Globalisation: Part 1 – Definition

As Sklair (1999) suggests, globalisation provides a context for understanding the relationship between societies in the contemporary world because it represents a process that both reflects and contributes to change – the idea that how nations relate to each other is different now compared to even the very recent past. In this respect, therefore, we need to understand what globalisation is – how it can be initially defined – before we can apply it to an understanding of changing economic, political and cultural relationships.

Although we can refer, in vague terms, to globalisation as ‘a process’, it’s much harder to pin down a definition that’s broadly recognised and accepted within the sociology of development. It is with good reason, therefore, that Rosamond and Booth (1995) refer to globalisation as a contested concept – one whose meaning is nebulous, fluid and hotly debated.

This position is further complicated by what Scholte (2000) argues are ideas that, while frequently positioned as evidence of globalising tendencies – and which clearly have global consequences – but which are not, in themselves, “globalisation”. These include:

  • Internationalisation: ‘cross-border relations between countries’.
  • Liberalisation of political and economic relationships, such as ‘removing government-imposed restrictions on movements between countries’.
  • Universalisation of cultural forms (such as television) ‘in the sense of spreading various objects and experiences to people of all corners of the earth’.
  • Modernisation involving the spread of the social structures of modernity (capitalism, rationalism, industrialism, and so forth) across the world.
  • In this respect the key to understanding globalisation is not to see it as a “thing” but rather as a process that facilitates other processes, something Virilio (2000) expresses when he argues: ‘The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalisation is the speed of light. And it is nothing else!’

    In other words, globalisation is a process (or, more-correctly, a set of interrelated processes) that, through the speed of its occurrence, transforms the nature of other processes (such as the transfer of capital, physical movement and the flow of information around the globe). In so doing it becomes synonymous with change – an idea we can develop by looking at four key components of globalisation.

    1. The distanciation of time and space

    Giddens (1990) argues that a major feature of globalisation is the way concepts of time and space are increasingly “distanced” or separated from each other, an idea we can illustrate in the following way:

    In the past time and space were largely inseparable in the sense that to experience “an event” at the same time as other people everyone had to be in the same physical space.

    To take a simple example, when you watch a live TV broadcast in your living room of your favourite band or football team time is separated from space. Although the event and your viewing occur at the same time, you don’t have to be physically present at the event to view it (and if you record it for later viewing, time and space are even further separated). This feature of globalisation (in this example the speed at which television pictures can be transmitted and received) means communication can take place instantaneously across the globe, ‘as if’ people occupied the same physical space. This, for Virilio, means globalisation makes concepts of distance and physical space irrelevant in the contemporary world – an idea is closely linked to a second feature of globalisation.

    2. The compression of time and space

    Harvey (1990) argues globalisation compresses time and space differences in the sense that the speed at which things can be done shortens the time required to do them because such speed effectively shrinks distances (not literally, of course). Think, for example, about the time it takes to send an email to someone on the other side of the world as opposed to sending a letter or actually visiting them.

    3. Disembedding

    Ebeltoft (1998) sees both distanciation and compression as representing the ‘vital preconditions’ for disembedding – an idea with direct consequences for our understanding of changing social relationships. If something is embedded it is firmly fixed in its surroundings; it is, for example, located in a particular context that gives it a particular meaning. Disembedding, on the other hand, means things are separated from their original surroundings and contexts, such that there is no logical or necessary connection between the two. This can include, for example:

  • objects, such as credit cards – disembedded from their original physical context (coinage)
  • processes, such as the electronic transfer of money into and out of a bank account. There is no embedded relationship here between sender and receiver, unlike where something like cash changes hands.
  • people, in a couple of ways:
  • Firstly, in the sense instantaneous global communication is both possible and takes place in indeterminate space, such as Facebook, Skype or Twitter; that is, in a “space” that both exists (because people can talk to each other, exchange messages, photos, videos and the like) but which also doesn’t “exist”: Twitter, for example, doesn’t exist outside of your computer.

    Secondly, in the sense of physical and cultural disembedding: the former in terms of territoriality and its associated meanings – how people define themselves in terms of national identities, for example – and the latter in relation to the various ways cultural hybrids (the mixing of different cultures to produce something new and different) develop out of the globalisation process.

    1. Deterritorialisation or supraterritoriality

    Scholte (2000) suggests that physical and cultural disembedding has important consequences for a range of economic, political and cultural relationships, particularly in the context of geographic territories. Globalisation, in this respect ‘entails a reconfiguration of geography, so that social space is no longer wholly mapped in terms of territorial places, territorial distances and territorial borders’.

    In other words, social interactions are no longer limited by notions of ‘territory’ (places that are fixed in time and space), an example being, as we’ve suggested, the internet as a place where social interaction occurs in indeterminate space.

    In addition, deterritorialisation also refers to the idea political and cultural identities are no longer necessarily and intimately tied to physical spaces (such as nation states); one can, for example, be a Muslim in a Christian country or a British citizen permanently living in Spain. It also refers to the fact that, economically, capitalist forms of production, distribution and exchange (both manufacturing and services) operate on a global scale, cutting across national and international borders.

    For Scholte, the significant point here is that the spread of ‘supraterritorial connections’ between societies, cultures and individuals ‘brings to an end…“territorialism”, a situation where social geography is entirely territorial. Although…territory still matters very much in our globalizing world, it no longer constitutes the whole of our geography’.

    A further aspect here, according to Giddens (1990), is ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’. In other words, the processes of disembedding and deterritorialisation connect both nations and individuals in new and important ways; events on one side of the world can have significant and unforeseen consequences on the other side of the world, something we can illustrate by two simple examples:

    1. The tsunami that struck Indonesia on Boxing Day 2004 was an event that attracted worldwide publicity and aid – a local event with a global economic, political and cultural significance.
    2. In 2005 the price of oil in the West reached an all-time high, partly as a result of increased consumption in newly industrialising societies such as China.

    Having identified what we might term the “essential features” of globalisation we can now turn to thinking about how this “process that facilitates other processes” can be applied, beginning in Part 2 with changing economic relationships.

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