What is Globalization?

A Sociological Definition

Human chain around the world, symbolizing globalization
Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

Sociologists understand globalization to be an ongoing process that involves integrated shifts in economic, cultural, social, and political spheres of society. As a process it involves the ever-increasing integration of these aspects between nations, regions, communities, and even seemingly isolated places.

In terms of the economy, globalization refers to the expansion of the capitalist to include all places around the world into one globally integrated economic system.

Culturally, it refers to the global spread and integration of ideas, values, norms, behaviors, and ways of life. Politically, it refers to the development of forms of governance that operate at the global scale, whose policies and rules cooperative nations are expected to abide. These three core aspects of globalization are all fueled by technological development, the global integration of communication technologies, and the global distribution of media.

Extended Definition

Some sociologists, like William I. Robinson, frame globalization as a process that began with the creation of the capitalist economy, which formed connections between distant regions of the world as far back as the Middle Ages. In fact, Robinson has argued that because a capitalist economy is premised on growth and expansion, a globalized economy is the inevitable result of capitalism. From the earliest phases of capitalism onward, European colonial and imperial powers, and later U.S.

imperialism, created global economic, political, cultural, and social connections around the world.

But despite this, up until the mid-twentieth century, the world economy was actually a compilation of competing and cooperating national economies. Trade was inter-national, rather than global. From the mid-twentieth century on, the process of globalization intensified and quickened as national trade, production, and finance regulations were dismantled, and international economic and political agreements were forged in order to produce a global economy premised on the “free” movement of money and corporations.

The globalization of the world international economy and of political structures was led by wealthy, powerful nations made rich by colonialism and imperialism, including the U.S., Britain, and many Western European nations. From the mid-twentieth century on, leaders of these nations created new global forms of governance that set the rules for cooperation within the new global economy. These include the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Group of Twenty, the World Economic Forum, and OPEC, among others.

The overall process of globalization also involves the spread and diffusion of ideologies—values, ideas, norms, beliefs, and expectations—that foster, justify, and provide legitimacy for economic and political globalization. History has shown that these are not neutral processes, and that it is ideologies from dominant nations that fuel and frame economic and political globalization, and it is these that are spread around the world, becoming normal and taken for granted.

The process of cultural globalization happens through the distribution and consumption of media, consumer goods, and the Western consumer lifestyle. It is also fueled by globally integrated communication systems like social media, disproportionate media coverage of the world’s elite and their lifestyles, the movement of people from the global north around the world via business and leisure travel, and their expectations that host societies will provide amenities and experiences that reflect their own cultural norms.

Because of the dominance of Western and Northern cultural, economic, and political ideologies in shaping globalization, some refer to the dominant form of it as “globalization from above.” This phrase refers to the top-down model of globalization that is directed by the world’s elite. In contrast, the “alter-globalization” movement, composed of many of the world’s poor, working poor, and activists, advocates for a truly democratic approach to globalization known as “globalization from below.” As such, the process would reflect the values of the world’s majority, rather than its elite minority.