashion distracts us from this more profound convergence on so many other levels.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the globalization of pop culture seems to preoccupy observers in Western Europe and the United States while a concern about the diversity of ways of thinking and living is more common in the post colonial world and among writers from indigenous nations.

Network power may lead someone to learn English, or cause a nation's decision-makers to join the WTO. It may even be responsible for driving a particular cultural mode or aesthetic choice in the international business world.

But it is much less obvious that network power is behind “McWorld,” responsible for the rise of global pop culture or “Americanization.”

The rise of McWorld (and perhaps any instance of peer-group socialization) appears to come from a desire to conform to a common pattern and be recognized by others — a complex psychosocial dynamic that early modern theorists discussed under the rubric of "emulation" and saw as central to their accounts of the emergence of sociability.

The dynamics of cultural globalization encompass both push and pull. At first we pull together, and then we push apart, in search of both universal recognition and solidarity within a particular group.

Focusing on only one aspect of this process will cause us to miss the overall dialectical form of this historical development. We know that we will have a globalized future, therefore, but we do not know what form it will take.

Globalization can be reworked, but not rejected — it cannot be rejected because it represents a transformation that we ourselves have brought about, and which has already transformed us.

But we cannot know what form it will take for the very same reason. It depends on what we decide to make of it together.

Excerpted from “Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization” by David Singh Grewal. Copyright © 2008 by Yale University Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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