Global culture is where large numbers of people in different countries across the world share common norms, values and tastes, and is one aspect of globalisation. Those sociologists who believe that a global culture exists tend to see it as an ongoing process with more and more people around increasingly sharing similar world views and developing a global consciousness.
Global culture is a contested concept: there are several different perspectives on the nature and extent of global culture and disagreements over whether such a thing exists in any meaningful sense at all!
This post considers two theories of global culture:
- Lechner and Boli (2005) who argue that global institutions are laying the foundations for what they call a ‘world culture’
- John Storey (2003) who argues that Time-Space Compression (following David Harvey) has resulted in more cultural mixing and hybridity around the world, so we have a plurality of cultures rather than one global culture.
You might like to read this post in conjunction with my other related post on cultural globalisation which looks at aspects of cultural globalisation in more depth, looking at different aspects of cultural globalisastion one by one (such as consumption patterns, shared values etc.) as we as concepts such as detraditionalisation and the risk society.
That post is really the overview of the topic, this post offers a little more theoretical depth, focusing in on two actual theorists.
World Culture, institutions and organisations
Frank J. Lechner and John Boli (2005) use the term ‘world culture‘ rather than ‘global culture’ and argue that globalisation has resulted in a world culture that is here to stay, it cannot be undone though its content may change and it may increase or decrease in influence.
Lechner and Boli’s conception of culture is one of socially constructed and socially shared symbolism, so they see it as being about ideas and meanings rather than tangible material objects.
World culture develops through global values, becoming institutionalised through a process of structuration. Actors within global institutions establish typical patterns of behaviour and values and these eventually become institutionalised, and adopted by more and more people globally, who in turn ‘enact’ these behaviours thus further reinforcing them.
Examples of world culture
Two examples of world culture are education and chess.
Many education systems in different countries have similar institutional norms surrounding formal education such as having around 11-13 years of age-grouped teaching, curricula which clearly outline what is to be studied, well-structured examination systems leading to qualifications, and similar hierarchies of organisation within schools.
There are also and codes of conduct outlining expected patterns of behaviour and attendance from students, and a clear code of professional practice for teachers, which are very similar in many countries.
Throughout the world local chess clubs follow the rules of the World Chess Federation, and players look up to and seek to learn from international grand masters whose achievements are recognised all over the world.
There are also a set of norms about how to play chess, not just the rules, but norms to do with demeanour, how to communicate, and how to approach more senior players.
Lechner and Boli accept the fact that there isn’t total homogenisation of the way education and chess are enacted locally, there are local variations, but increasing similarities too.
There are also institutions whose purpose is to explicitly promote world culture such as:
- The United Nations (UN) which overseas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- The International Criminal Court (ICC) which is responsible for bringing to trial people who have committed crimes against humanity
- The Olympic Movement which promotes fair play in several world sports.
Lechner and Boli accept the fact that there are examples of movements against global culture, such as the way Islam has manifested itself in Afghanistan or Iran, but at the same time there are people in both countries who argue for less extremist Islamic State policies and identify more with the global community.
Lechner and Boli argue that much of the apparent local diversity we see is just superficial, about clothing and food, rather than about deeper shared meanings and values where there is more global consensus.
While Lechner and Boli do identify some definite trends towards global culture they possibly overstate the extent to which we have an established global system of shared values and meaning.
The example of chess is especially weak as there simply aren’t that many chess players, and while education systems around the world have similarities the experience of education varies massively depending on whether you are a pupil in Britain or Somalia or Afghanistan, especially a girl in the later country.
There is a lot of difference and conflict and people just ignoring ‘universal global values’ that isn’t sufficiently taken into account.
John Storey: global culture
Storey (2003) argues that in the past, cultures around the world were generally separated from each other through space and time. In the 19th century, for example, it simply took too much time and money for people to travel across the globe and so there was relatively little intermixing of cultures.
Today however, the world is much smaller thanks to time-space compression. The main engine of this is the media which makes it possible for cultures in different parts of the world to influence each other instantaneously.
Global travel is also much faster which makes it possible for global cultures to develop. Global cultural events such as the World Cup and the Olympics can happen because it is relatively easy for teams and supporters to travel to one place , and the existence of these events create a global cultural legacy that endures.
Storey rejects the theory that cultural globalisation is simply a process of Americanisation. He argues that culture is much more than the products people buy, and that there are considerable variations around the global in how people use the same products and values they attach to them.
There are many examples of American products being adapted to fit into local cultural styles, such as with regional variations on McDonald’s food.
Globalisation offers the possibility of cultural mixing on a scale never known before.
It has not undermine local culture nor does it lead to a single global culture. An ever greater plurality of hybrid-cultures: where global influences mix with local cultures and produce something new: a mixture (hybrid) between the global and the local, as with the example of Chicken Tika Masala.
One consequence of this is that folk culture is undermined, because even the oldest and most isolated traditions are changed by global influences.
Storey seems to paint a more accurate picture of the hybrid and complex nature of ‘global culture’ than Lechner and Boli, it seems accurate to accept the fact that there is no meaningful overarching global culture, rather pluralities and hybrids.
However Leslie Sklaire argues that he fails to recognize that not all cultures in the world are valued equally. There are maybe more powerful and dominant cultures which can disrupt local cultures against people’s will, such as consumer culture linked to brands pushed by Transnational Corporations.
This material is mainly relevant to the Global Development module.
John Storey (2003) Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture
Frank J. Lechner and John Boli (2003) World Culture: Origins and Consequences
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.