Globalisation: Part 4 – Changing Cultural interrelationships

As with their political counterpart, we need to keep in mind that cultural interrelationships are frequently related to economic relationships and that these, in turn, inform cultural connections and relationships. This is particularly pertinent when we talk about culture industries like television, film and print, where reference is often made to the cultural hegemony (or “leadership”) of Western society and the USA in particular.

Such hegemony, it’s often argued, goes hand-in-glove with the “global dominance” of the English language as a ‘common cultural language’, although it’s perhaps pertinent to note what we might term a “reflexive relationship” (where one influences the other) between the hegemony of culture industries and the hegemonic status of English; that is, it’s difficult to disentangle one from the other. Does the English language dominate because of the hegemony of culture industries or does the hegemony of these industries necessitate consumers developing an understanding of English in order to consume such products?

While this is an interesting question, we need to keep in mind Held et al’s. (1999) argument that simply because we can identify instances of one society (such as the USA) being dominant in the production and distribution of cultural products it doesn’t necessarily mean it is possible to ‘read off in any simple way the impact of those sales on other cultures and identities’.

Whatever the niceties of such debates, we can think about how cultural relationships are changed, or not, through the coming together of different cultural products, considered in terms of two related dimensions:

  • material culture – our exposure to a range of cultural objects (such as food and clothing).
  • non-material culture, or the ideas and meanings embodied in cultural objects – the various ways our experience of different cultural products changes both the way we live and, to some extent, our perception of other cultures.

We can consider these dimensions of culture in terms of two concepts based around ideas of difference and similarity.

A. Cultural Diversity

Cultural interrelationships relate to cultural diversity in, as Lechner (2001) notes, a range of ways:

  1. Pluralisation: Interactions between societies, through cultural products (such as film and television), the cultural influence of immigrants and the like can lead to the ‘mixing of cultures in particular places and practices’ – and this intermixing may create cultural hybrids, whereby something “new and different” develops as the result of the meeting and mixing of different cultural ideas and behaviours. For example, Chicken Tikka Masala, according to the Food Service Intelligence (2001), is the most popular dish in the UK: ‘Said to have originated between the 1950s and 1970s…Legend has it one obstinate diner demanded gravy on tandoori chicken. A bemused chef responded by adding tomato soup and a pinch of spices, unwittingly partaking in an early example of fusion cookery.
  2. Contestation, whereby the ‘spread of ideas and images provoke reactions and resistance’ within and between different cultural groups. We can note, in this respect, the concept of glocalisation – the meaning and impact of global cultural products (such as Hollywood films or McDonald’s restaurants) are interpreted and used differently in different local contexts. In India, for example, the traditional Hollywood musical has been reinterpreted to produce a new form (‘Bollywood’) specific to Indian culture (although this, in turn, maybe starting to have a global cultural impact – more evidence of the reflexive nature of cultural industries).
  3. Institutionalisation operates on two levels:

First, the cultural products of one society are accepted and incorporated wholesale – and largely unchanged – into the culture of another society.

Second, the idea of cultural diversity itself – as something to be valued and encouraged – is, Lechner (2001) suggests, ‘promoted through international organizations, movements and nation states’.

B. Homogenisation

While cultural globalisation may promote different types of diversity, Lechner cites a number of ways diversity can be diminished:

  1. Lifestyles: The global reach of transnational corporations (such as Coca-Cola) creates a particular kind of ‘consumerist culture, in which standard commodities are promoted by global marketing campaigns to create similar lifestyles’ – a form of cultural hegemony that Lechner calls ‘Coca-Colonisation’ (the idea that one culture is colonised by the cultural products and lifestyle of another culture). A related example is Ritzer’s (1996) concept of:

McDonaldisation: This represents the idea that contemporary corporate cultural products are standardised, homogenised and formulaic; everyone who buys a McDonald’s hamburger, whether in London or Singapore, gets the same basic product made to the same standard formula. When this idea is applied to cultural relationships and experiences, homogenisation occurs because global cultural products are designed:

  • efficiently, using a limited range of themes around which products are created and recreated
  • rationally – all aspects of the production and consumption process are measured and evaluated to produce standard products in standard settings
  • predictably – cultural products are designed to be safe and unthreatening.

There is, to use Beck’s (1992) concept, ‘no risk’ involved in buying and consuming a particular product – the consumer knows exactly what to expect before they buy it. This consumption of cultural products is also related to:

  1. Identity – the things we consume ‘say something’ about us and our status. If this is valid then corporations may be able to key into – or possibly create – consumer identities and brand loyalties that both increase profitability and homogenise cultural behaviours within and between societies. In this respect Bryman (1999) suggests this idea involves the ‘Disneyfication’ of cultural relationships, encompassing things like:
  • Theming – the creation of ‘consumption experiences’ whereby people buy in to a general, standardised lifestyle.
  • De-differentiation where consumers are locked in to a range of related products in ways that provide a seamless ‘lifestyle experience’ (a particular perfume, for example, is associated with a particular lifestyle, clothing, footwear and the like) – something closely related to:
  • Merchandising – by consuming cultural products people take ‘themed lifestyles’ into their homes and social groups.
  1. Cultural imperialism: a situation where a particular culture or lifestyle is held up as the ideal to which other cultures should aspire. Western lifestyles, values, customs and traditions, for example, may be introduced into non-Western societies and thus destroy traditional cultural lifestyles.

Diversity or Homogenisation?

Questions of cultural diversity and/or homogenisation frequently turn on how these concepts are defined. ‘Diversity’, for example, is difficult to operationalise for a couple of reasons.

First, its meaning is not simple and straightforward (how different does something have to be to count as diversity, for example).

Second, diversity (like homogenisation) is not necessarily an either/or condition (either cultural diversity exists or it doesn’t). It is possible for diversity to exist in some cultural relationships whereas others show the opposite – high levels of cultural homogenisation. In other words, diversity and homogenisation can coexist in the same cultural space.

In terms of cultural homogenisation, while we shouldn’t underestimate how global companies (like McDonald’s) influence cultural development, we shouldn’t overstate their influence. While McDonald’s may have restaurants across the world, it doesn’t necessarily follow that ‘all cultures are converging’ – mainly because cultural production and reproduction don’t work in a simple behaviourist way (if we consume similar, standardised, cultural products we consequently become identical consumers). Cultural development can be both filtered and changed by the social contexts within which products are used by people in different situations.

Thus, although we might find instances of cultural homogenisation in different towns and cities across the world (as Peace, 2005 puts it, ‘If for instance, one was to find oneself in a high street in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, Rio or Johannesburg we would find the same shops, selling the same products accompanied by the same background music’), we also find diversity in the same places – not just in the range of different shops, but also in terms of different products.

Cultural globalisation

Globalisation, as we’ve suggested, is frequently considered at the economic level, in terms of things like the growth in world trade, the development of transnational corporations and their respective impact on nations and political/cultural interrelationships. However, if economic and political forms of globalisation are, at best, unsubstantiated and, at worst, as Rugman (2001) argues, mythical, cultural interrelationships promise more fruitful ground for globalisation theorists, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Cultural products (such as films, radio and television) are not necessarily physical commodities; they can, for example, be easily transmitted across physical boundaries. This is not necessarily the case, of course, but digital cultural products are increasingly packaged and sold in this way.

The internet, for example, is a potentially global medium for the transmission of digital products (although satellite and cable are also significant carriers of digital information). Sklair (1999) suggests the study of cultural interrelationships, focused around the global spread of the mass media, is an important area for globalisation theorists because of the ability to empirically demonstrate something like the ‘global diffusion and increasingly concentrated ownership and control of the electronic mass media, particularly television’. Sklair notes that even in relatively poor countries there has been a huge and rapid growth in television (and the cultural products/ideas it carries).

Cultural products, in this respect, have both substantial economic value and political content – an idea we can briefly note in terms of:

  1. Cultural imperialism: One argument about the relationship between politics and culture is that when we talk about something like the globalisation of culture, what we are actually talking about is the globalisation of American culture – the widespread export of US products, values and ideas around the globe. Rice-Oxley (2004) argues: ‘America exports its culture on an unprecedented scale. From music to media, film to fast food, language to literature and sport, the American idea is spreading inexorably…today’s technology flings culture to every corner of the globe with blinding speed. If it took two millenniums for Plato’s Republic to reach North America, the latest hit from Justin Timberlake can be found in Greek (and Japanese) stores within days’ (something that reflects back to the notion of cultural homogenisation).

One problem with notions of cultural imperialism and homogenisation is that the influence is assumed to be one-way – from the producer to the consumer. This model of cultural domination can be questioned on two levels:

Firstly, cultural consumers are assumed to accept passively whatever cultural influences are thrown their way, but consumers may, for example, actively interpret cultural influences, customising and filtering them through their own lives and lifestyles to create new, hybrid cultural forms.

Secondly, technological developments like the Internet are changing the way people relate to cultural influences in the sense that opportunities arise for cultural production as well as for consumption (the producer is the consumer and vice versa). This occurs in areas like social media, blogs and the development of modifications (‘modding’) to computer games as well as through the exchange and sharing of online information.

Although anecdotal evidence suggests some form of cultural homogenisation is at work (think, for example, about how American words and language use have found their way into everyday British language), there is little empirical evidence to support this argument. Even in the UK, where a common language arguably lowers the barriers to US cultural influence, it is debatable whether British culture – even among the young – is overly similar to US cultures. There is also the question here of whether we can simply assume American cultural influences are homogeneous in themselves; the USA is, for example, a large, culturally diverse, society.


Finally, we can note that in terms of cultural interrelationships, the ideas we’ve outlined suggest that tensions exist between two areas:

  1. The local or particular – characterised as showing high levels of cultural diversity.
  2. The global or universal, characterised in terms of its homogeneity.

While we’ve suggested the two can be separated, at least in theoretical terms, we’ve also suggested there are points and spaces where the local and global meet, and Robertson (1992) expresses this in terms of a:

Dialectical relationship (which involves thinking about how both the local and the global interact – each both influences and is influenced by the other). In this respect, as Sklair (1999) suggests, globalisation at the cultural level involves understanding two processes:

  1. The particularisation of universalism – the idea that some forms of globalised cultural features are adapted and changed by particular (local) cultural behaviours (customised and changed for local consumption, for example).
  2. The universalisation of particularism – the idea that the features of local cultures (their uniqueness, individuality, and so forth) become a feature of globalised cultures. That is, rather than seeing the globalisation of culture as a homogenising process, we should see it in reverse: globalisation involves the spread of diverse cultural beliefs and practices across the globe in ways that create new and diverse cultural forms.


Appadurai (1990) rejects the idea that cultural interrelationships flow ‘from the core to the periphery’ (globalised, homogeneous, cultural forms are picked up by individual cultures). Rather, we should see these interrelationships in terms of a variety of ‘scapes’ – imagined worlds that cut across territorial borders that can be connected in a variety of (electronic) ways:

  • Ethnoscapes that reflect how people of different cultures physically interact.
  • Technoscapes that relate to the way different forms of technology (and its cultural adaptations and uses) interact.
  • Finanscapes that refer to the interplay of economic relationships and their effect on political and social cultures.
  • Mediascapes involving the flow of information across different societies and cultures.
  • Ideoscapes that refer to the way people interact in terms of the exchange of images and ideas.

In this way, he argues, local cultural concepts spread across national boundaries, both influencing and being influenced by the cultural ideas and relationships they encounter.

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