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This research paper explores the origins, development, structure, and impact of world culture in relation to globalization over the past two centuries. It discusses the complex and largely rationalized content of world culture and the rise and proliferation of organizations that generate, debate, and propagate world culture, particularly international nongovernmental organizations. It describes world-cultural processes that promote homogenization and heterogeneity at the global, national, and local level, and the consequences for national identity of world-spanning cultural development. The research paper concludes with a discussion of the role and significance of religions and religiosity in a globalized world.
- Globalization and the Construction of World Culture
- Dimensions of World Culture
- Origins and Expansion of World Culture
- Homogenization, Heterogeneity, and Conflict in World Culture
- Globalization, World Culture, and National Identity
- Religion in Globalized Cultural Context
Globalization and the Construction of World Culture
Globalization entails the spread of conceptions of the world as a single entity – for example, a single and highly complex society, market, polity, technical system, or culture (Robertson, 1992). At a more concrete level, globalization entails the many organizations, associations, and social movements of global orientation that structure worldwide flows of goods and services, people, knowledge, religions, ideologies, and much more. World culture refers to the complex array of foundational assumptions, forms of knowledge, and prescriptions for action that underlie globalized flows, organizations, and movements (Lechner and Boli, 2005). Its webs of significance span the globe, providing knowledge, rules, policy prescriptions, conceptions of world society, purposes of human action, and models and methods of structuring social life that are assumed to have worldwide significance or applicability.
Some examples of the content of world culture will help convey its meaning. The rules of chess are elements of world culture; the game is defined by a standard set of procedures that are deemed valid everywhere, and departures from those rules are considered nonsensical. The principles of physics are world-cultural, assumed to apply at every point on the globe and even beyond. Human rights, as codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its associated conventions, are couched in world-spanning terms, applying to all humans in all countries. The technical standards (ISO/IEC 4909:2006) for the dimensions, thickness, tensile strength, and other properties of financial transaction cards produced by ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, are presumed to be useful and technically rational for any maker or issuer of such cards. Other examples of world culture include the ‘model subcontract’ produced by the International Chamber of Commerce, a template for international business relations; the pathologies identified in the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems; and the Six Sigma management methodology that is promoted worldwide as a means of improving business performance. What these examples have in common, despite their highly disparate social fields, is the presumed universality that is associated with them. They are elements of the culture of the globalized world, their proponents seek to spread them globally, and they are presumed to have meaning or value wherever they may be implemented.
World-cultural elements are not necessarily embraced or accepted universally, however. Like the cultures and subcultures of national societies, world culture is replete with competing cultural elements and contradictory principles. For example, democratic governance principles are strongly embedded in world culture, but many varieties of democracy are available and some segments of world society favor nondemocratic regime forms. The major world religions are elements of world culture, but they disagree sharply on such fundamental issues as the existence and nature of divinity, the purposes of life, and the fate of the soul. Some elements of world culture are hotly debated, such as the International Panel on Climate Change’s claim that human action contributes to global warming and the neo-liberal economic claim that free markets are the best means of raising living standards. Hence, while many elements of world culture are largely taken for granted, many other elements are contentious, contradictory, or controversial.
World culture is the product of many forms of social activity and many types of social actors, reaching far back in human history. In its contemporary form, world culture began to coalesce in the second half of the nineteenth century. We can trace its emergence through the rise of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), which are the key structural form through which world culture is expressed (Boli and Thomas, 1999). The earliest of these voluntaristic, purposive, specialized associations emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, but it was not until the 1870s that their numbers began to grow rapidly. It was also at this time that the range of human activities they address broadened widely, eventually covering almost every imaginable social field. INGOs are especially important with respect to world culture because they operate explicitly at the transnational level and much of their work deals directly with world-cultural principles and prescriptions. Science INGOs develop and propagate scientific principles; professional INGOs propagate knowledge and ethical principles relevant to their respective professions; sports INGOs codify and promote ‘rules of the game’ and principles of sportsmanship; and education INGOs promote teaching methods, curricular development plans, and policies to protect teacher autonomy in the classroom. Across the board, these principles and norms are couched in universalistic terms, and universalism was strikingly evident in the outlook and work of the vast majority of INGOs that formed before the mid-twentieth century. These bodies welcomed members from all parts of the world and presumed that their knowledge, ethics, and prescriptions were applicable all over the world.
Since World War II, world-cultural structuration has become more complex; a layered transnationalism has appeared as regional organizations have proliferated. By one count, roughly half of the transnational organizations founded since 1950 have been regional in scope, activating a variety of types of regions: geographic (European, Latin American, Asian), linguistic (francophone, hispanophone) religious (Islamic, Christian, Jewish), climatic and vegetational (tropical areas, rain forest zones), and so on. This regional intensification has occurred within the larger global cultural frame, and it characterizes the internal structure of global organizations as well. For example, the World Health Organization (founded in 1948) eventually developed regional bodies for each major part of the world (the Americas, Africa Southeast Asia, etc.), while ISO helped with the establishment of regional standardization bodies (e.g., the European Committee for Standardization, the Pacific Area Standards Congress) that coordinate their activities with those of the larger global organization. The same process is common in global corporations. For example, CNNI (Cable News Network International) began as a unitary organization bringing a standardized English-language product to televisions around the world, but it eventually established numerous regional centers producing local-language broadcasting adapted to specific target audiences but tied closely to CNNI’s overarching global operation.
An important mechanism for the spread of world culture in the post-war period was the rapid decolonization that yielded more than a hundred new states covering a large portion of the world’s land mass. As colonies, these societies had been only weakly integrated into world culture, however deeply they may have been integrated into the world economy. Most new states have eagerly joined large numbers of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), interacting with older states as they learn about and debate world-cultural principles and prescriptions. Citizens of the new countries became avid joiners of INGOs, expanding the range of their memberships much faster than that of citizens of older countries. Thus, political independence opened the door to much greater participation in world society by the formerly colonized populations, exposing them to world culture to a much greater degree than previously. This process works both ways; these newly empowered world citizens began contributing new or refashioned elements to world culture, propagating them through the same channels by which world culture reaches them but with an increasing flow of cultural elements in the reverse direction.
Dimensions of World Culture
Most discussions of world culture focus on its expressive or normative dimensions. Expressive (popular) culture includes media products, consumable goods that often attain iconic status as symbols of modernity or avant-gardism, and foods and clothing styles originating in particular cultures that become worldwide fads. Normative culture comprises the values and desiderata promoted by globally active organizations, be they corporations, foundations, IGOs, or INGOs: fetishistic consumerism and neoliberal economic ideologies, democracy and human rights, religious doctrines and world views, gender and racial equality, environmental stewardship, and so on. The expressive dimension has evoked intense debate regarding the purported homogenizing effects of world culture (discussed below). The normative dimension is most apparent in political struggles regarding the purposes and policies of states, major global governance IGOs such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and global corporations. Critics of these powerful global actors invoke world-cultural norms and principles in decrying, for example, the refusal of the WTO to consider working conditions in trade agreements, the harm done to the poor by IMF structural adjustment programs, and the damage done to the environment by mining companies. These normative clashes are often widely publicized – challenges to power centers tend to be noticed – so normative claims rooted in the global moral order are the most widely recognized elements of world culture, and they have drawn much scholarly attention as well.
Much less attention has been paid to the ontological and cognitive dimensions of world culture. At the ontological level, world culture is built on assumptions about the fundamental reality of the individual, the disenchantment of nature (the natural world is not inhabited by spirits but operates according to scientifically knowable laws), the usefulness and efficiency of rationalized organization and management, the indispensability of centralized authority structures (states), and so on (Meyer et al., 1987). More specific ontological assumptions stipulate, for example, that individuals are the primary units of action in society, they are educable, they are capable of great accomplishments, and they are subject to many types of physical and psychological maladies that are increasingly well specified. In short, world culture offers definitions of ‘the nature of things’ – the basic elements of physical and social reality, the technologies available to manipulate these elements, and theories about causal processes operative among them. These theories assure states, corporations, and other organizations that, for example, such major modern institutions as formal education, experimental science, national accounting systems, and advanced-technology engineering are effective means of realizing human goals. Much of this ontological and cognitive material is highly institutionalized and thus largely taken for granted. Science, mathematics, bookkeeping, management techniques, electronic technology, medical knowledge, land surveying methods, principles of roadway design – all these, in world culture – are deemed unassailably useful and effective tools. Their universal applicability is not easily challenged, and they are strongly supported by states, professional societies, consulting companies, and other organizations that deal with rationalized aspects of human life.
Despite their foundational importance for human understanding of the nature of (world) society and the possibilities and prospects of human endeavors, the ontological and cognitive dimensions of world culture are largely ignored by both the scholarly and general publics. These cultural elements are uninteresting, even invisible, for two reasons: one, they operate far below the surface of everyday life; two, they deal with mundane, routine, matter-of-fact aspects of reality. Ontological assumptions are, by definition, hidden from plain sight; they tell us what kind of world we live in and what is possible in that world, providing the givens of the reality that underlies daily activity. Cognitive elements are, in most cases, produced and elaborated by specialized experts and professionals whose vocabularies and conceptual apparatus are not accessible to nonspecialists. Thus, these highly formalized and rationalized arenas seldom become the focus of ideological debate or controversy, and they therefore are largely absent from the global public realm. Notable exceptions are easily adduced – nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, and global warming have garnered much public attention – but most highly institutionalized forms of cultural globalization stay under the radar.
A third major dimension of world culture is the implicit moral order that underlies such global ideologies as human rights, progress, citizenship, and nationalism. While this dimension cannot be studied directly, it makes good sense to infer that the moral order of world culture embraces the individual as a sacred entity that is to be protected and empowered. The nation is also sacred, in considerable degree, as are national and indigenous cultures, but most collectivities – organizations, corporations, associations, classes, and so on – do not share this exalted status. Virtue is attributed to action, technologies, and structures that enhance or enable sacred entities, while vice is espied whenever these entities suffer injury, degradation, betrayal, or destruction. Variable conceptions of the specific elements of virtue and vice surely flourish in world culture, but a large number of claims about definitions of the good, the just, and the righteous are surprisingly free of controversy or debate throughout world society.
Origins and Expansion of World Culture
Many types of global flows have been rising cyclically for ages, but it was only in recent centuries that a transnational cultural complex took a sufficiently organized form to constitute a recognizable world culture. This crystallizing complex, derived in substantial part from the highly structured transnational culture of the Catholic Church, was primarily European, and from the sixteenth century the imperial Western European countries extended it to most corners of the globe. Europeans promoted political and philosophical principles, societal and individual goals, modes of organizing, and ways of conceiving and manipulating reality that they deemed universally applicable. Epitomized above all by technical and scientific principles and practical knowledge presumed to be invariant across time and space, emerging world culture also included more historically bound constructs and ideologies, such as citizenship, individualism, principles of international law, aesthetic sensibilities, and literary forms. This early version of world culture, perhaps more properly called ‘transeuropean’ culture, was carried far and wide by missionaries, traders, military expeditions, colonialists, intellectuals, and travelers.
The Western Church played a crucial role in world culture’s formative period. The Church was the preeminent transnational organization of the medieval and early modern period. It was the only highly organized structure spanning a large geographical area and a great many local cultures. This structure was the principal means of long-distance communication, spreading all sorts of cultural elements throughout Christian lands. The Church embedded a decidedly transnational culture through the medium of Latin, which was the only widely spoken language, and its personnel circulated among the cities and towns of Europe with surprising facility. Alongside the Church proper, the religious orders that sprang up with such profligacy after the revival of the Church in the twelfth century can be seen as the first wave of INGO formation, in that the orders typically relied on voluntary membership, personal commitment, a transnational outlook, and specialized purposive action to achieve their goals.
In a sense, then, the Church was the original locus of a proto-world culture that, thanks to unparalleled European imperialism, became an important part of truly global culture. The Church provided motivations for some globalizers (missionaries and religious orders) and legitimations for others (traders, conquerors, colonizers) to incorporate the entire world in the nascent world society. It also contributed significantly to the cultural underpinnings of contemporary world culture. The conception of societal progress that prevails almost everywhere stems in part from the Christian legitimation of rational world mastery. The view of the individual as both sacred being and active citizen is rooted in Christian views of the individual, particularly after the Reformation when even Catholics began to stress the importance of individual belief and literacy for salvation. The global script for organizing society in a rational-legal manner derives from the Church’s highly successful bureaucracy. More concretely, missionaries not only spread their faith, they also provided education and rudimentary health care in far-flung places, diffusing secular commitments that have since become globally entrenched. Today, distinctly religious views are less obviously influential in world culture yet they still shape its evolution (discussed further below). A vigorous Pentecostal movement, rapidly expanding in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, carries with it the gospel of material success and individual well-being, thus supporting global corporate culture. In counterpoint, the World Council of Churches contributed centrally to global environmental concerns with its initiative on ‘Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation,’ launched in 1983.
The striking crystallization of world culture in the nineteenth century was evident above all in the rapid proliferation of INGOs, which became the ‘structural backbone’ of world culture. Increasingly interconnected with each other and with states and business organizations, these carriers of world culture formed an emerging ‘global civil society’ of voluntaristic, self-governing associations whose members took it upon themselves to organize the world in specific social domains. Typical early examples include the International Charity Association (founded in 1855), the International Sugar Union (1864), the Scandinavian Dental Association (1866), the Permanent International Committee of Architects (1867), and the International Meteorological Organization (1873). By the 1890s, INGOs were appearing at the rate of more than 10 per year across a wide range of social sectors, drawing participants mainly from Europe and the Anglo-American former colonies but also from Latin America and some Asian countries, particularly India. These bodies defined their arena of action as the world entire, sponsoring conferences, publishing journals and newsletters, and entering into public debate about universalistic issues, problems, methods, and proposed solutions. They became prominent participants in a formalizing global public realm in which world culture was defined, documented, elaborated, and propagated to what the fast-growing number of INGO participants had come to think of as a single world society.
The cataclysmic world wars of the twentieth century severely interrupted world-cultural development but only temporarily. INGOs continued to proliferate between and after the wars, and states became increasingly engaged in transnational cooperative relationships through IGOs. The IGO population eventually burgeoned to comprise hundreds of organizations, while the number of INGOs soared into the many thousands (by the broadest definition, INGOs now number in the tens of thousands). For a good many social sectors, this expanding complex of global organizations came to center on the United Nations, whose agencies and programs emerged as core elements of global governance regimes in such major institutional areas as education, health, environmental protection, and development. INGOs flocked around the UN and many other IGOs to try to influence their programs, policies, and principles, and the confluence of these many forms of organization produced a high degree of formalization regarding many aspects of world-cultural development. This formalization proceeds apace, engaging all states and increasingly large proportions of the world’s population.
Homogenization, Heterogeneity, and Conflict in World Culture
Until the late 1990s, globalization was generally seen as a strongly homogenizing cultural force. Globalization was ‘Americanization’ or ‘Westernization’, the implantation of the products and cultures of the dominant power centers on the rest of the world. The global popularity of American films, television shows, sports figures, and consumption patterns was undeniable. Western music, soap operas, blue jeans, Coca- Cola, fast foods, and morally lax lifestyles were romping unhindered around the world, and many analysts assumed that the market success of such products necessarily entailed the refashioning of local cultures in line with American or Western tastes and values. Many a worried eyebrow was raised about the spread of an ideology of materialistic consumerism that was obliterating local cultures.
This viewpoint proved too facile (Berger and Huntington, 2002; Appadurai, 1996). Homogenization is certainly evident in some respects: more people in more places are watching television, seeing films, buying brand-name products, and obsessing about one or another pop star. But when anthropologists and sociologists take a close look at the reception of Western cultural products, they find not passive, easily brainwashed consumers but active, engaged receptors who interpret cultural imports in highly varied ways, often with skeptical or dismissive attitudes rooted in local cultures and traditions. Local cultures are not easily abandoned; much creative interpretation and adaptation of cultural imports takes place (Cowen, 2002). Local cultures integrate new cultural elements while retaining their basic identities, in a process known as hybridization (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009). Cultures become more complex and internally contradictory, and hybridization evokes much culture work to make sense of and pacify the contradictions and tensions that result.
One striking implication of this viewpoint, particularly when conjoined with the massive human migration of recent decades, both voluntary and involuntary (refugees fleeing war, famine, and political unrest), is the sharp upswing in cultural and linguistic diversity in the world’s cities. In Seattle and Rio de Janeiro, in Amsterdam and Budapest, in Dubai and Mumbai and Bangkok and Sydney, ethnic groups from all continents have become more numerous, more organized, and more active in local commercial and social life. Their restaurants blossom, their community newspapers multiply, their theater troupes become increasingly visible, their languages stand out on store fronts. The net result is a paradoxical form of homogenization: the world’s cities are becoming ever more diverse but they are ever more familiar to visitors because they are diversifying in similar ways. This is a telling reflection of world culture in general: it is increasingly complex, diverse, and incoherent, as more cultural elements from a wider range of cultures become globally known, imported, and reinterpreted as they are embedded in local cultures.
The reinterpretation process, often labeled glocalization (Robertson, 1992), implies that even highly standardized elements of global popular culture are subject to varied uses and meanings. For instance, consumers in Hong Kong appreciate McDonald’s restaurants as much for their clean facilities as for their food. They expect fast, not smiling, service, and they reserve the right to eat at their leisure. In a city pressed for space, the restaurant has become a gathering spot for youth and a favored locale for birthday parties. In Beijing, McDonald’s American origins are attractive to upwardly mobile Chinese as a symbol of participation in global society, but to many Koreans in Seoul those same origins evoke criticism. Popular culture increasingly creates global tastes, but highly variable consumer bases keep this culture from becoming entirely uniform (Watson, 2006).
An anthropological assessment of this situation leads to the conclusion that the world’s cultures (national and local, as well as global) are creolizing (Hannerz, 1996) – every locale is an ever greater melange of cultural elements from many sources. A case in point is West African popular music, an amalgamation of variegated genres (Senegalese folk music, French chanson, American blues, British rock, and more) that constitute new and distinctive styles. Retaining indigenous instruments and rhythms, African musicians are not simply on the receiving end; their styles flow back into world culture as well, influencing some of the very traditions from which they borrow. Given the global valorization of difference and authenticity (below), commercial interests intensify this process by promoting diversity widely (UNESCO, 2000). Thus, as new musical and other fads make their way across the globe, they produce new forms of localized diversity and unforeseen local reactions and interpretations. In the expressive realm, the varied forms of local–global interaction are hardly resulting in a standardized, stifling, hegemonic world culture.
Despite this rising diversity, in many other ways world culture is decidedly homogenizing. The complex array of global organizations that embody, debate, and propagate world culture have produced a wide range of standardized principles, models, and methods for the organization of social life. For example, a basic model of the modern state has crystallized (Meyer et al., 1997). The model is reflected directly in national constitutions, which reveal a remarkable degree of similarity despite some striking variability (regarding, for example, the relationship between religion and the state). It is institutionalized globally through international agreements, such as International Labor Organization conventions regarding labor–management relations, global health programs of the World Health Organization, women’s rights declarations, and national accounting principles promoted by the International Accounting Standards Board. The basic model stipulates that the state is responsible not only for internal order and external defense but also for building a modern society and promoting citizen welfare and civic engagement. The state is to organize, regulate, or provide national educational systems, health care programs, retirement and unemployment insurance schemes, and cultural promotion programs, among many other duties. In many sectors, globally legitimated models have emerged to guide states in meeting these responsibilities, such as the standardized educational models developed under UNESCO’s aegis in collaboration with educational INGOs and the standardized models for the regulation of stock exchanges promulgated by the International Organization of Securities Commissions.
Although states vary greatly in terms of their historical experiences, resources, and organizational capacity, they have implemented these models in remarkably uniform ways, in a process known as structural isomorphism (Meyer et al., 1997). Isomorphism has been identified in such diverse areas as citizen rights and state authority, school systems and curricula, environmental protection, science policy, children’s rights, women’s empowerment, same-sex sexual relations, and national planning. Few states successfully implement the models across all these domains, and many states adopt some or many features of the models structurally but make little attempt to actualize them in practice. Nonetheless, the isomorphism process has made states much more similar to one another than one would predict on the basis of the extremely varied capabilities, cultures, and historical experiences of their national societies.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of IGOs and INGOs, standardized global models of organizations have also coalesced in world culture. They can be found across an enormous set of domains: in business, science, medicine, health, technology, recreation and leisure (sports, tourism, entertainment), and much more. Pushed by the carriers of these models (which include business consultants, technical advisers, and academic consultants), corporations, hospitals, research institutes, social movement organizations, and many other types of social units implement the models in largely uniform ways. They also engage themselves in a learning process, constantly monitoring new developments in world culture so they can keep up with the leading edges of world-cultural development. The net result is both a tremendous force for the homogenization of the world and a persistent tendency for organizations in particular social domains to ride the waves of organizational fashion. Businesses are wont to adopt, quite uncritically, ‘hot’ management techniques, such as Total Quality Management or the Program Evaluation and Review Technique. When such methods go out of fashion, businesses replace them with new ‘state-of-the-art’ techniques whose usefulness or applicability is more presumed than demonstrated.
In sum, world culture generates both greater diversity and greater homogeneity, in world society as a whole and within national societies. The technical and rationalized forms of homogenization are accepted without much resistance, but expressive and normative homogenization meets with considerable suspicion and, not infrequently, outright hostility. Expressive/normative homogenization is seen as a threat to national and local cultures, and defenders of these cultures are found not only within the threatened societies but also in the rich, powerful (Western) societies that are generally assumed to be the source of the threat. Resistance is often grounded in the principle of cultural relativism (itself of Western origin) and its associated ideology of cultural authenticity. Relativism proclaims the fundamentally equal value of all human cultures. Ethnocentrism is seen as both an intellectual trap and a cause of injustice, while tolerance and, even more, the championing of difference occupy the moral high ground. Outsiders are in no position to judge foreign cultures because they do not understand the internal logics of these cultures or the interconnections among particular cultural elements that make the parts indispensable to the larger wholes. A natural implication of this viewpoint is the claim that, above all, cultures should retain their primordial authenticity. Authentic cultures are to be respected, even revered.
The emphasis on cultural relativism and authenticity undergirds a sense of heightened moral virtue associated with the poor, the excluded, the oppressed, that is, marginal peoples whose right to their own cultures is jeopardized by the onslaught of globalizing world culture. This universalistic form of particularism impels peoples to emphasize or invent traditions and distinctiveness that contrast with the universalistic world-cultural principles that are supposed to operate uniformly in all places. In Western societies, such particularism is stimulated by cosmopolitan connoisseurs seeking authentically exotic cuisine or ethnically distinct ‘world’ music. In other places, politically astute groups understand the power of reified cultural authenticity as a fulcrum for leveraging rewards from global systems. Hence, distinction and difference have become strategic resources for collective mobilization. In consequence, ethnonationalist movements of many sorts (Basques, Biafrans, Bretons, Croats, Quebecois, Scots, Tamils, etc.) and multiculturalist restructuring by states, churches, schools, and other organizations have become the order of the day.
As this discussion indicates, world culture engenders conflict in world society through a process that has, as it were, turned the West against itself (Leclerc, 2000). By the 1970s, when scores of new states had formed in Africa and Asia, vociferous opposition to continued economic and cultural domination by Western countries (labeled neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism, ideas that also originated in the West) began to penetrate global organizations, especially UN bodies. Various associations of less developed countries called for a restructuring of world society, the fashioning of a New World Economic Order and a New World Information Order that would put restraints on the operations of transnational corporations and shift resources to the poorer countries. Former colonies began assertively invoking world-cultural principles of equality and development as basic human rights. Further tensions arose as the global human rights sector (itself increasingly involving individuals and groups from outside the West) turned its scrutiny on the new states, decrying their selective championing of certain global universals while ignoring or severely violating others, especially those relating to the integrity and political participation of citizens. Thus, both the particularism of world culture (the moral legitimacy attributed to national or ethnic units) and its universalism (the insistence that all units abide by basic principles and values) yield forms of disagreement and conflict that would not emerge in a less globalized world (Robertson, 1992; Lechner and Boli, 2005).
As non-Western cultures and regions have become more prominent in the world polity, it makes sense to speak of world cultures (in the plural) rather than a singular world culture. Dominant Western models have penetrated deeply in most places, but they have also evoked resistance as well as efforts to revivify and globalize alternative models (Leclerc, 2000). Most notable in this regard is the assertiveness of Islamic cultural carriers, particularly since the 1970s (Roy, 2004). Many Muslim leaders and organizations promote a societal model that infuses the state with religious precepts and recasts the relationship between state and citizen (codified in 1981 as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights). African and Asian models of social organization and development have also emerged, and some observers argue that conflict in the twenty-first century will revolve primarily around grand civilizational axes rather than the nation-state clashes that have dominated in recent centuries. By the same token, more fine-grained analyses of world culture(s) identify multiple models of central world-cultural constructs. For example, derived from the Western tradition are liberal, socialist, corporate, and welfare models of the state; from Asian sources, quasi-familial and state-led development models. Multiple models of the individual, the business enterprise, and the national polity are further examples. World-cultural complexity has increased rapidly in recent decades, perhaps most sharply since the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War, as more cultural centers generate more alternative cultural constructions. Poorer and more peripheral societies are less able to bring their cultural models to the world-cultural table, but many participants in the global arena from richer societies have become strong advocates of the poor and marginalized, helping to ensure that world culture becomes still more complex and incoherent but also more significant for national and local structuration and change.
Globalization, World Culture, and National Identity
Globalization creates ties across space and is therefore often equated with ‘deterritorialization’. This feature would seem to spell trouble for nation-states: if globalization transcends national boundaries, states’ role in world society should diminish. Focusing on the cultural side of the matter, however, it is clear that the scenario of decline is overstated. As indicated earlier, while globalization challenges nation-states in many ways, the idea of the nation-state is deeply embedded in world culture. World culture provides models of nation-state functioning and norms that legitimate states as constitutive units of world society.
This is no accident: the nineteenth-century wave of globalization occurred during an era of mostly Western nation-building, binding global processes to far more integrated ‘national’ societies, each with its own claim to cultural distinction. Over time, practice turned into principle, codified by organizations like the United Nations. Newly independent countries mostly adopted the established framework, reinforcing the legitimacy of a single global model for societal organization. The model allowed for considerable variation, for example in the extent to which nation-states comprised actual nations of a single people with a single culture. The striking world-cultural fact is that even highly diverse places witnessed a drive toward greater unity and the development of a distinct national identity, as in the case of Indonesia adopting a new national language.
Homogenization at the national level boosts the institutionalization of global diversity, since each nation’s claimed identity differs in principle from those of other nations. A number of global practices endorse and enshrine the value of diversity, from a tourist industry seeking distinctive destinations to UNESCO designating world heritage sites. In this way, globalization ‘universalizes particularism’. This is more than a legacy. State institutions continue to reinforce national identities, for example, through formal educational systems that follow a common global script. Important global events, such as the Olympic Games, serve as occasions for the display of distinct identities. Since practices, institutions, and events also press toward commonality, requiring more people in more places to play by the same rules, the reproduction of national identity is yet another instance of the globalizing interplay between homogenization and heterogenization.
Because national identities are so salient and highly legitimated, the glocalization of cultural forms and experiences often involves creative mixing of transnational and domestic elements, as in the case of popular music genres that match national symbolism to global (frequently American-initiated) forms, such as German or Japanese hip-hop. While this may appear to dilute ‘authentic’ national culture, in some ways globalization also heightens the significance of national identities. Changes associated with globalization – above all, immigration of peoples with very different cultures – are often interpreted as a threat to national identity (Lechner, 2008). Similarly, specifically cultural ‘intrusions’ associated with globalizing flows may also trigger defensive national responses, for example in the form of quota policies for cultural production or efforts to cleanse a language of English contamination.
Though strongly embedded in world culture, the legitimacy of nations and national identities is contested. New governance structures, such as the EU, have begun to gnaw away at the primacy of national distinctiveness. The sheer scale of global flows makes it ever more difficult to maintain a clear-cut national identity. As more and more individuals sample global cross-currents, they fashion ever more complex hybrid identities. Capitalizing on the growth of the human rights regime, many groups strive to cultivate a form of cosmopolitanism, focused on the well-being of humankind. To the extent that globalization fosters such trends, it also exposes a continuing tension within world culture.
Religion in Globalized Cultural Context
While much of world culture is decidedly secular, religion plays a special role in it. In fact, all the features of world culture discussed thus far – construction, dimensions, origins, homogenization, and conflict – have roots or parallels in religion. Globalization affords new opportunities for religion and in turn is shaped by it.
‘Axial’ religions such as Buddhism and Christianity can reasonably be seen as the first world cultures by virtue of their translocal organization, universal message, and highly elaborated concept of ‘the world’. As noted earlier, several aspects of contemporary world culture derive from the early history of the Catholic Church and its involvement in the first wave of globalization during European expansion. Religion also figured prominently in the crystallization of world culture in the late-nineteenth century period of intense globalization. Missionary societies were among the most active INGOs, spreading the Christian faith to new places. Other religiously inspired organizations, such as the YMCA, were similarly involved, embracing versions of ‘muscular Christianity’ that diffused both moral precepts and globalizing sports. Propagating new faiths also became easier, as evidenced by Pentecostalism taking hold in South America (Coleman, 2000) soon after it emerged in Los Angeles at the Azusa Street revival of 1906. Along with such efforts at Christianization, more subtle changes took place as well. As the world drew together in new ways, a new attitude toward religious pluralism emerged. The 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, for example, brought together representatives of many religions on a relatively equal footing, in an attempt to express the common spiritual concerns of mankind. The World Parliament also signaled that the various faith traditions increasingly were coming to be defined as proper ‘religions,’ a construct that is itself of Western origin (Beyer, 2006). Speaking of religion as a feature of world culture thus captures a global process in which highly variable ‘local’ religious experiences gained new significance as part of a more rationalized, standardized world religious domain. To a considerable extent, ‘doing’ religion is now subject to global norms and standards.
As in world culture more broadly, the Rest challenged the West in several ways after World War II and the decolonization that ensued. Not only countries gained independence, so too did many Protestant churches. In some instances, this occasioned a religious West-against-itself reversal. For example, African Anglicans resisted a more liberal approach to homosexuality in their communion, reflecting wider opposition on the continent to the expansion of human rights in the sexual sphere. As the Catholic Church expanded in the global South, in what some have called ‘reglobalization’, its membership, leadership, and actual practices further diversified, illustrated partly by the transnational Charismatic Renewal (Csordas, 2009). Overall, the center of gravity in global Christendom has shifted to the South, where worship tends to take a more revivalist form and socio-religious beliefs are generally more conservative (Jenkins, 2011).
Social conservatism also characterizes much of the Islamic world, where resistance to some aspects of modernity has gained prominence in the context of political suppression (Roy, 2004). Globalization, both as actual process and as perceived threat, has had much to do with that renewed religious fervor. Though by no means wholly characteristic of Islam, the resistance takes many forms: Taliban-style attempts at purification, symbolized by the destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan; reform from within, as with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab Spring of 2011; and more violent ‘jihad’ against mostly Western targets, as perpetrated by globalized militants in loose transnational networks. With few exceptions, however, even such ostensibly oppositional activity still owes much to the world culture it confronts.
As all such examples indicate, religion is of more than historical interest for world culture. If the core of world culture consists of sets of ideas that enable people to act and think as part of one world society, whether in abstract terms or through specific practices, then the current world religions surely count as key components. What ‘the world’ is about, what human beings are supposed to do in the world, how humans must treat each other as members of a single species, and what lies beyond this world – for millions of people, meaningful answers to such questions derive from religious traditions. Some of those answers fit comfortably with the evolving content of world culture more broadly; witness the Catholic Church’s support for human rights or Buddhist endorsement of environmentalism. Other answers fit less comfortably, such as some transnational African religions’ conception of the self as inhabited by multiple beings or supporters. Even more challengingly, some world religions question the very categories world culture has inherited from its Western roots, notably the religious/political and transcendence/immanence distinctions, as in forms of Islamic and Asian spirituality, respectively.
World religion stands out as a counterpoint to the notion that globalization entails cultural homogenization. The historic diversity of faiths, reproduced in the modern era, provides the backdrop, but more than reproduction is at issue: globalization facilitates the diffusion of religious ideas and the expansion of religious communities across continents (Wuthnow, 2009), as in the case of Muslim diasporas in Europe and Indian/Hindu diasporas in North America, thus diversifying both those faith communities and the locales where they grow new roots. Nor does diffusion entail simple emulation; a key feature of many transnational religious ventures is the way in which they ‘indigenize’ or ‘glocalize’, adapting old models to new places, as in the case of Pentecostal churches absorbing Brazilian, Ghanaian, or Korean symbolism into their worship and teaching. Adding to the diversity of religious expression is the fact that many world religions are very much in flux, strikingly illustrated by the ‘spiritual recycling’ practiced by Nigerian and Korean Christian leaders reexporting their faith to the West (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 2009).
Caveats are in order. However great the range of options in the overall religious market created by globalization, local supplies tend to be limited and at times monopolistic. In their daily lives, many religious adherents participate in the same routines as others around the world, guided by common norms. The countries where they reside are subject to the ‘isomorphic’ tendencies mentioned previously. However strong their faith, adherents live in a world that operates largely in secular-rational terms set by a world culture that is not evidently grounded in any transcendent faith. Among those who enact and propagate world culture, such as the mostly secular INGOs, specifically religious actors are now in the minority. Yet that same world culture provides space for radically different world views. Deep cultural difference has by no means disappeared; indeed, under new interpretations of human rights, difference has acquired new significance and legitimacy. The differences matter to millions, if not billions. How to manage these differences peaceably, as a source of human enrichment rather than conflict, is a major contemporary challenge.
Overall, religion is a central aspect of cultural globalization: as traditions spread, transnational networks expand, national cultures become more mixed, and new ways of experiencing the world emerge. In many countries, religion mediates the pluralizing effect of world culture. It plays an important role in the intense contests concerning global values and world order. Yet the construction of world culture has become a mainly secular process; it has no transcendent content in the conventional sense. Cultural heterogeneity and conflict themselves take many forms, only some of them religious. While world religion is intimately connected with globalization and involved in the latter’s dynamics, it is by no means a dominant force. Whether it can, or should, take on a greater role in defining the desirable world order is likely to be a central issue in future global cultural contestation.
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