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.

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