Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 6 Notes: Society in a Global Age

  • What have been the social implications of the emergence of postindustrial societies and the communications revolution?
  • Why have risk and insecurity become such prominent features of modern society?
  • How, and to what extent, has globalization altered social norms and cultural beliefs?
  • Why have NGOs and social movements grown in recent years?
  • Is global civil society a force for good or for ill?

The study of international politics has conventionally paid little attention to social forces or social factors. 'States' rather than 'societies' were viewed as the principal actors on the world stage, and relations between and amongst them were thought to be determined by strictly political considerations (linked to power and security),not to sociological ones. In some ways, the advent of globalization accentuated this disregard for 'the social', as hyperglobalists in particular portrayed globalization as a strictly economic, or even technological, phenomenon. Both such views, however, fail to recognize the extent to which institutions such as the state and the economy are embedded in a network of social relationships, which both help to shape political and economic developments and are, in turn, shaped by them. Indeed, modern societies are changing as rapidly and as radically as modern economies. Key shifts include the changing nature of social connectedness, especially in the light of the rise of so-called post-industrial societies and the massive growth in communications technology. Are 'thick' forms of social connectedness being replaced by 'thin' forms of connectedness? Furthermore, the advance of cultural globalization is reshaping social norms and values, especially, but by no means exclusively, in the developing world, not least through the spread of consumerism and the rise of individualism.What are the major drivers of this process, and is it leading to the spread of a global monoculture? Finally, the growth of transnational groups and global movements has led some to suggest that social relations and identities are in the process of being reshaped through the emergence of what has been dubbed 'global civil society'. Is there such a thing as global civil society, and what are its implications for the future shape of global politics?

  • Societies are fashioned out of a usually stable set of relationships between and among their members. However, the 'thick' social connectedness of close bonds and fixed allegiances is giving way to the 'thin' connectedness of more fluid, individualized social arrangements. This reflects the impact of post-industrialism and the wider use of communication technology.
  • The thinning and widening of social connectedness has been associated with a general increase in risk, uncertainty and instability. The risks and instabilities of modern society include growing environmental threats, economic crises due to an increase in economic interconnectedness and the emergence of new security threats.
  • Cultural globalization is the process whereby information, commodities and images that have been produced in one part of the world enter into a global flow that tends to 'flatten out' cultural differences between nations, regions and individuals. It is often associated with the worldwide spread of consumerism and the rise of individualism.
  • The image of an emerging global monoculture has nevertheless been challenged. Diversity and pluralisation have increased in modern societies due to factors such as the adaptation of cultural products to local traditions and understandings to facilitate their spread and because of the backlash against the perceived domination of foreign ideas, values and lifestyles.
  • The rise, during the 1990s, of a mosaic of new groups, organizations and movements which sought to challenge 'corporate' globalization has been interpreted as the emergence of global civil society. However, global civil society has been interpreted differently depending on whether transnational social movements or NGOs have been viewed as its key agents.
  • Supporters of global civil society argue that it has effectively reconfigured global power, providing a kind of 'bottom-up' democratic vision of a civilizing world order. Critics, on the other hand, have questioned the democratic credentials of social movements and NGOs, condemned their use of direct action, and accused them of distorting national and global political agendas.