Globalization is the antithesis of culture. Discuss

Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE301


Both ‘globalization’ and ‘culture’ are words that have become very popular but what they actually specify is not agreed upon across the academic or non-academic board. This essay will attempt to cover what globalization and culture might each mean, and how they might be related to each other, as they have been in the above statement. To acquire a good basis for definition, the multiple contemporary formations of these two words will be looked at so as to give a better grasp of their meanings. The contexts in which they can then been seen to relate to each other, will be explored to see whether there is any basis to be concluding that they are at odds to each other.

Let’s do it like ‘they’ do it?

Throughout non-academic conversation on globalization people take/make sides to argue from. This type of attitude seems to spill over into the title of this essay to reveal a dichotomy. The title does not suggest the use of traditional social anthropologists’ methodology of providing an in-depth description of phenomena that s/he observes, but pitches two frameworks against each other e.g. globalization against culture. As ‘culture’ is what an anthropologist usually studies (at least in the U.S. cultural anthropological school), the idea of globalization is immediately under moral scrutiny as the title questions the reader as to whether globalization may be negative to their subject matter or positive in the converse. At the very least it places a polarity between the two that beckons a moral stance.

The question now arises; is the essay title appropriate within an anthropological context? To understand a subject an anthropologist doesn’t simply record facts about it, but using their personal experience of the situation in which they have collected these facts, they describe and provide the most informed understanding of the subject. So it follows that a social anthropologist would not go about looking at globalization in the context of it being ‘polar’ to culture, as this would seem to be party to undermining the anthropological method in itself. The assumptions within the title are those of a distinct pop-culture, not a fair light for an anthropologist to be studying a subject in.

The Coke side of Life

Like the Papua-New Guinean aluminium tin can emblazoned with an iconic fat man in red, filled with refined Mexican sugar cane that has required a bucket of Iraqi crude oil to make its way into the hand of the Zimbabwean refugee who at 3am sells it for £0.70 to anyone, managed by a woman who after researching her companies practices on the web, decides to quit her job and move to an environmentally-sustainable community that recycles its tins etc…(not to mention a secular person who designed the iconic fat man, that is now a religiously specific character) or one might simply see “The Coke side of Life” (The Coca-Cola Company : 2006).


Depending on who you are, any one of the above observations could be what globalization means to you and thus how different people chose to specifically define it. Incidentally it may just be a can of Coca-Cola; such an oblivious view might itself be a ‘globalization’ phenomenon.

Limited views of globalization

Yet the elaborated description of a beverage above, still goes no further than mere description of facts at present. As emulated here; “In principle [globalization] does not claim more than a geographic fact: people and places in the world are becoming more extensively and densely connected to each other as a consequence of increasing transnational flows of capital/goods, information/ideas, and people.” (Kalb 2000:1). This type of description ignores one vital fact; that a group of results provide a description of a whole process that has led to them and what the repercussions of all this might mean. Just as a scientific experiment is conducted and results are collected, it is not the results so much themselves as the bigger picture that might be inferred from them that helps us to understand what they really mean. Nevertheless, the background behind these facts it can give us some insight into why it has come about.

There are many more definitions for globalization, each with their own specificity or all-encompassing attempts. Most definitions tend to limit themselves to emphasizing the economics involved; “cross-national flows of goods, investment, production and technology” (Petras 1999), just as one might simply see “the Coke side of Life”.

Trying to see the bigger picture

A basic anthropological definition might be “Contemporary globalization is the increasing flow of trade, finance, culture, ideas, and people brought about by the sophisticated technology of communications and travel and by the worldwide spread of neoliberal capitalism, and it is the local and regional adaptations to and resistances against these flows.”(Lewellen 2002:pg7). However, as this definition itself admits; “Contemporary globalization…” (Lewellen 2002:pg7), what globalization means or is/was can change over time. This then leads us onto considering the different dimensions of understanding globalization.

From considering the above definition and the many others globalization can be seen as; a part of an evolutionary change in human society over time or space in reaction to different environments with a systematic drive, an infectious ideology that is usually described as neoliberalism or/and simply a set of facts that together describe a world that is becoming more interconnected in multiple ways. Simply looking around oneself reveals that all the descriptions above hold some validity to differing degrees, depending on the context. (Lewellen 2002).

Culture’s place

To discuss what globalizations’ relationship is to culture, without reflecting on what is actually meant by culture, would leave this essay as broad as the number of searches Google Search finds when ‘culture’ is typed in; 359 million to be precise (Google 2010). Renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s defined it as such, an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (1973: 89). Nevertheless in the 1980’s the postmodernists levelled an argument against definitions such as this. They quite aptly noted that this type of view of culture is misleading as it brings one around to thinking of cultures as “static units, with an internal cohesion that is simply taken for granted”(AnthroBase 2010). In reflection upon the essay title it can be seen that globalization is the antithesis of culture, not in reality but in terms of reification; cultures are exotic entities being swallowed by the globalization of neoliberal capitalism.

So if globalization ‘appears’ as the antithesis of culture on the surface, an anthropologist should be “concerned to show that social and cultural phenomena are results of underlying processes that we have a tendency to overlook, and that they are thus something other than what they seem to be” ”(AnthroBase 2010). With this in mind we can see that to discuss the statement; ‘globalization is the antithesis of culture,’ an anthropologist must not take this statement for granted and assume that globalization and culture are what they appear to be. We must look at what the underlying processes are behind these subjectively produced concepts (as all concepts are subjective to their creators). To do this a brief look at the history behind these concepts would be a good starting point.

Background relationships

A brief look at the history leading up to today, shows us different stages of change that can be seen as steps along the way to a view of globalization and culture that has led to the reified bent mentioned. The colonisation of land and peoples, the slave trade and inter-continental goods trade are all seen as pre-emptory parts towards globalizations realization (Lewellen 2002). While the concept of culture has gone through many phases, the anthropological birth place and still social anthropologies main interest in culture, lie with the same parts mentioned above that pre-empted globalization, if only in a modern form. The mistake that seems to be made by most then, is directly interchanging globalizations present dominant form; neoliberalism for actual globalization, instead of viewing it is “a particular series of developments concerning the concrete structuration of the world as a whole” (Robertson 1990:20). One might say that culture is the antithesis of globalization in two ways; a misunderstanding of it due to cultural reification or that it has mainly been hijacked by a single culture.


Which leads us back in a circle, to this fear of globalization being a homogenizing force of one -neoliberal capitalistic- culture swallowing the rest. As Boli and Thompson explain, “[through globalization] definitions, principles, and purposes are cognitively constructed in similar ways throughout the world” (1997: 173). What is so distinctive about this quote is that it describes a basis for the idea of globalization as a homogenising force, but allows for the realization that homogenization is only one possible outcome (Husted 2001). To be able to share cognitive constructions with the rest of the world, allows for en-masse sharing of culture, which does not necessarily lead to homogenization but greater understanding between peoples. In more literal terms evidence actually shows more of a trend towards transnationalism and new cultures. Or in the case of ‘Alma’, a yet to be convincingly defined cultural mutation (Iglesias Prieto 1997).

In conclusion globalization can be viewed as a phenomenon that can be influenced by the cultures that are a part of it, resulting in their further development as they are never static. This will include a loss and gain of what is seen as valuable diversity, which is why one must engage it consciously develop and evolve ones culture otherwise they may become the homogenous mass they feared.


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