Globalization and Its Impact on Culture: Increases Diversity or Not?

I just spent an hour watching an awesome debate (Real player) between George Mason economist (and blogger) Tyler Cowen and Maryland professor Benjamin Barber on the impact of globalization on cultural diversity.

It seems to me that right now there is no force more important to understand than globalization. Reading The World is Flat is not enough, partly because of its shallow treatment of certain issues but mostly because *everyone* has read it, which means that you no longer can offer original, imaginative insights if you are only armed with Friedman’s point of view.

There are many ways to look at globalization, and I am still a novice at unpacking most of them. One area that I am becoming increasingly fascinated by, however, is the argument that globalization is homogenizing and standardizing cultures thus depriving nations of authentic uniqueness, and the counterargument that globalization is in fact increasing diversity of culture through improved consumer access to markets. A few weeks ago I linked to a NYT Mag cover story which argued that the new global "cosmopolitan" is a good thing. Last summer while in Zurich I commented how great it was to hear American music on the radio.

Professor Cowen went first in the debate, and spoke with tremendous eloquence. His book Creative Destruction argues that market-driven globalization increases individual choice such that a nation’s people can improve their culture and change it for better through an indeed synthetic product which incorporates other cultures. Cowen believes that while before cultural differences were dependent on geography, now cultural pockets are driven by an individual’s interests, hobbies, and desires. For example, 50 years ago kids growing up in New Jersey and Louisiana would be slightly different (though still very similar) due to being in different parts of the country. Now, the kids would be VERY similar, though their hobbies and career paths could be much different than before due to increased opportunities to learn about other cultures, jobs, etc. Finally, Cowen raised a point about "cultural imperialism" and how he sometimes feels guilty staring out at the world from the world’s superpower and saying it’s all good. He says that there’s a problem of assigning credit for the cultural exports of the world and that America gets credit for a lot of things which are actually foreign produced.

Professor Barber presented some strong counterpoints. He starts by saying that cultural authenticity is key, and a hodgepodge of cultural borrowings is not the original. Is an Americanized crepe the same as the original in France? (Cowen’s rebuttal is that some say the best Indian food isn’t in India, it’s in America, and that the point is more people have access to crepes than ever before, and that’s a good thing.) Second, he says that homogenization is largely driven by corporate interests to standardize. If there’s 1 Starbucks on a Paris street, it’s OK; the French can now sample a different kind of coffee. If there are 10 Starbucks, still OK. If there’s a Starbucks on every block, is this an assault on the "collective character" of Parisian dining? Finally, he said that globalization is in some way connected to terrorism (hence his book Jihad vs. McWorld). If a culture doesn’t like an aesthetic assault from a superpower, they can respond with bombs, not just closing their wallets.

All in all, a stimulating debate, and two more books on the to-read list.

7 comments on “Globalization and Its Impact on Culture: Increases Diversity or Not?
  • As I’ve said before, pop culture is the ultimate weapon. When your enemy can’t fight back with music videos, bombs are the only alternative. (Though not a good one…terrorism is essentially guerilla warfare. The goal is to get the bigger opponent to give up. But there is no way to get the corporate/pop-culture complex to give up…the invisible hand is just too strong.

    All of this terrorism will ultimately prove futile, and the lives lost a terrible waste.

  • I think that the principle of local minima and maxima apply here. There are
    many unique cultures that have survived because of isolation, which are
    being lost because of globalization. But we are also creating new cultures
    through cross-fertilization and by creating new possibilities.

    I don’t believe that the future will be a single McWorld with only one
    culture–we will be many tribes with a common world of knowledge, but with
    the ability to create many different cultures. It just may take a while to
    get there.

    Ben Casnocha responds:

    Right. But there’s also the moral point of whether the cross-fertilized cultures are as good as the “natural” ones. As authentic. Is it cause for concern if there’s a McDonald’s every third block in France? If a corporation’s vision for fast food overrides whatever tradition has been there?

    What I feel excited about is single globalized economy whose cultures are based on interests and hobbies. 50 years ago there never could have been a “Warcraft subculture” because there was no way for those people to come together. So cultures are going to have less to do with being French or American or from the north part of town as much as other common bonds.

  • Situations where a non-North American or specifically a non-US concept, product, or social value sweeps the globe is very rare these days. I would not have a problem with a McDonald’s on every Parisian street corner, if it weren’t for the fact that McDonalds is very quickly becoming the only choice.

  • I found the article interesting and the comments enguaging. The bigger problem is bureaucratic nationalism which stiffles the will-of-the-people. Commercial assets can easly be “nationalized”. NAFTA is a great model for economic liberation, which could work in other hemisphere’s. Unfortuately, most governments are only concerned with what they get, not what they can offer.

  • Part of the problem underlying the discussion of “culture” has to do with the origins of the term. It comes from the discipline of anthropology, which has more or less eaten itself alive over the past decade. The real definition of culture, anthropoligically and in real terms, is: the frame of reference of a group.

    So, to the extent that you and I are and aren’t a group, we do and don’t share a culture. Were we villagers, we’d share a lot. As it is, we share your blog.

    We often talk about “culture” as if it has an independent meaning, even when we aren’t sure whether we mean belonging to a tribe or nation, going to the opera, or sharing an ethos. It’s vague.

    And impressionistic. My culture may be an apple, while yours may be an orange… and we both may be in a fruit basket–what’s interesting is when someone shows up with a pork chop. It probably won’t be a European or an American….

  • Both arguments are correct, and even in the future, if we come to accept globalization, we’ll likely face a world where the tension between both will exist. In one area, one idea of globalization will prevail. In another, the other will. So those individual cultures will never truly be extinguished, because in an ever-segmenting world, there will always be a demand for “the real thing”; though at the same time, as the world moves closer together, the amalgam of cultures will create new possibilities, just as the amalgam of cultures have created new words in many languages. You can still buy a new Morris Oxford as the Hindustan Ambassador, which might be representative of the former situation; but you can also buy a Volvo V50, a car created with the Swedish, American and Belgian input.

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