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World Culture Theory (Synopsis and Analysis)


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 identity.
  • 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 University.

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