Dynamic Traditions: Why globalization does not mean homogenization

Richard Volkman


Many scholars, politicians, and pundits have worried that globalization will result in a flattening or homogenization of cultural diversity and local character. It is alleged that the global application of information and communications technologies will tend to obliterate or water down the rich and varied cultural lives that have been embedded in geographically and philosophically isolated traditions. Critics worry that this flattening of cultural attitudes threatens to undermine the values associated with living within a rich and concrete tradition. Without the rich and varied traditions to inform our personal identities and even our language, information technologies may lead to our living culturally impoverished lives.

Advocates of globalization respond that the globalization of culture is not a zero-sum game; that is, there is no reason to suppose that valued cultural traditions must lose in order for a global interchange of culture to succeed. Rather, the traditional liberal attitude, articulated by John Stuart Mill, suggests that cultural traditions flourish best under conditions of competition from outside influences. If this is correct, then we should expect the globalization of culture through information technology to enhance rather than detract from the values associated with living in a tradition.

However, critics suspect that there is no place in a global marketplace of ideas for certain specifics that contribute to the color and character of life, and the liberal emphasis on personal autonomy and individualism implies that traditions will only be accepted if they can withstand competition in a global marketplace, and this merely conditional acceptance of the constraints imposed by a tradition seems to undermine the very notion of acting from tradition. If one is permitted to “pick and choose” from a smorgasbord of traditions, then one is not really bound by the norms of any particular tradition and is not really living by any sort of tradition whatsoever.

I will argue that, while it cannot be doubted that living within the horizons of a particular tradition helps to locate one’s self and give meaning to one’s life, and while it is also true that globalization of culture will likely do away with some of the differences that distinguish various traditions, nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that the only sorts of diversity that suffer from global competition do not significantly underwrite anything of value worth preserving. In short, some traditional diversity will probably lose out in a global marketplace of ideas, but any lost diversity will be more than compensated for by other, more valuable and richer differences as traditions grow and evolve to a greater perfection on their own terms. Living traditions will adapt and change in ways that remain true to their most cherished traditional values, thereby ensuring the ability of the tradition to contribute to personal identity. Such dynamic traditions are not threatened by global competition; the ability of such traditions to give varied meaning and color to one’s life will be enhanced, not flattened. On the other hand, traditions that have ossified into dead dogma or empty ritual are necessarily less fit to serve as a foundation of value and meaning. In sum, what is gained by the globalization of culture far exceeds the value of what is lost.

The analysis will first examine the sources of diversity and the role of cultural diversity in contributing to one’s personal identity and the identity of one’s projects. In distinguishing between “functional diversity” and “arbitrary diversity” as these appear in concrete examples, it will become clear that only arbitrary diversity is seriously threatened by competition between cultures. Moreover, it will be shown how any given arbitrary diversity can be transformed within a tradition into a defining feature of that tradition, thereby making it a functional diversity resistant to competition from other traditions or even from within the tradition itself. Thus, while critics of globalization are right to contend that some local or traditional differences will be lost, this in not correctly conceived as a flattening or homogenization of any living tradition. To the contrary, every valuable part of the tradition will have some function within the tradition and this function will give those who practice the tradition good reason to maintain it, even as various arbitrary diversities are let go. They are let go precisely because they are not regarded as having any particular value, so the extent of homogenization within a tradition is limited to precisely that diversity that lacks value.

Throughout the essay, special attention will be paid to concrete historical and contemporary examples of cultural traditions that have been exposed to the influence of information technology. Among these examples are the oral traditions of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews as they were exposed to written language, the impact of the printing press on the Roman Catholic tradition, the impact of the wide availability of DVD and internet content on film with special attention to the emergence of anime as a cultural tradition, and especially the impact of recording technologies and internet content on the oral tradition of Irish Traditional Music.

In light of these examples, it will become clear why: 1) It is highly unlikely in any given case that the value of piece of the tradition will ever be overlooked, and 2) In the event anything of value is discarded in the evolution of a dynamic tradition, it is very easy from within a given tradition to reclaim this lost bit of diversity. In fact, since it is easier for those within a tradition to recover a functional diversity than to jettison an arbitrary diversity, there is very good reason for those within a tradition to regard any changes over time as progress of the tradition towards its own stated goals.

If arbitrary diversity and dead dogma are the only victims of the globalization of culture, then globalization will not lead to homogenization or flattening of local traditions, and there is good reason to think that we can all be winners in the emerging global information society.