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  • Global Communications and Cultural Identities
  • Pippa Norris

Many claim that the most recent wave of global communications has increased the interconnectedness between people, companies, and governments worldwide. But has it transformed popular culture so that more people have come to see themselves as global citizens rather than, say, Americans, Russians, or Brits or, at a more local level, Bostonians, Muscovites, or Londoners? Or in reaction has there been a resurgence of nationalism or even parochialism? Growing cultural globalism is often assumed, but beyond aggregate figures, such as trends in news flows, movie receipts, or the number of McDonalds around the world, we know little about what it means for our sense of identity, attachment, and citizenship.

Globalization refers to the expansion in the scale and speed of flows of capital, goods, people, and ideas across borders with the effect of decreasing the effects of distance. Indicators commonly used to monitor this phenomenon include levels of international trade or migration. And what about communications? For those with access, it is easier, faster, and cheaper than ever before to e-mail, phone, or fax people around the world, to surf front pages or broadband news programs from Australia to Zimbabwe, and to break down the national barriers of the national news media. 1 In Brunn and Leinbach’s phrase, new communications technology has the potential effect of collapsing space and time (Brunn and Leinbach 1991). But we know far less about the impact of this process on our cultural identities and whether global communication has contributed to the decline of parochial and national attachments and to the rise of cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitans can be understood as essentially “citizens of the world” with a broad internationalist outlook—for example, those who are equally comfortable living and working in different countries, who are familiar with travel well beyond their national and regional boundaries, and who are fluent in languages. It is commonly assumed that cosmopolitanism is most common among a privileged international elite, the Geneva-educated and Ivy-Leagued sons and daughters of diplomats, bankers, and generals, who are equally at home in financial houses, embassy receptions, and platinum-card airport lounges from New York to Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur. The logic of periodic waves of globalization should have expanded the pool of world citizens, whether driven by the expansion of free trade and empire riding the rails of the Industrial Revolution among the great powers in the late Victorian era or by the global market [End Page 1] economy of the post-cold war era. Pressures in the late twentieth century should have encouraged a resurgence of cosmopolitanism beyond elite circles. 2

Yet, rather than an inexorable secular trend, globalization may experience internal tensions and periodic reverse waves. In Anthony Smith’s view, “We are still far from even mapping out the kind of global culture and cosmopolitan ideals that can truly supercede the world of nations” (1995).

Nationalists can be understood as those who identify strongly with the nation-state, who have high levels of national pride, who emphasize the importance of distinct ethnonationalistic identities, and who favor cultural and economic protectionism. National identities are usually implicit and inert and may only rise to the surface in response to an “other” in which (rather like Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex) we know what we are by virtue of what we are not. Even though the idea of national identity is widely employed, it tends to be fuzzy, complex, and underconceptualized. 3

Lastly, parochials can best be understood as those who celebrate the idiosyncrasies of diverse local and regional cultures, foods, and traditions, who prefer all politics to be devolved to subnational levels, and who stress the importance of dense communities with clearly defined territorial and social boundaries demarcating who does and does not belong, based on particular neighborhoods, regions, or ethnic or religious identities.

In intellectual and cultural circles, although there are conflicting tugs, cosmopolitanism is usually widely regarded as a highly desirable ideal, whereas parochialism is commonly assumed to be narrow, provincial, and retrograde. Yet both nationalism and parochialism receive legitimacy from the belief that the apparently universal “global” culture carries the risks of standardization and the impoverishment of local cultures...

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