Rethinking globalization: the quest for culture and identity
Globalization is one of the most controversial and contested issues of the 21st century. Moving away from the economic sphere it is perhaps worth having a closer look to the cultural dimension of the phenomenon. One of the most popular debate about globalization refers to its impact in the cultural sphere and its ability of giving rise to a truly global culture. But is globalization really leading to the flattening of the cultural identity of those involved in the process or does it rather encourage the affirmation of identities? Are we living in a culturally homogeneous "McWorld" or on the contrary, is the proliferation of national identity becoming the stamp of globalization?
The effects of globalization on culture have generally been viewed in a pessimistic way. Globalization is thought to destroy national identities, incorporating them into a bigger global culture. Putting aside this assumption, we could argue that it has been exactly the globalization process that has brought cultural diversity. Looking back at the world's history, we can notice that the 19th century, a time of developing free trade drawing countries closer together, was particularly characterized by cultural inventiveness. But this does not only apply to the past. We are living in an era of choice and plenitude when individuals experience increased diversity, whether we are talking about literature, science, art or entertainment. Countries look alike but more in the sense that they offer commonly diverse choices. Cultures are linked together through common shared beliefs. However, this does not mean that they are homogeneous, but rather that these beliefs provide the common foundation for understanding the world we live in and the forces that shape today's world.
So it seems like no global culture is emerging. Rather, cultures are growing both more global and more divided, more thoroughly interconnected and more intricately partitioned at the same time. Globalization indeed fosters the exchange of cultural contacts through increased flows of global communication. However, such an acceleration of the exchange process will only yield the development of more cultural mixtures and an increase in cultural heterogeneity. The broadening of communications between cultures is unlikely to erase cultural differences. Instead, imported cultural values will only be adapted to the local cultural environment.
National identity should not be perceived as an easy prey of globalization. Everyday we are targets of discourses on national identity trying to flag our 'allegiance' to a particular culture. But there is an inner logic between globalization and the construction or altering of identity lying in the nature of institutional modernity that globalization distributes. In simple words, globalization means globalizing modernity and modernity itself represents a harbinger of identity.
Globalization is far from flattening national and cultural identity. Rather it produces identity where it didn't exist before or where it's expression was suppressed by political or social circumstances. Indeed, this posses certain challenges on the nation state but it also brings about the urge for recognising identity. The most remarkable example can be found by analysing the Bosnia-Herzegovina - Kosovo issue. The forces of globalization opened up the door to ethnic cleavages and a great amount of harm. True. But more importantly, it lead to the affirmation of national identities and the growing awareness about the necessity of developing a national identity as a way of preserving culture.
In conclusion, globalization itself is neither positive nor negative. Sometimes regarded as McDonaldization or Nike-ification, discussions on globalization focus on the homogenizing influences of the process on both culture and identity. However, such concerns do not seem entirely justified. In an era of globalized communication, people will interpret things differently according to their cultural heritage. Thus, globalization becomes the harbinger of new cultural diversity. Moreover, cultural identity can be used as an empowering tool to gaining the recognition of individuality and diversity.
As we have seen, globalization may result in the rising awareness of cultural identity. Therefore, globalization should rather be looked upon as a process of negotiation and hybridization, where identities do not simply succumb to the new 'global culture'. Judging from the way globalization influences culture and identity, undoubtedly these two concepts will always be different. Every culture is different and builds on distinctive values. To regard the different cultures of the world as identical would mean denying the cultural background that shaped our identity as individuals. Consequently, globalization needs to be understood as a process of transformation, but not necessarily loss of values. In the end, could we honestly say that the Internet, the popular Coca-Cola, the English language and all the other perpetrators of globalization are erasing our identities? It just seems too ambitious and simplistic...