Globalization: Is the World Getting Smaller or Larger?
When I first started teaching, there was one phrase I told myself I would never use in class: “When I was your age . . .” As I am now undeniably in the category of “middle age,” and having been teaching in college classrooms for nearly 20 years, I must come clean and admit that I find myself using that phrase more often than I’d like. My only defense, and I realize it’s somewhat lame, is that things are changing so quickly. Life really was very different when I was in college and sometimes I just can’t help but marvel at these changes aloud.
The transformations that I find most fascinating and sometimes mind-boggling revolve around globalization and technology—two things that seem to go hand-in-hand. Although there is no singularly agreed upon definition, globalization is often understood as the process through which products, people, ideas, culture, and capital, are transferred around the world creating a system of global integration. Whereas in the past some nations or societies could stand alone and be self-sufficient, today all nations and almost all people are part of an interdependent global order.
As students of sociology, we should not be too surprised by this technologically-fueled global transformation. Globalization was predicted by Karl Marx over 150 years ago (something I mentioned in part 1 and part 2 of my “You Might be a Marxist” posts). Writing in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made this prophetic statement: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere . [W]e have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.”
As a way to understand both the complexity and ubiquity of globalization, it may be useful to consider whether globalization is making the world smaller or larger. I find this thought exercise informative because it compels you to identify two seemingly contradictory examples for the same concept.
Marx and Engels seemed to be suggesting that the world was getting smaller to the extent that old and local ways of doing things were giving way to more globalized processes. They would agree that there is a “compression of the world” such that people across the globe share many of the same things. As a specific example, they mentioned how we are moving from “numerous national and local literatures” to a “world literature.”
But literature is just one of many examples that signals the ascendancy of a global culture. As another example, consider our patterns of consumption. If you have ever traveled, you know that you are likely to find certain products such as McDonalds, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Apple, and Microsoft, in all corners of the globe. In the not-too-distant-past, a hungry world traveler would likely stop at a local restaurant and sample some of the specialized delicacies. Today, the same traveler is often choosing between chicken McNuggets from McDonalds, fried chicken from KFC, and a chicken sandwich from Subway—the exact same choices the traveler has back home.
Like Marx and Engels’s take on world literature, these examples suggest that some sort of global compression is taking place. Local and unique ways of being are increasingly replaced by more homogenized and standard ways of being that are shared across cultures. The world seems smaller because with all of this global integration there is a sameness or familiarity no matter where you are.
On the other hand, one can also make a compelling argument that the forces of technology and globalization have opened the world up to such an extent that the world is larger than it’s ever been. With advances in telecommunications and transportation, the world has become an enormous and inviting landscape for exploration and engagement. If we have the means to do so, we can travel to nearly every inch of the earth, we can communicate and mobilize with people from foreign cultures and locales, and we can pursue new opportunities for professional or even personal growth.
This last point was recently illustrated by the case of Diana Taurasi, one of the greatest female basketball players in the world. Taurasi is a star of the WNBA but has recently decided to sit out the upcoming season and give her body some rest. It seems unfathomable that a star athlete would make such a decision but Taurasi does not only shine for the WNBA. She is also a member UMMC Ekaterinburg, a professional basketball team in Russia that happens to pay her nearly ten times her WNBA salary (and promised even more money if she sat out the upcoming WNBA season).
Globalization has not compressed Taurasi’s options; instead, the rapid growth of women’s professional basketball into markets around the world has increased the legitimacy of women’s sports and has given athletes like Taurasi’s opportunities that were previously unavailable. If the world were getting smaller, the WNBA would be the only viable alternative for an athlete of Taurasi’s stature. Instead, with this global market expansion of women’s sports, the WNBA is just one of many lucrative possibilities for professional advancement.
In the grand scheme of things, I think it is mostly irrelevant as to whether globalization is making the world smaller or larger. A convincing case could be made for either position. What is crucial, however, is that we become aware of the effects of globalization and that we realize how these effects are occurring so rapidly and regularly. It is not an exaggeration to say that globalization and technological advances are impacting our lives every day. If you doubt this, just listen to yourself carefully and I suspect you’ll find yourself uttering the phrase, “When I was your age.” As globalization and rapid social change continue, I imagine that no matter how old (or young) you are, you’ll be saying this phrase more often that you may realize.