Ed – This is the first part in a 4 part series. Key concepts 2, 3, and 4 will published over the coming days.

Some thoughts extracted from an essay I wrote for a meeting in Durham

There is an intense debate about the nature and meaning of globalisation today, both in the academic community and in the wider world of politics. The debate highlights some of the most fundamental issues of our time.

Despite a propensity for exaggeration on all sides, the inter-nationalists, globalists and transformationalists have all contributed important arguments. All positions pose serious questions about the organization of human affairs and the trajectory of global social change. They all raise significant concerns about the nature of political life and, moreover, about some of the key choices societies face now and in the future. The key concepts are:

1 What is globalisation? How should it be conceptualized?

2 How distinctive is contemporary globalisation in relation to previous eras?

3 What is the impact of globalisation on individual political communities and in particular, on the sovereignty and autonomy of modern nation-states?

4 Does globalisation create new patterns of inequality and stratification – in other words, new patterns of winners and losers?

Cutting across these questions, a number of additional considerations are raised repeatedly throughout the discussions: to what extent does globalisation produce a more uncertain environment for states and societies and to what extent does globalisation structure the choices and kinds of decisions states societies can make? In short, has globalisation created a more risk-laden and constrained environment for governments and citizens? By way of a brief conclusion it is useful to reflect on some of the responses given to these questions, starting with the issue of the nature of globalisation.


What is globalisation? 

Throughout the discussions, there is a fault line running between two views. The first revolves around the idea of a fundamentally spatial conception of globalisation – the stretching, intensification and speeding up of worldwide patterns of interconnectedness. Globalisation, on this account, lies on a spectrum with the local and national at one end, and the regional and global at the other. It is about the stretching of connections, relations and networks between human communities, an increase in the intensity of these and a general speeding up of all these phenomena. The second, in contrast to this position is a view expounded which stresses that while international trade and investment levels have undoubtedly been increasing in recent years, these do not of themselves constitute globalisation. Rather than a global economic system in which there are no borders or other significant obstacles to the activities of transnational corporations, we have an inter-national economic system in which links of trade, production and finance between economies are still subject to the possible controls of states and their agencies. Moreover, key links between national economies still focus on a small group of wealthy states. They conclude, accordingly, that globalisation is one of the great myths of our time; we live in an international, not a global, order.

One way of looking at these debates is to identify a difference in the way the term globalisation is being used. For globalists and transformationalists, there is a focus on globalisation as a set of processes, which is altering the spatial form of social activity. They then identify a great deal of evidence of cultural and economic activity and restrictions on the power of states to control events to support their view. For inter-nationalists there is a focus on the globalists’ perceived outcome of the process – a fully developed global system. Inter-nationalists, in contrast, challenge the globalists’ perceived outcome to show that the extent of change is limited and that, at present, such a system is far from being extant.

There are arguments for each of these positions and one needs to be attentive to them. In addition it is useful to consider whether these ways of approaching globalisation – one yielding an understanding of processes of change over space and time; the other highlighting the nature and limits of these processes when judged against a set model of the global order – might each help illuminate different aspects of the problem of understanding global transformations.

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