Culture, Globalization, and the World System

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Book: Culture, Globalization, and the World System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Anthony D. King, editor.
Reviewed by: Steven Flusty, University of Southern California.
source: Urban Geography, 1999.

Globalization is one of those neologisms that has become impossible to avoid: one finds it spilling from the lips and word-processors of International Monetary Fund executives and Chiapan revolutionaries alike. The pervasiveness of the term has rendered whatever it may refer to a likely suspect in the causation of a host of real-world occurrences, ranging from worldwide financial crises to neighborhood demographic change. Such continual invocations of globalization, however, have rendered the concept prone to becoming an empty signifier, referring to everything and nothing simultaneously. Indeed, this evisceration of the term has generated a neologism of its own, "global babble."

Happily, a growing body of literature is devoted to identifying and analyzing globally formative phenomena serving to both preserve and extend the utility of "globalization" as a working premise. Culture, Globalization, and the World System is a valuable contribution to this literature. While this edited volume is by no means groundbreaking in the current context, being a revised compendium of conference papers presented in 1989, it serves as a concise summation of numerous positions that have become central to the emerging canon of globalization theory. This diversity of positions on the nature of globalization, drawn from the social sciences and (to a lesser extent) from the humanities, may be frustrating for those seeking a simple and unitary model of what globalization is, a frustration suggested by Anthony King in his introductory essay.

The breadth of perspectives offered in this volume, however, fairly represents the current range of approaches to "getting a handle" on the global. Thus the volume serves as a useful introduction to current thinking on global social and economic integration, a kind of "Globalization for Beginners."

This introductory function is enhanced by the selection of authors, a "Who's Who" of academicians critically engaged with the subject. While some thinkers are absent as contributors�Arjun Appadurai and Mike Featherstone spring immediately to mind�they are copiously cited in the footnotes included with each chapter. These literature citations enhance the value of the volume as an entr6e to globalization theory by providing something of a guide to the literature. (There are, however, notable gaps, as with the absences of Doreen Massey and Saskia Sassen, and the usefulness of the footnoted literature could be improved were it gathered into a bibliographic essay.)

The volume is organized into two sections. The first consists of longer, apparently central essays problematizing and interrelating questions of cultural homogenization and indigenization, with universalism and particularism, and their constitution within asymmetries of power. In the process, each author lays out broad theories of global formation. Stuart Hall positions the highlighting of difference and reformulation of identity in relation to postcolonial immigration; Roland Robertson delineates the framework of global culture as individuals and societies are "relativized" through their growing consciousness of other societies and humankind as a whole; Immanuel Wallerstein examines the role of cultural and national boundaries in structuring capitalist relations between more- and less-privileged social formations; and Ulf Hannerz scrutinizes the cultural relationship between core and peripheral regions in such a way as to subvert conventional assumptions of dominance and dependence.

The second section consists of a half dozen shorter contributions responding to the first, summarizing the prior positions and noting the difficulties in bringing them to reconcilation. And it is within these shorter essays that a distinct disciplinary fissure emerges. Those proceeding from a social-science standpoint akin to that of the central contributors pose counterarguments to gently query and expand upon the central essays, while acknowledging the difficulties inherent in attempting to reconcile their divergences. Those authors proceeding from a humanities standpoint, most notably John Tagg and Janet Wolff, level broader criticisms, seeing in the central essays a tendency towards establishing meta-narratives, a disinclination to recognize their own situatedness within culturally constituted discursive fields, and a failure to acknowledge (perhaps incommensurable) differences between the definitions of "culture" offered by the social sciences and by the humanities.

More problematic than this friction between social-scientific and humanistic interpretations of the global, however, is the volume's implicit privileging of structural levels of analysis. Whether foregrounding material, cultural, or discursive processes, the contributions to this volume demonstrate a predisposition towards conceptualizing globalization as a complex system of higher-order processes, which, in turn, account for the increasingly transnationalized and intercultural experiences and responses of the quotidian.

To criticize the volume for this may not be entirely fair; the essays' privileging of extensive abstract frameworks accurately reflects the dominant approach of globalization theory itself, an approach that comes as no surprise given the field's object of study is nothing less than the world-as-a-whole. Further, numerous contributors do indeed touch ground, as with Hall's biographical account of the construction of blackness, Hannerz's consideration of Nigerian tastes in television programming, or Janet Abu-Lughod's discussion of the variegated urban social geographies of Tunis. Nonetheless, these concrete examples are contexted chiefly as symptomatic of globalization, rather than as productive of globalization.

Thus what is most sorely missing from this volume are conceptions of globalization looking to specific in situ everyday activities as not merely informed by the global, but fundamentally formative of the global. Lacking research and theorizing in this vein, Culture, Globalization, and the World System (and globalization theory in general) grants insights into the coming together of "the world as a single place" that are absolutely necessary, but in and of themselves insufficient.


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