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World Review
 february 2005

Globalisation and Culture in the Asia-Pacific Region

Hyung Gu Lynn

Whether it is the rapid proliferation of Starbucks in Tokyo, changing realities of the real estate market in Greater Vancouver, the recent boom in Korean popular music and TV dramas in Taipei, or the widespread employment of Filipino maids in Hong Kong, the fabric of everyday life in many cities in the Asia Pacific region are comprised of increasingly transnational elements. Intensification of foreign direct investment, trade, cross-national corporate alliances and mergers, cultural exchanges, and university tie-ups have fortified world-wide links between people, organizations, regions, and governments of various nation-states. Terms such as “global economy,” “cultural diversity,” and “global environment” have wended their way into the lexicons of major business schools, while at the same time, a constellation of demonstrations and discontents have been stuffed into the category of “the anti-globalisation movement.”

Observing these trends and changes is an easy enough task, requiring little more than a walk along any major commercial street in any major city, or a casual perusal of university course catalogues. How one analyses and understands the changes associated with “globalisation” is another issue, one that presents a considerably more complex intellectual problem. Does “globalisation” writ-large promote greater understanding of cultural similarities and differences, or does it merely diffuse a wider array of simplistic and essentialist stereotypes? Does globalisation propagate exploitation and income disparity, or does it offer the individual freedom of choice and convenience of standardisation? Do these shifts bring the world closer together, consuming the same hamburgers in a new global community, or is this a homogenising cultural imperialism, obliterating local cultures in McWorld synchronicity? How does the nexus of global and local inform individual and collective identities and cultures?

These questions are particularly relevant for the city of Vancouver on the West Coast of Canada and its constituents. Frequently hailed as the paragon of the new “Global City,” thinking residents of Vancouver deals with quotidian manifestations of globalisation both in terms of everyday praxis (i.e. navigating the bricolage of Japanese “sushi” restaurants run by Hong Kong expats, “Canadian” chain stores originally from eastern parts of Canada, and outposts of Seattle coffee empires), and as a set of intellectual and research challenges.

There are no shortages of books and titles that invoke the buzzword de jour, “globalisation.” However, tortuously worded tautologies, over-reliance on anecdotal evidence without sufficient context, and a glaring paucity of clear definitions of fundamental concepts plague many of these works. In any attempt to build more systematic and persuasive answers to these and other questions, one can point to at least four conceptual cornerstones as necessary if not sufficient conditions.

First, the historical context behind globalisation needs to be kept in mind. While there are some obvious discontinuities as well as continuities, European expansion, modern colonialism, modernisation, and globalisation constitute different media for the intensification of global ties. For example, certain clothing practices for men in the Asia Pacific (such as wearing ties in suffocatingly humid midsummer heat) were initially disseminated via Western European imperialism and colonialism. The use of modern statistical methods to measure economic output is yet another example of a “global” standard originally propagated through the practices of colonial administrations throughout the region. This is not to suggest that the process of globalisation can be explained solely by tracing the expansion of European notions of “civilisation” and “modernity” (both terms which need to be examined critically before blind invocation) or that there is a universal teleology that history must inevitably follow, but to point out that the decoupling of cultural experience from particular geographic locales is not an unprecedented phenomenon.

My intention here is not to merely regurgitate the familiar objection that global exchanges are nothing new, so that we may have had “globalisation” in the medieval ages, or that there was more intensive commodity trade between far-flung regions of the world prior to 1945 due to colonial trade flows. Rather, by acknowledging the historical precedents, we may focus our analysis on what might be different or new about the term “globalisation” or whether we ought to discard the term entirely due to the absence of any meaningful conceptual or descriptive value-added. For example, some scholars have argued, however vaguely, that the speed, scale, and scope of these changes and flows have accelerated over the last fifty years. The oft-cited acceleration in the development and diffusion of communication technologies has facilitated the dissemination of information and intensified financial transactions. Thus, while commodity trade may be less global than in pre-1945 years, the amount of money traded in foreign currency exchange dealings or the capital flows through various investments is more intense now than before.

Second, it is important to examine the underlying assumptions and operating definitions undergirding much of the debate. The ways concepts such as “culture” or “global” or “local” are defined invariably affect the analytical approach taken. For example, “culture” is a frequently contested term. Many disciplines such as anthropology, having devoted considerable efforts to grappling with the concept, consider it a central analytical issue. Conversely, some approaches in other disciplines might exclude it from analysis, feeling that “culture” is too vague a black box to constitute a meaningful independent variable. If one takes the former view, cultural industries and exchanges are central to any understanding of any economic, political, social, and technological change. If one adheres to the latter approach, then it makes sense to distinguish between “globalisation,” confined to economic activities, and “internationalisation,” applied to ‘cultural’ interactions.

In another example, some scholars invoke Manichean contrasts between an idealised “local” or “traditional” culture and a menacing “global” or “modern” culture. If one associates “local” with sites of national purity and resistance to rising tide of global capitalists, “local” culture should presumably be protected and maintained. If one defines “local” culture as reactionary, ignorant, and parochial, than one would presumably wish that “global” culture ‘enlightens’ “local” culture. Such latent normative values need to be foregrounded for any meaningful discussion to occur.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that there are increasingly fewer pockets of isolated, undiluted fonts of “local” identity left, at least in the major urban centres. For example, some commentators in Korea assert that McDonald’s is undermining traditional Korean culinary culture, and promoting obesity in young Korean children. However, the employees and managers of McDonald’s in Korea are Korean, as are its customers (i.e. local identity may already be composed in part of an absorption of ‘foreign’ practices). For better or for worse, the reality is that essentialising visions of ‘good’ “local” and “traditional” cultures elide the fact that cultures -- at the global, national, regional, local, and individual levels -- change over time, and are often retroactively reconstituted to serve political interests of a particular moment, place, or institution.

In yet another example of category semantics cauterising productive avenues of inquiry, many observers equate “globalisation” with “Americanisation,” a semantic manoeuvre that generates questions that invariably gravitate around America and anti-Americanism. Given the controversy in Korea over the easing of import restrictions on Japanese cultural products, or the political reverberations of Thai popular culture in Cambodia, a broader yet more nuanced definition of the “global” that accounts for the reality that power inequalities and capital flows do not invariably emanate from America would seem to provide a more useful basis for discussion.

Third, an interdisciplinary approach is essential to understanding the complexities of globalisation. Like its historical predecessors, globalisation is a multivalent process that cannot be merely celebrated or demonised. While some conceptual constructs may in fact apply across many cultures and subcultures, clearly, monocausal, reductionist, and universalist approaches are not sufficient to explain the rapid shifts in the local and global landscapes, or the whole chain of production, dissemination, and reception of any given idea or product. Informed sampling of works on reception and entropy from media and communications studies, emics and etics from cultural materialism in anthropology (and discussions of the attendant criticisms), finding parallels between the debates concerning the relative power and autonomy of local and global cultures and discussions of consumer-producer relations, are just some of the possible approaches that may inform more sophisticated analyses of globalisation.

Fourth, the pros and cons of theoretical and empirical approaches and their interrelations must be taken into account. More specifically, the plethora of “globalisation theories” has in general been marked by a heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence, analytical vagueness, circular logic, and few clear answers, all camouflaged by rhetorical bravuras. Another problem has been a redundancy in concepts and methods, leading to a galaxy of often alliterative terms (“multiple modernity,” “complex connectivity,” etc.) that essentially say the same thing. Finding common denominators in the works of various authors, critically engaging with the evidence, and comparing globalisation theories with existing approaches, will be essential in assessing the future utility of the entire field of globalisation studies. At the same time, it may be that the torrent of books and articles on globalisation have a heuristic value in that they have helped to generate some interesting questions -- if not provide much in the way of edifying answers.

Nonetheless, as the key questions remain the whats, whos, whys, and hows of specific sites and flows of globalisation, critical engagement with "theory" informed by and wedded to thorough empirical research and "local" knowledge should provide more concretely grounded conclusions that at the same time provide alternatives to the simplistic travelogue epistemology of “been there, seen that” in exploring the relevant issues. Ultimately, rather than provide definitive answers, an awareness of the potentials and limits of all approaches may help move our epistemological base from cocksure conviction to thoughtful uncertainty in the attempt to understand the impact of globalisation in our increasingly peripatetic lives.

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that originally appeared in the Asia Pacific Report, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 2002), p. 2

Hyung Gu Lynn is an assistant professor in the AECL/KEPCO Chair in Korean Research at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and Associate Editor of the journal Pacific Affairs. Prior to joining UBC in January 2002, he held faculty positions in the Institute of Economic Research, Hitotusbashi University (Tokyo, Japan), and the English Literature Department, Hanyang University (Seoul, Korea). He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, and his MA and BA from the University of British Columbia.

He has published numerous articles that focus on subjects related to the 20th century histories of Korea and Japan including, state and society in colonial Korea; migration and colonialism; political economy of post-1965 South Korea-Japan relations; popular culture; clothing and visuality in Korea and Japan, and epistemology of the humanities and the social sciences.

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