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World Culture Theory (Synopsis
Globalization refers to "the compression of the world and the
intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole" (R. Robertson,
Globalization, 1992: 8). In thought and action, it makes the
world a single place. What it means to live in this place, and how it
must be ordered, become universal questions. These questions receive different
answers from individuals and societies that define their position in relation
to both a system of societies and the shared properties of humankind from
very different perspectives. The confrontation of their world views means
that globalization involves "comparative interaction of different forms
of life" (Robertson: 27).
Global interdependence and consciousness of the world as a whole precede
the advent of capitalist modernity. Yet European expansion and state formation
boosted globalization since the seventeenth century. The contemporary
shape of the globe owes most to the "take-off" decades after about 1875,
when international communications, transportation, and conflict dramatically
intensified relationships across societal boundaries. In that period,
the main reference points of fully globalized order took shape: nation-state,
individual self, world-system, of societies, and one humanity. These elements
of the global situation became "relativized"; national societies and individuals,
in particular, must interpret their very existence as parts of a larger
whole. To some extent, a common framework has guided that interpretive
work; for example, states can appeal to a universal doctrine of nationalism
to legitimate their particularizing claims to sovereignty and cultural
distinction. Such limited common principles do not provide a basis for
world order. Global consciousness does not imply global consensus.
By the end of the twentieth century, if not before, globalization had
turned world order into a problem. Everyone must now reflexively respond
to the common predicament of living in one world. This provokes the formulation
of contending world views. For example, some portray the world as an assembly
of distinct communities, highlighting the virtues of particularism, while
others view it as developing toward a single overarching organization,
representing the presumed interests of humanity as a whole. In a compressed
world, the comparison and confrontation of world views are bound to produce
new cultural conflict. In such conflict, religious traditions play a special
role, since they can be mobilized to provide an ultimate justification
for one's view of the globe; the resurgence of fundamentalist groups,
innovative traditionalists with a global agenda, is a case in point. A
globalized world is thus integrated but not harmonious, a single place
but also diverse, a construct of shared consciousness but prone to fragmentation.
Definition. World culture theory is a label for a particular interpretation of globalization that
focuses on the way in which participants in the process become conscious of and give meaning
to living in the world as a single place. In this account, globalization "refers both to the
compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole"; in
other words, it covers the acceleration in concrete global interdependence and in consciousness
of the global whole (Robertson 1992: 8). It involves the crystallization of four main components
of the "global-human circumstance": societies (or nation-states), the system of societies,
individuals (selves), and humankind; this takes the form of processes of, respectively,
societalization, internationalization, individuation, and generalization of consciousness about
humankind (Robertson 1991: 215-6; 1992: 27). Rather than referring to a multitude of historical
processes, the concept above all captures "the form in terms of which the world has moved
towards unicity" (1992: 175). This form is practically contested. Closely linked to the process
of globalization is therefore the "problem of globality" or the cultural terms on which
coexistence in a single place becomes possible (1992: 132). World culture denotes the multiple
ways of defining the global situation, conceived as responses to this shared predicament.
Key feature. As a process that both connects and stimulates awareness of connection,
globalization dissolves the autonomy of actors and practices in contemporary world order. In
this process of relativization, all units engaged in globalization are constrained to assume a
position and define an identity relative to the emerging global whole (1991: 216; 1992: 29).
Origin. Globalization has been occurring for centuries, in tandem with rather than as a
consequence of the rise of modernity (1992: 8). In a "germinal" European phase (1992: 58),
starting in the fifteenth century, ideas about national communities, the individual, and humanity
began to grow. In the following "incipient" phase, lasting until the late-nineteenth century, these
ideas took more concrete form; for example, unitary states now took part in "international"
relations. In the critical "take-off" phase, from the 1870s to the 1920s, the main "reference
points" of contemporary world society fully crystallized. World culture encompassed
increasingly global conceptions of the correct kind of national society, thematization of
individual rights and identities, inclusion of non-European societies in international relations,
and greater formalization of ideas about humanity (1992: 59). Globalization in this period also
included the growth of many other transnational linkages and standards. A "struggle-for-hegemony" phase lasted from the 1920s until after World War II, giving way to a period of
"uncertainty" since the 1960s.
Structure. Analytically, globalization comprises the set of dynamic relationships among the four
core units--societies, international system, individual selves, humankind. Empirically,
globalization involves the "conjunction of different forms of life" (1992: 27). This is expressed
concretely in the interaction between actors or groups holding different views of world order.
How it works.
- Relativization. Each unit in the emerging world order takes shape relative to the others
that surround it. For instance, as nation-states become subject to universal standards
derived from a common conception of humankind, citizenship in those societies become
relativized. Similarly, the Realpolitik common in the international system also becomes
relativized as humanitarian principles invade this arena. The relativization of societies as
part of the inter-state system occurs concretely in revived concerns about national
- Emulation. Although globalization does not create a common culture in which everyone
holds the same beliefs and values, it does create a single arena in which all actors pursue
their goals by deliberate comparison with others, using at least some common standards
as yardsticks. Early cases are Peter the Great's Russia and Meiji Japan (Nettl and
Robertson 1968; Robertson 2000). Emulation takes the form of selectively incorporating
ideas from a global arsenal (Robertson 1995a: 41; 1995b).
- Glocalization. The universal ideas and processes involved in globalization necessarily
are interpreted and absorbed differently according to the vantage point and history of
particular groups. In some cases, this is done strategically, for example when global
marketers create local traditions on the assumption that difference sells (1995a: 29).
More generally, glocalization captures the way in which homogenization and
heterogenization intertwine (1995a: 40).
- Interpenetration. Specifically, universalism and particularism have become part of a
single nexus, united "in terms of the universality of the experience and, increasingly, the
expectation of particularity, on the one hand, and the experience and, increasingly, the
expectation of universality of the other." In globalization, the universal must be made
concrete (e.g., state sovereignty embodied in particular forms of government), the
particular becomes endlessly diffused (e.g., all peoples can and must have their
distinctive identity). Hence globalization is "a form of institutionalization of the two-fold process involving the universalization of particularism and the particularization of
universalism" (1992: 102).
- Contestation. Globality is contested: "we are . . . in a period of globewide cultural
politics (1992: 5), involving "explicitly globe-oriented ideologies" (1992: 79). Some of
these advocate a tightly integrated world, others defend difference; some envision global
gesellschaft, others gemeinschaft (1992: 78-9). Since religious traditions and
movements are prominently involved in producing competing "world images," religion is
a critical site for these contests (cf. 1992: 1-2).
How it changes.
- Inherent dynamics of globalization. World culture theory portrays the process as ongoing
and open-ended. All features of world culture, discussed above, entail continual change.
Cultural conflict is the most common mechanism.
- Movements of de/reglobalization. Globalization provokes reaction/resistance. Case in
point: Islamic fundamentalism. While opposed to the form of globalization that
produces a world of equal cultures, fundamentalism substitutes its own global vision.
Fundamentalists attempt to define global fundamentals and operate in terms of globally
diffused ideas (1992: 178, 166).
- Multiple sources. While world culture theory emphasizes the role of reflexivity and
worldviews in globalization, in principle change can originate anywhere. World culture
theory is causally agnostic.
Nettl, J.P. and Roland Robertson. 1968. International Systems and
the Modernization of Societies. New York: Basic.
Robertson, Roland. 1991. "The Globalization Paradigm: Thinking Globally." Pp. 207-24 in Religion and Social Order. Greenwich: JAI Press.
__. 1992. Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage.
__. 1995a. "Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity." Pp. 25-44 in M.
Featherstone, S. Lash, and R. Robertson (eds.), Global Modernities. London: Sage.
__. 1995b. "Theory, Specificity, Change: Emulation, Selective Incorporation and Modernization." Pp. 213-31 in Bruno Grancelli (ed.), Social Change and Modernization:
Lessons from Eastern Europe
__. 2001. "The Comparison of Comparison: On the Relationship Between the Study of the
World and Comparative Analysis." Paper presented at ICIS Symposium, Emory
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