Darren O’Byrne

Interview with Principal Lecturer Darren O’Byrne on Theorizing Global Studies

darren obyrne

Principal Lecturer Darren O’Byrne

Your book Theorizing Global Studies, co-authored with Alexander Hensby, is centrally concerned with global studies. How important is the distinction between global studies/sociology of globalization in your work?

Very important. Research into processes that we tend to call ‘globalization’ by its very nature transcends disciplinary boundaries. I’m a sociologist, and proud of it, but an understanding of the dynamics of contemporary global change has to incorporate economic, political, anthropological, plus sociological perspectives and more besides – and I don’t mean in an old-fashioned inter-disciplinary way, a bit of this, then a bit of that, but rather in a way that examines these dynamics at the intersection of these perspectives. Using ‘global studies’ in this context, treating it as its own emerging discipline rather than a sub-field of some other discipline, is helpful because it forces us to develop genuinely useful conceptual frameworks within which to understand the processes, rather than rely on what is already there in this or that discipline.

Cosmopolitanism (or cosmopolitanization) is not one of the processes outlined in the book. Given the importance of cosmopolitanism in contemporary discourse on globalization what were the reasons for this omission?

It’s not entirely clear to me what cosmopolitanization might actually mean. I mean, the point of the eight models used in the book was to highlight the extent to which global change is a multi-layered thing, comprised of sometimes contradictory processes pulling in different directions. By identifying eight rather general ones, we tried to show the complexity of what commentators often lazily call ‘globalization’. Cosmopolitanization is not, for me, a comparable process – from what I understand of the literature on cosmopolitan thinking, there are clear overlaps with the processes we have defined as ‘transnationalization’ (particularly in respect of transnational governance and international law), ‘globalization’ (especially if we see a cosmopolitan world-view as an expression of globality), and even ‘creolization’. But these eight models are different to, say, theoretical perspectives on global change. Within the literature on cosmopolitanism I do see a distinctive cosmopolitan perspective emerging, centred largely of course around the writings of Beck.

By looking at so many contemporary processes of transformation the book allows for the possibility of exploring counter-globalization tendencies. To what extent to you think de-globalization, or the possibility that globalization is reversible, is neglected in the existing literature?

Absolutely. There is an underlying assumption in the book, and in much of the literature, that something has been happening of which we need to be critically aware. Let’s call it ‘global change’, broadly conceived. We identify eight forms of that. It’s possible that a global process of de-globalization can also be identified. But ‘de-globalization’, as it has been used by Bello and other such luminaries, is not intended to serve as a generic model of global change, but as a concrete form of resistance to a dominant globalizing process (‘liberalization’ interpreted as ‘polarization’).  Oh, and I would question the wording of the last bit of the question, where you ask whether it is possible that globalization is reversible. The point of the book is to avoid making those kind of crude generalizations, to presume there is such a ‘thing’ a ‘globalization’ which has its own kind of singular logic or narrative.

Ulrich Beck offers the possibility of Brazilianization rather than, say, Balkanization; what do you think of this?

We struggled a bit with Americanization, to be fair. Why Americanization and not, say, sinoization? The justification for including this as a model is of course that there have been an awful lot of people who have treated global change as an American hegemonic or imperialist project, hence Americanization. There is no comparable literature on the extent to which the world might be being reshaped in the image of China, or Brazil. Not yet. The growing influence of these societies / economies on the world stage is a manifestation of what we have decided to call Balkanization. But these models are themselves historically contingent.

This book also presents a challenge in the way it divides the field into different models. To what extent was there the risk of presenting overly structural accounts of each model? As one example, migrants do not feature strongly in the texts on transnationalization or creolization.

It’s a fair point, although in its defense, the book is intended to be a survey of eight possible conceptual frameworks. There’s plenty of scope for subsequent work, drawing on the broader model, in which the micro-level dynamics and everyday experiences of these frameworks are more closely interrogated. In fact, we welcome that work! Most of my work has been conceptual rather than empirical, and perhaps there is a structural bias in some of it, but taken as a conceptual framework, each of the models is meaningful only in so far as it is lived out by individuals and groups.

It is tempting for readers to suggest their own processes which could have been included in the book’s coverage: how about internationalization as a precursor to globalization?

Or modernization. Yes, I agree. In the book we decided to concentrate on models which can be specifically applied to processes of contemporary global change, which, to lay our cards on the table, we do see as historically distinctive. However, the book forms part of the broader literature on social change, and in that respect, terms like ‘modernization’ or ‘internationalization’ need to be understood, because they have been used to refer to specific kinds of change, which may or may not be relevant at the moment. We do try to make reference to how current processes relate to, and sometimes emerge from, earlier ones throughout the text. And we welcome contributions from readers identifying other such processes: our basic point is that global change is complex and multi-directional, we make absolutely no claims that the eight models constitute an exclusive list.

A number of the models discussed in your book suggest a much longer-term social process akin to Elias’ civilizing process. In your introduction you also mention that there could/should be a companion volume Historicizing Global Studies. Have you given this any consideration since publication?

At the moment, I am working on a book on globalization and human rights, and beyond that there is still plenty of mileage to be had with the eight models discussed in Theorizing Global Studies, to show their usefulness within different kinds of debates (I’ve just finishes an article with a colleague in the Business School applying them to an understanding of business practices, for example). So, at the moment, the proposed Historicizing companion piece remains an aspiration rather than anything I am giving concrete consideration to writing. But it would be useful, because it would take up the point you made earlier about internationalization as a precursor, and my comment about modernization. However, I do think that within sociology at least, there has been a serious attempt by many leading writers in the field to consider contemporary global change (whether they call it ‘globalization’ or something else) in historical context, which is perhaps more than can be said for the numerous neo-liberal economists and management ‘gurus’ whose contributions sadly still dominate the wider debates on this topic.

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(interview by Alistair Brisbourne)