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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.

The transformation of the technical and organizational infrastructure of international integration is obvious and needs to be considered in any analysis of globalisation. The road – not only what is on it – has changed dramatically over the past several decades. Other periods have also seen dramatic expansions in international commerce and that international flows have been freer or played a more significant role in social and economic dynamics.

What is new is the vast range of connections, the speed at which they occur, and the complexity of their interactions. International transfers now include a much wider array of products and services across forms of technology unimagined a decade, much less a century, ago. More important, these transfers are much more tightly intertwined, producing what we call a truly global web.

Under the previous system of international contact, different parts of the world might be connected to relatively few others. Now, the number of paths between different people and locations has exploded. This implies that changes in the form and frequency of flows between two points may have reverberations in unexpected paths far removed from them. Whereas previously we might have spoken of a world on which a variety of lines were drawn, we now need to think of the globe as enmeshed in a web. The new global geography has made relative position within the web simultaneously more difficult to define and much more important. The old references to continents or even to core/periphery refer to a two-dimensional perspective on the world, which has become increasingly useless and deceptive in an N-dimensional reality (where N is the number of forms of international interactions).

Globalisation, if it is a significant social phenomenon in its own right, involves much more than the intensification of a single form of exchange or even the cumulative effect of a series of transformations. It is the possibility of interaction between a variety of interchanges across the globe, the complexity of these interactions, and the density of the ties between previously distant societies that may be truly consequential. The potential significance of globalisation can be appreciated only when analysed as a whole.

If we are to ascertain the specific effect of globalisation, we need to define a standard measure not automatically correlated to one of the substantive issues being addressed. That is, we need an indicator that both serves as a representation of a society's position within a global web and is relatively independent of the phenomenon globalisation is supposed to affect. Categorisations by income, regime types, or political blocks may miss the critical dynamics of global cliques. Coordinates within a new geography of globalisation represent a much more promising alternative. Centrality and reciprocity would be obvious indicators of where a society stood. Perhaps more useful would be comparisons of its position within the various subnets defined by specific transactions. The combination of these measures would then help explain (a) what forms of globalisation affect a particular society and (b) the direction of the change.

Measuring globalisation

Except for the seminal but crude measures of world systems analysis, we know of little work that has taken the different countries' relational position in the process of integration itself as the key differentiation between them. Only this form of formally structural approach allows us to begin to understand both the processes of global integration and different societies' and countries' position therein. The absence of structural analyses is especially surprising, given that the study of globalisation seems tailor-made for that buzzword of contemporary social science: networks. We now live, or so we are told, in a "network society". Some have suggested that networks represent a third major category of human interaction (after markets and hierarchies) and that increasingly, it is this form of connection that will determine our lives. Yet, network analysis has only begun to map the manner in which relational structures shape social action.

If networks represent the best lenses with which to understand globalisation, what kind of data should we analyze with them? The possibilities are endless, but we first need to be aware of areas left unexplored. That is, before discussing networks of visible interactions, we need to be cognizant of the invisible set of relationships helping to shape the external surface of our global map. One area of concern is transactions that are not adequately measured, yet may play a significant role in the construction of international networks. Another issue is the unit of analysis that should be used or the level at which we theorize international transactions taking place.

With regard to the first, perhaps the most obvious missing data concern illegal transfers. One estimate of the globalized black market suggests that it may represent $500 billion of transactions a year. In general, smuggling (writ large) may be the oldest form of globalisation. It may also be the purest expression of the phenomenon, if we think of globalisation as a global search for economic or social efficiency that explicitly seeks to evade formal state authority.

Although it may be difficult to classify consumption as a network, we might also consider the level of globalisation that occurs by that means. It is quite clear that McDonald's and the Gap are all over the globe and that the British Spice Girls and the Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin have touched teenage music fans' hearts everywhere. However, it is less transparent how the consumption of such products infiltrates into the rest of people's lives. Although there is an ongoing debate on how the diffusion of such cultural icons affects local cultures, we have no information on how many people are actually affected and what areas of their lives are influenced, both directly and indirectly, through the exposure to consumer items from other countries and cultures.

If much of the above is currently uncountable or untraceable, there is, nonetheless, enough information out there to define the basic shape of the global network. Thanks to the institutional fascination with data that has accompanied and supported globalisation, practically every legal transaction across borders is counted and reported. Telephone calls, plane arrivals, shipments of goods, and receipts for services can all be used to trace the shape and dynamics of the new international order (or to determine the extent to which it is new). These measures are often imperfect and certainly not exhaustive, but they do provide an adequate first brush with the new global geography.

There are equally difficult challenges with units of analysis. International networks consist of millions and perhaps billions of individuals making decisions and establishing contacts. These operate within millions of organizations of an infinite variety. These, in turn, tend to be concentrated in particular cities and regions. Yet, much of the information available and certainly the majority of the analysis emphasises relationships between national societies. This is partly a reflection of a nation-centric bias in much of social science. More important, it is a product of the very data-gathering techniques and protocols on which international analysis depends. This is particularly paradoxical given that a significant part of the globalisation literature predicts the withering away of the relevance of the nation-state.

The new geography of globalisation should begin to gather data at levels of aggregation smaller than the nation-state. Cities or specific regions within countries (e.g., Emilia-Romagna in Italy, Catalonia in Spain, the American coasts) are much more integrated into the global economy. Cross-border zones are very much a part of globalisation and may account for a disproportionate share of relational links. The new geography should make every attempt to privilege these sub-units, which are increasingly more relevant than our nation-centric analytical atlas.


So what does this bright new world look like? We suggest that the new global geography will have two critical characteristics.

First, the nonlinear complexity of the new global structure will help determine economic, political, and social outcomes. Post-1980 globalisation is not simply a form of the 19th-century world economy at faster speed and greater volume; it represents a substantive shift in the manner in which individuals, organizations, and societies are interconnected.

Second, it is clear that globalisation does not involve a flattening of a global hierarchy. Some countries are richer, have better communications, and play a more central role. Moreover, there are clear benefits to be derived from this centrality. As globalisation intensifies, these benefits might even increase, producing practically insurmountable (if invisible) walls around the new empires. More specifically, practically all the studies point to the dominant position of the United States in practically every international network. In many ways, globalisation may be better understood as the Americanisation of the world.

The combination of global scale and complexity of relationships may imply that models of international governance and domination borrowed from earlier eras may no longer be relevant. If this is true, then students of globalisation will have to begin laying down the most essential foundation blocks of a new social scientific project.

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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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