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Defining a global geography

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

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.

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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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