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Globalization and Culture Change Essay

From a sociocultural anthropological perspective, by investigating how globalization affects different parts of the world we can build a better understanding of how global structures affect social and cultural practices. Globalization is the worldwide interdependence of economic and cultural activities through the interchange of worldviews, goods, beliefs, and other aspects of culture (Lalonde slide 22/01/13). To facilitate interdependence, globalization uses new technology, innovation, tourism, international trade, and the media to build and maintain a dominant global culture (Lalonde slide 22/01/13). In recent years, the process of globalization has hastened the destruction of small egalitarian cultures (Larkin and Robbins 2007). Using information conducted from three ethnographies, this paper discusses how globalization has impacted the culture of traditional societies. To narrow the focus, it will examine how globalization and the related process of modernization has contributed to culture change and will discuss each ethnography’s involvement within the World Systems Theory.

The progress of society is introduced by the idea that “human history is the story of a steady advance from life dependent on whims of nature to a life of control and domination over natural forces” (Larkin and Robbins 2007:43). This notion of culture change assumes that technological advancement is the driving force of progress, and that traditional societies should become modernized because it is in their best interest to align with technological, economic, and sociocultural systems of western industrial nations (Lalonde slide 15/01/13). Modernization is characterized by “industrialization, consolidation of the nation-state, bureaucratization, market economy, technological innovation, literacy, consumerism, vertical mobility, and an open class system” (Lalonde slide 15/01/13). These processes help amplify globalization and support the assumption that “economic trade is the source of all well being” (Larkin and Robbins 2007:60).

Traditional societies are pressured to become modern under the presumption that economic growth and integration will help solve national and global ecological/social problems, and foreign assistance to underdeveloped countries will create a better standard of living by helping them participate in global trade (Larkin and Robbins 2007). The belief that the social, political, and cultural, systems of western society should dictate how traditional societies should develop is a very egocentric view. What supporters of globalization fail to recognize is that by supporting the modernization of small-scale civilizations “we may be eliminating societies whose systems of meaning hold solutions to compelling current world problems, such as environmental destruction, inter-group and intra-group conflict, poverty, and sickness” (Robbins and Larkin 2007:72).

The World Systems Theory, developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, addresses culture change in relation to power (Lalonde slide 15/01/13). Unequal distribution of wealth and resources along with the capitalist mode of production contribute to the functionality of this theory. The world system divides the world into core, semi-periphery, and periphery countries. The core countries are highly developed and use technology to increase capital development. In contrast, the periphery countries are least developed and are exploited by the core for their cheap labor and material. Semi-periphery countries lie between the core and periphery and are both exploited and engage in exploitation. The World Systems Theory relies on the commodification of goods, labor, nature, and human relations in the market for exchange value (Lalonde slide 15/01/13).

Current neo-liberal economic policies that promote individualism, competition, and consumerism within a free-market have highly contributed to the acceptance of inequality and disparity globally enhancing the effects of the World Systems. The application of this theory will be discussed further later in the paper. In an ethnography of the Beng people, who reside in the village of Asagbe, in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, American anthropologists Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham recount their cultural engagement and reflect that their “presence [in the village] might actually be triggering a young man’s return to mental illness” (2011:38). Alma and Philip use an ethnographic approach to study the Beng culture, which includes participant observation, interviews, and the use of a key cultural consultant, Amenan. The ethnography written by Alma and Philip illustrates how modernization has had a negative impact on the Beng culture causing some men to refuse their cultural identity. Matatu, identifies himself in French as the “prime minister of Côte d’Ivoire”, and refuses to speak the Beng language (Gottlieb and Graham 2011:38).

Although unintentionally, the anthropologists contribute to the perception that the Beng lifestyle is less desirable than a modern lifestyle by arriving in Asagbe with cameras, typewriters, audio recorders and a vehicle. The goods show their “family’s privilege” and “pushed in [Matatu’s] face how poor he is and will always be” (Gottlieb and Graham 2011:38). Contrasting the modernization of America with the underdevelopment of Asagbe, introduction of technology lead to a rejection of cultural identity, negatively altering the Beng perception of daily life. World systems theory can be applied to describe the culture change of the Beng men in relation to power. The anthropologist’s describe that the change of behavior Matatu and other Beng men displayed was a way to create “imagined power rather than face the near certainty of life long poverty”(Gottlieb and Graham 2011:51).

When Matatu hypothetically “condemns people to death” he is symbolically representing and compensating for the domination of the core countries over the periphery in the World Systems (Gottlieb and Graham 2011:48). Matatu recognizes that exploitation of his country will continue to enable the core countries to remain in dominant power. The Beng society’s placement in the World System makes it is clear that systematic inequality and injustice due to unequal distribution of wealth and resources have negatively affected their daily lives by enabling them from achieving all basic human rights and needs. The ethnography conducted by anthropologist Liza Dalby, takes place on a rural island community in Japans Inland Sea. The ethnographic method’s used include: participant observation, interviews using a tape recorder, and questionnaires.

Through Liza’s ethnography, globalization and the related process of modernization negatively affect the Japanese island community by causing the erosion of historical family member roles forever changing traditional family dynamics. Liza explains “eldest sons in small Japanese rural communities like this one are historically the inheritors of the family fields.”(2011:182). Because modernization implies urbanization, to younger Japanese citizens “the option of going to vocational school, or even college, and getting a white-collar job in a city was looking more attractive than staying on the farm” (Dalby 2011:182). The view that modernity is preferable to traditional culture is emphasized in the quote, “the modern young island girls who where bored to tears by it all couldn’t wait to hop on a boat to the nearby cities on Shikoku” (Dalby 2011:183). Modernization of Japan’s urban centers, including access to new technology such as boats, dominant education systems, and white-collar jobs negatively affected the rural island community by causing the loss of group identity, cultural heritage and diversity, and provides a system for further colonization and promotion a western model of the self.

The world systems theory can be applied to explain the power relations between Japan and America. As a member of the core category in the world System, Japan is perceived as having advanced technology and complex products (Lalonde lecture 22/01/13). What is not always considered is that underdeveloped societies can exist within developed societies, and when governments assume that all markets in the country value the dominant economic view it monopolizes the production and sale of goods so smaller markets cannot function. On the Japanese Island, farmers were angry that the government was forcing them to import fruit in the open local markets (Dalby 2011). For Mr. H, a Japanese island resident and farmer, “California oranges were his adversary” (Dalby 2011:184). Mr. T’s opinion resembles the disadvantage of being associated with the core membership. Because globalization values economic trade as the source of well being, smaller markets like the one on Japan’s rural island are often sacrificed to make room for more lucrative economic agreements.

In the ethnography written by anthropologist Chris Boehm, he describes his encounter with the upper Moracha Tribe, in Montenegro, a country in Southeastern Europe. The ethnographic methods he uses to study the isolated tribe consist of participant observation and interviews. The ethnography about the upper Moracha Tribe discusses how globalization and Modernization are shown to negatively impact the village by creating unequal social relations between the tribe and their government. Once an unrestricted society, the ethnography reports that a small government police station was previously stationed in Moracha (Boehm 2011:101). In Montenegrin their “militantly socialist” government uses force to gain control (Boehm 2011:100).

In opposition of government dominance, the Moracha Tribe became “tantamount to pirates” and engaged in violence, many local people saw “victims found at the bottom of cliffs”(Boehm 2011:100). Modernization via the introduction of a militant government sparked violence among Montenegrins and changed the way they interacted with their environment. In the capitalist World System Theory, Montenegrins are members of the periphery group causing them to be inherently exploited and oppressed. Historically, the introduction of capitalism can be linked to colonialism. Through imperialism, European colonization meant that foreign power had cultural, social, and political control over the nations they conquered (Lalonde lecture 22/01/13). The colonizers used their power to exploit the land, resources, and labor, of their colonies to build economic wealth. To maintain this unequal distribution the capitalist mode of production and the world systems theory maintains the oppressive effects of colonialism. Therefore, the violence the Montenegrins display in regards to the actions of their government is also an indirect way of opposing the entire world system of inequality.

Because no society can be isolated from the world system, globalization has made the actions of the Montenegrins not only a local individual message, but also a global political one. In conclusion, globalization discussed within the Beng community, the rural Japanese village, and Moracha tribe has caused irreversible damage to their traditional societies. Modernization has contributed to the rejection of cultural identity, heritage, and diversity, contributed to the erosion of traditional family dynamics and customs, and introduced modern political systems to egalitarian societies causing civil conflict changing the way citizens interact with their environment.

Looking at cultural change in relation to distribution of power, the world systems theory made it clear that globalization enhances systematic disparity and the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, eliminates small market economies, and drives “small-scale societies to the edge of extinction [by] forcing them to enter civilization through the dark side of poverty, disease, and forced labor ”(Robbins and Larkin 2007:72). Extinction of culture is black and white. To minimize the effects of globalization society must begin to value connection, cooperation, and equality, and continually reflect on how our individual actions affect others.


Bohem, Chris
2011 Insult and Danger. In Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally. Sarah H. Davis and Melvin Knonner, eds. Pp. 93-111. United States of America: Harvard University Press. Dalby, Liza

2011 Japanese Ghosts Don’t Have Feet. In Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally. Sarah H. Davis and Melvin Knonner, eds. Pp. 35-52. United
States of America: Harvard University Press. Gottlieb, Alma and Philip Graham

2011 Mad to Be Modern. In Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally. Sarah H. Davis and Melvin Knonner, eds. Pp. 35-52. United States of America: Harvard University Press. Larkin, Sherrie, and Richard Robbins

2007 Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach. Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd.

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