What is globalisation, and why is it sociologically interesting? Essay

The expression ‘globalisation’ is one which is difficult to operationalise and is highly contested in contemporary discussion.

Globalisation is a subject which encompasses a multitude of elements, and has been defined as ‘a combination of internationalization, political and economic liberalization, and a technological revolution.’ (Woods, 2004). The topic of globalisation is diverse and complex, with its meanings being interpreted differently depending on people’s individual stance and starting place. The idea of blurred boundaries of what globalisation actually means is arguably a contributor to sociologists’ interest in the subject, giving more room for personal evaluation. Anthony Giddens (1999) notes, ‘The term ‘globalistation’ has itself become even more globalised’ (Preface xi), this acts in a way that is self-referential to the idea of globalisation and is ‘evidence of the very development it refers to’ (p.7).

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‘The first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem’ (Berger, 1963), in a sense this citation encompasses an archetypal idea of what intrigues and interests a sociologist, the idea that everything can be questioned and analyzed. This essay will attempt to examine two of the factors which contribute to the umbrella term globalisation, looking specifically at the influence and impact of migration and technological advances, with reference to why these factors are of sociological interest.

Although defining it is not straightforward, it is important to gain an awareness of what sociology is and what typically is of interest to a sociologist, to help relate sociological theories and ideas with globalisation. In a literal sense ‘the term has two stems- the Latin socius (companionship) and the Greek logos (study of)…in these terms sociology may be defined as the study of the bases of social membership’ (Abercrombie, 2004) and as a ‘systematic study of human societies’ (Macionis and Plummer, 2005). Giddens (1999), argues that globalisation is inherent to sociological studies; ‘Globalisation is not incidental to our lives today. It is a shift in our very life circumstances. It is the way we now live.’ (p.19). This as a factor makes globalisation increasingly interesting for sociologists, especially when looking at the social changes that a global society has brought into existence.

‘Each year tens of millions of people throughout the world journey from the countryside to towns, from provincial towns to capital cities, and from marginal areas to metropolises in core countries. Some are fleeing from violence in their homelands, others are eager to gain in education, but the vast majority are looking for jobs’. (Swaan 2001) Increased migration in the 21st century is a factor which has contributed to and been effected by globalisation, with the influx of different cultures, religions, languages, ideas and ideals being brought into the scope of, once, individual societies. Traditionally, sociologists have written about society in terms of the nation-state, ‘with the two terms treated as virtual synonyms’ (Kivisto 1998).

Importantly for sociologists the regularity of the nation-state has been put in question due to the modernity of a global community, with this idea being one of sociological interest in a progressively interconnected world. Morris (1997) argues it is therefore important to ‘asses the sociological impact of international migration, multi-ethnic societies, multi-state bureaucracies and transnational institutions asserting the rights of immigrants’ (p.194), however sociologist have contesting ideas on ways to asses this mass of concepts.

Take the impact of ‘international migration’ for example, with multinational communities developing; there is vast disagreement and debate between sociologists as to the extent in which the impact of international migration is constructive and how it is affecting societies. One major criticism of migration’s contribution to a global society is that ‘universalistic values… can come into conflict with the values of local cultures’ (Kivisto 1998), it could be said that Westernised Culture is often spread as the social ‘norm’, with the squandering of individual identity and a loss of tradition being displayed through migration because of Western ideals often being conceived as superior (Giddens 2006). ‘Prosperous western countries are increasingly closing their doors to fresh waves of immigrants,..pressure of immigration on the worlds’ major economic power is…as a result of the enormous prosperity gap'(Swaan 2001).

The idea of everything becoming one entity (homogeneity) and not being governed by boundaries or boarders is intrinsic to that of increased migration and the accessibility of mobility, ‘separate global space is defined not by geographical or spatial limits but by ideological ones, by adherence to global values rather than the particularisms of place.’ (Chandler, 2007). Kivisto (1998), similarly explored the view that migration and particularly immigration in a global society, has made it possible that a person is no longer restricted to being a citizen to a specific nation, but rather a global citizen, with suggested emergence of a ‘global village’ (McLuhan 1964).

Kivisto (1998) notes that many people ‘define their identities in terms of both their homeland and their settlement destination’, this being described as ‘transnational immigration (pg.167)’, with the implications of this causing a sociologically interesting debate; Through migration, new religions, brought from different cultures can be said to both, disrupt and cause discord amongst its citizens, causing a split in society rather than unity (Kivisto 1999), contrary to this notion, however, it can be seen that some traditions have and will continue to become accepted globally. Daniel miller (1993) looks at Christmas as a globalised phenomenon, which is celebrated internationally in countries with little and in some cases no Christian population.

This globalisation of Christmas could be said to highlight the very fact that social change, due to people’s movement and a decrease in boundaries between nation-states, has seen a shift in people’s acceptance and attitudes towards other religious ideas, although resistance to such concepts is highly apparent; Juergensmeyer (2001) observes that there increasingly is conflict between modernity and anti-modernity post cold war, in religion specifically, ‘it reveals the capacity of globalizing forces to produce intense conflict and fragmentation’ (Juergensmeyer, 2001).

Although only a sample few issues were discussed above, in comparison with the large number of effects that migration has on a globalised society, a lot still can be seen as to why such developments are interesting from a sociological perspective. The fact that the majority of the issues considered contribute to a shift in how society function’s, encourages sociologist to embrace theoretical discussion and new ideas on increased globalisation and therefore makes such debates ones which are of interest to sociologist’s.

Mobility and the interconnectedness of society interlinks with and relies upon the fact that technology has advanced dramatically over the years, illustrated, for example, by the increase of the use of the internet from 20 million in 1995 to 20 Billion in 2005 (Giddens 2006).

‘Technological developments such as means of transportation (motor-cars, railways and aeroplanes) enable the binding together of larger expanses of time-space not only on an intra-societal level, but increasingly on an inter-societal and global level. The same can be said for the mass media (radio, terrestrial and satellite TV and new communications technology (telephones, fax, and the emergent computer network, ‘the internet).’ (Featherstone, 1995)

Featherstone’s, although slightly outdated analysis (earlier looking at the expanse of internet as currently far more materialised than in 1995), does however point out the main technological developments which have aided globalisation. Manuel Castell (1996), notes that a shift from the ‘industrial age’ to the ‘information age’ is occurring, with the undeniable spread of new media technologies and the accessibility to these around the globe. ‘Widespread use of the internet and mobile phones is deepening and accelerating the processes of globalization’ (Giddens 2006), it is thus important to understand why such developments are of interest to sociologists; In the new world of modernity, interconnected technologies, such as the internet, are not regulated by state or government, this therefore leads to the sociologically interesting factor that people can connect with each other globally in a way that they couldn’t before, with far less limitations to individual expression or freedom of speech, especially in countries where communist views are still prevalent.

‘Information technology, Castells concludes, can often be a means of local empowerment and community renewal’ (Giddens 2006). Interestingly, on the other hand some sociologists have adopted an opposing view of this type of technology; Ulrich Beck (1992) has argued that the ever increasing global network has a ‘risk’ of influencing a decline in established values and cultural tradition. Rather than globalised ’empowerment’ he speaks of ‘globalised risk’, contradictory to views of Castells (1996). Although agreeing with the idea that the development in information technology will encourage new globalised traditions to be formed (or what Calhoun 1994 describes as ‘glocalisations’), Beck argues that the risk of this is detrimental to humanity, with a supposed hegemonic society being formed. Contrary to both these ideas, Kivisto (1998) poses the question ‘will we witness a growing syncretisation of popular cultures and thus greater forms of diversity?’ arguing that due to a more globalised community we will see a cultural blend of customs, with this issue being of interest to sociologists concern with social change.

Overall it could be learnt that globalisation is of increasing sociological significance, with recognition of the fact that this essay only looks at a sample few issues that constitute globalisation. Naturally there are copious other concerns and issues which contribute to the umbrella term globalisation, due to the very factor that it addresses the world globally. Arjun Appadurai (1996) defines the main points of what constitutes globalisation,

‘He identifies five dimensions of cultural flows in an effort to provide a framework for analyzing the cultural dimensions of globalization: (a) ethnoscapes, the impact of the migration of peoples, be they immigrants or refugees; (b) mediascapes, the dissemination of information by new communications technologies; (c) technoscapes, the flow of technologies across existing political boundaries; (d) financescapes, the flow of global capital; (e) and ideoscapes, images that constitute elements of a worldwide view.’ (Kivisto, 1998)

In this essay it can be seen that my focus was on ‘ethnoscapes’ and ‘technoscapes’, although recognition of all these dimensions ,and the fact that they are interconnected with each other, is necessary to gain a full understanding of the impact of globalisation, with these factors playing a pivotal role in the interest of a social thinker.

Taken as a whole, it could be stated that the idea that globalisation impacts social change is the key to sociologists’ interest in the topic. The prominent fact that individual citizenship and a society which once was bound by states is changing, gives sociologists of the past, present and future a relatively new realm of discussion, making this topic one of interest and necessity to theorise.

‘Thinking about the future requires reflecting on the past, including how social thinkers in the past sought to describe and asses the major societal trends they were living through. Sociologist cannot simply rely on the insights of earlier generations; they must build on the tradition of thought they have inherited. Although much about the future remains unclear, it is clear that the future heirs of the legacies of Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel will continue to adapt the key ideas that have proven so essential to social inquiry in the past to meet the unique, and increasingly global, challenges of their time.’ (The Lasting Impact of the Sociological Tradition, Kivisto 1998)


Giddens, A. (1999) Runaway World: How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives p7. Oxford: Polity

Berger,P. (1963) Invitation to sociology- A Humanistic Perspective p34. New York: Doubley and Company

Giddens, A. (2006) Sociology, 5th edition p51. Cambridge: Polity

Abercrombie. N (2004) in Macionis, J. J. and Plummer, K. Eds (2005) Sociology: A global introduction, 4th edition, Harlow: Pearson

Woods, N. (2004) ‘Global governance and the role of institution’ in Held, D. and McGrew, A. eds. Governing Globalization

Chandler, D. (2007) ‘Deriving Norms from ‘Global Space’: The Limits of Communicative Approaches to Global Civil Society Theorizing’ Globalizations. 4(2) p285

Morris, L. (1997) ‘Globalization, Migration and the Nation-State: The Path to a Post-National Europe?’ The British Journal of Sociology. 48(2)p194

Swaan, A. (2001) Human Societies: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity

Kivisto, P.(1998) Key ideas in Sociology. Thousand Oaks: Pine forge, ch 6

Manuel Castells, (1996-8) The Information Age. volumes 1-3

Juergensmeyer, M. (2001) in Kivisto, P. Eds. Key ideas in Sociology. Thousand Oaks: Pine forge

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Featherstone, M. (1995), Undoing Culture: Globalization, Postmodernism and Identity, London: Sage


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