Globalisation & Society : Media, Culture and Counter-Culture

Description: NECF Malaysia Cross-Currents Consultations
        Author: Tan Kong Beng


"Think Global. Act Local" - Theodore Levitt.

Globalisation is a word on everybody's lips. It's a word heard in the news and in our daily conversations. It concerns everyone as it is a global process that will affect all for good or bad. Even Christians are not immuned from it as we have to take account of it and its effect on the Christian, the local churches and the Church. One journal entitled one of its issues "Globalized : making sense of a shrinking world" (See Christian Century, Dec 12, 2001).
My brief this morning is to attempt to define what is globalisation and its affect on culture and media and how we as Christians might be able to live counter-culturally in the midst of such a global phenomenon.

1. Globalisation
Roland Robertson's definition :
"Globalization...refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole...both concrete global interdependence and consciousness of the global world" (Robertson, 1992 : 8)

Global compression speaks of an increasing level of interdependence between nations in all areas of their relationships (whether in trade and economies, communications, political and cultural links. But it is the idea of an intensification of global consciousness which is a relatively new phenomenon (Waters : 4).

Anthony Gidden says :
"Globalisation defined as the intensification of world-wide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa. This is a dialectical process...Local transformation is as much a part of globalisation as the lateral extension of social connections across time and space ( Giddens, 1990 : 64).

It means that local life-worlds are globalised and globalisation acts on specific geographical locations and this is connected to RELATIVISATION and REFLEXIVITY. All symbolised values will be relativised in different localities while residents in an area will increasingly seek to make conscious decisions about which values and amenities they want to emphasise in their communities. Such decisions will be referred against the global-scapes (of values that are out-there) (Waters : 5).

Malcolm Waters suggests :
Globalisation "is a SOCIAL PROCESS in which the CONSTRAINTS of geography on economic, political, social and cultural arrangements RECEDE, in which PEOPLE become increasingly AWARE that they are receding and in which PEOPLE ACT ACCORDINGLY." (Waters : 5).

Waters says that globalisation proceeds most rapidly in locales in which social relationships are mediated through tokens/symbols. So economic globalisation is most advanced in the financial markets that are mediated by monetary tokens (i.e. money). Political globalisation has proceeded to the extent that there is an appreciation of common planetary values (e.g. human rights) and problems (e.g. global warming and terrorism) rather than commitments to material interests (Waters : 160). Cultural globalisation occurs with cultural trends heading towards universalisation, the abstraction of values and standards to a very high level of generality that will permit extreme levels of cultural differentiation (Waters : 22)

Where do we stand? Personally, I am not a "global sceptic" but also not a
"hyper-globalist". The global sceptic describes people like Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson who do not believe that the term "globalisation" describes the phenomenon. They do not believe that there is this process called globalisation. However, there are those who are called the hyper-globalisers such as Keniche Ohmae (Giddens, 1999) who are the apostles of a view of a change in the way the world is being organised (albeit a reductionism to an economic criteria). I believe that we are in the midst of a special phenomenon but I am not sure it is called "globalisation".

Perhaps another person can help us understand the present phenomenon. Duke University professor James Skillen says that globalisation is about the "GROWING INTERDEPENDENCY OF PEOPLE throughout the world". [A human re-gathering after the Tower of Babel]. It is a process whereby interdependency is multiplying and intensifying via the rapid means of communications which bring the world's billions ever closer and closer to each other economically, environmentally, technologically, and in other ways. Further, it means a CHANGE OF PERSPECTIVE on the MEANING OF LIFE. (Goudzwaard : 7)

Skillen is not surprised by globalisation because from Adam and Eve's act of disobedience there has come about a history of multi-generational disobedience to God on a global scale while at the same time God has begun his global-scale salvation work through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross thus effecting reconciliation for humanity and creation (Goudzwaard : 8-9). He has given the right answer to Jeremy Lott's question : "Is Globalization Christian?" (Lott : 2002).

2. Culture
One columnist wrote that "culture" is defined as "cultivated habit-pattern of thought and action commonly evidenced and communicated from generation to generation as collectively-accepted code of conduct". (Chacko, 2001).

Culture refers to all aspects of life. To most anthropologists, culture encompasses the learned behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, values and ideals that are a characteristic of a particular social group or population (Ember and Ember, 1988 : 17).

It includes the mundane as well as things regarded as higher or more desirable. It includes the material artifacts of culture (such as tools) to the non-material artifacts of culture (such as world view, values and ideals) in any given society. It is about the learned behaviours as much as it is about the institutions of life (such as educational, family and marriage institutions).

3. Media
One aspect of our cultural experience is the technological advances we have made in our quest to communicate, to reach out to another. Media is a term we use to speak of our methods and the devices we use to communicate one with another. Media also indicates an institution of our society in which by different modes (print, radio, TV, Internet, soon all converging into ICT) all sorts of messages are communicated to us who are segmentalised into consumers, citizen-voters, tax-payers, parents, teens, and children, etc.

The medium of communications from its early days as signal bonfires and drums to the papyrus, lambskins and paper scrolls have seen advancements over the course of time. It was the Gutenburg press which brought about a truly revolutionary change in communications media in the late 15th century. In the 2nd decade of the 16th century the print media revolution allowed Luther's 95 Theses to be read throughout Europe within two weeks' of it being nailed at the Wittenburg Castle church doors and gave people an almost blow-by-blow account of the controversy between Luther and the Roman Church.

Sailing ships and the gun boats of the colonial powers extended the reach of the imperial ambitions in the age of mercantilist and expansionist policies of the European powers in the 17th and 18th century. With these came religious and cultural imperialism to all their colonies and protectorates.

The 19th and 20th century brought to us the telegraph, telephone, radio (from the 1920s) and TV (from the WWII onwards). The late 1970s saw the advent of satellite communications. The computer revolution of the 1980s led us to the development of Information Communications Technology (ICT) with the burgeoning growth of faxes, cell-phones, digital cameras, and the Internet.

The next wave is for a covergence of various medias and a truly multi-media platform that meets all our communication needs which connects one with whomever and wherever. Star Trek is becoming a reality soon. (See Negroponte, 1996; Herman and McChesney, 1997. Both give a summary of human communications development.)

As much as our communications media has influenced our lives and now connects us to a global perspective so also we are impacted upon by the media as an institution that reports, analyses and disseminates news as well as communicates different messages to us. This communications community influences us in the way they write and present such messages to us. We sometimes imbibe all they say (whether its the news or a product or service message) without a discerning mind to shift the wheat from the chaff.

It was Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist, who says that the determining principle of culture is the medium by which it is transmitted rather than its content. To him the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964 and 1967). Following him I suggest that our communications media and the media community that provides us with the news and messages via the different media are changing us culturally as well.

Our communications media because of new technological advancements have now impacted
our culture as well as ourselves individually. Nicholas Negroponte says this "digital life" will be the cultural experience of every person (Negroponte, 1996). In fact, Derrick De Kerckhove has spoken, perhaps too confidently, of the digital-electronic age as the advent of a new culture that presents us with psycho-technological identities (De Kerckhove, 1995).

The community of media specialists impacts the way we think and live by their reference to opinion leaders and also by reference to themselves as shapers of opinions and by the value judgements they make. For instance, the way the US media has influenced how ordinary Americans viewed their neighbours who are Muslims and have Arabic names after the September 11 suicide-bombings of the Twin Towers in New York.

Perhaps here is where we can cast our vision on a global scale as to where culture is developing, globally and locally, as we draw on the threads of our impressions.

1. Cultural compression
Cultures will be compressed where once distance and time separated one culture from another. I think we should see possibilities of living in different cultures. How does a Malaysian businessman live when he lives in two cultures by spending time in Shngahai as much as he spends time in KL? Will not over time he/she will be a mixed of the two city cultures as much Malaysian as he/she will be PRC-Chinese.

Cultural compression can exist when a person is electronically linked to two or more
life-worlds as much as he/she is living concretely in one. So, let us say one of us lives in KL and he/she is electronically linked via a variety of communications media to Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro because he/she has friends there. Will not that person absorb all the values and messages coming from these two cities via the media and communications he has with his/her friends? This is the digital life possibilities that are on offer to us.

2. Shared values
If distance and time is collapsed, then there is the possibility of shared cultural values which may abound. Will there be syncretism? Yes to a degree, I believe. But it stems from a global shared values that is localised, that is culture-specific. So you may have human rights as a shared global value but practiced culturally-specific in a locale. There is every opportunity for a culturally-specific value to become a globalised value as globalisation and localisation impacts each other in a dialectic as Giddens suggests.

3. Virtual life
By being linked electronically will there not be a possibility that we do have several
life-worlds to live in? Yes, most certainly. The life-worlds exist as realities when we are connected to someone else in that culture. If there is no real connectedness I am afraid all we have is virtual reality which is not really real at all.

The virtual community is about people who reach out across time and space and connect in a relationship with another. Such a community can exist on the premise that the people who are communicating are telling the truth of themselves and not taking on a persona to hide one's true identity. Still I think such a relationship is not concretely related until such time they are meaningfully realised in face-to-face contact and so there is no hiding from each other for who I really am is seen in the way I act and behave. There must be a congruence otherwise there is no integrity. That may come when we have real-time video communication that transcends time and space.

4. Welcome to McDonalidazation : Homogenisation of culture
There is this great fear that we are being swamped by American culture and as one analyst calls it a "McDonaldization" of our world (Ritzer, 1993; Barber, 1995). We see this exemplified for us in the everyday badges of our youth in their style of clothing items, attitudes and behaviours. Perhaps the children are only following on the attitudes and behaviours of their parents who hold on to such items of Western affluence themselves in their branded apparels and consumerist behaviours.

The teen music broadcaster, MTV, in India, suggests that there may not necessarily be a homogenisation of culture. MTV began to broadcast into India again in 1996 and stated they would maintain an "international" look but had to reverse the policy by the end of 1996 and early 1997. Thus, their "international" look was dropped in favour of a process of "Indianisation" so that by 1998, up to 70% of its programming in India was Hindi pop and film music (Chitty : 89).

It has been suggested that rather than a homogenising layer of western cultural products over those nominally regarded as of Indian origin, what is taking place is a constructed fusion of discourse (of East meets West). This process has been classified as ‘chutneyfication' by Salman Rushdie in an interview. He says that these chutneys, the new generation [of youth in India] may well have elements which come from the rest of the world but the particular flavour is entirely Indian (Chitty : 87).

As part of our increasing reflexivity and the knowledge of globalised values, people, young and old, will be able to have the opportunities to make choices especially in the area of choosing the way they want to live and how they are to do so. The question is always one of discernment. On what basis do we choose? How do we decide?

5. Cultural Re-formation
If, as has been suggested that, the new digital-electronic age will shape our culture then there are possibilities for cultural re-formation to take place, globally and locally. With the dawning of this new age upon us we cannot go back to where we once were. We are unable to go back to tradition to re-anchor our culture. However, how much of tradition is invented and how much of it is new because of its invention?

Robertson cites Hobsbawm and Ranger work which suggests that many of the nation-states constructed national symbols, monuments and ceremonials of which some of these were literally "invented" (such as state Shinto in Japan) while others involved selective appropriation and valorisation of past traditions (Stackhouse and Paris : 57).

There is then the possibility for us to re-construct our culture aided by the media which disseminates such a construction to be appropriated or re-constructed again by people. On what basis shall we construct our society bearing in mind the changes that have come about and will go on re-constructing our cultural experience?

If you think that secularisation will be on the rise, think again. No! says a study, Christianity, Social Change and Globalization in the Americas. The editors, Anna Peterson, Manuel Vasquez and Phillip Williams, find that globalization has not meant secularization in fact "religion is changing but not disappearing"(Lott : 2002).

IV. CHRISTIAN COUNTER-CULTURE : living in a globalised culture
It was John Stott who gave expression to the term "Christian counter-culture" when he wrote an exposition on the Sermon on the Mount (Stott : 1978) while it was Theodore Roszak who brought forth the sociological analysis earlier in his The Making of a counter-culture (1969). In Christian counter-culture, Stott was suggesting to Christians to live life differently from that of one's culture. The Christian is to be different because he/she is called to live a holy life, to be a holy nation, by God (I Pet 2: 9).

Negatively, we begin with David Tracy warning us to turn away from modernity's curse that there should be systematization, to render a totality system that makes everything more of the same, for to render totality is to efface the distinct (Stackhouse and Paris : 252) His antidote for such a temptation is to have a radically eschatological, really an apocalyptic and messianic, understanding of history which would be able to critique prophetically our temptation to totality and to free the redemptive images of our past and present (Stackhouse and Paris : 253).

Rather than to systematise (as in totalitarian command societies or even in liberal democracies with its influential media) Tracy says that modern communications do allow for us possibilities of participation as more people become reflexive, more self-conscious and so engage in deliberate decision-making to make their life-world as they know it of the world out-there (i.e. the global-scape). However, Tracy recognises the problems of the merely virtual and also that true participation is certainly circumscribed not only by a lack of wisdom and discernment but also of a deficiency in facilities and even limited access to such.

Positively, Giddens says that as people become more reflexive as they begin to think for themselves and will make choices for the creation of their life-worlds based on information. As people become more open to sources of information and as they become more self-conscious they will make life choice decisions with regards their personal life and

With the call to avoid systematisation and the understanding that there will be more reflexivity in the on-going globalisation process that must lead us as Christian to live truly authentic Christ-following lives. For it is in Christ are you distinctly you and I, myself while at the same time we are truly self-conscious, self-aware of who I am and who you are.
In fact, Paul speaks of a face-to-face meeting with God where one can know fully even as he/she is fully known. (I Cor 13 : 12). So, can it not be our own meeting with each other as well? But where to begin to be authentic, to be the really real me, warts and all.

The Monastic Fathers spoke of the impossibility of knowing oneself without knowing God first. This is what they call the double knowledge of God and man. To be self-conscious or self-aware is to know oneself as a creature before God. This creature was raised to the heights of creation glory but had also fallen to the depths because of sin.

This knowledge comes from a knowledge of God (both objective and subjective-experiential theology) and then that knowledge lead us to self-knowledge of ourselves. All knowledge of God and man came through the self-communication or self-revelation of God. So, God caused the Scripture to be written as His word to tell me who He is and who I am. Thus, to know who I am and to be who I am, the basis of that is from the Triune God who tells me so.

This is the opening that globalisation gives to us to call people to a true reality of living life in His ways. Globalisation challenges us to live a truly authentic Christian life even as people begin to decide on the life-worlds they want to create for themselves.

For us to reach authenticity in our lives we have to "walk the talk" and this comes about only when our focus on real or true knowledge of where we are today comes from what God has said to us and is saying to us.



Barber, Benjamin R. Jihad vs. McWorld. NY : Times Books, 1995.

Chacko, George K. "The globalisation threat to culture" in Sunday Star, Dec 2, 2001.

Chitty, Naren (ed). Mapping Globalization : international media and a crisis of identity.
Penang : Southbound, 2002. See Melissa Butcher, "An imagined community of youth : the formation of new subjectivities in India" : 83-98.

------. "Globalized : making sense of a shrinking world", Christian Century, Dec 12, 2001.

De Kerckhove, Derrick. The Skin of Culture : investigating the new electronic reality.
Ed. Christopher Dewdney. Toronto : Somerville House Publishing, 1995.

Ember, Carol R. and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology. 5/ed. NJ : Prentice-Hall
International Inc., 1988.

Giddens, Anthony, "Runaway World : The Reith Lectures revisited".
Lecture I : 10 November 1999. In
Nov. 30, 2001. Hardcopy with author.
-----. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge : Polity, 1990.

Goudzwaard, Bob. Globalization and the Kingdom of God. Edited and Foreword by James W. Skillen with responses by Brian Fikkert, Larry Reed and Adolfo Garcia de la Sienra. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker, 2001.

Herman, Edward S. and Robert W. McChesney. The Gobal Media : the new missionaries of of corporate capitalism. London and NY : Cassell, 1997.

Hirst, Paul Q. and Grahame Thompson. Globalisation in Question. Cambridge : Polity Press, 1996.

Lott, Jeremy. "Is Globalization Christian." Books and Culture, Jan/Feb 2002.
In Jan 24, 2002.
Hardcopy with author.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London : Routledge, 1964.
----- and Q. Fiore. The Medium is the Message. London : Allen and Lane, 1967.

Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. NY : Vintage Books, 1996.

Ohmae, Kenichi. The Borderless World : power and strategy in the global marketplace.
London : HarperCollins Business, 1994. Ist pub.1990.

Ritzer, George. The McDonalization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA : Pine Forge Press, 1993.

Robertson, Roland. Globalization. London : Sage, 1992.

Stackhouse,Max L. with Peter J. Paris. God and Globalization. Vol I : Religion and the powers of the common life. Harrisburg, PA : Trinity Press International, 2000. See essay by Roland Robertson, "Globalization and the Future of 'Traditional Religion' : 53-68. Robertson was citing Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge : CUP, 1983. See also David Tracy, "Public Theology, Hope and the Mass Media : can the Muses still inspire": 231-54.

Stott, John R.W. Christian Counter-Culture : the message of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Bible Speaks Today series. Leicester : IVP, 1978.

Waters, Malcolm. Globalization. 2/ed. London and NY : Routledge, 2001.

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