Globalisation, culture and work

Term Paper, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents


The ambivalence of Globalisation

Effects on labour and identity – a global labour market?

Workers – passive participants or active agents?




As the cartoon above suggests, workers all around the world are situated at the bottom of the power spectrum in the international economic world. Globalisation is a catch-all term, that nowadays seems to be relevant to every field of social science. It affects every part of the world and of our every day lives. This is not to say that the locality of our lives does not play a role in how we experience the globalising forces. Rather it leads us to analyse what globalisation exactly is, how it has been conceptualised in the academic debate and how it changes conditions for every one of us.

This paper will firstly address the general question of globalisation, outlining the controversy and the different approaches to developments that are subsumed under the term globalisation. To assess in how far people on the ground, in this case workers, are active agents, it is important to consider what changes globalisation brings about for their specific environment, in this case the international labour market. Finally, it should be shown that globalisation is not an independent force that dominates us all, but one that is actively created by humanity and in which every one of us takes a little part to a certain extent.

The ambivalence of Globalisation

Globalisation is one of the most popular buzzwords of the last decades. It is controversially debated and seems to be the “new great transformation” (Munck 2002 following Polanyi) after the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century. It dramatically alters the context in which we interact and expands the scope of possible life experiences. “Globalization denotes the expanding scale, growing magnitude, speeding up and deepening impact of interregional flows and patterns of social interaction” (Held and McGrew 2003: 4). Rhetorics about a shrinking world or a global village are often mentioned when debating globalizing forces. The media and communication technology revolution starting with the establishment of telegraphs and culminating in an expanding internet access around the world plays a very significant part in the perception of an increasing interconnectedness of the different parts of the world. Media mediates between the dichotomized forces of global and local development. It links the farmer in rural areas to the forces of the global market, influences the social construction of needs and creates a context in which communities, ideas and lifestyles are no longer bound to specific territories. Arjun Appadurai identifies this process of deterritorialization as major force in the modern world (Appadurai 1990: 327). Globalisation describes the degree to which social organization is spatially bound (Ransome 205).

It is useful to separate the different dimensions of globalisation, even though they are interrelated and interdependent: Most importantly globalisation takes place on the economic level. Global trade has massively increased especially since the end of World War II and later with the end of the Cold War. The process of production becomes increasingly internationalised and free trade agreements dominate the current economic order. The political dimension of globalisation has often been criticised for not keeping pace with the need of re-regulating the deregulated global market. National sovereignty is seen to be overrun by economic pressures. The nation state is not as powerful as it used to be in the Westphalian world order after World War I. In how far nation states use globalisation as an excuse for inaction and decreasing social welfare is much contended in the globalisation controversy. The cultural dimension is described as a process of standardization of consumption and homogenization. Western imperialism imposed through mechanisms of economic pressures overruns peripheral cultures and incorporates cultural elements of other parts of the world. Simultaneously, growing revitalization movements and an increasing want to social and cultural distinction can be observed, so that the assumption of an eventually globally standardized common culture seems utopian.

Globalisation is an ambivalent process. On the one hand it implies a time-space-compression (Harvey 1990: 134) and increasing coalescence of the different parts of the world. On the other hand the very experience of “the global”, the imagined worlds[1] of individuals, remain local and global developments are seen through the lens of locally determined realities; an era of global integration but concurrently of rising gaps and increasing differentiation and specialisation.

According to this ambivalence, two competing views have emerged in the globalisation debate, each one putting emphasis on different aspects.

Globalists emphasise the importance of the media and information revolution and the instantaneous communication systems. The growing availability of information leads to the perception of a global village and allows global processes to influence local conditions. This leads to a new form of international capitalism that penetrates gradually every part of the world and every field of social interaction. National governments can only adjust to global developments and lose their sovereignty. Transnational corporations, free from national restrictions and regional ties are supposed to be the most important actors on a global stage. (cp. Held/McGrew 2003: 6f) This view reveals a highly economic focus and seems, despite bearing some truth and drawing on important recent developments, not fully convincing especially concerning cultural issues.

Sceptics of this view do not see globalisation as an unprecedented phenomenon and emphasise the long term developments. Even though processes are accelerated and information technology constantly improves and despite increasing time-space-compression, the view of a fully globalised economy is rejected. Rather they see Multinationals as still bound to regional conditions, as socially embedded and emphasize the role nation states could play in the economy dominated world, they emphasize agency and refuse to see globalisation as an abstract process beyond the control of society. They reject the binary opposition of global versus local and focus on the intermingling of global and local forces and local shapes of global forces such as different forms of capitalism that emerged.(cp. Hirst/Thompson 2003: 104)

Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and their role in the world system are an important issue in the debate. Globalists assume that Transnational Corporations (TNCs), free from national restrictions and limitation, are the dominant players in the future world system, while the nation states as sovereign agents are doomed to decline. As a powerful actor the TNCs or MNCs[2] deserve some attention, especially as they present a major type of employer in the globalised world and thus massively affect conditions for workers and working cultures.

Effects on labour and identity – a global labour market?

Companies that operate globally are not a new phenomenon in itself. What is new in the ‘era of globalisation’ is the strategy they pursue to maximise their profit. Due to an over-accumulation of production, the companies shift their priorities away from the intrinsic quality of the product and the actual value of it towards a more abstract commitment to brand and lifestyle selling, the consumption of ideas. The product itself becomes less important, what counts is the extrinsic value, socially constructed and spread as artificial need through manipulative marketing strategies. The internationally traded and manufactured products are adapted to the respective regional contexts (e.g. advertisements) thus provide a bridge between global standards and local patterns of consumption and meaning attribution.[3] A perception of close distances is generated by calibrating the global and the local.


[1] This term is used by Appadurai and extends Benedict Andersons notion of imagined communities. He defines it as “the multiple world that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe” (Appadurai 1990: 325).

[2] The demarcation of the two reflects rather a different emphasis than a different phenomenon, despite there being slight differences in the organizational structure. Multinational lays emphasis on the boundedness of the company to particular national economies, whereas transnational rather focuses on the globalised aspect of the company and the disentanglement of national boundaries. I will use TNCs to emphasize how these corporations bypass national restrictions by creating denationalized arenas. Nevertheless the regional boundedness cannot be neglected especially with regard to the assessment of the role of the nation state in international regulation.

[3] See Mintz 1996 for an analysis of meaning attribution. The study identifies an inside and an outside meaning of commodities, the former being the daily life conditions and the latter being “the environing economic, social and political conditions” that set the terms for the interactive negotiation of the inside meaning (Mintz 1996: 20).

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Globalisation, culture and work
University of Otago  ((New Zealand) Department of Anthropology)
Labour and Society: Working Cultures
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Globalisation, Labour, Society, Working, Cultures
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Sonja Meyer (Author), 2007, Globalisation, culture and work, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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