Globalization and Multi-Culturalism: A Shift of Concepts and Principles

Mehdi Sanaei

An Article by Mehdi Sanaei, Head of department, Tehran University, Director, Centre for Iran & Eurasian studies

In the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union which gave rise to globalization debates, this concept was deeply affected by the excitement of disintegration process more than anything else. However, after a while the early simplistic expectations about cultural unification in the world dissipated. Of course, technological development created similar pathways but it could not totally eliminate existing differences and generate a unified culture. On the other hand, highlighting these differences or using force to configure them, only complicated the development process. For example, in the period after collapse of the bi-polar world, some of the more powerful countries acted in a way that converted the globalization agenda from a mere cultural and social issue into a topic that could be attractive to statesmen as well. Moreover, politics and economy joined forces to make these differences more pronounced and the economical/political crises around the world consecutively affected immigration problem and increased the pressure on all types of alien minorities. Therefore, a certain tendency towards cultural discrimination resulted that covered all ethnicities, religions and nationalities based on a spectrum that moved from the positive to the negative end of the range and this was just a small part of its characteristics. The present article describes the interaction between globalization and multi-culturalism and depicts the stances of politics, economy and technology in this process.


Globalization is a concept coined to explain the developments we have witnessed in the second half of 20th century around the globe. These events resulted in reducing the role of countries, nations and domestic laws, and instead international regulations and trends have taken over. This trend has affected areas such as domestic politics, local economies and native cultures. An example of these areas is the intersection of globalization with cultures and affecting their roles in the societies living under influence of those cultures. However, the relationship between globalization and culture is far beyond aforementioned cases and is not essentially a forced and unilateral relationship. Also, it is noteworthy that the multi-culturalism as an idea arising from globalization has various aspects and includes diverse cultures of our world and also diverse cultures within societies. Therefore, one can hardly talk about a global culture. This article is going to answer this question: “What factors, by which processes, augment multi-culturalism in a world speeding towards globalization?”

This is based on the assumption that technology, politics and economy enhance multi-culturalism through controversial processes.

Globalization and culture

To start talking about multi-culturalism, one must focus on the origins of this term and its relationship with globalization. By posing the globalization question, it is to say the role of above factors have increased in politics of all countries and global affairs. But this development has other aspects as well. In fact, this development changes the relationship of mankind with its environment. John Tomlinson (1999, 30) has commented that this shift from narrow angle to wide angle is not just a transition from micro-order to macro-order. But it means a deeper impact made by communications, transportation and consequently intensifying interconnectedness among people. For example, expansion of communications and its equipments and also growing transportation networks easily connect long distances and besides that, create various political/cultural unifications.

However, the globalization theoreticians in addition to interconnectedness concept stress the Global Interconnectedness idea. They hold that the interconnectedness among various sectors of the world is increasing. Since globalization is concurrently advancing in varied areas (e.g. trade of goods, capital and services; public communications; knowledge; fashion and even organized crime and so forth). Increasing interdependence and global interconnectedness phenomenon give rise to international networks. These networks reduce borderlines caused by isolating people’s interests based on national, ethnic, tribal etc. divisions. To offer a conservative view on globalization, we should take it as being placed in a global framework not global homogenization or global unity (Moini, 1382, pp.26-27).

This interpretation of globalization implies lower control of government over its subjects. This uncontrollable economical situation manifests itself in growing foreign investment at international level. However, it is not limited to that scope and has expanded into cultural realms. By growing satellite networks, Internet and cultural privatization; government control over societies declined and various political/cultural messages are being exchanged more frequently. But all of these developments do not mean that a Global Culture is taking shape (Moini, 1382, pp.27-28).  

The second consequence of globalization is growth of local-global relationships, i.e. events in a part of the world get the attention of all populations of the globe and thus, enhance social relationships across the globe. In this case, globalization means intensifying global social relationships that have connected remote points such that events happening thousands of miles away immediately affect other parts of the world as if  they have happened in the neighborhood (Giddens, 2008,3). On the other hand, globalization has mixed effects on the balance of individual-nation-world. That is, on the one side, government-nation balance changes by intervention of international forces, and on the other side, the balance between the individual and government-nation changes accordingly. This way, ethnicity also undermines government by separatism.    

Giddens (1996,48) found no controversy between globalization and intellectualism and holds that the globalization is intrinsically controversial. Globalization process helps people to feel differences more deeply and become sensitive to them. These sensitivities might cause trouble. Therefore, too much emphasis on converging aspects of globalization is not recommended since its divergent aspects might be ignored.  For example, cultural globalization did not actually eliminate the concept of borderlines, but strengthened it or created new borderlines that invoke much quarrel in various parts of the globe. Identity has become more realistic in many ways. Now let’s see what relationship can take place between globalization and culture in a general sense. This way, in spite of diverse differences, the correlation of globalization process and culture or cultural reactions to that process can be grouped into 3 categories.

1- Cultural homogeneity: This reaction to globalization is a typical passivity and metamorphosis. In this relationship, culture passively faces globalization and adopts new culture and loses its own. This reaction is a result of economical globalization under capitalist hegemony and multi-national companies.

2- Cultural customization: This is another relationship between globalization and culture. In spite of cultural homogeneity theory, some theoreticians hold that the cultural reaction against globalization does not mean passively giving up. In most instances, the reaction of cultures is resistance and even stressed confrontation which manifests by resorting to linguistic, religious, ethnic and racist identity elements. To put it another way, although globalization homogenizes aspects of life in modern society, it augments cultural and identity differences too.

3- Cultural mingling and evolution: The third type of reaction to globalization process is reviewed here under the title: cultural mingling and evolution. In fact the complex and diverse cultural universe is not only a battlefield or passivity. The globalization process encourages a universal culture but at the same time puts existing cultures and identities together which results in a typical relativity, cohabitation and competition. This reaction has been called Hybridization, Translation or Offensive and imply that the cultures neither get annihilated in globalization process nor return to their origins, but they can survive by transformation and mixing with other cultures (Golmohammadi 2003, pp.82-89).

To explain the above observations, it must be said that the local life is prominent even in today’s human society and it will continue in the midst of globalization. Tomlinson in the book  Globalization & Culture, quotes the idea of Globalization-Localization by Roland Robertson (Tomlinson 1999, 2). This is the dualism hidden in globalization concept. In fact, various societies go global but at the same time, globalization gets local, i.e. a society penetrated by globalization, internalizes it or globalization gets absorbed in localization but manifests its discourse with cultural phenomena. Arjun Appadurai separates each of political, economical and cultural aspects of globalization and describes five areas for those aspects, namely: ethnic, technological, financial, communications and ideological. In ethnic area he indicates tourists, immigrants, refugees and other human groups that are on the road. Technological area comes from interaction of old and new technologies, expanding communications technologies and their interaction with people. Financial area is the free flow of capital beyond government control.

Here, the communications and ideological areas are most complicated. In communications area, he points out the information transfer capability which is a major issue in cultural globalization. Ideological area pivots around ideology and thus maintains an element of power and always aligns with government-nation. Appadurai holds that every human being, tribe, population and government has its own interpretation of globalization and it is not clear how much is that compatible with actual globalization. Therefore globalization is extremely local. This way, people and societies are not passive against globalization but by their various interpretations of globalization can demonstrate it somewhat different than reality (Appadurai 1990, pp.295 – 310).

Contrary to theories of ingenuity of the message (i.e. powerful transmission and passive receiver of message), the Reception Theory believes in the determining role of receiver of message and holds that globalization is not necessarily accompanied with cultural prevalence of producers of cultural text and message since firstly, the text and message are transmitted with controversial elements; and secondly, receivers do not approach the texts in passivity and necessarily do not get caught in the web of preferred coding methods in decoding them. Thirdly, in a world that is going beyond modernism and its claims of connecting with objectivity, sincerity and truth at least in its discourse aspects, and while escaping from uniformity, stressing differences, and empowering marginal dwellers are features of new discourse space, the setting for evading customary de-legitimization in discourse policy arena gets prepared and thus, the road is paved for dissident voices (Moshirzade 2003, pp.331-332).

We have explained that during globalization process, there is the possibility of resistance, augmented stress and also amalgamation of cultures. This way, we get back to where we started from. Did a global culture emerge? As Olaf Hannerz puts it: “There is a global culture right now but we’d better make sure of it…There is no total homogeneity of contexts and concepts and such phenomenon does not seem to happen any time soon. But the world has been converted into a network of social interactions and a flow of concepts, people and goods is running through its various parts.” (Hannerz 1990, 237)

Globalization and multi-culturalism interact with technology

Perhaps it is true that globalization owes its success to technology more than anything else. Technology deeply influenced all aspect of today’s life with its paramount manifestation in development of media. This way, media make an impact on politics and economy besides culture (Rajai 2003, 115). However, their impact on culture is discussed here. In this sense, the concepts of technology, communications, media and culture are connected together. Harlod Innis holds that the Western civilization is deeply influenced by communications (Rajai 2003, 116). Globalization and communications are fully interconnected. Marshal McLuhan connected the media and globalization by mixing the two concepts of message medium and global village. In fact, many scholars have reviewed the connection between globalization and media and most theoreticians agree that globalization is not practically conceivable without media and communications. For example, Trehi Rantanen accentuates the role of media and communications in globalization by defining globalization as a tend within which the global economical, political, cultural and social relationships are increasingly surrounded by space and time (Rantanen 2005, pp.4-8). Triflo states three reasons for pivotal role of media in globalization. First, global operations of media are much more than the past. Second, because existence of global substrates facilitate global information stream. Third, global media play a key role in determining the way we see the events round the world and in expanding common conceptual systems (Movius  2010, 8).

Electronic media have collapsed the time and space, and that allowed new phenomena like participation journalism, online communities, and international organized activists through online networks to emerge. ICT revolution has changed the media environment and created new media like digital technologies and networked environments (Movius  2010, 9). As we have seen, all of these facilities did not give rise to a global culture and even augmented multi-culturalism phenomenon.

By the same token, the relationship between globalization and multi-culturalism is also complex. In a multi-cultural setting, people belong to various and numerous cultures and cultural diversity - to the same amount it exists between different governments- does exist inside a country in various regions, cities and villages (King 1990:409). In fact, the global trends have converted the thoughts, imagination, life styles and especially the human beings in many societies more or less into a scene for presentation of varied cultures, cohabitation and cultural socializing. But, the most evident demonstration of cultural cohabitation and co-mingling is the life of people and groups that have left their homeland and settled in new countries. Although these people have no other choice than compromise and cohabit with new culture, they have preserved their ties with their homeland. In fact, they neither get integrated in host society culture nor rise in confrontation with this culture and revive their primary one. In fact, these people learn to live with 2 or more cultures (Hall, 1996, 310).

There are many patterns of multi-culturalism and cultural socializing that imply the possibility of cultural pluralism. These days, discredited nature of social agencies and cultural icons, has paved the way for presence of various cultures in many urban, national and regional social units and too much international/inter-regional immigration has made cultural socializing in the world’s large metropolises inevitable (Albrow, 2000, pp.119- 122). The important point in this process is that if immigration trend takes place by only one nationality, tribe, religious group, etc. the social interaction among these cultural groups is more difficult. But if various groups start to migrate the socializing process would be amicable.

Also, The Internet global network has created a civilization contrary to past civilizations that rose to power in certain geographical areas, and this new civilization has covered the whole globe and involved all men. Intense globalization has squeezed its configuring parts together and complicated them and invoked the expectation of homogeneity. If there is any homogeneity, it is manifest in linguistics by wide application of English language. But even if all people talk this language, it is not the same as global homogeneity. The new world can contain as many - or more - cultures than the pre-modern era. Since culture is not only about democracy, science and capitalism, but it is about customs, ethics, literature, education & training and family structure. Globalization does not change or eliminate the human condition to which every culture responds in its own way.

Perhaps in explaining the role of technology, we must conclude that in globalization trend, technology acts as a procedure, i.e. through exploring technology, this mindset takes shape that presumably globalization is spreading and there is a tendency to ignore borderlines and get absorbed in a cultural culture. However, this idea is a highly simplistic view of the subject matter. Tendency to use new technology -particularly in communications- obviously pales out borderlines and distances, but based on aforementioned framework, it did not establish a homogeneous culture and even acted quite in reverse in some instances.

Globalization and multi-culturalism; performance of economy and politics

Although globalization presents vast political/economical horizons, what we are interested in here is the performance of economy and politics in actualization of multi-culturalism phenomenon and in that sense, the pivot of discussion is one of the cultural reactions towards globalization which is cultural customization, and it is mostly seen in its ethnic, nationalist and religious forms. Obviously, ethnic and nationalist customizations are fairly overlapping. With this explanation, ethnic customization can be reviewed here. Although 20th century social researchers regarded ethnic and racist identities a retrograde historical abnormality that would reconcile and fade out against Communism or Liberal Democracy agencies (Esman, 1999, 260), the events in the closing years of  20th century proved them wrong. So, the global community stepped into the 3rd millennium A.D. with plenty of ethnic quarrels around the corner. Besides undeveloped Africa/Asian communities, the developed world which was thought to have solved nationality or ethnicity problems was teeming with ethnic hostility. Statistics show that many countries of the world have ethnic pluralism and contain more than 2 ethnicities. These communities are competing for ruling, independency, or reconciliation in population to capture better opportunities in a friendly or aggressive manner.

Historically, nationalism has been around for over 200 years and it can be regarded as a most powerful force in the modern world. It was thought that this phenomenon - like ethnicity- would gradually fade out during the process of evolution and renovation of society under dominion of Marxist, Liberalist and Renovation Theory discourses. However, the salient nationalist theoretician Anthony Smith holds that separatist movements in Canada, Scotland, Britain, Spain and other Western countries discredit common assumptions about renovation and democracy. Also, Smith believes that nationalist/ethnic quarrels in Eastern Europe, Russia, Middle-East, Indian subcontinent and so forth again have placed nationalism in the focus point of global affairs (Hutchinson1994,pp.10-11). Giddens reviewed recent nationalist movements in the framework of local nationality and considered this phenomenon to be the product of new possibilities that globalization process provided for re-generation of local identities (Giddens 1998, pp.31-32). Some works talk about Third Wave or Nationalism of The 3rd Kind that took shape after the end of the Cold war and in spite of its similarities with previous stages of nationalism, it is distinctive. While in previous nationalism the political aspects of nationality were stressed, there were internationalism streaks with liberal and anti-colonialism inclinations. The present nationalism has anti-liberal, chauvinistic and totalitarian aspects. In other words, the 3rd wave of nationalism is based on identity establishment and difference of division creation (Holton 1998,136) (Translated verbatim-Tr.) All mentioned cases imply the final decades of 20th century witnessed increasing cultural customization.

Another aspect of cultural customization is religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is not restricted to any major religions of the world and is geographically dispersed. The principles of this type of fundamentalism are varied but all religious fundamentalist movements have common denominators. Generally, fundamentalism is a religious social reaction to an imaginary threat posed by globalization. Fundamentalists reject the status quo and present their own utopian ideas.

Equipped with above explanations, now we can cast a fresh glance at augmenting multi-culturalism process. Although economical globalization is too obvious in symbolic areas such as direct foreign investment or monetary/financial markets but it is also visible in materialistic areas. For example, there is a global job market that promotes and complicates immigration phenomenon. Thus, some have called the contemporary age the Age of Immigration (Sutcliffe, 1998, 325). Generally, immigration has numerous goals. But its major part in relation with globalization is economical immigration. This is most prevalent in industrial nations and oil-rich coastal countries of the Gulf, while the number of immigrants from other under-developed countries have not increased much. However, if economical globalization means a global flow of goods, money, services, information and workforce, the increased number of immigrants around the world must be considered as another part of this process. This phenomenon is proof of higher permeability of political borderlines of national economies. The relationship of this part of economy with multi-culturalism is not complicated. Generally, all immigrants can be categorized into various ethnic or religious groups. However, as we mentioned, in spite of widespread globalization, based on many factors we cited earlier, there has been numerous cultural socializings or even customizations and it has been rampant in religious fundamentalism too. On the other hand, after a while and sometimes because of economical reasons another type of customization occurred in these countries that adopted nationalistic approaches and politically was inclined to extreme right. In this framework, the presence of immigrants and minorities was blamed as main cause of political/economical problems in these countries and protests were voiced even in a hostile manner using terrorism tactics. This was more pronounced in developed industrial countries where differences between immigrants and residents show up in many dimensions like religion, ethnicity, etc. In political aspect, this problem was manifest as extreme right tendency in some European countries and sometimes with terrorism and hostility as in Norway. The statesmen may restrict immigration laws to augment the case. However, this type of reaction is not so intense and it would invite a different approach by immigrants as well. Cultural resistance at its best and urge to preserve multi-culturalism in its medium stage can be a reaction to those inclinations. At the same time, this phenomenon might call globalization and its convergent aspects into question and stamps the seal of confirmation on survival of two reactions, namely: cultural customization and multi-culturalism.


This research mostly sought explanation of the fact that in the final decades of 20th century and into the 21st century, we have witnessed multi-culturalism phenomenon. Therefore and by considering multitude of factors that affect multi-culturalism, we reviewed the impact of technology factor on globalization and the function of politics and economy in globalization process up to multi-culturalism stage. In this framework, the result of globalization and multi-culturalism discussions may point to the fact that first of all, technology augments globalization. However, it can not be seen as a catalyst for creation of global culture, which has not taken shape up to this day. In the contrary, this concept in connection with globalization concept and under aforementioned conditions, augments multi-culturalism. Also, during economical/political crises around the world all minorities have undergone hardships which triggered reactions.  So, a trend towards cultural discrimination whether ethnic, religious or national took shape with a varied range from positive end to negative end and generally affected globalization process. Today this effect is not so strong to ascertain the role of globalization as a factor that shapes a global culture. This is visible even in the heart of advanced societies. Therefore, with the passage of time and collapse of past optimistic expectations, the presence of multi-culturalism does not seem so odd nowadays.

This way, from the beginning of globalization promotion, basic changes occurred in theoretical foundations of this concept and related ideas. Metamorphosis and resistance that were two common reactions to globalization and have been ruling over the related literature, faced a phenomenon called multi-culturalism which had risen from the heart of globalization concept. This way, it was clear the globalization process is inclined towards the way people make up their local cultures, customs and identities in the framework of universal common patterns. The globalization destroys the resources, facilities and conditions of traditional identity establishment but at the same time creates new resources so each individual can revive his/her identity using those capacities. Identities that take shape like this - in contrast with identities made up in traditional communities- are very fluid and a fluid social life prevents their being rigid, the fundamentalism progress would be blocked and ultimately by maintaining such environment, one can think globally and live locally.


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