November 1, 1999
Volume 52, No. 10
New course looks at meaning of globalization
Globalization is a hot topic, and examples abound--from Big Macs in Paris and Mexican telenovela soap operas to organizations like Amnesty International and CARE.
It's also the focus of a new freshman seminar, "Making Sense of Globalization," designed to make students more aware of global processes and organizations operating in the world and increase their understanding of the concept of globalization and its different dimensions.
The seminar was developed by two sociology associate professors: John Boli, who is teaching the course this semester, and Frank Lechner, who taught it in the fall of 1998. Frustrated when they were unable to find an appropriate text for their new course, they also put together the "Globalization Reader," which will be published at the end of this year and used in future seminars.
"Globalization is real and is affecting lots of people, especially educated professionals whose work is likely to involve global processes of some sort," Lechner said. Noting that people in other countries may have different perspectives on globalization, he said, "In some cases, they perceive it as more disruptive to their way of life and sometimes think globalization is ultimately driven or controlled by the United States or American companies." Globalization may represent "a kind of threat to their cultural identity," Lechner added.
The seminar looks at topics such as globalization's homogenizing and diversifying effects; global politics and social movements; connections between the global and the local; mass media and popular culture; and global problems such as inequality, environmental degradation, ethno-nationalism and AIDS. In addition to reading and discussing articles, students use the Internet to explore global issues and identify and study important organizations.
"A great deal of what goes on these days is really driven by global-level structures and processes," Boli said. "We live in a world in which we still think of a nation as being sort of the real potential 'actor.' But, in fact, a lot of what goes on is caused by larger global forces."
The public is familiar with many nongovernmental organizations, including environmental groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund; human rights groups like Amnesty International; and relief organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.
"But there are thousands and thousands of others not as well known but very active and extremely important in their particular areas," Boli said. "World science is one of the most striking areas where it's truly global, where national identity is pretty irrelevant." Medicine, sports and many technological areas are also highly organized on a global basis, Boli added. In these organizations, he said, "people think globally and interact globally without paying too much attention to borders."
One of the major themes discussed in the seminar is the tension between the homogenizing and diversifying affects of globalization.
"When a lot of people talk about globalization, they talk about it pretty exclusively in terms of homogenization," Boli said, citing the "sameness" of large metropolitan airports as an example. However, part of the seminar addresses the impact of diversification "because there are global forces that encourage the emphasis on differences, as well."
Boli used television soap operas, which originated in the United States, as an example. Noting that every media center in the world now produces soap operas, he said "Although there's a great deal of similarity in the form, in another sense they reinterpret, recast and restructure the meaning of the soap opera and how it operates, adapting it to local culture and outlooks."