Holton Cultural Consequences

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ANNALS, AAPSS, 570, July 2000
GLOB AL IZA TION’S CUL TURAL CON SE QUENCES THE ANNALS OF THE AMER ICAN AC A DEMY

Globalization’s Cultural Consequences
By ROBERT HOLTON
ABSTRACT: Globalization has been associated with a range of cultural consequences. These can be analyzed in terms of three major theses, namely, homogenization, polarization, and hybridization. The homogenization thesis proclaims that global culture is becoming standardized around a Western or American pattern. While some evidence supports this view, the presence of cultural alternatives and resistance to Western norms suggests that polarization provides a more convincing picture of global cultural development. Global interconnection and interdependence do not necessarily mean cultural conformity. Culture, it seems, is harder to standardize than economic organization and technology. Yet the idea of polarization has its limits, too. The hybridization thesis argues that cultures borrow and incorporate elements from each other, creating hybrid, or syncretic, forms. Evidence to support this view comes mainly from popular music and religious life. The cultural consequences of globalization are therefore diverse and complex.

Robert Holton is professor of sociology at Flinders University of South Australia. He is author of a number of books on social theory, historical sociology, and immigration. His most recent publication is Globalization and the Nation-State (1998). In 1995, he was elected to a fellowship of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

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GLOBALIZATION’S CULTURAL CONSEQUENCES

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E clearly live in an epoch of rapid social change, where capital, technology, people, ideas, and information move relentlessly across the inherited map of political borders and cultural boundaries. Cross-border processes such as interregional trade, population migration, technological diffusion, religious conversion, and military conquest are not new (McNeill 1986). Globalization as it stands in the year 2000 has clearly built upon pre vi ous upswings of cross-border activity and internationalism, including the much-cited phase of global expansion that culminated in 1913. The distinctiveness of contemporary global change is nonetheless connected with new forms of integration and interdependence between the various parts of the globe. In te gra tion and in ter de pen dence now have an intensified spatial and temporal dimension to them, something lacking in the pre-1913 developments. This may be referred to usefully as the compression of space and time (Harvey 1989). In for ma tion technology has meant not only the obliteration of the tyranny of distance but also the creation of a global virtual reality, in which time presents no fundamental barrier to social exchange. The present epoch may justly be termed the age of globalization. And yet there is much about the dynamics of and limits to globalization that remains unclear. This is especially true of the relationship of globalization to cultural life, which is my theme in this article. Concerning this rela tion ship, most atten tion has been given to the question of the conse quences of glob al iza tion for

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culture, and rather less to the issue of cul tural causes of glob al iza tion. Closer scrutiny of debates about conse quences reveals an unre solved argument between three basic positions: the homogenization thesis, in which globalization leads to cultural convergence; the polarization thesis, which posits cultural wars between Western globalization and its opponents; and, finally, the hybridization, or syncretism, thesis, in which globalization encourages a blending of the diverse set of cultural repertoires made available through cross-border exchange. The debate between these positions, as it currently stands, is long on speculative advocacy and s h o r t o n e m p i r i c a l depth or substantiation. In sorting out this debate, it is well to recall Raymond Williams’s comment that...
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