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  Does Globalizationn Threaten or Nurture Local Markets?   Does Globalizationn Threaten or Nurture Local Markets?  Randall Frost  
Does Globalizationn Threaten or Nurture Local Markets? In “The World is Flat,” New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that computer technology has created a world in which, to a greater extent than ever before, individuals can compete and collaborate globally. Linked by a fiber-optic network, he says, we have all become next-door neighbors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Much has been made of this so-called flattening of the world. Friedman describes the penetration of global culture into some of the most unlikely places on earth. But as the planet continues to shrink—and as the wildest dreams of Kathmandu turn into the facts of Kew, will individual cultures vanish in the process?

Many observers have noted that, quite aside from creating any cultural homogeneity, globalization is leading to a resurgence of interest in local traditions. In “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” for example, Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington argued that modernization promotes confidence in the local social order, but at the same time faith in traditional practices (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

The cultural anthropologist Keith Hart noted a similar polarizing effect in response to economic change. In an essay that appeared in “Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relationships,” he concluded that personal trust may not be the most efficient basis for economic relationships in societies undergoing major economic change. His point was that agreements based on faith (those based on no or little evidence) or confidence (those based on considerable evidence) are subject to stronger sanctions than agreements based on trust (those based on limited evidence) (Basil Blackwell, 1988).

Hart seemed to suggest that faith, trust and confidence lie along a continuous spectrum, rather than existing as isolated islands of social relatedness. In terms of the evolution from kinship to civil society, for example, he says in an interview with brandchannel, “Faith in a parent often comes from lack of knowledge and perspective. What replaces it? Commonly disillusionment, but just possibly trust and, in the extreme case, confidence. It could hardly be the other way around.”

It is certainly not difficult to find examples of renewed interest in local traditions in transitional societies. Thailand, a country once thought to be culturally homogeneous, has witnessed renewed interest among local ethnic groups in their history, language, literature, and culture. Similarly, the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands in Alaska recently chose to return to their traditional practices of sealing, hunting and fishing.

But the phenomenon is hardly confined to relatively traditional cultures. In Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity, Boston University’s Marilyn Halter looked at renewed interest in ethnicity in the US (Schocken, 2000). Halter notes, for example, that in their attempt to recapture traditional values, Americans have begun consuming large quantities of ethnic products, such as foods and music. She traces these trends to a reaction against mass consumerism.

Halter further suggests that the return to ethnic roots has a soothing effect on Americans who have become lost in the superficiality of daily interactions. She writes, “Once the reality of imagined community is cast into doubt, ethnicity offers tangible markers and potent symbols of ascribed commonality. The preoccupation with exploring ethnic culture and the desire to cling to a more personal identity persists as a response to the fragmentation, ambiguities, and rapid pace of change inherent in the postmodern world.” Paradoxically, however, Halter seems to suggest that the attempt by Americans to distance themselves from modern consumerism has merely led them to new forms of consumption.

Others, like the public policy critic Jeremy Rifkin, have proposed that the renewed interest in local culture is more of a backlash to the global political order than to postmodernism. In a column in the The Guardian in 2001, Rifkin wrote, “We are witnessing the first stirrings of a cultural backlash to globalization whose effects are likely to be as significant and far-reaching as were the revolutionary movements for political democracy and market capitalism at the end of the 18th century.”

The Netherlands' Marieke de Mooij seems to share Rifkin’s sense that localization is a backlash, but sees it instead as a fundamental response of human nature to change. “Localization is a clear countermovement to globalization,” she tells us. “People's behavior is stable—basically people don't like change, and much of consumer behavior is habitual. This implies that people for some time will embrace new things, but in the end they like more what fits, what they are used to.”

In “Global Marketing and Advertising,” de Mooij suggests, along the lines of Marilyn Halter, that the renewed interest in local values around the world may be a reaction to the spread of Western consumption patterns (Sage, 2005). De Mooij attributes the renewed interest in old brands, for example, to the expression of old values in consumption and consumer behavior, coupled with greater consumer buying power. She argues that larger incomes allow people to express themselves in more ways, typically based on national values. “Wealth brings choice,” she writes, seeming to echo Halter’s notion that it might actually be possible to recapture the past through appropriate patterns of consumption. (Another madeleine, Monsieur Proust?)

But Mark Kennedy, chief strategy officer at Landor Associates, views the renewed interest in local traditions more as a complement to globalization than a substitute for it. “In all countries in the world there’s almost a reaction to [globalization] in some of the local products,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it a backlash, but it’s almost like a balancing effect on local products. They start to reassert themselves.” Kennedy notes that this growing interest in local brands is taking place even as the shops in all the world’s airports are becoming increasingly the same, with the same brand names in all of them.

LiAnne Yu, strategic director for branding consultancy Cheskin, recently completed a project on Western fast food culture in China. There she found global brands co-existing with local ones. While such global brands like McDonald’s are still enormously popular, Yu says they are also being challenged by local brands. “Yong He Da Wang (a Chinese-style fast food place) combines the cleanliness and convenience of McDonald’s, but features home-style Chinese cooking like dumplings and noodles.... This combination has been enormously popular in China, as it supposedly combines the best of the West (or globalized culture) with the best of local culture,” she says.

“The whole choice between global and local products/brands/experiences is extremely contingent upon the person’s own identity and intentions,” Yu adds. “Young Chinese hipsters are just as likely to eat at McDonald’s as they are to copy Chinese stars in their fashion styles. So I don’t think the trend is towards either local or global—the trend is towards having more aspects of both in the choices Asian consumers are making in their daily lives.”

Certainly, cultures have been importing ideas and goods of commerce for thousands of years without disappearing or losing their identities in the process. Professor Kalman Applbaum of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee discounts the notion that world culture has become or is becoming more homogeneous. Says Applbaum, “There is taking place a kind of structuring of diversity in accordance with globalizing patterns of provisioning and consumption.”

According to Cheskin’s Yu, “the central question is how people are defining what it means to be modern in their own terms.” And she adds, “That doesn’t exclude consuming more globalized products.”

Perhaps an appropriate analogy would be the proliferation of museums around the world. These museums celebrate local accomplishments and as such represent an efflorescence of local culture. But the idea of a museum is an historical and a cultural artifact rather than a manifestation of cultures everywhere.




Randall Frost, a freelance writer based in Pleasanton, California, is the author of The Globalization of Trade. His work has appeared in Worth, The New England Financial Journal, CBSHealthWatch and a variety of educational publications.

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