martes, 13 de septiembre de 2011

Reaction to 'Globalization in question' by Hirst, Thompson and Bromley

The theoretical definition of globalization is rather important because its conceptualization ultimately will influence its research program. Therefore, if the concept of globalization is elusive or ambiguous so will be its understanding and assessment. This latter point is well worked throughout the book because the authors are capable of identifying how old the globalization process really is and also how nation-states have the ability to remain autonomous in this (global) context. However, as I attempt to demonstrate, the authors’ decision of not providing a clear definition of what the global society currently is or at least how might function in theoretical terms, neglects certain level of analysis which can actually prove or reject some of their most important findings. In order to tackle this I will use some arguments developed by Luhmann (1997).

‘Globalization in question’ does an excellent job in confirming that the process of globalization (or processes) is anything but new. There is historical evidence of global exchange of goods, knowledge and services which contradict the idea that globalization is something exclusive of the past century; according to the authors this process can be traced up to the 14th century[1] (p. 16). Hirst, Thompson and Bromley nicely demonstrate that the current understanding of globalization as a new process is mainly due to lack of historical analysis carried out by their defenders. One simple test I carried to confirm indirectly this claim was to assess the distribution of the citation of the word globalization by year (1970-2005) in 5 economic journals (see Figure 1), there it can be clearly seen that there is an academic trend.

Figure 1 Total number of articles of selected economic journals citing “Globalization” (1974-2005)[2]

The authors also explain convincingly how, beyond external constrains and the influences of global or international services, knowledge, capital or power, nation-states remain very important political actors. Overall, they still have the legal (not necessarily the legitimacy) monopoly of force in their territories[3] (certainly in cases like Afghanistan, certain zones of Mexico or Haiti, this might not be the case, but these are exceptions).

I have however four main observations to their arguments—which I think could help them to make the contribution more precise:

1. Although they criticize Luhmann’s system theory (p.8), Luhmann’s theory of the world as a social system actually fits very well their theoretical approximation (Luhmann, 1997). Firstly, in order to prove the limits of some of the globalization processes, the authors critically and empirically assess the notion that nation-states are losing autonomy in the current stage of human history. I believe a more fruitful research strategy can however be to test the intensity of the interaction between the globalization processes with the social sub-systems (SSS) which the world society is composed of. It is important to point out that this process affects unevenly the SSS, and in turn the SSS also affect the globalization process irregularly. If nation-states are understood as sub-systems that have the capacity to reduce the complexity, which is created by their environment, by accepting or restricting into their system the input of social media (i.e money, power, truth, and love) disseminated by other sub-systems, but also with the ability to disseminate via social media certain outputs, we have solved an important theoretical challenge i.e. the paradox of why nation-states are at the same time autonomous and fluid. Therefore, two intertwined questions regarding this level of analysis would be: i) which nation-states are more (or less) affected by the globalization process; and ii) what kind of outputs these sub-systems disseminate and how these social media ultimately affect the other SSS. I am raising this point because in the analysis carried out by these authors it seems that only developed nation-states seem to behave in terms of SSS. However, when looking at the world in systemic terms it is theoretically acknowledged that developing nation-states can also have the quality of being SSS and in turn with the ability to exchange social media with other SSS.

2. Specifically, Luhmann’s perspective of communication, that is, the process by which different sub-systems interact with each other through different social media (money, power, knowledge and love) can help illustrate better the intensity of globalization of the SSS which the world society is composed of. In other words, this theoretical perspective offers a research program whereby it is possible to empirically test different levels or degrees of globalization in different SSS. Within this theoretical strategy, I would argue that it would be possible to see in greater detail how certain dimensions of the social media and some SSS are more globalized than others. One example of how the social media ‘knowledge’ can be operationalized is the development of transportation networks (i.e. maritime and air) at the global scale. In the 20th century these networks have been marked by revolutionary technological changes which directly and positively influenced the intensity of the globalization process (see figure 2); an indicator for measuring intensity can be the number of travels per year. These activities have been intensified at the world scale and although some of the current characteristics can be identified with the regionalization patterns described by the authors, there are regions that seem to have a more important role unlike the authors argue (see figure 3).

Figure 2 World Registered Fleet, 1914-2007

Source: Lloyd's Register of Shipping. Statistical Tables, World fleet statistics 2000.

Figure 3 Emerging Global Maritime Freight Transport System

Source: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dept. of Global Studies & Geography, Hofstra University

3. In terms of Luhmann’s theory of the world as a social system, the authors only look at two social media intensively: money (capital) and power (politics), and three types of social systems (multinational companies, nation-states and regional blocs). This strategy however leaves two social media (knowledge and love) and two social sub-systems (‘people’ and local private companies) uninspected and therefore their analysis can be regarded as incomplete. An empirical question is how globalized are the citizens or people. And again to test the intensification of this, one would have to compare patterns of different social media, and how they allow these sub-systems to access services and products in term

4. Along the lines of intensity it would be important to measure the speed of exchange of media in two different periods. Again, but in hypothetical terms exchange of media has probably increased thanks to technological change.

If globalization is understood as a process, whereby all the SSS can be interconnected among themselves, what seems to be distinctive is not its novelty but its intensity.

[1] This point is actually acknowledged by Luhmann himself (Luhmann, 1997, Globalization or World Society?: How to conceive of modern society. International Review of Sociology, vol. 7 Nº 1 67-79).

[2] The journals were: The American Journal of Economics and Sociology; The Canadian Journal of Economics / Revue canadienne d'Economique; The Economic History Review; The Economic Journal; Journal of Political Economy; The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

[3] Certainly in cases like Afghanistan, certain zones of Mexico or Haiti this might not be the case, but those are exceptions