IERC: International Education and Research Center

Globalization and Culture


Susanne A. Wagner (Bio)

In the 1940’s Immanuel Wallerstein developed the World Systems’ Theory. This theory looks at the world from a holistic perspective, and attempts to explain why, by the very nature of capitalism, there have to be developed, developing and underdeveloped countries. Basically, Wallerstein argues that dependent relationships are generated between developed countries (he calls them core countries) and the developing countries (the semi-periphery); which in turn are also established between the developing countries and the underdeveloped countries (periphery). Any economic instability within the core automatically has an impact on the economic performances of the semi-periphery. Political instability within the semi-periphery can in turn cause economic problems for the core, which is why the core is vitally interested in upholding political stability within the semi-periphery regardless of the political system and the social cost this system may have on its people. Wallerstein would have argued that the US bolstered the Somoza family power in Nicaragua, at a great cost to the general population of Nicaragua, because of Nicaragua’s economic relationship with the US.

The closer a country is to the core the more influential the core will be in that country’s political and economic pursuits.
Wallerstein’s is a schematical and not a geographic concept. Whereas Mexico is geographically closely linked to a core country – the US – it is also so in Wallerstein’s schematical description. After all, Mexico’s major export market is the US and Mexico receives the vast majority of its imported goods from the US. On the other hand, Guatemala is much further removed from the core than Chile, although geographically this is not the case.

In terms of culture and development, there is a similar argument. If we substitute Wallerstein’s economic concept with culture, we will find a similar situation. A Third World country which is closer in cultural norms – culture being used in the broadest of senses – to the core will experience more development than a country that is far removed from the core in these same cultural norms. The theory is: If a country wishes to develop, it has to adapt to the prevailing, dominant cultural structures implemented by the core.

For countries in the throes of development and in the continuous struggle to achieve economic and social growth, the situation is very much the same. Countries which are able to adopt technologies and technological advances; countries which can create human capital that can work with these technological and industrial goods, are more likely to advance toward development than countries that can not. However, once the process of adopting these capital goods has occurred, the human capital has to be transformed more and more to fit the standards and norms established by the Western dominant cultures for continued advances within development.

For example, executives from a developing country must follow business practices and norms regulated by those providing the technological and/or financial backing for their enterprises. Those willing to invest and/or provide the technology are usually from the developed world, since developing countries specifically lack these resources.

The same is true for individuals. If an individual wishes to succeed he/she will have to adapt to mainstream culture. From the individual’s standpoint there are various examples. In the US we disparagingly talk about “Oreo cookies” or “Uncle Toms”. These terms are used to describe African-American individuals who have emulated the dominant culture of the white American to the point that the only thing left of their African heritage is their color. In a study conducted in the US, these so-called white African-Americans hold positions of greater power, are more professionally active and have higher levels of education than their “non-white” counterparts. Of course the question that must be raised here is: Did these African-Americans succeed because they had greater educational opportunities from the start and were therefore able to become more successful professionally, or were they driven to emulate and adapt to “white” dominant culture in an attempt to gain this success? In other words, are these individuals consciously or at a sub-conscious level emulating the dominant culture because they know that they will experience less discrimination and be offered more opportunities, the more they distance themselves from their African-American heritage?

In the case of Brazil, we have an official process of “branqueamento” or “whitening”. Africans or mulattos who are successful in emulating white cultural norms are often described, in everyday situations, as white mulattos or white Africans. Pelé in an attempt at flattery was once described as a black man with a truly white spirit of success and achievement.

The phenomenon described above has frequently been termed “mental colonization”. Women when initially fighting for equal rights identified success of their male counterparts with everything from dress codes to management practices. Women wore business suits, emulating their male counterparts and became aggressive within the business world, to preempt any criticism with regard to their femininity. The nineteenth century Mexican president Porfirio Díaz, in an effort to prove that he was capable, put talcum powder on his face to hide his darker, indigenous roots as much as possible. In his mind, this would allow others to identify him with the “superior” white, European culture. Hispanics in the US, frequently take on an English version of their Latin names, and Jorges become Georges, and Juans become Johns. Again, they distance themselves from their cultural roots in an effort to become more integrated into mainstream society.

It should, from the above, be reiterated that the basic postulate is: Adaptation and emulation of mainstream, dominant cultures is seen as equal to success and/or equal to advances within development.

The above formula calls for the continuous globalization and standardization of every aspect of everyday existence. All categories of human life have been influenced by the current catch phrase of “globalization”. In business, agreements such as NAFTA demonstrate globalization in legal, management, environmental and technological terms. More and more throughout the world, business practices are becoming standardized. Schools and universities teach students how to do business in the US and Europe, by requesting that these students base their business practices on those already accepted and proven in the developed world. Vertical organizational structures are modified to more horizontal structures in developing countries, as they apply these First World management approaches, even when these may not entirely fit their societal structures and cultural norms. Legal frameworks established to create transparency in international transactions are implemented from Canada to Chile in an effort to standardize liabilities, obligations and rights. If legal systems are similar, it is argued, it is easier to attract large-scale foreign investments, since it will generate greater investor trust and confidence.
With the fall of Eastern Europe and particularly of the Soviet Union, we have also come to believe that political systems should also be standardized. Today, most international relations and political science discussions are focused on the stability of the newly democratic countries, as if democracy by itself will resolve all the problems faced by these developing countries. Internationally, the implementation of democratic principles is called for. Political transparency is a key phrase used to laud developing countries in their democratization attempts. Campaign practices in poor developing countries are becoming more similar to those utilized by First World countries. Enormous amounts of resources are spent on television campaigns, newspaper advertisements and actual campaign tours. The media has become more and more involved in discussing political futures of countries without fear of severe negative repercussions. Polls are taken to measure the pulse of public opinion, just as in many developed countries. In Mexico, potential presidential candidates are hiring image-makers from abroad to enhance their public appeal.
There is also no doubt that within the economic arena, globalization is a reality. We see developing countries take on the economic models tried and implemented in other places in an effort to counter the traditional cycles of busts and booms. Global economic relations and international economic agreements are becoming more and more common. The international market and the role of multinational corporations in determining the world’s and individual countries’ financial stability has become ever more powerful. International markets are one of the primordial factors related to the success or failure of developing countries’ economic policies. A clear example of the increasing globalization of economics is seen in the debate on whether or not Latin American countries should dollarize their economies in the same manner that Argentina has.
Globalization can also be found in every day life and activities. Consumer behavior, influenced to the extreme by clever and convincing advertising campaigns, has become more global than country determined. Where in the past a country’s particular cultural norms would underlie advertising campaigns, we today find that Coca-Cola ads are the same in Mexico, the United States and various European countries. With the creation of satellite television, the vast majority of countries in the world are exposed to the popular culture of primarily US television networks. Television series depicting US standard cultural practices, as related to individual experience and individual life, are broadcast throughout the world – from the Serengeti dessert in Africa to the plains of Argentina.
The spread of Western popular culture is also obvious in popular literature. While Agatha Christie books have been translated into more languages than any other author’s (214), Danielle Steele’s novels are in a distant second place (131). Within the list of the ten most translated literary works, not a single author from a developing country appears. Not even a Pablo Neruda, a Carlos Fuentes, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez or a Chinua Achebe has made the list.
Hollywood dominates the film and movie industry in West-looking countries. While sitting in US-style cinemas in Mexico, the Mexican public is exposed to the “best” of Hollywood. The golden era of Mexican film is, if not dead, mortally wounded. Only Argentina and India have been able to maintain a competitive local production of film making. As the aborigines of New Guinea and natives of Tahiti go to the movies, they get to see the hollywoodesque view of US and Western culture.
The great standardizer of people, is, of course education. Through a process in which educational standards have become more similar and the quality of education can be measured by internationally acceptable assessment programs, students are put through curricula that have international and global acceptance. This, of course, in many cases has benefited students. They receive information from worldwide sources often identified with the hubs of education. Students, therefore, may today graduate from a High School in a developing country yet be able to study in a university in the First World. This naturally enhances their professional abilities and qualifications and will garner them greater professional success in their home countries as well as abroad. Students studying in South Africa can easily transfer to other universities in the world. Many who hold a degree from abroad no longer have to go through arduous tests and exams upon returning to their countries of origin – with the exception of degrees in medicine and law for the most part. Standardization in education has led to tremendous opportunities of travel and broadening of internationalism for many. Yet, while students gallivant from one university to the next or from one schooling system to the other, what is happening to those educational portions related to culture? Which one are they learning about and which one do they internalize?
The prime example, in which all of the above aspects have been incorporated -- or are being incorporated -- is the European Union. Based on common historic backgrounds, and similar post-World War Two experiences, the members of the European Union are attempting to bridge cultural differences through the implementation of standardized systems in education, language, legal reform, economics, and, of course, trade.
There is definitely much merit to the above processes of globalization. Nobody would argue today that the overall greater availability of goods and services is not of benefit. The fact that we, or our children, can take advantage of educational opportunities never dreamt of by our forefathers is definitely a positive fact. And, it is the process of globalization that has led to basic concepts that, in general, benefit humanity, such as the Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration fundamentally demonstrates that there is a notion that people throughout the world are created equal and therefore are eligible for basic rights from a global, universal standpoint. If we did not believe in the essential possibilities of globalization, the Declaration of Human Rights would become entirely futile.

Nevertheless, despite all that has been mentioned, there is also an opposing argument in vogue. “Development divorced from its human and cultural context is growth without a soul. Economic development in its full flowering is part of a people’s culture”. This theory holds, that we have to generate tolerance, acceptance and the promotion of cultural diversity, since cultural diversity will lead to greater development.
In essence, the argument bases itself on the concept that “no matter what we do, what our genders are, what our sexual preferences are, what color or religion we are, and what our economic position within society is, we are, in the end, simply human beings”. Obviously, this is a soft approach to cultural differences and takes on a humanitarian view of the world. A clear example of this approach is seen in the United States’ affirmative action policy, although its full internalization may be questioned. The US ascribed to affirmative action policies within employment and educational opportunities in an attempt to ensure non-discriminatory practices, which, in turn, would foster an environment of diversity and through this, of equal opportunity.
In 1982 in Mexico City, the Final Declaration of the World Conference on Cultural Policies was signed. This was followed by the elaboration and implementation of the 1998 Action Plan on Cultural Policy and Development in Stockholm, Sweden. Both treaties call for respect and the promotion of cultural diversity and cultural pluralism. Important, internationally recognized and varied organizations, such as the UNESCO, World Bank, Organization of American States, UNICEF, European Union, Inter-American Development Bank, the Ministries of Culture of Turkey and Brazil, the ministry of Communication of Italy, various ministries of Canada and Sweden, and the National Council for Culture and the Arts of Mexico and Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Relations among others, all participate in fostering goals of cultural diversity. Mexico, as a matter of fact, is an important participant. It underwrites the UNESCO’s International Network with Sweden, Canada, Greece, France, South Africa, and Morocco. In November 1998, Mexico signed the France-Mexico Declaration that confirms “the need to preserve and promote cultural pluralism”.
The cultural tolerance approach focuses on the following principles and ideals:

  • There are a number of basic, inalienable human rights, which originate with Rome’s jus naturalis. Human rights guarantee individual differences and respect for these individual differences.
  • No culture knows the “Truth” on cultural behavior; cultural differences must therefore be looked at from a non-judgmental position.
  • Concepts of “civilized” versus “uncivilized” are unacceptable and lead to the erroneous belief in “superior” and “inferior” cultures. These in turn, foster simplistic and inappropriate explanations of development and underdevelopment from racial perspectives.
  • Cultural homogeneity universally is undesirable. Learning is enhanced and lives become enriched with greater cultural interchanges. Problems can be solved by looking at the way that other cultures handle issues.
  • Cultural homogeneity universally is unattainable. Cultural norms and developmental approaches must take a country’s and a people’s historic circumstances and present realities into consideration to be successful. Adapting models from countries with different cultural, historic and present-day realities will lead to the implementation of ineffective, developmental structures.

Although cultural diversity is positive and although personally I believe that cultural pluralism can definitely enhance and enrich our lives, there are problems that arise in an atmosphere of cultural tolerance. The first problems that need to be looked at are related to values, ethics and morals.

There is no such thing as universally accepted values. In a study performed by the UNESCO, it was found that cultures react differently to different standard values. For example, most cultures may believe that stealing – or not to steal – is an acceptable value. Nevertheless, the approach taken when stealing occurs varies from culture to culture. Some may punish a thief with fines, others through imprisonment and yet others may cut off a thief’s hand. Although not to steal is generally seen as a valid value, some cultures believe that their members can demonstrate astuteness, intelligence and ability through their prowess in stealing.

Most women in the world would support initiatives of equal rights for women – again a possible representation of a universal value. However, how equal rights are interpreted and implemented again vary from culture to culture. Some women may believe that equality can be found in not being treated as property. Others take equality to mean exactly that: equal to men in every sense of the word.

Most societies believe in the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family values. For some, however, the sanctity of marriage can be erased through divorce – for others this is completely unacceptable. When talking about family values, we find significant differences in the interpretation of the meaning of family – from the nuclear, immediate family to the extended family, to kinship and clan relations.

Ethics are the legal percepts and norms of a society and are related to the institutions and rights within a given society. Morals, on the other hand, are frequently related to an individual’s own socialization process, often indistinguishable from his/her religious upbringing. There are neither universally accepted ethical standards, nor morals that are applicable universally. Therefore, we find that conflicts often occur between ethics and morals.

In many Westernized, Christian cultures, for example, monogamy is the norm and polygamous relationships are condemned by law. A Muslim, whose morals may very well sanction the practice of polygamy, but who lives in a Western, Christian society has to abide by the ethical practices of that society. He has to sidestep his moral beliefs to be able to remain an accepted member of mainstream society. The same is the case with Mormons living in the United States.

In another example, we question what is ethically acceptable and morally correct. In the US it is common practice to pay finder’s fees or commissions to people who generate business for a company through referrals. This practice is legally, and therefore ethically sanctioned in the US. In some countries there exists no legal norm to fully implement this practice, yet many businesses rely heavily on referrals for survival. If fees are then paid out for referrals it is seen as the morally and ethically unacceptable practice of “bribery” or “paying kick-backs”.

How do we come to terms with differences in interpretation of these basic concepts in a globally, culturally tolerant world, which is simultaneously linked more and more through international economic relations?

When we look into human rights issues as related to cultural diversity and tolerance, we once again face a difficult problem. Most of us applaud those human rights delineated in the Declaration of Human Rights and believe that they should be enforced, but often this is not possible in an ambiance of cultural tolerance. For example:

  • Many Europeans believe that piercing a baby girl’s ears upon birth, is cruel and a form of unacceptable abuse. Many cultures in the world believe that this is standard practice and a form of their cultural expression.
  • Piercing a baby’s ears is frequently compared to the Jewish practice of male circumcision upon birth, which definitely is an expression and manifestation of Jewish cultural beliefs, even if many non-Jewish families today also have their male children circumcised.
  • Of course, if we accept male circumcision as an acceptable practice within cultural norms, we must do so also for female circumcision, practiced in various African communities. While the specific reasons for male circumcision, other than hygienic, are unknown, we do know that female circumcision is primarily meant to subjugate women and to remove their sexual drive so that they remain faithful to their husbands. Although many women suffer tremendously from these operations – mostly performed with machetes – women belonging to societies practicing female circumcision have stated that foreigners have no right to interfere in these traditional cultural expressions of their communities.
  • Other examples, in which people claim that they are simply following cultural norms and are therefore not abusive or violating human rights include: facial markings burnt or carved into the faces of many Nigerians upon birth to demonstrate their social and tribal affiliations; foot-binding practices still found in China, where a woman’s beauty and therefore her eligibility for suitable marriage is measured by the smallness of her feet; and the practice of many from untouchable castes in India to break their children’s bones so that they can better eke out a living – practiced as a result of social hierarchical divisions implemented as a part of cultural practices.

The question of course has to be whether or not we can and should tolerate these forms of cultural diversity and pluralism? If we believe that the above examples constitute forms of abuse and violations of human rights, then we are automatically stating that we believe that there are limits to cultural diversity and tolerance. Furthermore, if we believe that these are unacceptable practices, then we also have to ask ourselves who will determine what constitutes acceptable and what is unacceptable. A panel of Europeans would probably equally condemn facial markings as they would ear piercing in a baby.

Although there are many other problems related to cultural tolerance, there is one more issue I would like to raise. This is the issue of cultural diversity versus integration. Currently there is a worldwide discussion on the rights and roles of indigenous people in Latin American and the United States. In the case of Chiapas, for example, many argue that indigenous cultures must be respected and honored and maintained. Therefore, indigenous people should have the option to be educated in their indigenous languages and should be able to uphold their indigenous traditions. I, for one, believe that it is extremely important to retain traditional values and norms and cultural expressions. However, when I look at this from a realistic perspective, I also worry that under the guise of respect for cultural diversity, indigenous people will not be given the tools that will permit them to integrate into mainstream society if they so desire. Not to provide them with these tools is cruel and harsh – they would have to continue to live in the outskirts of mainstream society and would not have the same employment opportunities and professional development opportunities as their non-indigenous counterparts. What if an indigenous person would like to delve into international business in Mexico – are we as a society and are we as representatives of the Western world truly ready to accept someone who may not speak Spanish and/or English fluently and who may not abide by the same behavioral norms that we hold? I doubt that the honest answer for the vast majority would be “yes”. Can we imagine a business meeting being held around the fire site in Africa, where those present are chewing kola nuts and who in the end sign the negotiated deal with a blood ritual? Or do we still need the safety provided by our conference table and the security of the validity of a contract signed on paper in ink? How far can we bend international protocol to make room for individual differences of countries?

Today there is a saying in Mexico that for an individual to be successful, he or she must speak three languages: Spanish, English and computers. This statement can be paraphrased and restated as: For an individual to succeed in today’s world, he or she must become an active participant in the process of cultural globalization. This, in turn, takes us back to the initial argument that development occurs when cultural adaptation and emulation of dominant cultural practices takes place.
Although, if we as individuals were truly more tolerant, and if the world were an “ideal” place in which the foundations were built for “the good of humanity” rather than for “the good of business and international economics”, there is no reason why we should not be able to find a middle ground between tolerance and globalization. There is really no factual reason for an indigenous doctor not to be able to operate at an upscale, private hospital in Latin America without speaking Spanish and dressed in a huipil and guaraches.
As a matter of fact, some expressions of cultural tolerance have developed over the last few years, unfortunately in an effort to increase the profitability of business and not for humanitarian reasons. For example, many US corporations now give cross-cultural training programs to those employees sent abroad. Many native English speakers are now learning an additional language to English. Today, as women have garnered more equal rights in many countries, we can find analyses of “feminine leadership” and “feminine management practices”. These manifestations are, however, far and few between.

It must therefore be realistically stated that, even if we dislike this fact, success and development can, in our current world, seemingly only be achieved if we abide by mainstream dominant cultural practices. Development and success, are, after all, measured by those factors that limit cultural tolerance and diversity: commerce, trade, economics, the media, and the creation of international markets and international consumer behaviors. We live in a world where those of us fortunate enough to have choices and opportunities quickly learn that there are simply things in life “we must have” and that we “can not live without”. We will do everything in our power to gain access to these items – learn English, learn computer technology, study abroad, dress and act in internationally acceptable manners, etc. While in the process of doing this we, like the examples presented initially, distance ourselves from our cultural norms and cultural heritages – oftentimes unwittingly.

There is, however, a ray of hope for cultural pluralism and diversity. This ray of hope ultimately comes out of an ironic situation. If adaptation to mainstream cultures is a necessity for success and development, then what will happen to those countries and peoples who are far removed from the core? Under current circumstances these people can be found not only between countries but even within countries. They frequently have never left their own communities, have not been exposed to mainstream culture through education or television, and are unaware that such an item as the computer and the Internet exist (after all only 1% to 2% of the world’s population has access to a computer). Countries that can not afford to purchase modern technologies and can not import books describing the newest management concepts or are unable to provide educational systems that have international recognition, will be completely left out of the loop of development. A country that is not listed on an Internet search organ, simply, in the minds of many, does no longer exist. Naturally, by the shear force of these realities, the gap between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” will increase. However, in their struggle for survival, countries and people living under these conditions will have to create alternative solutions to their problems. These solutions will have to be unique and related to the circumstances of each of those countries and/or people. In the end, they may be the ones that will be the mainstay of cultural diversity and cultural pluralism -- they will be the ones we will look at with nostalgia once all of our own cultural values have been lost.