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Globalization Theory: Approaches and Controversies

David Held and Anthony McGrew (Editors)

Polity Press: Cambridge (2007), 288 pages. Paperback (£16.99) ISBN: 9780745632117. Hardback (£55) ISBN: 9780745632100. .

Reviewed by Karen Lai, University of Nottingham.

Interest in globalisation processes and its theoretical and empirical impacts was at its peak in the 1990s amidst a flurry of intellectual debate and enthusiasm regarding a new internationalism. This was highlighted by the publication of Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Held et al., 1999), the first volume in what was to be a successful series on globalisation and governance. Almost a decade on, more sobering accounts of the limits to globalisation, as well as comments on the ‘end of globalisation’ and the neoliberal world order especially following events of 9/11, have become common. However, the continued resilience and intensification of global economic flows and political linkages led the editors of Globalization Theory to argue that globalisation remains vital to explanations of contemporary change and human conditions, as an idea or discourse that frames as well as legitimises social and political action; this volume constitutes a counter response to the “many misguided and premature obituaries to globalisation” (p. 2). It seeks to answer the question of how are contemporary globalisation processes and its consequences to be conceptualised and understood. Rather than a singular hegemonic political project, Held and McGrew point to the multiple forms of globalisation and argue that controversy about globalisation should be examined in terms of its making and remaking, and not simply its undoing. As opposition to the globalism project has become more widespread and generates its own sets of counter discourses, there is greater need to engage with different theoretical approaches, and examine the potential futures of globalisation.

The subtitle of the book, ‘Approaches and Controversies’, is a clear description the book’s structure into two distinct parts. Part I highlights various theoretical approaches to globalisation with contributions and insights from scholars across the social sciences. The chapters deal with how process of globalisation might be examined through hegemony and world order, political economy, the reconfiguration of spatial scales, social constructivism and cultural analysis. The chapters in Part II adopt a more exploratory stance in evaluating the uneven impacts and future of globalisation. Focusing on various controversies and social and political issues that have emerged as a result of globalisation processes, the authors offer their thoughts on the possibilities of constructing alternative institutional frameworks for global redistributive justice. The two parts differ significantly in style and some might say that they read like two separate books. But the bold recommendations in Part II does juxtapose well with the more conventional style of Part I. Taken together, they offer a varied and thought-provoking range of contemporary theories of and prescriptions for globalisation.

Given that the book is edited by leading scholars in political science and international relations, it is not surprising that Part I is headlined by chapters utilising international relations, hegemony and work system approaches to globalisation. Chapter 1 grabs the reader’s attention from the onset with a fresh theoretical perspective by Anthony McGrew. He highlights the oft-neglected role of organised violence in the making and remaking of globalisation by analysing the use of organised violence from European imperialism to events following 9/11. Arguing against the economistic and cultural perspectives that seem to have dominated globalisation studies, he adopts a historical and international relations approach in theorising how organised violence has been instrumental to the globalisation process and its implications for issues of security, the state and world order. This bold opening is followed by more conventional theoretical approaches in the next two chapters. In Chapter 2, G. John Ikenberry conceptualises globalisation as facilitated by US hegemony with the expansion and integration of the world economy following the Second World War. This is a classic international political economy understanding of the mutual constitution of global power structures and globalised world economy, although he questions this continued dominance as US hegemony becomes increasingly problematic and contested around the world. In Chapter 3, Alex Callinicos also adopts the approach of examining the relationship between economic rivalries and geopolitical conflicts. Although his analysis of neoliberal globalisation as being more than modern imperialism does offer many insights, his ambitious argument that opponents of neoliberal globalisation and imperial war should target “not just the American hegemony and the economic model closely identified with it, but the entire capitalist system that they sustain’ (p. 75) is less convincing.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on conceptual understandings of states and globalisation. Geographers will be familiar with the arguments in Saskia Sassen’s Chapter 4 on the need for new spatial analytics in conceptualising globalisation processes. She calls for a multi-scalar approach to studies of the ‘local’ or ‘national’ that recognises the simultaneity of scales, spaces and relations in complex configurations of the global. The significance and role of the state in the context of globalisation is further questioned by Layna Mosley in Chapter 5 as she considers how trade and financial openness might influence national policy making. Using the case of financial globalisation, she argues that while global capital markets do influence government policy making, domestic institutions and interests continue to mediate such influences more than credited for. However, the political economy of globalisation and balance of power between global and domestic institutions and interests remain uneven across developed and developing countries.

Part I finishes with social and cultural understandings of globalisation. Thomas Risse’s chapter (6) on the discursive construction of globalisation utilises a social constructivist perspective to expose the taken-for-grantedness of globalisation discourses, which emphasises the potential for political change rather than the inevitability of globalisation processes. His argument should find a sympathetic audience with many social, economic and political geographers who adopt a similarly critical stance. In Chapter 7, John Tomlinson adopts a cultural perspective in examining cultural identities in a world of increased mobility and telecommunications, and argues that cultural identity should be regarded as a key institutional component of global modernity instead of the outcome of individual subjectivities. The globalisation process should therefore be analysed not only in terms of macro-social phenomena but should also include ‘everyday lived experiences’ (p. 164). Attention to the day-to-day context of cultures and lived experiences could provide insights into the sources of and possible solutions to conflicts.

Part II of the book offers more normative and ethical reflections on possible responses to globalisation in terms of world political organisation, international relations, world poverty, and social justice. The chapters are of a more eclectic mix compared to those in Part I, but while Part I speaks from the head with insightful analysis of leading theoretical approaches to globalisation, Part II speaks from the heart with passionate prescriptions for a better future.

Many of the chapters offer controversial views such as Michael Doyle’s recommendations for different forms of political organisations for achieving liberal peace and democratic accountability in chapter 9. In Chapter 11, Andrew Kuper proposed eight solutions for new non-state approaches to organise and structure governance in order to extend justice and democracy across contemporary society. Although he rejects the claim that states and state-building can be dispensed with, he argues that nation-statism has been ineffective and inadequate. His proposals resonates with Doyle’s and aim to harness non-state actors and reframe the political division of labour so as to introduce new forms of power, responsibility and mutual accountability. I find Thomas Pogge’s article, in Chapter 10 on global inequality, particularly powerful as he reframes the institutional and social structures for explaining the persistence of world poverty and increasing gap between the rich and poor in the current global economic order. His call for personal moral reflection and individual responsibility for the persistence of a global economic order that contributes to the affluence of (some parts of) the developed world at the expense of billions living in poverty will certainly be a good catalyst for discussion and personal reflection. David Held’s Chapter 12 also stands out in its optimism in prescribing a new framework of global governance, by replacing the original Washing Consensus and Washington Security Doctrines with a Social Democratic Agenda and Human Security Doctrine. Compared to Pogge, Held concludes on a more optimistic note and his bold and far-sighted recommendations constitute a fitting finale to a vibrant second half.

Many of the arguments in Part II are bold but the proposed solutions are not always adequately explained. This could be due to the space constraints of having to fit into a succinct volume. In any case, the chapters should not be seen as detailed road maps for the future of globalisation but as bold efforts at reimagining different or better worlds in the making and remaking of globalisation. These proposals offer plenty of food for thought and would be very useful as a basis for discussion in tutorials, seminars and reading groups to spark off debates on the moral framing of globalisation and possible forms of governance in the pursuit of a more equitable global society.

In dismissing claims about the demise of globalisation post-9/11, Held and McGrew have certainly succeeded in demonstrating the continued relevance and impacts of globalisation by highlighting vibrant theoretical works and critical assessments of  possible forms of engagement with and counter-responses to globalisation (in its multiple forms). I took on the review for this book with the objective of catching up on globalisation theories and debates from an International Political Economy (IPE) perspective. In this sense, the book does not disappoint as it is quite heavily weighted towards IPE, political science and international relations approaches. However, it also has a broader appeal as none of the chapters are too technical. The accessibility of the book is particularly useful for getting a quick flavour of IPE treatment of globalisation and then using references at the end of each chapter for further reading. The wide range of contributors also ensures a broad appeal and relevance of the chapters to students and scholars of sociology, and political, economic and social geography. This book should interest academics working on issues of globalisation, governance, social justice and global poverty, and policy makers interested in contemporary thinking on globalisation and its futures. Specific chapters will also be useful for advanced undergraduate seminars, although graduate students may find it more relevant and accessible.

(Added 13 June 2008)