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Globalization and Culture

by John Tomlinson [Director of the Centre for Research in International Communication and Culture, Nottingham Trent University, UK]

The University of Chicago Press, 1999

In the global village, neighborhood and nation aren't what they used to be. Like many clichés of globalbabble, this notion contains a kernel of truth. Globalization has changed most people's sense of who they are and where they live. How, then, do globally connected people make their new circumstances meaningful? Tomlinson addresses this issue in his review of recent literature. For the most part, he is a good guide in choppy waters. He steers clear of the simple-minded assumptions in much global talk. He expertly sails through the analytical crosscurrents in global analysis. Whether he has a destination worth reaching is another matter.

Tomlinson defines globalization simply as "complex connectivity," the expansion of social ties across the planet. As we travel more easily through space, interact with other across vast distances, receive information from near and far, our sense of who "we" are necessarily changes as well. Globalization "alters the context of meaning construction . . . it affects people's sense of identity, the experience of place and of self in relation to place" (p. 20). Tomlinson takes his inspiration from Anthony Giddens and others, who stress the way in which social relations increasingly are "lifted out" of their local context. Yet he also adopts the view of Roland Robertson, who argues that in globalization the world becomes a single place that serves as a frame of reference to everyone. What unites Giddens and Robertson is the idea that globalization is a reflexive process. In a sense, participants must monitor the impact of changes on their lives and must identify their own position in relation to the larger process. No one can feel comfortably "at home" anymore. But globalization has a bright side: as it "dissolves the securities of locality, it offers new understandings of experience in wider-ultimately global-terms" (p. 30).

What is it that more extensively connected people actually experience? After discussing the pros and cons of the notion of "modernity," Tomlinson does commit himself to the point that there is such a thing as global modernity-the condition that "proceeds from an epochal shift in the social organization of time and space" (p. 70). Does this mean that a global culture is about to emerge? Tomlinson doubts it. Those who see the possibility as a threat have a point, since the cozy connection of place and identity inevitably gets disrupted. But lots of different "modes of identification" will erupt, softening the blows of an imperialist consumer culture. How, then, do people experience globalization in their own lives? Using the global food and media industries as examples, Tomlinson shows how complex connectivity pervades many people's lives. Via supermarket shelves and television screens, people are in touch with others far away. This impact is by no means limited to educated westerners; agricultural workers in Zimbabwe, he points out, are more aware of their global connectivity than the consumers whose peas they produce. So "we" all "share" one global predicament. The scare quotes convey Tomlinson's point that, culturally speaking, the globe is up for grabs. He emphasizes that people can respond to the global identity challenge in various ways. In the end, he does recommend one kind of attitude as especially suitable for would-be global citizens. To be a competent moral agent in the "global neighborhood," a cosmopolitan must be "open to the diversity of global cultures" and have a commitment to belong to the world as a whole (p. 186). As Tomlinson recognizes, this is a tall order. Can large numbers of people become morally sensitive to the needs of others anywhere? Can there be a world without "others"? "We don't know whether the resources of moral imagination that will sustain a cosmopolitan ethical practice are available from the locally situated lifeworld" (p. 205), Tomlinson concludes, so "[n]othing guarantees the building of cosmopolitan solidarity in the uncertainties of global modernity" (p. 207).

By comparison with Tomlinson's pointed critique of cultural imperialism in his book by that title, this volume lacks rhetorical punch. Here, every issue, every position has at least two sides. His aptly-described attitude toward cosmopolitanism, namely that it is "difficult to be conclusive," also pervades the rest of the volume. The analytical style that served him well in a more polemical context is less effective here. Subtle analysis of other people's work and imagined reconstruction of how certain kinds of people might experience globalization do not greatly advance the study of actually evolving global culture. How much do we learn from another description of international air travel, or from a diagnosis of the presumed anxieties of a middle-class family getting connected to the Internet?

The experiences Tomlinson discusses are mostly those of individuals or small groups. He has little to say about the collective identity work carried out by groups such as nations or religious movements. As a result, he also skirts over some of the most dramatic instances of local-global tension, involving people who act on their global scepticism or global nightmares. Even from the Giddensian point of view he adopts, focusing mostly on "deterritorialization" as the key to the globe's cultural impact, his analysis therefore appears strangely incomplete. Tomlinson offers a useful perspective on this global impact by making the case that global identity work will take many forms, but does little to explain the cultural differences that are likely to result.

While his book does not adequately carry out its agenda, entirely missing from that agenda is serious analysis of global culture as such. For Tomlinson, the globe poses a problem. Via their cultural responses to this problem, people rearrange their lives. However tenuous their attachment to local space, their chief culture work is still done in the everyday world of particular locales. Omitted from this picture is global culture. Tomlinson discusses Robertson's view of the globe as a single place that must itself be interpreted, but he has nothing to say about the way people make sense of the globe as a lifeworld or an emerging social structure. Fundamentalists and environmentalists and IMF officials may struggle to have their view of global life prevail, but the global-cultural debate does not register in this book. Tomlinson also barely entertains the possibility that the globe may have a culture of its own. His hesitations notwithstanding, there is a global culture and it does have real content. It contains meaningful frames for organizing social life, not least the globally legitimate model of the nation-state. It contains a set of global norms, for example those pertaining to human rights or sustainable development. It has distinct carriers, numerous international organizations among them. And of course, it is highly contested, but with the cultural conflict itself increasingly structured by global constraints.

To be sure, this is an area in flux. It is hard to get a firm grip on a moving target. Still, Tomlinson captures only a small part of the global cultural drama. His book represents a missed opportunity.


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Copyright 2000 - Frank Lechner