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“Globalization” has become a trendy term in political and academic debate since the 1970s, often referring to everything from cutting-edge communication technologies to the increasing number of McDonald’s restaurants in China and India. In popular discourse, globalization is a notoriously ambiguous term, generally used as a shorthand way to refer to the social fact that people, cultures, communities, and economies around the world are becoming increasingly interconnected. But hasn’t the world been globally interconnected in some sense for hundreds of years? And what do social theorists mean when they talk about globalization?

While globalization can still remain a vague term even in social scientific discussions, a great deal of social theory has focused on globalization as a distinct shift in the spatial and temporal dimensions of social life. More specifically, social theorists argue that the speed of social life over the past few decades has increased so greatly that social space has become “compressed” or even annihilated. Digital technologies like the Internet, for example, have allowed us to communicate virtually with anyone in the world at any time. And places like New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore, for example, have become “global cities” in which commerce and cultures from once vastly different parts of the world all intermingle in one space.

While social theorists disagree on the precise sources of this alteration of social space and time, almost all agree that advances in communication technologies and the move to a “post-Fordist” or “flexible” mode of capitalist economic production and consumption have been two, key determining factors. With regard to communication technologies, in today’s digital world, interacting with people from across the globe is just a TV satellite or cell phone away (and this is not only the case in relatively wealthy countries; satellites and cell phones are common sights even in some of the most impoverished communities in the world). And with regard to the economy, the move to “flexible capitalism” marks a turn away from the mass-production of goods in a single place (think automotive plants in Detroit or steel mills in Pittsburgh) and toward a system in which goods are produced in multiple places throughout the globe (think all the parts that go into making and distributing your laptop, from Silicon Valley to Beijing). This shift to flexible production has also been accompanied by a shift towards credit and faster, more frequent consumption. Instead of saving for months or even years to buy a car, home, or business, today’s consumers put such goods on credit, moving the actual payments they have to make into the future so that they can have the products they want now.

How Globalization Theory Matters Today

Globalization challenges some of our most fundamental distinctions about politics and social life—distinctions between local and global, proximity and distance, domestic and foreign, national and international. In political debate and in the news media, so many things go under the rubric of “globalization” that it becomes hard to get a handle on what, exactly, this thing called globalization is. Social theory, however, begins to give us the tools for grasping the enigma of globalization, showing how changes in the capitalist economy and information technologies have reshaped the contours of social time and space.

Immanuel Wallerstein

While theorists of globalization tend to focus on economic and technological changes since the mid-to-late twentieth century, Immanuel Wallerstein (1930–) looks at globalization over a much longer duration. Wallerstein is famous for developing World-Systems Theory. He argues that the modern world system emerged as early as the 1500s through a series of economic transitions and now connects all countries through a single division of labor. Much like Marx argued that exploitation happens through the relationship between laborer and bourgeoisie, Wallerstein argues that core countries in the developed world extract labor and raw materials from peripheral ones. Capital, he says, now accumulates through an ever-expanding network of trade routes, property rights, and labor agreements that simultaneously connect the world while reinforcing its inequalities. A public intellectual as well as a theorist, Wallerstein’s commentaries on global economics and politics are regularly published in the press.

David Harvey

Along with Wallerstein, geographer and social theorist David Harvey (1935–) is the pre-eminent Marxist theorist of globalization. In his bestselling The Condition of Postmodernity, Harvey became one of the first theorists to link globalization with fundamental changes in our experiences of time and space. Harvey coined the term “time–space compression” to refer to the way the acceleration of economic activities leads to the destruction of spatial barriers and distances. Harvey argues that capital moves at a pace faster than ever before, as the production, circulation, and exchange of capital happens at ever-increasing speeds, particularly with the aid of advanced communication and transportation technologies. The most extreme example of this is how a computer on Wall Street can transfer millions of dollars in one national currency into another in response to a slight fluctuation in the exchange rate and, in the process, gain millions of dollars in profit in a matter of seconds. In these scenarios (which happen every day on Wall Street and other global financial institutions) the time it takes to get from production to exchange to profit is almost non-existent. According to Harvey, it is this compression of social time–space through economic activity that is the driving force behind globalization.

Anthony Giddens

A theorist with wide-ranging interests, Anthony Giddens has also become a respected scholar in globalization theory, particularly for his insights on how globalization has affected contemporary social life and politics. In Runaway World, Giddens provocatively argues that globalization has led to the creation of a “global risk society.” According to Giddens, human social and economic activities, especially in modernity, produce various risks such as pollution, crime, new illnesses, food shortages, market crashes, wars, etc., and societies have become more responsible for managing these risks that their activities intentionally or, more often than not, unintentionally produce. In the era of globalization, however, human activities have become connected across the globe, so that events in one part of the world (the housing market bubble bursting in the U.S., for example) create consequences for people in many other areas of the globe. As such, the management of risk has become an undeniably worldwide affair.

For more on Giddens, check out his Profile page.

Manuel Castells

While most scholars look to transformations in the capitalist economy to account for globalization, sociologist Manuel Castells (1945–) is unique in that he gives just as much attention to changes in the social organization of communication and information. Castells argues that globalization is a network of production, culture, and power that is constantly shaped by advances in technology, which range from communications technologies to genetic engineering. Castells suggests that the rules of global capitalism have changed to embrace these new information technologies. Power now flows not from corporations or states, but through the informational flows and codes that connect those corporations and states to each other and the world. For Castells, the advancement of the Information Age does not necessarily mean that the world has become flat; rather, with technological advance, he argues, come new global forms of exclusion and inclusion, fragmentation and integration.

Saskia Sassen

Sociologist Saskia Sassen’s (1949–) career has been dedicated to understanding the social, political, and economic dimensions of globalization. She has written about the increased mobility of labor, the rise of global cities, and the changing role and powers of the nation state in an era of globalization. In her book,Globalization and Its Discontents, Sassen became one of the first scholars to argue that the international spread of the notion of human rights could override distinctions of nationality and citizenship. Under a global human rights regime, she argues, law must treat people as persons-qua-persons first, and citizens only second.

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For More on Globalization Theory

Go to the website of Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, an institute dedicated to addressing and theorizing issues pertaining to globalization: