The social dimension and sociological treatment of globalisation

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Author: Miloslav Petrusek, sociology, theoretical sociology, and sociology of contemporary societies at Charles University of Prague Faculty of Social Science

Globalisation as the Central Topic in Sociology

By mentioning the three classic sociologists – Comte, Marx, and Simmel (while of course I should also include at least Durkheim and Weber), we mean to demonstrate the validity of a claim formulated by one of the greatest globalisation theoreticians in social sciences, Roland Robertson (1992), saying that the classic sociologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries ‘made what many of us now call globalisation the central topic of their analytic work.’ (ibid.). Of course the intensive as well as extensive development of the national state has somewhat overshadowed the globalising and universalist tendencies and ambitions of classic sociology, but the issue, the topic, its terminological handling and basic structuring, can in principle be adopted at least as the inspiring element for further examination.

The Sociological Approach and Its Nature

Sociology has sought from the beginning to become similar to exact sciences, and the more it has tried, the further away from this idea it drifted; the divergence has never stopped. One of its most striking signs is that social sciences have appeared to be non-cumulative: sciences with a high degree of forgetfulness, or ‘permanent amnesia’, as American-Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin named it. The above examples of globalisation in history evidence that social sciences can be cumulative as long as they want to be: but remember that the social and cognitive memory in social sciences is different from that in natural sciences at least to the point that it is always personified in its “classics”. The well-known lament by philosopher and mathematician Whitehead that a science only grows up when it forgets its founders does not apply here.

Apart from the meta-theoretical aspect, the problem has another, a factual aspect. The cognition in social sciences is one of modernity, modernisation, modernising processes in their complex contexts both internal and external; processes which began or intensified substantially in the course of the 17th century (let us not argue whether modernity began in the 20th century), and which nowadays culminate in the process that we call ‘globalisation’. Anthony Giddens, one of the major globalisation theoreticians, says, ‘Globalisation is a process of intensifying global social relationships which connect distant locations in such a way that local events are shaped by events happening many miles away, and vice versa. The local transformation is part of globalisation just as the extension of social connections across space and time is.” (ibid.).

The ‘sociological’ nature of the above definition by Giddens consists in the fact that he mentions world-wide social relations, which means that globalisation is a ‘multi-dimensional process’, incorporating social relations of various types and intensities; at least the following:

  • economic relations (including long-distance financial transactions);
  • political relations (mainly adjusted relations among nation states and roles of supranational organisations);
  • social relations in the narrow sense (unilateral or mutual economic aid, promotion of human rights protection, environmental conservation, etc.);
  • cultural relations (mutual contact between different cultures, their fusion, ‘hybridisation’ or ‘creolisation’, including attempts at ‘cultural imperialism’).

Definition of Globalisation Topics

It is possible to derive the elementary inventory of globalisation issues and topics pursued by sociology from the following classic quotes. The topics are as follow, but their definition alone says little in the way of clarification:

  • the role of science and her ugly sister technology in the globalisation and universalisation processes (Comte);
  • humanity as the preferred subject of study; preference of the global over the local (Comte, Marx);
  • transforming perception of space and time and methods of measuring of and manipulation with space and time (Marx);
  • impacts of different space-time arrangements on the changing lifestyles, their pluralisation and mutual permeability (Simmel);
  • Americanisation of the world’s culture and the American way of life as an imitated and imported model (Simmel);
  • dominant role of economic relations in the process of globalisation, as the global world is primarily the result of economic expansion (Marx).

Theories of Globalisation

The topic of globalisation, dormant but present in social sciences from their very origin, was only pronounced, formulated and reflected in theory explicitly when the globalisation process as such gained some spatial, geographic extent and intensity of media self-expression. In fact – allowing some simplification – it happened twice.

Theories in Early Globalisation

It happened for the first time when the classic modernisation theories linking the spatial and cultural expansion of modernity (namely – “classical” capitalism, thus market capitalism and political democracy) too straightforwardly with the ideology of progress and linear evolution exhausted themselves, that is, roughly at the turn of the 1960s. This was the time when theories emerged which were, admittedly, remarkable for their time but have been unconfirmed, disputed or outdated by now, known under the name of ‘convergence theories’. The Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin established one of the earliest: he foretold that we stood at the beginning of a ‘new integral order’, which would unite the East and the West – Soviet Russia with capitalist America – organically to achieve a new culture based on identical technologies. It was this new, integral culture that was to overcome the hitherto dominant sensory culture, orientated one-sidedly on immediate satisfaction, profit, material property, material prosperity, and sensory revelries, which were expressed in the hedonistic arts and utilitarian and pragmatist philosophy. This sensory culture, still dominant in the West, was in a state of deep decline according to Sorokin (1964). Nevertheless, the new integral cultural, surely planet-wide, global, would (according to Sorokin) avoid the one-sidedness of the ideational stage, which dominated the Middle Ages and which underestimated the importance of scientific cognition and technological discovery enormously. Sorokin was right when he wrote in 1964, ‘From now on, the history of humankind is going to head increasingly towards acting on an Asian-Afro-Euro-American scene. From now on, the play of history is going to feature not only Euro-American stars, but also stars from India, China, Japan and Russia, Arabia and Africa.’ (l.c.: 65) Sorokin’s version, shared in part by more critical souls such as Raymond Aron (originator of the theory of industrial society) and Daniel Bell (originator of the theory of post-industrial society and “endism”: the end of ideology), proved to be utopian when the Soviet Union, democratised in the projection, ceased to be a partner to the Euro-American dominant culture. A second wave of globalisation theories thus emerges at the moment the Soviet empire collapsed and the criticism by Latin American theoreticians, pointing out that modernisation was, particularly in its cultural aspect, dangerously identical to Americanisation, began to prove increasingly as a factual warning rather than a simple anti-American ideology.

Current Globalisation Theories

A typology of the current globalisation theories is difficult to render, if for no other reason than because they are expressed in various formal styles, linguistic discourses, and with differing dominant themes. Another significant difference between social and exact sciences is that the former have in fact two audiences, by far not identical: it is not the scientific community alone as is the case with exact disciplines (with due respect to their propagators), but in some cases even broader, educated, cultured and involved, but non-professional public. The globalisation topic is asking to be treated in an almost journalistic way: to be communicated to the public in a style which is globally comprehensible. Indeed, the original thinker on the globalising tendencies – besides the above cited classics – is the Canadian “media guru” Marshall McLuhan, famous for his metaphor now familiar to everyone: the ‘global village’ in which we all live thanks to the complex saturation of the world with media messages and, above all, images. (McLuhan 2005). As Joshua Meyrowitz put it, ‘McLuhan compares electronic media to an extension of the nervous system with a potential to embrace the entire planet with sensory perception. Thanks to the electronic sensors, we become village neighbours again, but on a ‘global scale’ and regardless of the socio-demographic fact that one-half of the humankind lives in cities with the number of so-called megapolis (cities with over 10 million inhabitants) is constantly growing (Meyrowitz 1985).

At the same time, McLuhan’s global village is an example of what social knowledge is capable of if formulated outside the scientific discourse or simply situated outside it. Nowadays, the global village is accepted as a fact, although few things are as a questionable as the assumption that the media have indeed unified the global society. Zygmunt Bauman, for instance, says that ‘progressive spatial segregation, separation and exclusion is an integral part of the globalisation process’ (1998): thus not only the people’s transformation into friendly neighbours, but in conflicting social groups as well, one of which profits from globalisation while the other one suffers a loss. The only factor that may unite the groups is that they watch the same TV series, for example, and participate in the same consumer (‘instant’) culture. On the other hand, what is without question is that there would be no globalisation without the media: the globalisation process is largely a media process. That is a brand new phenomenon, unknown to the classical sociologists and other social scientists.

The Ideological Dimension of Globalisation (An Object of Sociological Research)

The phenomenon of globalisation – as follows from the above – has three dimensions: the objective dimension (let us call it that way), the dimension of multi-dimensional scientific reflection, and that of ideological interpretation. The third dimension is part of the first: the globalisation process is one of the phenomena which have never escaped, and never could escape, ideological contexts.

Remember, however, that social scientific analysis of ideological reflection on any social phenomenon is a legitimate component of sociology. One of the few named sociological theorems applies here, emphasising the fact that there are no entirely objective phenomena in the human world which would be independent of one’s mind, perception, interpretation, and action. Phenomena are as we define them or, more exactly speaking, if a situation is defined in a certain way, it is that way at least in its implications. That is why social sciences are so deeply interested in the ideological reflections of processes, which were believed until recently to be purely objective.

Conclusion – Sociology’s Multi-Dimensional View of Globalisation

It is beside the point whether Zinoviev, basing his argument on an analysis of the disintegration of the Soviet empire, is right or wrong. The point is that globalisation also has this well-known underside: not only the Internet and mass culture, not only the ridiculed Disneyland and McDonald’s, not only a world open to travel and meetings unthinkable before, not only a world of open science and academic communication; but also a world filled with fears and uncertainties, a world of the poor and those excluded from all the benefits of a globalised planet.

It is no coincidence that sociology has re-opened a key theme for globalisation – the issue of social inequity. The very obvious fact is that globalisation has created a new type of social inequity, not to be based only on one’s disposable financial capital but resting on two entirely different, previously unknown, forms of differentiation:

  • in addition to economic and power capital, the so-called symbolic or cultural capital will become a significant differentiating attribute – it will not be accessible to everyone, or only to a limited extent;
  • the fact that globalisation will ‘open up the world’ will lead to people in the so-called developed world, dividing those who are mobile and to whom the world will really be open, and those bound to one place, making them socially inferior.

Our beautiful vision which has admittedly come true – to be allowed to spend a few days by the sea from time to time and visit a certain city or region – has only turned us into ‘mass tourists’ rather than liberated us. Mass tourism is part of the new lifestyle, predominantly consumption-based, but its mass nature means that it is affordable even to those who mean little or next to nothing in social terms. That, however, is another one of the many problems presented by the grand topic of globalisation.

It is precisely this grand topic, however, which is a significant part of our lives nowadays: our day-to-day lives and our not entirely predictable future.


List of references -The social dimension ... of globalisation