Globalization, culture and consumerism

 

Globalization undoubtedly has cultural effects but do these cultural effects constitute a global culture?

“A number of scholars have argued that a global culture exists: Jameson sees global culture as an ‘untotalized totality’ with patterns of negative and positive symbolic exchanges. Appadurai  pictures a deterritorialized global culture growing out of the relations between mass mediated cultural productions and migratory audiences. Robertson describes the emergence of a global ‘human condition’ that connects and relativizes individuals, nations, and international systems. According to Waters, cultural exchange must inevitably results in a global culture. Nevertheless, there are other scholars who do not believe in a global culture. Many have rejected the idea of a global culture because of the lack of homogeneity.

For example, Guillen, in a review of the globalization literature, concludes that ‘no such thing as a global culture is emerging’. For Anthony Smith, cultures emerge from and express the historical identity of the society. He argues that there is no global culture because there is no such shared global historical identity (‘given the plurality of such experiences and identities, and given the historical depth of such memories, the project of a global culture, as opposed to global communications, must appear premature for some time to come’)”[3].

What is good to make clear is that if a global culture exists, that would be a consumerist one. But probably, the most important thing to clarify at the first step is the concept of culture. It always has been a concept hard to define.

“In the literature on globalization there are two different meanings of culture: the meaningful aspect of social behavior and the belief and practices that make a group of people distinct. A typical definition for the first meaning of culture is given by Wuthnow who describes culture as ‘built into all social relations, constituting the underlying assumptions and expectations on which social interaction depends’. As Sewell points out, this type of culture’s pervasive nature makes it    ‘a theoretically defined category or aspect of social life that must be abstracted out from the complex reality of human existence’. […]Friedman […] call[s] it generic culture. Also following Friedman, [one can] use differential culture to identify the beliefs and practices that make a group of people distinct. This use of culture goes back to the 19th-century romanticism and it has been one of the fundamental concepts of modern anthropology. Culture here refers to a local, relatively coherent, self-contained set of norms, presuppositions and practices that belongs to a localized social group and is passed on to the next generation”[4].

Obviously, the answer to the question on the existence of a global culture depends on the definition of culture one chooses to adopt. But if to choose was the wrong choice?

Beyond this tongue-twister, the truth is that since culture is strictly related to the globalization process, it can change its meaning on account of the effects of globalization. The need to reconfigure the idea of culture is mainly evident in speaking about differential culture. Globalization breaks down the conception of a culture bound to a determined locality and taken apart from the cultures of others localities. However, it is difficult to separate cultures from groups even in analyzing globalization. Indeed, concepts like “hybridity” and “glocalization” are linked inevitably to the idea of differential cultures. If this conception of culture still remains central, then globalization will always be considered as a dangerous process for cultural identities. Therefore, a global culture can only rise whether the idea of culture is conceived as a system with elements interacting each other between different levels of meaning. That is to say, culture cannot be seen as a meaning which produces feelings of belonging but it is a system of meaning and this system creates meanings nourished by a shared set of practices. There has been argued that consumption, in broad sense, has such characteristics of system.  As it has already been said about global culture, scholars have drawn attention on three main strands: homogeneity and heterogeneity and a third way of hybridization. Those who argue for an overwhelming and imperialist global culture have pointed to homogenization whereas those who argue against global culture have pointed out increased heterogeneity. Anyway, all cultures have both homogeneity and heterogeneity as a result of hybridization. What matters is to understand if these strands can fit a cultural system stemming from a shared set of practices of consumption.

Homogenization refers to the trend to identicalness and cutback of variety of cultures around the world. It is sometimes equated to terms such as Americanization, Coca-colonization or McDonaldization.

Nevertheless, these terms are not suitable for global culture. Americanization is the least satisfactory term. It would be sufficient to mention that many of the companies spreading this homogenization are notfrom the USA, such as IKEA, Sony, Samsung, Vodafone, L’Oréal. Probably the most significant and most apparent example of non-American company which gives the thrust for a very powerful dimension of global cultural change has been that which has sought to dissolve the frontiers and divisions between different cultures, Benetton. Through its advertising and ‘United Colors of Benetton’ slogan, the company has actively promoted the idea of the ‘global village ‘, associated with the ‘global consumer citizenship’.

Secondly, Coca-colonization is related to the process through which these transnational companies produce standardized products for diverse global markets. However, just a part of global products fits this pattern. Interesting in this respect is the statement of the marketing executive at Coca-Cola, “it would not be in our best interest to give consumers a position that they [the consumers] don’t want. It is just completely counterintuitive[…]The cultural anthropologists who would suggest that we are advancing one way of life over the other, I would ask them to understand why that Coca-Cola would be able to broadcast an optimist point of view unless it exists already. Trying to change the nature of cultures is not part of our success criteria. I don’t even understand what would be the motivation”[5].

Another way to outline the global homogenization is the term McDonaldization, but it is first necessary to clearly define what this term means. While Coca-Colonization refers to the spread of a standard product, McDonaldization refers to the process of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control which McDonald’s lucratively launched[6]. The concept indicates these processes as forerunners and masters of more economic and cultural sectors. On the other side of the coin, one can assist to the spreading worldwide of independent, especially ethnic, restaurants. The probable explanation can be that this is not a trend with its anomalies as if it follows the third principle of the dynamics according to which every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but rather two faces of a consolidating process affected by the practices of consumer culture. Purchasing something is not only an economic choice but also a cultural one implying a system of meaning. If one can identify a homogenization of global culture, it is not the widespread diffusion of American culture, it is the spread of consumer culture. Globalization does not lead to identical cultural objects but consumerist practices that shape differences and cultural identity.

In contrast with the idea of global homogeneity, the strand of heterogeneity stands up. According to it, globalization implies an increase in variety among cultures and mainly within cultures. According to this approach globalization has the power to stress some vital points in different cultures helping make clearer the distinctions among them and engendering a need of self-identification and exclusive perception of self. To sum up, globalization would contribute to create the variety of cultures instead of producing a global one. Glocalization is one of most famous concept of this kind of approach and serves as a means of combining the idea of globalization with that of local considerations. It represents the set of the heterogeneous reception, appropriation and interpretation towards the most standardized global goods. At the same time, the concept of glocalization winks at the idea of hybridization between culture because of the more contacts and influences peoples through global connections. These lead to the increasing number of hybrid forms. Nevertheless, it could be an error to think them as a simple product of globalization as all culture can be seen as hybrid. What globalization adds is an increased speed that makes it harder to hide cultural hybridization.

Hybridization, heterogeneity and homogenization are all approaches and ways to see in line with consumer culture. Those differences between them are included in consumer culture and constitute the features of the system of the global culture. Consumer practices create and reproduce this system. Consumption in fact caters for opportunities for expressing the sense of belonging, so the sense of identity, and resources to show or make clear social positions.

 

Orientation in a global consumer culture

 

At this point it is possible to sketch a map of the interrelated relationships between globalization, culture and consumption. Each of them is a link of a hypothetical chain which sets in motion a mechanism of identity. As a result, globalization is indissolubly linked to consumption if there is the need to build the idea of global culture and identity. Many scholars, such as Leslie Sklair, propose a theory of globalization that put consumer culture at the centre. Sklair forcefully argued for the need of a transnational or global approach focused on consumerism as a culture. Within this culture, people see themselves and others primarily as consumers rather than as citizens, and political action is reduced to providing the resources for consumption. A second scholar who dealt with the relation between consumer culture and globalization is Néstor García Canclini. He argues that globalization is not characterized by homogenization but by fragmentation and recomposition into hybrid cultural forms. These hybrid forms help to subvert such accepted dichotomies as native/foreign, high/popular, art/craft and traditional/modern. García Canclini asserts: “just as our commodities are manufactures with diverse parts from foreign places, so is our culture and, to that extent, our identities”[7] [8].

 

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[3]Goodman D. J., ‘Globalization and Consumer Culture’ in ‘The Blackwell companion to Globalization’, edited by Ritzer G., 2008, chapter 16.

[4] Ibidem, p. 332.

[5] Hunter, J. And Yates, J. 2002. “The world of American globalizers”. In P.L. Berger and S.P. Huntington (eds), “Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, 323-357. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Ram U.,  “Glocommodification: How the Global Consumes the Local – McDonald’s in Israel”, SAGE publications, 2004, p. 20.

[7] García Canclini N., ‘Consumers and citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts’, U of Minnesota Press, 2001.

[8] Goodman D. J., ‘Globalization and Consumer Culture’ in ‘The Blackwell companion to Globalization’, edited by Ritzer G., 2008, chapter 16.