Barrie Axford

Interview with Professor Barrie Axford on Theories of Globalization 

Professor Barrie Axford

Professor Barrie Axford

 This is a surprisingly comprehensive and detailed book, especially given that it is quite a short text. The book sets out with an explicit goal to recapture the transformative elements within, and potential of theorizing globalization. Why is this necessary?

In fact, I think that I am somewhat more cautious in my aims than you suggest. Certainly I did not try to write “a” theory of globalization – my theory of globalization, if you like – either in the sense of explaining what globalization is and why and how it subsists, or in terms of using it as the explanans of great changes in historical and contemporary social systems. Perhaps I will venture down one or other such route before my dotage. Rather my intent was to be forensic on the body of existing knowledge about globalization and the global in the hope that doing so within the covers of a single book would i) highlight the strengths and weaknesses of global scholarship, ii) reveal the similarities and differences in approach to pretty much the same questions about the global as these appear in scholarship out of various intellectual traditions, iii) allow me to identify elements of a jobbing interdisciplinarity and thereby iv) go some way to establish – if not actually to realize – a social science of globality that implies the absence of boundaries and needs a scholarship that is committed to the same ends. To reiterate: in itself this is quite transformative, because what it requires is a scholarship that surmounts disciplinary redoubts, abjures one-dimensional thinking and looks to a synthesis of the social-scientific imagination when describing and explaining new worlds. It is still pretty hortatory, but a long way, and for some an unimaginable distance, from discussions of globalization mired in one or other of the theoretical / ideological motifs of scholarship that have divided the academic world, like Caesar’s Gaul, into 3 camps – hyper-globalists, skeptics and transformationalists. Undoubtedly that device has spawned a prolific scholarship, some of it of high quality, as well as a good deal of intellectual knock-about. What it has not done is to provide a sound enough – and certainly not a bold enough – intellectual basis for examining the world as an ecology of overlapping, mutually constituted, world-wide spaces, some planetary in scope. Any social science that claims an analytical purchase on the contemporary world and some of its antecedents needs to make this leap.

 You discuss throughout the book how different strands of theorizing have failed to provide the empirical basis from which to develop a sustained treatment of globalization. How does a ‘social science of globality’ offer a better way to understand phenomena associated with globalization?

Of course, I am not saying that there is an entire dearth of empirical work on different aspects of globalization; especially where that is understood as a process of connection. That would be silly, even though there is still a modicum of conceptual imprecision in the literature. Even where globalization is treated as an ideological or a normative construct, some studies have charted empirically the details of interconnection and exchange as a way of demonstrating globalization’s good or bad effects, whether systematic or contingent.   At the same time, it seems to me that there is a relative dearth of the kind of theoretical and empirical research that captures the complexities of what I and many others call globalities. With others, I am at some pains to distinguish globalization (as process) from globalism (ideology) and both from globality (which I describe as consciousness, condition, possibly even as system). Of course, the point here is to be definitionally more precise in the use of the language of theory and the referents for empirical research: but not only this. More important is the invitation to transcend those early, but still potent accounts of globalization, where, for the most part, it was presented as a process, one in which individuals, groups, localities – pretty much all actors – are also reified in one way or another. Globality (globalities since they must be plural), on the other hand, stands as a constitutive framework for action and a framework itself constituted through action and consciousness. It is not/they are not simply the implied or necessary outcome(s) of a set of globalization processes; neither is it/are they an ideological construct or a crude teleology. I like Martin Shaw’s reference to globality as “common consciousness on a human scale” because it points up the inclusiveness of the global frame while allowing that it may be contested, with all possible outcomes indeterminate. Despite that, I also like the notion of globality as systematic, even systemic, bearing in mind that this may conjure a pretty laid-back notion of what systemness comprises. Globality and the idea of global systemness embraces the totality of global flows, networks, interactions and connections and triggers a shift in the organization of human affairs and in ways of thinking about social relations and enacting them. It probably goes without saying that the social science of globality thus envisaged plays fast and loose with disciplinary canons and notions such as discrete levels of analysis.

In chapters two and three you look at two disciplinary platforms for the development of theories of globalization (political science and sociology and geography, anthropology and cultural/communication studies). It would have been interesting to learn of the extent to which different disciplines resisted the incorporation of global perspectives. Did you consider including such an account, and what such an account might reveal?

I did not, although those chapters could have been written with that organizing device in mind and it is an interesting observation. The 2 chapters are intended to explicate the main features of disciplinary scholarship and to assess whether and how they treat the global motif, especially with globalization. I hope that approaching them thus provides enough of an opportunity for me to identify aspects of disciplinary scholarship less enamoured of or completely antithetical to the idea of globalization as transformative, or even worthy of attention. International relations is a discipline with the state still very much at its centre and witnessing continued debate about the definition of concepts such as world society, is a prime case study; while anthropology, as that section reveals, still has problems with global referents and with the very idea of a global anthropology. On balance, to have gone down the road you suggest would have seen me write a different kind of book, one more concerned with the genealogy of disciplinary traditions.

 You acknowledge at the beginning that given certain limitations there is no real discussion of non-western perspectives on global phenomena. Can the ‘social science of globality’ accommodate such diverse frameworks and alternative concepts?

I would like to think so. In some measure – though not without problems – the multiple modernities thesis may have pushed that agenda closer to the mainstream of discussion about the diverse provenance of what was initially treated as a Western and capitalist driven phenomenon and the same is true of the current regard for post-colonial theory. Having said that, it is hard not to agree with sentiments expressed in a recent article in International Political Sociology (Kamola, March 2013) that many scholars writing on globalization find it easy to accept some things as inherently –is that the right word? – global (the Internet, McDonald’s, etc.) but not others (Kamola says genocide in Rwanda, refugee camps, etc). His argument here is that who is positioned to designate what is “global,” and thus what constitutes firm ground for a theory of globalization, is shaped by a skewed political economy of knowledge production, not least between scholars in the global north and the global south. I think that a social science of globality makes – should make – no a priori assumptions about what is eligible as global or has consequences that are global. There is no need to limit the spheres of existence where the observer might examine globalization as process or globality as condition. What we are observing is often a negotiated and contingent condition (set of conditions) arising from the articulation of local, situated and sometimes mobile subjects and structures with more encompassing ones. And if that sounds pretty anodyne, it is nonetheless permissive enough and intellectually and emotionally open enough to admit the quotidian, the banal and the dramatic wherever these occur.

In this same vein, though you do discuss postcolonial theorists within chapters on culture and history, why did you choose not to discuss globalization and colonialism as an important theme?

Well, as you say, it is not included as a separate theme, but it does invest certain chapters.  As well as the ones you mention, I spend some time in the chapters on disciplinary contributions and on capitalism addressing at least related issues around empire and the “new” imperialism. But the prosaic answer is that I wanted to leave myself room to pick up on and link any number of interesting and even important themes under the broader rubrics of space, governance, culture and so on. To have addressed all seemingly important concepts and issue-areas as discrete chapters would have been very difficult in one book; probably repetitive rather than usefully cumulative and still subject to the charge that I missed out on some key themes. I am not happy to plead guilty in that court, but still believe that the way I organized the material allows for both exegesis and critical treatment of many of the key issues of globalization scholarship.

The book introduces a few different varieties of cosmopolitanism (Beck’s methodological cosmopolitanism, normative cosmopolitanism, and cultural globalization). How important is the concept of cosmopolitanism for understanding globality?

Important in parts, I guess. In its normative guise it has to be taken seriously because of the irreducible claims for universality. While critics may find this naïve and largely devoid of empirical referents, it must carry a potent charge and a salutary warning as the locus of governmentality shifts piecemeal away from territorial states and national societies. I also have a sneaking regard with Beck’s more ascetic, but very daring, claims to supersede the social science of globalization with a methodological cosmopolitanism. The problem is that to subsist, such a claim must be able to provide evidence of universals in the making or already extant, of irreversible shifts in governmentality and of real traction in reforming or reframing the institutions of governance beyond the state. And here the methodological project gets conflated with the normative one. As a way out of this impasse (or little local difficulty?) students of cosmopolitanism have played the get- out- of- jail cards of “informal”, “banal” or “quotidian” cosmopolitanism – the argument that high-flown principles aside, people are actually living a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Again, I have some sympathy with that view, especially when it is tied to good research on, for example, different types of elite mobility across borders. Emergent globalities may be revealed in such lifestyles and we don’t have to lift our eyes to the heights required by normative theory. Overall, one concept is trying to do too much. But you might say the same about globalization.

The book investigates five types of globalization theory (theories of globalization and space, culture, history, governance and capitalism). Given its prominence in the literature why did theories of globalization and identity/belonging not merit inclusion?

I could fall back on what I said in response to the question on colonialism, as it does service here too. But if the point is that I do not have a separate chapter on globalization and identity, and maybe should have done, I would claim that I have given due attention to matters of identity. This is noticeably so in the chapter on culture where the question of identities in and under globalization is dealt with at length. Indeed it may be the dominant motif in that chapter and, as you say, how could it be otherwise when any consideration of culture as meaning system and identities being firm or brittle, discrete or melded is central to understanding globalization. But I wanted to say all that while still making the point that, relatively speaking, culture has often played second fiddle for explanatory purposes in theories of globalization. In these a crude materiality has been the rule, softened by some rather simplistic treatments of culture and cultures as either the victims of globalization or as superstructural facilitators of global homogeneity.

 The book understandably deals mainly with theoretical schools, or at least major clusters of theoretical work, but arguably some of the best theoretical work is to be found in ‘lone wolf’ accounts, which do not dovetail neatly with established approaches. The architecture of the book makes it difficult to accommodate insights from the work of, say, Gruzinski (‘What time is it there?’), or Devji (‘Landscapes of the jihad’), or even Appadurai (‘Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy’). Did you consider including a separate ‘Global Studies’ disciplinary cluster to capture such contributions?

Yes, I agree, at least in part. Appadurai’s work, for which I have a lot of time is dealt with in the book, but I fear that my primary use of his thesis was to say that everyone thinks that the “scapes” scenario is a wonderfully insightful way to comprehend the dynamics and disjunctures of globalization as process; and then to do pretty much nothing about it. Not entirely, of course, but you get my drift. And, as you say, there are many other writers (not all with the same pedigree and weight as Appadurai) whose work provides an off-centre and intriguing take on globalization. I am not sure whether all these can be mustered under the rubric of global studies and I am still agnostic on whether there is a defined and definable field called global studies – or whether there should be. From a strategic standpoint there is much to be said for trying to lift study and understanding of the global out of usual science. Practically and as an organizing device for a publication I would be cautious. As an organizing device for a programme of study, one could take more risk and produce an exciting curriculum.  Recently I contributed to a set of commentaries on Jan Nederveen-Pieterse’s article ‘What is Global Studies’ (Globalizations, October, 2013 and December 2013). These papers are an interesting and insightful guide to what practitioners in the social science of the global see themselves as doing, but they point up serious areas of disagreement among contributors, and not always over issues where one might expect dissent. But why would one expect otherwise?

(Interview by Alistair Brisbourne)