Back to Basics: Ritzer on Globalisation

So yesterday I finished another of the books on my Sociology list. This was a book by George Ritzer called Globalization: A Basic Text. This is the second book by Ritzer that I’ve read and both are rather long and involved, wide-ranging introductions. The other was an Introduction to, like, ALL of social theory to the date of publication (early 90s).

I hope that most of the chapters in the Giddens/Sutton book are going to include introductory textbooks of this caliber. Ritzer establishes what globalisation is, not only in itself but also as a concept containing versions of itself such as cultural globalisation and economic globalisation. I think it’s important to understand how a big concept like globalisation derives its magnitude from the many ways in which it manifests.

In fact, it is globalisation’s manifestation in various spheres that drives Ritzer’s rendering of it here. A theme to which he returns throughout is the excessive focus often given to globalisation as a purely economic phenomenon. He doesn’t dispute that economics is a huge part of globalisation, and may in fact be its centrepiece. Still, it’s important that an introductory text clearly, though not simplistically, communicates something of the full scope of its subject. It’s equally important to not reduce the subject to one of its facets, even if that facet is as integral as economics is to globalisation.

For my part, perhaps as a resident of a country that Ritzer says is “almost always rated… the most globalized country in the world” (273), I would have associated globalization with increasing cultural homogeny above all else. I felt like economic globalisation was a means of delivery for the more specific globalisations. I’ve long been sensitive to changes in my local vernacular, e.g. spelling and pronunciation, to match ‘international’ (mainly American) standards. Funnily enough, an example of this has been illustrated in this piece of writing (perhaps unbeknownst to you), in the difference between globalization (as in my quotes from Ritzer’s book) and globalisation (as I spell it). I feel like the American spelling will eventually supplant the version I use and I attribute that to the greater cultural power of North America as compared to the rest of the English-speaking world. Cultural power derives from a cultural force’s general power and money is surely the most appropriate measure of power in the modern world, at least at the macro level.

I noticed elements of Ritzer’s point of view in the book, also. It’s pretty clear that he sympathises with reasoned critiques of globalisation, especially more left-leaning ones. I like that because it draws attention to authorial voice in a way that most textbooks don’t. Ritzer is an experienced academic and author of many, many textbooks over the years, so his tone remains academic throughout, never polemical. Some believe that emotional trifles like sympathy have no place in textbooks, but I don’t agree. I think that a certain level is allowed, especially in the social sciences and especially in a subject like globalisation. Call it leftist bias if you wish, on my part or on his, but that’s certainly my position here.

In order to spare my wallet, I get these things second-hand, which means I usually get them a few editions back. I see from Google Books that this is now on its third edition, whereas I read the first edition, published in 2010. The book shows its age somewhat, with Ritzer calling the recession the Great Recession, giving it a trans-centennial quality akin to the Depression. I’m no economist, but my teenage years synch up perfectly with the worst of it. I was following the news closely for all of that time and I feel like it was a turn of the cycle, albeit a really, really bad one. The Depression, and the 1920-1940 period more generally, feels more like a watershed moment between cycles rather than just a single turn.

He also refers positively to Hugo Chavez as a vanguard of anti-imperialism, which also really feels like a 2010 take. Chavez died three years later, having spent over 20 years in mostly uninterrupted power, and his successor, Maduro, really does seem like just an old-school, Marxist-Leninist autocrat. In hindsight, Chavismo hardly seems like a potential bastion against the tide of neo-liberal hegemony presented here.

I feel like I had the beginnings of an understanding of globalisation before I started the book and it really helped to expand and consolidate that understanding. I did Geography for Leaving Cert and really enjoyed it. I think much my worldview comes from what we covered in those classes, in terms of North-South relations, sustainability with the environment, urbanisation, cultural groupings and so much else. Part of why I’m looking forward to getting books drawn from the Giddens/Sutton chapters on the environment and the city (the next two chapters in that book, incidentally) probably comes from my nostalgia for those classes. I’ve been through my wardrobe and haven’t been able to find my LC Geography book, which is a shame. There’s a torn-out page from the index all right but no sign of the rest. I’ll be able to revisit a lot of those subjects in the coming year.

In the fashion of previous books I’ve read, Ritzer has a further reading section at the end of each chapter, usually including books that he’s talked about in the text. These include diverse material from a range of positions and contexts, including Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order and various textbooks. He even cites a few of his own books, which I’m sure I’ll look at eventually. There is, of course, an extensive bibliography including all titles from the further reading sections and all the works he cites throughout. He really puts his Economist subscription to good use, citing 45 different articles from 2004 to 2009.

Also of note is the Appendix, where Ritzer examines how various disciplines approach the subjext of globalisation. These disciplines include anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, geography, psychology and postcolonial literary criticism. Ritzer, of course, is ostensibly a sociologist by profession, although his educational and early professional experience is all over the place and does NOT actually include any formal degree in sociology. Given his background, it’s quite natural that he would include a focus on other disciplines in any subject on which he offers a general introduction. For one, he quotes a definition of geography that really cleared up for me the extent of the differences between it and sociology. Basically, geography requires a focus on spatial relations, or humans’ relationship to the environment in which they exist. This is why sociological work that bring its tools of societal analysis to bear on global or environmental concerns often resembles geographical work.

Two of the longest books I’ve read in the last few months are by Ritzer, including this one. I might leave his work expecting the rest of the books to adopt his inter-disciplinary approach to sociology. I hope that he’s not unique in that respect, because ultimately sociology is just one field I would like to become knowledgeable about. I chose to study the subject, however informally, because I believe that it offers the surest path to understanding the aspects of life that I’m currently interested in. Still, I hope to eventually move on from it and would appreciate if, along the way, I can learn a little about other fields that could enhance my understanding (economics would be a major one).

Aside from the world history dictionaries, which I’m not really bothered with at this point, there are three other books suggested by Giddens and Sutton in the globalisation chapter. They are The Sociology of Globalization by Luke Martell, Introducing Cultural Globalization by Paul Hopper and Global Governance by Timothy J. Sinclair. Each of these is a fraction the length of the Ritzer book, so it should take me about as long to read the three of them, or possibly less. The first looks at globalisation from a more specific disciplinary perspective and the other two look at distinct areas of globalisation, meaning I should get access to deeper levels of understanding of the concept. I’ll probably start to look ahead at the next Giddens/Sutton chapters, to get a reminder of what books are up next and get some thoughts on which ones I want to get and how I’ll acquire them.

Ritzer, George. Globalization: A Basic Text. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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