If you decide to use PBS’s great documentary film People Like Us in your course, you can find a large amount of useful supplementary material at their companion website.
This project led by Princeton sociologist Miguel Centeno uses a variety of data and historical maps to trace the contours of globalization. The related International Networks Archive also includes some fantastic images of global flows in capital, arms, drugs, tourism, and more.
This New York Times series on social class can help students get a more concrete understanding of how class continues to matter in the contemporary United States.
This NPR website includes several “balloon maps” designed to help visualize global inequalities. These maps are a great set of visual aids to help understand Wallerstein’s theory of the capitalist world-system.
“Globalization” has become a trendy term in political and academic debate since the 1970s, often referring to everything from cutting-edge communication technologies to the increasing number of McDonald’s restaurants in China and India. In popular discourse, globalization is a notoriously ambiguous term, generally used as a shorthand way to refer to the social fact that people, cultures, communities, and economies around the world are becoming increasingly interconnected. But hasn’t the world been globally interconnected in some sense for hundreds of years? And what do social theorists mean when they talk about globalization?
While globalization can still remain a vague term even in social scientific discussions, a great deal of social theory has focused on globalization as a distinct shift in the spatial and temporal dimensions of social life. More specifically, social theorists argue that the speed of social life over the past few decades has increased so greatly that social space has become “compressed” or even annihilated. Digital technologies like the Internet, for example, have allowed us to communicate virtually with anyone in the world at any time. And places like New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore, for example, have become “global cities” in which commerce and cultures from once vastly different parts of the world all intermingle in one space.
While social theorists disagree on the precise sources of this alteration of social space and time, almost all agree that advances in communication technologies and the move to a “post-Fordist” or “flexible” mode of capitalist economic production and consumption have been two, key determining factors. With regard to communication technologies, in today’s digital world, interacting with people from across the globe is just a TV satellite or cell phone away (and this is not only the case in relatively wealthy countries; satellites and cell phones are common sights even in some of the most impoverished communities in the world). And with regard to the economy, the move to “flexible capitalism” marks a turn away from the mass-production of goods in a single place (think automotive plants in Detroit or steel mills in Pittsburgh) and toward a system in which goods are produced in multiple places throughout the globe (think all the parts that go into making and distributing your laptop, from Silicon Valley to Beijing). This shift to flexible production has also been accompanied by a shift towards credit and faster, more frequent consumption. Instead of saving for months or even years to buy a car, home, or business, today’s consumers put such goods on credit, moving the actual payments they have to make into the future so that they can have the products they want now.
Globalization challenges some of our most fundamental distinctions about politics and social life—distinctions between local and global, proximity and distance, domestic and foreign, national and international. In political debate and in the news media, so many things go under the rubric of “globalization” that it becomes hard to get a handle on what, exactly, this thing called globalization is. Social theory, however, begins to give us the tools for grasping the enigma of globalization, showing how changes in the capitalist economy and information technologies have reshaped the contours of social time and space.
While theorists of globalization tend to focus on economic and technological changes since the mid-to-late twentieth century, Immanuel Wallerstein (1930–) looks at globalization over a much longer duration. Wallerstein is famous for developing World-Systems Theory. He argues that the modern world system emerged as early as the 1500s through a series of economic transitions and now connects all countries through a single division of labor. Much like Marx argued that exploitation happens through the relationship between laborer and bourgeoisie, Wallerstein argues that core countries in the developed world extract labor and raw materials from peripheral ones. Capital, he says, now accumulates through an ever-expanding network of trade routes, property rights, and labor agreements that simultaneously connect the world while reinforcing its inequalities. A public intellectual as well as a theorist, Wallerstein’s commentaries on global economics and politics are regularly published in the press.
Along with Wallerstein, geographer and social theorist David Harvey (1935–) is the pre-eminent Marxist theorist of globalization. In his bestselling The Condition of Postmodernity, Harvey became one of the first theorists to link globalization with fundamental changes in our experiences of time and space. Harvey coined the term “time–space compression” to refer to the way the acceleration of economic activities leads to the destruction of spatial barriers and distances. Harvey argues that capital moves at a pace faster than ever before, as the production, circulation, and exchange of capital happens at ever-increasing speeds, particularly with the aid of advanced communication and transportation technologies. The most extreme example of this is how a computer on Wall Street can transfer millions of dollars in one national currency into another in response to a slight fluctuation in the exchange rate and, in the process, gain millions of dollars in profit in a matter of seconds. In these scenarios (which happen every day on Wall Street and other global financial institutions) the time it takes to get from production to exchange to profit is almost non-existent. According to Harvey, it is this compression of social time–space through economic activity that is the driving force behind globalization.
A theorist with wide-ranging interests, Anthony Giddens has also become a respected scholar in globalization theory, particularly for his insights on how globalization has affected contemporary social life and politics. In Runaway World, Giddens provocatively argues that globalization has led to the creation of a “global risk society.” According to Giddens, human social and economic activities, especially in modernity, produce various risks such as pollution, crime, new illnesses, food shortages, market crashes, wars, etc., and societies have become more responsible for managing these risks that their activities intentionally or, more often than not, unintentionally produce. In the era of globalization, however, human activities have become connected across the globe, so that events in one part of the world (the housing market bubble bursting in the U.S., for example) create consequences for people in many other areas of the globe. As such, the management of risk has become an undeniably worldwide affair.
For more on Giddens, check out his Profile page.
While most scholars look to transformations in the capitalist economy to account for globalization, sociologist Manuel Castells (1945–) is unique in that he gives just as much attention to changes in the social organization of communication and information. Castells argues that globalization is a network of production, culture, and power that is constantly shaped by advances in technology, which range from communications technologies to genetic engineering. Castells suggests that the rules of global capitalism have changed to embrace these new information technologies. Power now flows not from corporations or states, but through the informational flows and codes that connect those corporations and states to each other and the world. For Castells, the advancement of the Information Age does not necessarily mean that the world has become flat; rather, with technological advance, he argues, come new global forms of exclusion and inclusion, fragmentation and integration.
Sociologist Saskia Sassen’s (1949–) career has been dedicated to understanding the social, political, and economic dimensions of globalization. She has written about the increased mobility of labor, the rise of global cities, and the changing role and powers of the nation state in an era of globalization. In her book,Globalization and Its Discontents, Sassen became one of the first scholars to argue that the international spread of the notion of human rights could override distinctions of nationality and citizenship. Under a global human rights regime, she argues, law must treat people as persons-qua-persons first, and citizens only second.
Go to the website of Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, an institute dedicated to addressing and theorizing issues pertaining to globalization:
Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) was born to a working-class family in a small village in southern France called Denguin. Bourdieu’s father was a small farmer turned postal worker with little formal education, but he encouraged a young Bourdieu to pursue the best educational opportunities his country had to offer. Bourdieu took his father’s advice, eventually gaining admittance to one of France’s most prestigious universities, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he studied philosophy under the famous Marxist thinker, Louis Althusser.
After receiving his doctorate, Bourdieu took a teaching position in Algiers, Algeria in 1958. Algeria was at that time a French colony, but a war was underway between France and an Algerian independence movement. During this time, Bourdieu undertook ethnographic fieldwork among the Kabyle, Algeria’s largest indigenous group. Based on his fieldwork, Bourdieu published his first book, The Algerians, which was an immediate success. Later, Bourdieu would also use this fieldwork to write Outline of a Theory of Practice, one of his first and most influential theoretical statements.
Bourdieu’s rising reputation as a leading social theorist landed him a position as Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and later, in 1981, the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France.
Bourdieu was a prolific academic writer. He published more than 25 books and over 300 articles and essays over his career. He was also a leading public intellectual in France, speaking out and organizing protests against what he saw as the unfair and exploitive aspects of neoliberal economic policy and globalization. By the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu was known as one of France’s greatest scholars and one of the most influential social theorists in the world.
It is hard to overestimate the influence Bourdieu has had on social theory. Bourdieu’s works have been translated in over two dozen languages and many are already considered classics in disciplines across the social sciences and humanities. Not only sociologists, but also those in anthropology, cultural studies, and education consider Bourdieu required reading for anyone trained in their disciplines. Bourdieu’s understanding of sociology as a “combat sport” that critically takes on and exposes the underlying structures of social life has also had a strong impact on the academic field, particularly in his home nation of France.
While he didn’t consider himself a Marxist sociologist, the theories of Karl Marx heavily influenced Bourdieu’s thinking. Marx’s influence is perhaps most evident in Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital. Like Marx, Bourdieu argued that capital formed the foundation of social life and dictated one’s position within the social order. For Bourdieu and Marx both, the more capital one has, the more powerful a position one occupies in social life. However, Bourdieu extended Marx’s idea of capital beyond the economic and into the more symbolic realm of culture.
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social class. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others—the same taste in movies, for example, or a degree from an Ivy League School—creates a sense of collective identity and group position (“people like us”). But Bourdieu also points out that cultural capital is a major source of social inequality. Certain forms of cultural capital are valued over others, and can help or hinder one’s social mobility just as much as income or wealth.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital comes in three forms—embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. One’s accent or dialect is an example of embodied cultural capital, while a luxury car or record collection are examples of cultural capital in its objectified state. In its institutionalized form, cultural capital refers to credentials and qualifications such as degrees or titles that symbolize cultural competence and authority.
Habitus is one of Bourdieu’s most influential yet ambiguous concepts. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences. Bourdieu often used sports metaphors when talking about the habitus, often referring to it as a “feel for the game.” Just like a skilled baseball player “just knows” when to swing at a 95-miles-per-hour fastball without consciously thinking about it, each of us has an embodied type of “feel” for the social situations or “games” we regularly find ourselves in. In the right situations, our habitus allows us to successfully navigate social environments. For example, if you grew up in a rough, crime ridden neighborhood in Baltimore, you would likely have the type of street smarts needed to successfully survive or steer clear of violent confrontations, “hustle” for jobs and money in a neighborhood with extremely low employment, and avoid police surveillance or harassment. However, if you were one of the lucky few in your neighborhood to make it to college, you would probably find that this same set of skills and dispositions was not useful—and maybe even detrimental—to your success in your new social scenario.
Habitus also extends to our “taste” for cultural objects such as art, food, and clothing. In one of his major works, Distinction, Bourdieu links French citizens’ tastes in art to their social class positions, forcefully arguing that aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by the culturally ingrained habitus. Upper-class individuals, for example, have a taste for fine art because they have been exposed to and trained to appreciate it since a very early age, while working-class individuals have generally not had access to “high art” and thus haven’t cultivated the habitus appropriate to the fine art “game.” The thing about the habitus, Bourdieu often noted, was that it was so ingrained that people often mistook the feel for the game as natural instead of culturally developed. This often leads to justifying social inequality, because it is (mistakenly) believed that some people are naturally disposed to the finer things in life while others are not.
Along with Bourdieu’s notion of a “feel for the game” came his theory of the game itself. Bourdieu understood the social world as being divided up into a variety of distinct arenas or “fields” of practice like art, education, religion, law, etc., each with their own unique set of rules, knowledges, and forms of capital. While fields can certainly overlap—education and religion, for example, overlap in many religiously-based colleges and universities in the United States—Bourdieu sees each field as being relatively autonomous from the others. Each field has its own set of positions and practices, as well as its struggles for position as people mobilize their capital to stake claims within a particular social domain. In art, for example, Bourdieu noticed that each generation of artists sought to overturn the established positions of those who came before them, only to be critiqued by the next generation of “avant-garde” artists who sought their own powerful positions within the field. Much like a baseball or football field, social fields are places where people struggle for position and play to win.
France loves its intellectuals. So much so that they even make documentaries about them! To get a “behind the scenes” look at the intellectual habitus of Bourdieu himself, check out “Sociology is a Martial Art” on YouTube:
Go to your library and check out Loic Wacqant’s ethnography of a boxing gym on Chicago’s south side for an up-close and personal look at the fighter’s habitus. Wacquant, a prominent social theorist in his own right, was one of Bourdieu’s students:
We’ve included two key readings from Bourdieu in the Social Theory Re-Wired reader, but Bourdieu wrote more—a lot more! To find your way through his many writings, we suggest you take a look at this handy online bibliography:
Pierre Bourdieu’s death from cancer in 2002 was a big loss to social theory and to those in France who turned to him as a political voice on behalf of the dispossessed. Read his obituary in the Guardian here:
From p. 145 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e
The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) was born in Trier, Germany to Jewish parents (who later converted to Christianity in the face of anti-Jewish laws of the time). Attending private schools in his childhood, Marx later studied law and eventually received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1841. As a student, he was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Georg Hegel and his successors (known in philosophical circles as the “Young Hegelians”), but later critiqued what he saw as the idealism of Hegel and developed his own theory of historical materialism (see the “Key Concepts” section below). After receiving his Ph.D., Marx worked as a journalist and became involved in communist thought and politics, as well as numerous political and social issues of the time. In 1843 he married Jenny Von Westphalen and, in 1844, he met Friedrich Engels, who would financially support much of Marx’s later writing and co-author some of his most influential works, such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party and The German Ideology.
Marx moved to England in 1849, and spent the remainder of his life researching, writing, and being involved in politics and activism until his death in 1883. Much of Marx’s later writings revolved less around philosophy and more on economics, particularly his two-volume magnum opus, Capital. In Capital, Marx developed one of the most sustained analyses of modern capitalism, and his work on the relationships between the social lives of human beings and the capitalist economy has made him one of the most influential social theorists in history. While Marx is probably best known in the popular imagination for the influence his writings had on communist politicians and parties after his death, in social theory, Marx’s most enduring legacy revolves around his analyses of the effects of capitalism on social life.
When Marx died in London in 1883, his friend Engels read the eulogy. In it, he provided perhaps the clearest articulation of Marx’s theory of historical materialism:
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact—hitherto concealed by the overgrowth of ideology—that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people have been evolved, and in light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as hitherto been the case.”
Tucker 1978: 681
There is sometimes a tendency to discount Marx because some of the predictions he made about the next stage of capitalism (and communism) did not come to pass. True enough, Marx was a brilliant social theorist, but he wasn’t a prophet. But many of Marx’s most fundamental insights into the nature of modern capitalism still help us understand the capitalist system we live in today. His argument that capitalism is prone to regular crises rings true in relation to events like the recent global economic meltdown. While we almost certainly will continue to live in a capitalist as opposed to a communist economic world, it is an economic system that increasingly relies on the intervention and support of political institutions like the state (bailouts, anyone?) to keep it afloat, much as Marx predicted. And, of course, you only have to turn on your television, flip through a fashion magazine, or take a stroll through New York’s Times Square to recognize how strongly we continue to fetishize commodities. It is Marx’s still unparalleled insights into the nature of capitalism that continue to make him one of the most important social theorists of our time.
Central to Marx’s thought is his theory of historical materialism, which argued that human societies and their cultural institutions (like religion, law, morality, etc.) were the outgrowth of collective economic activity. Marx’s theory was heavily influenced by Hegel’s dialectical method. But while Marx agreed with Hegel’s basic dialectical thesis of social change, he disagreed with the notion that abstract ideas were the engine. Rather, Marx turned Hegel on his head and argued that it was material, economic forces—or our relationship to the natural, biological, and physical world—that drove the dialectic of change. More specifically, the engine of history rests in the internal contradictions in the system of material production (or, the things we do in order to produce what we need for survival).
For Marx, each economic system or “mode of production” in human history contained within it a contradiction that eventually led to its demise and replacement by another, more advanced stage of economic and social life. The contradictions inherent in feudalism, such as the necessity for states ruled by monarchs to trade with other states, thus creating a merchant class, eventually led to the advance of capitalism. Yet Marx saw that capitalism, too, had its own contradictions, particularly in the overproduction of goods. As technology advances (i.e. bigger and faster machines) and the exploitation of workers continues, too many goods are bound to be made (just take a look at the sales and bargain bins next time you are at Target or Wal-Mart). The problem, according to Marx, is that overproduction produces crises for capitalism, crises that he felt would eventually prove fatal and lead to the development of communism.
While Marx himself argued that the inherent exchange value of a commodity was only equal to the labor that produced it, he recognized that we often treat and experience commodities as if they were worth much, much more (sometimes even more than life itself). This habit of imagining commodities as having human or even superhuman qualities is what he called commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism takes many forms, but one of the most common ways we fetishize commodities is by identifying ourselves with the things we own—our mobile phones, footwear, automobiles, etc. Marx thought it perverse that the things that people produce end up defining them as persons, that what people owned ended up, in no small measure, owning them. Marx was highly critical of this tendency to treat our own creations as “magical” objects that then define and have power over us.
Marx also thought that commodities and capitalism led to widespread alienation. He is well known in social theory for his argument that capitalism systematically alienates us in four distinct but related ways: it alienates us from the products of our labor (i.e. what we make), the labor process itself, our fellow human beings, and even from our own human nature or “species-being.” Take, for example, alienation from our own human nature. It is not that we don’t know we are human; rather, what we think is human is misguided, in Marx’s view. Marx wrote that what makes us human is our ability to creatively manipulate and produce our surroundings, and therefore our humanity is reflected back to us in the things we produce (think of it as that satisfying feeling you get when you’ve made something with your bare hands, such as a new sweater you knit, an outdoor deck you build, or a nice meal you cook). Marx argues that if we are locked into a system where someone else owns the commodities we produce, and when we lust after those commodities as if they had nothing to do with our own labor, then we have become alienated from our sense of our own species-being.
See the interactive reading for Marx’s Capital.
While we’ve included some of Marx’s most influential works in the Social Theory Re-Wired reader, it is still just a small portion of his overall writing. Luckily, and much in the spirit of Marx’s political leanings, many of his works are open access and free to the public. If you want to read more from social theory’s pre-eminent theorist of capitalism, you can check out the Marx and Engels Internet Archive at:
Here you will find everything from Marx’s earliest writings on philosophy and democracy, to his later work on economics and capital.
Marx also continues to inspire many of today’s most influential social and cultural theorists, like
and Sylvia Walby: