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Defining a global geography

By Eszter Hargittai and Miguel Centeno - posted Saturday, 15 September 2001

Defining globalisation has become something of a cottage industry. There are literally hundreds of citations using the term globalisation, each often offering a new version of a definition. Common elements include the intensification of global compression, interdependence, and integration. Essentially, global inhabitants have much more to do with one another and interact more often than they once did.

Definitional uncertainty aside, there is considerable debate regarding the significance of this phenomenon. We are living through a dramatic transformation into a global economy distinct from the "world" economy born in the 16th century. Yet other scholars offer evidence indicating that the current process of global interconnection is much less dramatic than what occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For some theorists, globalisation has altered the economic chances of significant but others argue that its effect has been exaggerated.

Does globalisation matter? We believe that much of the argument stems from collapsing two quite different elements of the issue at hand. The first is the process of globalisation, the mechanics of international integration; the second is the product or consequences thereof. The latter has received more attention, and we turn to that first.


Significance and consequences of globalisation

We obviously believe that globalisation matters (or more accurately, might matter). The real question is how it will matter and for whom. We may begin by analyzing the limits of the effects of globalisation to define the outer boundaries of the phenomenon. The naysayers have a point in reminding us that the talk of globalisation is often precisely that. The triumphalism (or panic) that often characterizes discussions of the topic neglects the many aspects of daily life that for all intents and purposes, remain relatively unaffected by international flows and transfers.

Perhaps the most obvious limit on these is the continued salience of territorial frontiers. With very few exceptions, for example, one must be both a citizen and a resident to vote in a political election. Some countries obviously have an international element in their domestic politics, and ease of travel has complicated some electioneering strategies. The opinions of major international players are courted and watched. Nevertheless, each arbitrarily drawn nation-state still formally determines the most significant aspects of its policies. Similarly, on which side of a border one is born often makes a very important economic difference. A child in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, might have a harder time accessing the potential of the U.S. economy than one born across the border in Laredo, Texas; citizens of Greece and Hong Kong enjoy access to wider markets than those of Turkey and the People's Republic of China.

Frontiers place limits on other aspects of life. Although capital may face fewer restrictions than labour, states sometimes try to control the price of their currencies, limit their flows, and prohibit certain transactions or interchanges. Despite the possible congruence in the definition of human rights, the opportunities available and support expected differ radically from one citizenry to another, even keeping all other factors constant. Certainly, political violence and the direction thereof is most often defined and constrained by international boundaries. Overall, as long as nation-states retain a monopoly over the means of destruction, globalisation will operate under significant limitations.

Nor has globalisation affected everyone. No matter what indicator one may use (trade, communication, etc.), significant parts of the world are essentially outside the new global society. In some cases, whole countries are excluded for a variety of reasons; for example, North Korea is isolated ideologically, Sierra Leone economically. This is to say not that the global economy or political divisions do not affect what goes on in these countries but that the vast majority of citizens and institutions do not regularly interact with the rest of the world.

What accounts for the different rates of participation? The obvious explanation is money. Richer countries have more to buy and sell in the global market-place and more access to the means with which to do so. Domestically, the same differences apply. The upper class and those living in major urban centres are, as a rule, much more likely to participate in the globalised world.

Given that there is still little agreement about the possible consequences of being globalised, we know even less about what effects remaining marginalized from globalisation might have. From the point of view of globalisation boosters such as Thomas Friedman, avoiding globalisation is both practically impossible and potentially disastrous. Although we may not share Friedman's vision of no alternatives to globalisation or his enthusiasm for the changes it brings, he may be right in contending that efforts to avoid participation or the inability to participate will have dire consequences.


Arguably the most important (and most debated) consequence of globalisation is the increasing concentration of power and wealth. We are seeing the universalisation of a single set of criteria for judging the worth of projects, firms, and, yes, individuals. Where previously each region, country, or even city prized different things (or in the case of protection, forced many competitors out of markets), now we have a global standard for performance and, increasingly, a global standard for aesthetic preferences. Combined with the hegemony of the market, this produces a set of efficiency mechanisms that prize specific criteria, encourage the adoption of certain policies, and select a particular set of actors for survival. In the end, the ubiquity of these becomes part of their appeal. Homogeneity and monopoly reinforce each other.

We are particularly interested in how globalisation will shape global inequality as measured between nations and societies. There is no denying the interdependence that globalisation brings about, but the asymmetries of that dependence, the consequences of the hierarchical flows, and the relative position within a set of relationships will help shape the nature of global power over the next decades. Research done on telephone communications indicates that international contact has increased, but so has the centrality of the United States in a global system. To what extent can this new-found power be explained by the exogenous effects of globalisation itself, as opposed to the internal characteristics of the countries involved?

A different road map

To answer this question, we must shift to the second half of a discussion on globalisation: the process rather than the outcome. Analysts have been understandably concerned with the substantive areas linked to globalisation: wages, trade balances, cultural diffusion, and so on. We have paid much less attention to the infrastructure network that actually makes up globalisation.

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This is an edited extract from the introduction to American Behavioural Scientist 44(10). Click here to order a copy of the journal.

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About the Authors

Eszter Hargittai is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Dept at Princeton University.

Professor Miguel Centeno is Professor of Sociology, Master of Wilson College and Director of the International Networks Archive at Princeton University.

Related Links
International Networks Archive
Princeton University
Photo of Eszter HargittaiEszter HargittaiPhoto of Miguel CentenoMiguel Centeno
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