Globalization through the lens of networks

by Rohit's Blog

One of the key ideas that stands out for me in this week’s readings, especially chapter nine of Understanding Social Networks by Charles Kadushin and the conclusion of The Rise of the Network Society by Manuel Castells, is the notion of modern networks being the backbone of the phenomenon we know today as globalization. Globalization as a concept that involves the spread of ideas across national boundaries isn’t really new per se. But what does seem remarkable about globalization in the modern era is the pace at which products, ideas, innovation or even disease can spread across the entire globe as a result of communication or other technologies. Whether one views the impact of globalization positively, negatively, or with a sense of ambivalence, it’s nonetheless easy to see a strong correlation between Kadushin’s depiction of networks and the global diffusion of ideas through those networks.

For example, when Kadushin describes the difference between “centrality in a dense network” and “centrality as a bridge,” I’m inclined to think of the former as a tradition or idea that was once under the sole purview of a particular culture or nation, with the latter representing the transmission of that idea or tradition to other regions of the globe. Furthermore, the image of a “bridge” would seem to imply that the network (i.e., globalization) has enabled the tradition or idea (or anything that was once limited to just one part of the globe for that matter) to now transcend the limitations of language, geography and culture and ultimately gain a sense of universal appeal.

There are probably countless real-life examples of this transmission across cultural boundaries, ranging from fashion products, cuisine, and artistic influences (e.g., the mixing of which often result in new forms of fusion) to political and economic perspectives. But I think the key is the following: rather than think of globalization as a random or mysterious top-down process, we can instead understand globalization through the lens of networks that include Kadushin’s concepts around opinion leaders, tipping points, thresholds, and so on. And the extent to which globalization can occur depends heavily on policies at the local, national, and international levels (e.g., trade and environmental)—what Kadushin would refer to as the “exogenous factors.”

Of course, not everyone will see the idea of networked globalization as being positive or even benign. Manuel Castells, for example, recognizes the network society as representing “a qualitative change in the human experience.” Castells describes society as now consisting of a “meta-network where value is produced, cultural codes are created, and power is decided.” According to Castells, this meta-network is removed from “individuals, activities, and locales around the world.” As Castells puts it, it’s “not that people, locales, or activities disappear…but their structural meaning does.” Though he doesn’t appear to use the word “globalization” in his conclusion, Castells’ description of the impact of a meta-network does mirror criticisms of globalization as undermining the unique aspects of local or indigenous traditions and cultures—from local arts and crafts to languages and ways of thinking. In this way, Castells seems to highlight the challenge of finding meaning in one’s physical place or community amidst the presence of a meta-network that transcends “space and time.”

Ultimately, through their attempt at explaining the intricacies and nuances of networks, I believe that both Kadushin and Castells have presented valuable and insightful ways of understanding globalization and how network theory underpins our ability to conceptualize new forms of cultural and societal fusion.