Global Policy Forum

Globalization & Culture:


By Radley Balko*

aWorldconnected *
April 2003

Anyone from a small town knows about the "Wal-Mart effect." The superstore -- or a similar mega-retailer, such as Home Depot or Loews -- moves into a community and, within a few years, mom-and-pop hardware stores, toy stores and other main street retailers are put out of business. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up for debate.

Some argue that the smaller stores go under because Wal-Mart offers a bigger selection of goods at low prices. Consumers benefit because they can do all of their shopping at one place, and save money in the process. Detractors say consumers get less choice, and that because stores like Wal-Mart are national chains, they buy goods at a national level, and so local producers of goods suffer too, and soon entire communities lose their identity to mega corporations. We've become a "Gap nation," they say.

Opponents of globalization fear that the Wal-Mart effect is taking place on a global level, too. They cringe when a McDonalds franchise opens up in the historic heart of Prague, or when public spaces in Latin America, China or Africa become littered with billboards and advertisements for Coca-Cola, Nike and Calvin Klein.

Globalization's advocates say that free trade and free markets don't dilute or pollute other cultures, they enhance them. Trade creates wealth, they say. Wealth frees the world's poorest people from the daily struggle for survival, and allows them to embrace, celebrate and share the art, music, crafts and literature that might otherwise have been sacrificed to poverty. So who's right? Is globalization killing non-western cultures, or is it augmenting and enhancing them?

Who Shot J.R.?

The idea that American culture is encroaching on the rest of the world is not a new one. Richard Pells writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, as early as 1901, Briton William Stead published a book with the foreboding title The Americanization of the World. The 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, MO was billed as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. The fair ignited overseas anti-American backlash, however, when exhibits instead tended to celebrate an alleged American cultural, political, and even ethnic supremacy.

More recently, fears that American culture might usurp the rest of the world could be traced to the Marxist social critic Herbert I. Schiller. Schiller's breakthrough book, Communication and Cultural Domination, was published in 1976, and was a critique of the post World War II influx and influence of American corporation across international borders. In the mid-1980s, the debate again heated up when the dramatic series Dallas gained enormous popularity outside the United States. The show's mass appeal seemed to validate many of Schiller's theories, and sparked "cultural preservation" movements in Europe.

But as Ph.D. candidate Christopher Hunter points out in a paper presented to the International Institute of Communications, more recent studies have shown that the worldwide appeal of Dallas may have been more the result of the show's ability to draw on the unique characteristics of disparate cultures than a "lowest common denominator" appeal that effectively "dumbed down" cultures the world over. Hunter writes:

…a number of ethnographic studies showed that foreign cultures "read" the show in vastly different ways. Ien Ang (1985) found that Dutch women interpreted the program through their own feminist agenda in opposition to the supposedly embedded message of patriarchy. Eric Michaels (1988) showed how Australian Aboriginals reinterpreted Dallas through their notions of kinship in a way quite contrary to the show's intended meaning. Finally, Liebes and Katz (1990) found very different cultural interpretations of the show among Arab, Jewish, American, and Russian viewers. Further, Liebes and Katz point out that Dallas failed miserably in Japan and Brazil, a seemingly unexplainable event given the supposedly overwhelming power of U.S. content to bowl over other cultures.

Pell's Chronicle of Higher Education essay makes a similar point: that where U.S. culture has been successful in generating trans-national appeal, it's perhaps the result of America's own diverse, immigrant population, which is able to produce entertainment, products and services that naturally appeal to a wide array of tastes and demand. Pell suggests that's something to be celebrated, not admonished. "In the end, American mass culture has not transformed the world into a replica of the United States," Pell Writes. "Instead, America's dependence on foreign cultures has made the United States a replica of the world."


Perhaps the most influential essay on the west's "cultural imperialism" in the last twenty years was written by Benjamin Barber in a 1992 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Entitled "Jihad vs. McWorld," Barber's article argued that most of the third world was either being commercialized by the west, or was being won over by radical Islam. Neither scenario, Barber wrote, was conducive to democracy or to development. "McWorld" became a catchphrase for the ubiquity of American corporations overseas, and Barber later wrote a book by the same name.

Conventional wisdom suggests Barber is right, and that there is an increasing anti-McWorld backlash in the developing world. Wherever there's anti-American sentiment, it seems, a McDonalds inevitably gets vandalized. When U.S. forces began bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan, McDonalds franchises in those regions were the targets of protests.

But other suggest that highly publicized attacks on American corporate franchises might be anomalous. Dr. James L. Watson edited a book entitled Golden Arches East, which looks at how the establishment of McDonalds franchises has affected communities in Asia. Dr. Watson believes the anti-McDonalds fervor exists among just a few upper-class activists and academics, that the vitriol for American logos overseas is overstated in the media, and that most middle and lower-class communities are happy to have the added culinary option of a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut.

In most communities, in fact, the McDonalds has conformed to local culture, not not the other way around. The McDonalds corporation notes that most all of its overseas franchises are locally owned, and thus make efforts to buy from local communities. McDonalds also regularly alters its regional menus to conform to local tastes. McDonalds in Egypt, for example, serve a McFelafel. Japan McDonalds serve "seaweed burgers." Indian McDonalds don't serve beef at all. And some French McDonalds serve rabbit.

Watson points out that in the countries he's studied, McDonalds has been "Asianized" more than Asia has been "supersized." Michael Chan is the chairman of a group of Hong Kong fast food restaurants called "Café de' Coral." In an interview with Radio Netherlands, Chan said the introduction of McDonalds and it unique methods of distribution and labor management provided a template for other, indigenous restaurants in the country to flourish.

Logos - "No" or "Pro?"

Another important voice in the globalization vs. local culture debate is that of Naomi Klein. Klein's book No Logo has become the anti-globlization primer for activists all over the world. It was described by the New York Times as "the anti-globalization movement's Bible." Klein's book posits that logos and corporate trademarks have become a kind of international language, and that their omnipresence in the third world has robbed many peoples of the chance to develop a distinctive culture. She laments the ever-shrinking supply of "unmarked public spaces," and argues that corporations today spend far too much time branding and expend far too little resources on, for example, poor labor conditions, or on bettering the communities where they've exported their manufacturing plants.

But a recent study by a communications expert at the University of Buffalo suggests that, at least when it comes to the Internet, western cultural influence is waning, not expanding. George A. Barnett says that despite its centralization and apparent domination by the west, the Internet has given distinct "civilization clusters" a vehicle to communicate more effectively and promote their respective interests. Other communication experts have also suggested that emerging media (the Internet, and satellite television, for example) might serve as a megaphone for voices from smaller economies. The Arab-language al-Jazeera television station is one example. Most experts also predict that Chinese will surpass English as the Internet's predominant language in just a few years.

There are other signs that western "cultural hegemony" might be a bit overstated, too. For example, European anti-globalization activists have long criticized Hollywood and its big-budget studios for monopolizing the world movie industry and, consequently, polluting other cultures with American iconolatry.

But according to a worldwide 1999 BBC poll, the most famous movie star in the world isn't Ben Affleck or Julia Roberts, but Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian film star probably unfamiliar to most Americans. Last January, the New York Times reported that even American television programming has begun to lose its appeal overseas. Reason magazine writer Charles Paul Freund notes that as of 2001, more than 70% of the most popular television shows in 60 different countries were locally produced. And an article in the British newspaper The Guardian last year points out that the top-grossing movies for 2002 in Japan, Germany, Spain, France and India weren't U.S. imports, but were produced domestically.

The story is the same across the arts -- movies, television, and literature -- American pop culture exports may be well-known overseas, but as emerging economies develop, consumers naturally prefer entertainment produced by artists with whom they share common experiences. In his book Creative Destruction, economist Tyler Cowen also explains how music -- perhaps the most accessible and identifiable sphere of a given peoples' cultural heritage -- is almost always the result of cross-cultural influences.

Cowan writes that Trinidad's steel band ensembles, for example, "acquired their instruments -- fifty-gallon oil drums -- from the multinational oil companies.". Cowen also points out that all of the Third World's musical hubs -- Rio, Lagos, Cairo, etc. -- "are heterogeneous and cosmopolitan cities that welcomed new ideas and new technologies from abroad." Even raggae, perhaps the most renown musical genre associated with a particular culture, was the result of cultural trade and influence. Cowen writes that ragge emerged when migrant Jamaican sugar workers traveled to the American south and brought back with them a jones for African-American rhythm and blues. Ragge developed over the 1950's as Jamaicans picked up radio broadcasts from New Orleans and Miami. And yet for all of this western influence, Cowan still finds that developing countries still hunger most for music made at home. In India, domestically produced music makes up 96% of the market; in Egypt, 81%; in Brazil, 73%.

Wealth and Culture

Globalization's advocates argue that wealth invigorates culture, and that trade and access to international markets are the best way to create wealth. They point out that the Internet, for example, has given developing peoples all over the world a low-cost way of bringing crafts, textiles, and art to western consumers. In his book In Defence of Global Capitalism, Swedish author Johan Norberg argues that because of emerging technology, developing countries that quickly embrace borderless trade can make the leap to western world living standards in a fraction of the time it once took. "Development which took Sweden 80 years to accomplish," Norberg writes, "has been successfully reiterated by Taiwan in 25." As an example, Norberg cites an anecdote from the World Bank:

Halima Khatuun is an illiterate woman in a Bangladeshi village. She sells eggs to a dealer who comes by at regular intervals. She used to be compelled to sell at the price he proposed, because she did not have access to other buyers. But once, when he came and offered 12 taka for four eggs, she kept him waiting while she used the mobile phone to find out the market price in another village. Because the price there was 14 taka, she was able to go back and get 13 from the dealer. Market information saved her from being cheated.

Norberg notes similar cases across the world, where villages in developing countries have pooled resources for mobile phone services, or Internet access, always with similar results. The Internet in particular is fast becoming the most effective way for developing peoples to get their goods to market quickly, avoiding many of the usual overhead costs of maintaining a business. It's also a convenient way around trade barriers and tariffs. Consequently, websites promoting African, Latin America and indigenous American goods are popping up all over the Web.

The wealth from access to markets, then, enables developing people to make the shift from sustenance economies to merchant economies, a transition that enables art and culture to flourish. There's little time for culture, globalization advocates point out, when you're scrambling for survival.

The late economist Peter Bauer spent most of his life studying how trade can move developing economies from poverty to prosperity. Bauer recognized in the mid-20th century that those developing countries with significant contact with western markets were also the countries showing the most economic promise and growth.

In his book From Subsistence to Exchange, Bauer wrote, "Contacts through traders and trade are prime agents in the spread of new ideas, modes of behavior, and methods of production. External commercial contacts often first suggest the very possibility of change, including economic improvement." What's more, free traders point out that many times the merging of western and developing cultures often infuses new life and creativity into generations-old customs and traditions.

In addition to music, Cowen cites in his book several other examples in his book of great artistry from indigenous peoples that, in fact, was largely inspired by cross-cultural trade. Cowen cites the famed soapstone sculptures of the Canadian Inuit, which, Cowen writes "weren't practiced on a large scale until after World War II," when the practice was introduced to them by western artist James Houston. Cowen writes:

Analogous stories are found around the world. The metal knife proved a boon to many Third World sculpting and carving traditions, including the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest and of Papua New Guinea. Acrylic and oil paints spread only with Western contact. South African Ndebele art uses beads…that are not indigenous to Africa, but rather were imported from Czecholslovakia in the early nineteenth century. Mirrors, coral, cotton cloth, and paper -- all central materials for "traditional" African arts -- came from contact with Europeans. Cowen and like-minded globalists believe, then, that far from stifling indigenous culture, free trade has exposed it to new influences, and opened it to new avenues of creative exploration.

Where to From Here?

Opponents of globalization argue that the playing field isn't level. Free trade naturally favors larger economies, they say, and so the predominant western influence stifles the cultures and traditions of the developing world. Free traders argue that globalization enhances culture, and that, in any event, culture can't thrive in poverty. Both sides generally agree that subsidies, tariffs and other protectionist policies by developed countries against goods commonly produced in the third world (textiles, for example) hamper both culture and economic growth there.

With the onset of the Internet, satellite technology, cable television, and cellular and wireless networks, the biggest traditional barrier to global trade -- distance -- isn't much of a problem anymore. The Internet also makes import tariffs, another traditional barrier, more difficult to enforce.

One thing is certain: as we move forward, transnational trade will only become more frequent, and will continue to find new participants in new corners of the globe. And activists on both sides will continue to debate whether or not the intermingling of cultures and influences that will inevitably accompany the growing global marketplace is a good or bad thing for both the developed and developing world.

About the Author: Radley Balko is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia. Balko publishes his own blog and writes occassionally for Tech Central Station.

About the Source: This article originally appeared on Copyright 2003 by the Institute for Humane Studies. Reprinted with permission of the Institute for Humane Studies.

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