Contact or Contagion? The Impact of Globalization on Culture

The Impact of Globalization on Culture

After considering the three theories presented by Kumaravadivelu (i.e., cultural homogenizationcultural heterogenization and cultural “glocalization”), I am most convinced that the conceptualization of cultural homogenization best explains the impact of globalization on culture. I believe that the competing theories of cultural heterogenization and cultural “glocalization” fail to adequately account for, or perhaps come to terms with, the fact that globalization is, as much as anything, the result of unequal power dynamics at play on the world stage. Twenty-first century globalization is really just the modern, technology-driven equivalent of an age old phenomenon: cultural contact. What we are seeing now is a drastic acceleration and enhancement of the same basic process that has been at work for thousands of years.

Since there has been human civilization, there has been cultural contact, and in most instances of cultural contact, the power relations between the two (or more) cultures in contact are unequal, with the culture of the politically, economically and/or militarily stronger group exerting a greater influence on the culture of the weaker group. The power differential has oftentimes been so great that the weaker cultural group eventually loses cohesion (culturally, politically, economically, and/or socially), sometimes even collapsing or being absorbed by the stronger power.

Contact or contagion?

Consider three well-known instances of cultural contact (or contagion) from the ancient and modern world:

Akkadians and Sumerians: In the mid third millennium before the Common Era, the politically and militarily stronger Akkadians moved into Sumerian territory in southern Mesopotamia. The Akkadians admired Sumerian culture and even wrote the Sumerian language long after it had no remaining native speakers, but the cultural influence of the Akkadians (who eventually became Babylonians in the south and Assyrians in the north) was so great that eventually the Sumerian language became completely extinct, Sumerian religion died out, and the Sumerians ceased to exist as a cultural group. Sumerian culture left an impact on the Akkadians (for example, the Akkadians kept the Sumerian writing system, even after they stopped using it to write the Sumerian language, and Sumerian religion definitely influenced Akkadian religious beliefs), but in the end the culture of the stronger group prevailed. No one speaks Babylonian or Sumerian anymore, but Babylonian hung on a lot longer than Sumerian did.

Romans and Etruscans: Despite the fact that Etruscan culture was by all accounts more “advanced” than Roman culture during the approximately five hundred years of cultural contact between the two peoples (after all, it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans how to write, and Etruscan art forms, including theater, had reached maturity at a time when the Romans were still just a few thousand rubes farming the hills of Latium), the eventually greater political, economic and militarily might of the Romans resulted in the complete absorption of the Etruscans into Roman society. No one speaks Etruscan anymore (in fact, the language can only be partially read at present), but hundreds of millions of people speak Romance languages.

English and Irish: During much of the European Bronze Age, speakers of Celtic languages likely outnumbered speakers of all other European languages. Spread from Iberia in the west all the way to Anatolia in the east (the Galatians of New Testament fame), the Celts were the dominant cultural group in Europe. Eventually, however, due mainly to encroachment by Germanic tribes in central and northwestern Europe, and the eventual rise of the Roman Empire in the rest of Celtic-speaking lands, Celtic languages were “pushed” to the extreme western coastal periphery of Europe (I use “pushed” in quotation marks here because it’s not that the Celtic peoples themselves were pushed, at least not for the most part, but that most Celts stopped speaking Celtic languages, worshipping Celtic gods, and generally practicing Celtic culture because they adopted the languages and cultural practices of the stronger cultural groups with which they had come into contact). Today, there are only a few million speakers of Celtic languages left and almost all of them are bilingual, speaking Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Breton as a “grandmother” language. The cultural influence of the English was so great on the Irish people that today, there are at most 30,000 remaining monolingual Irish speakers, when in the eighteenth century almost everyone in Ireland spoke only Irish. Today, just about everyone in Ireland speaks English.

I could go on and on, as there are literally thousands of examples that prove my point, from ancient history (iron-bearing Bantus and so-called Pygmies in central Africa) to the modern day (Russians and the Ket). When two cultural groups come into contact, human nature, as borne out by the whole of human history, often results in one group culturally dominating the other (especially when there is a significant power differential between the two groups), with cultural extinction frequently the sad result. Mutual exchange (as suggested by cultural “glocalization”) or a strengthening of cultural identity (as posited by cultural heterogenization) may happen rarely when unusual or fortuitous circumstances are involved, but I do not see that happening with globalization today.

The spread of English (some might say like a virus) seems uncontrolled, and uncontrollable. American cultural dominance is the contagion and the internet and modern transportation technologies are the vectors of transmission. The assumptions made about individuals and society by the cultural heterogenization camp (essentially that local, dominated cultures can somehow muster the strength to resist the rising tide of so-called Westernization or the push by other dominating cultures, which has already become a tsunami in many parts of the world, by force of will alone) and those defending the utopian vision of cultural “glocalization” (that dominant cultures and their peoples are receptive to influence from local cultures at anything other than a superficial level–handicrafts or conversation pieces to adorn their upscale lofts, the latest fad in exotic cuisine or a short vacation in some tropical locale excepted) seem wholly unwarranted to me when compared against full length of human cultural history.

The assumptions of cultural homogenization seem to me to be those warranted by history: that local/dominated/minority cultures adopt the language and customs of dominating cultures because it is ultimately in their economic and social best interests to do so, or at least because they believe that it is in their best interests to do so. In terms of economic interests, the call center outsourcing example given by Kumaravadivelu is a case in point: accepting/adopting the language and even the false persona of an individual from the dominating culture produces tangible economic benefits for many members of the dominated culture, even if those economic benefits come at a personal cost. Tollefson’s example of the Filipina ESL instructor further supports this view.

As far as the implications for English language education and English language teachers are concerned, the first and third viewpoints seem to anticipate the further spread of English and additional opportunities for those working in the field, while the second viewpoint (heterogenization) anticipates resistance to the further spread of English, although as I have indicated above, I find this eventuality unlikely. English language instructors would do well to develop a sensitivity toward the perhaps unfair lingua-cultural dynamics at play, as the spread of English is a double-edged sword–while it brings opportunities to some, it may oppress others, including those who do not have the opportunity or means to learn English or who do not have access to quality ESL instruction. A critical analysis of the ongoing spread of English and the opportunities it both bestows and denies to those in affected cultures will serve English language teachers well, as we develop an awareness of these issues and empathy for those affected.

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