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A Review of the Recent Essay Collection Many Globalizations


Friday, Jun. 21, 2002

Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, eds. Peter L. Berger and Samuel P. Huntington (Oxford Univ. Press 2002)

When protesters gather outside IMF and World Bank meetings, one of their main complaints is about American-based corporations driving out traditional products and lifestyles. "The world is not for sale," runs the slogan of the French farmer-activist Jose Bove, who this week began a three-month prison sentence for destroying a local McDonald's restaurant.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of September 11, some anxious American writers have speculated that much of the world's apparent anger toward the United States stems from a mix of envy and resentment provoked by the omnipresent trappings of U.S. consumer culture. One essay published last autumn quoted the fact that "Baywatch" is the most popular television program in Iran, and asserted confidently that its viewers there must feel both drawn to, and repelled by, the hedonistic way of life it portrays. The contrast of "Baywatch" and burqa must be troubling indeed, the writer theorizes.

Clearly, the cultural dimension of globalization has become a key ideological battleground. By its nature, however, the subject remains frustratingly hard to pin down. Global economic integration can be measured through statistics about trade flows, capital mobility, and so forth, but quantifying the inherently intangible phenomenon of cultural change is a much trickier business. A lot of discussion of the topic doesn't get far beyond the level of McDonald's, Coca-Cola and MTV - as if these purported agents of cultural destruction necessarily brought an entire world-view in their wake.

The recent essay collection Many Globalizations sets out explicitly to bring the rigorous techniques of the social sciences to bear on this accumulation of loose assertion and vague anecdote. It succeeds - though at some cost to the reader's interest and enjoyment.

The Drawbacks of Explaining Globalization with Social Science Methods

Many of the essays that make up the book are jargon-ridden and ponderous. There is much construction of models and some unfortunate talk of "theorization" and "globality." All this makes a number of the essays seem absurdly removed from the actual experience of the cultures with which they are supposedly concerned.

Despite its flaws, taken as a whole, Many Globalizations contains a lot of fascinating information. In addition, it acts as a valuable corrective to many of the simple assumptions about cultural interaction that are made both by those who see themselves as supporters of globalization, and those who see themselves as its opponents.

Field-Testing Berger's Theory of Globalization

The book is organized as a field test of an apparently much-discussed picture of cultural globalization developed by one of the two co-editors, Peter Berger (his article on the subject is variously described by the contributors to the volume as "seminal" and "deceptively simple"). Each essay is written by an academic specialist (or two) from the country concerned, and takes Berger's ideas as a starting point.

According to Berger's theory, there are four main carriers of cultural globalization - business elites, intellectual elites, mass culture and popular movements. In addition, the response from the societies that are touched by globalization can be ranged along a scale from acceptance to rejection, with synthesis and co-existence as intermediate positions.

Predictably enough for a volume edited by the theory's author, the answer that emerges is that Berger's theory is along the right lines, but doesn't capture the full complexity of what is happening. For those of us who aren't obliged to work within the discipline of academic social science, a more helpful approach is to ditch the theoretical superstructure and ask a fundamental question: does the book support the idea that American culture is taking over the world?

Is American Culture Really Taking Over the World? Yes and No.

The answer here seems to be yes and no: American culture is everywhere, but it is not erasing local cultures in the way that is often feared.

Inevitably, McDonald's crops up repeatedly in these pages: eating habits (and viewing habits) are probably the areas in which the spread of U.S. culture is most evident. Even here, however, there are qualifications: McDonald's has been a flop in India, where the idea of eating a beef patty on a bun does not appeal. The new food craze in the Asian sub-continent is - Chinese food. Similarly, the favored television dramas in Israel, as in much of the rest of the world, come not from Burbank but from Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil.

Religious Movements as an Aspect of Globalization

For instance, a fascinating chapter on Chile looks at the rival foreign-based religious groups that have made inroads among the different groups in Chilean society. Among the poorer groups in this traditionally Catholic society, evangelical Protestantism is enjoying an astonishing boom. Its vision of personal responsibility, sobriety and mutual respect is transforming family relations, and may yet produce a new wave of entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the country's business elite espouses a technocratic and conservative Catholicism, made up in equal parts of University of Chicago economics and the reactionary Catholic society Opus Dei.

The implication of this essay - insofar as there is one - is that globalization doesn't spread a single consistent ethos. Rather, it exposes societies to different outlooks and interests, which take root according to the society's own composition.

Thus, in Chile, evangelical Protestantism, a U.S. export, seems to be increasing the emphasis on the family among its converts - a development in marked contrast to the idea that Hollywood and rap music are spreading decadent individualism around the globe. That U.S. culture might influence other countries by making them not more sinful but more religious is rarely noted, but that seems to be exactly what is happening in Chile.

Many Non-American Movements Are Spreading Across the Globe

Other essays in the collection look at Islamic business movements and Islamic consumerism in Turkey; the spread of New Age movements as an example of an East-to-West cultural dynamic; the attempt of the Chinese Communist Party to set itself up as the agent and controller of modernization; and the hybrid mix of American, Soviet and indigenous culture in Hungary.

The essay on Hungary also contains a neat illustration of the dangers of cultural misreading: a look at the rocketing sale of baseball bats might lead you to conclude that American sports were crowding out native pastimes there. But that's not the case: The bats, sadly, are used primarily for mafia-style gang enforcement and street fights.

Because the book is based on national case studies, it doesn't have room for comparisons between countries. There is no consideration of the problems that cultural differences pose in areas like trade and international regulation; these concerns, which may be of interest to lawyers, are beyond the scope of the book.

Another omission, from a post-September 11 perspective, is the lack of any consideration of Islamic militancy. The satellite TV station al-Jazeera now seems as powerful a medium of cultural influence as MTV.

In general, the overall impression one takes away from reading Many Globalizations is that the transformations examined in the book are at an early stage. The question at the heart of many of the chapters is whether societies that open themselves to the global marketplace will still be able to maintain a distinctive social system (whether traditional or new), or will tend to converge on a uniform model.

Anthony Dworkin is the editor of the Crimes of War website (, an online journal that reports on developments relating to the laws of war and their application to armed conflicts around the world.

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