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A comparison and a contrast between Beck and Sassen as regards their writings on globalization

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Globalization is a disputed issue, with arguments for and against it. Even the term causes friction, and there exists differing theories that surround it. There is a contention over the focus of globalization, with various theorists choosing to concentrate on separate specific areas within globalization. This essay will firstly provide an overview of globalization whilst taking into account the differing perspectives; this overview will also provide the common held views on globalization. Secondly, the essay will focus on two specific theorists (Ulrich Beck and Saskia Sassen).

This focus will allow both a comparison and a contrast between Beck and Sassen as regards their writings on globalization. So what is globalization? It is recognized by many, as an important force in all areas of life; politics, economics and what we read, wear, watch, eat and even how we speak is affected by it. An event on the other side of the world can cause serious repercussions all around the globe. It is an issue and a word, which we cannot escape from; newspapers; television; radio; films and institutions such as the World Bank all speak of globalization but are they all referring to the same thing when they use this ‘buzzword’?

It has already been noted that there are many definitions of globalization, with theorists, writers and commentators putting their own spin on it, David Held and Anthony McGrew have already warned it is in danger of becoming, if it has not already become, the clichi?? of our times (Held & McGrew, 1999)1. The explanations, which have been offered, take into account and acknowledge or concentrate upon the political, cultural, social and economic aspects of globalization, yet there is not one definitive explanation.

The following will draw upon these aspects in an attempt to present the debate on globalization. Perhaps the most important feature of globalization is the world integration/interconnectedness it has produced. This has come about in many ways; Held and McGrew discuss the four types of change that have contributed to this interconnectedness, which is a major part of the ongoing development of globalisation. Firstly, it involves a stretching of social, political and economic activities across political frontiers, regions and continents.

This can be illustrated by the flows of people, capital and trade across the world, physical (transport), normative (trade rules) and symbolic (English being a widely spoken language) infrastructures all enable this stretching. Secondly, it suggests the intensification of interconnectedness, an intensification, which means states and societies become progressively trapped in global systems and networks of interaction. Thirdly, there has been a process of speeding up in many areas enabled by the Intranet and faster methods of travel for example.

The effect that this has is the global circulation of goods, people, ideas, capital etc occurs at a much quicker pace, sometimes almost instantaneously. The Oscars provides a good example for this point; 150 countries broadcast this event meaning viewers all over the world are tuned in at the same time (ABC, 2004)2 Distance shrinks as result of this speeding up. The last change which Held and McGrew refer to is that the extensity, force and swiftness of global interactions have a serious impact.

The consequence of this being that distant events can have a domestic impact e. g. 9/11 had a worldwide impact, the effects and results of this incident were not just felt in America, while local happenings can cause major global ramifications. In short, there is not a rigid boundary between affairs at home and global affairs. They sum globalization up as being the widening, intensifying, speeding up, and growing impact of worldwide interconnectedness’ (Held & McGrew, 2000, pp3-4)3

Brah, Hickman and Mac an Ghaill touch upon the instantaneous aspect of globalisation in their definition of globalization: ‘in a very broad sense ‘globalization’ may be understood as referring to the processes, procedures and technologies – economic, cultural and political – underpinning the current ‘time-space’ compression which produces a sense of immediacy and simultaneity about the world’ (Brah, Hickman & Mac an Ghaill, 1999, p3)4 They go on to suggest that movement plays an integral part in globalisation, the movement of capital, commodities, people and cultural imaginations and practices (Brah, Hickman & Mac an Ghaill, 1999, p3)5.

John Tomlinson develops both these points in his understanding of globalization, it ‘refers to the rapidly developing and ever-densensing network of interconnections and inter-dependences that characterize modern social life’ (Tomlinson, 1999, p2)6 Tomlinson’s particular concept related to globalization is that of ‘complex connectivity’ He argues that connectivity is a common feature in most definitions of globalization – this could be said to be the one common held view in the differing accounts. Held and McGrew speak of interconnectedness, while the concepts of networks, flows and scapes are used by Castells and Urry respectively. Tomlinson explains connectivity as experiencing distance in different ways. In terms of experiencing it at a physical level, distance is no longer a problem due to connectivity; countries are thought of as a flight away rather than 50,000 miles for example.

Experiencing distance at a representational level means distant places are routinely accessible through communications technology or mass media. Saskia Sassen’s understanding of globalisation concentrates on the economic impact and consequences of globalisation. Firstly she gives meaning to globalization by defining it thus: ‘globalization is a process that generates contradictory spaces, characterized by contestation, internal differentiation, and continuous border crossings’ (Sassen, 1998, pXXXIV)7.

She establishes the existence of an economic globalization by citing the growth of international transactions in the economy and the central place of a limited number of countries, notably the United States, United Kingdom and Japan. This increased globalization alongside the continued concentration in economic control has given major cities a key role in the management and control of such a global network (Sassen, 1991, p324)8 Sassen’s specific theory regarding globalization is that of the ‘global city’, she posits that the global city is symbolic to the condition of globalization.

A definition of global cities is given in the functions it performs: ‘first, as highly concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy; second, as key locations for finance and for specialized service firms, which have replaced manufacturing as the leading economic sectors; third, as sites of production, including the production of innovation in these leading industries; and fourth, as markets for the products and innovations produced’ (Sassen, 1991, pp3-4)9. The Global City’ (1991) named New York, London and Tokyo as examples of global cities although Sassen has broadened the system by naming Bombay, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong as global cities in recent work (Sassen, 1998, XI)10. These cities are said to be isolated from the regional economy and culture – almost standing apart from the nation, which they are part of – existing on their own, only connected to other global cities.

Sassen explains why certain cities come to hold the mantle of global city – New York for example, has a network of fiber optic cable, a large supply of domestic and other service workers and a concentration of legal, accounting and financial professions. These factors can go some way to account why it is of benefit for companies to keep their systems of production, consumption and finance in a single setting – New York (Sassen, 1991, PXII)11.

It is argued that these cities contain a disproportionate share of global corporate power and also a disproportionate share of the disadvantaged; both of these parties are valorized and devalorized respectively. The disadvantaged of the global cities is made up of immigrants argues Sassen; immigration according to her, is one of the constitutive processes of globalization. The rapid expansion of the supply of low-wage jobs, specifically in the service sector has contributed to the flow of and the concentration of immigrants in global cities.

The majority of service jobs are either well paid or very poorly paid in global cities, immigrants tend to be found in the low paid end, reasons Sassen. The growth of the service sector has led to the direct and the indirect creation of low paid jobs available to immigrants. Finance, insurance, real estate, retail trade and business services all include large proportions of low wage jobs and weak unions – secretaries, cleaners etc all feature here.

The high-income workers, which are highly valorized, also create low-income jobs, their high concentration in the cities have produced the need for residential and commercial gentrification, which in turn has created the need for workers such as restaurant workers, nannies, dog walkers and residential building attendants (Sassen, 1998, p48)12 Sassen sees increased economic and social polarization as a consequence of economic globalisation.

The uneasy grouping of a highly valorized and a devalorized group in the one city sees a widening gap between the two. Homelessness, the growth of poverty and the growth of low wage employment exists alongside a cosmopolitan lifestyle where importance is placed upon cuisine, designer labels and authentic objets d’art. This is evident in all three of the global cities argues Sassen (Saskia Sassen, 1991, p334-5)13 Ulrich Beck’s understanding of globalization concentrates on the social impact and consequences of globalisation.

He gives meaning to globalization thus: ‘globalization means borders become markedly less relevant to everyday behaviour in the various dimensions of economics, information, ecology, technology, cross – cultural conflict and civil society… money, technologies, commodities, information and toxins ‘cross’ frontiers as if they did not exist… drugs, illegal immigrants or criticisms of human rights abuses find their way into new territories. So does globalization conjure away distance.

It means that people are thrown into transnational lifestyles that they often neither want nor understand’ (Beck, 2000, p20)14. He goes on to expand this meaning: globalization, on the other hand, denotes the processes through which sovereign national states are criss-crossed and undermined by transnational actors with varying prospects of power, orientations, identities and networks’ (Beck, 2000, p11)15. He acknowledges the presence of globalization, specifically contemporary globalization, which differs from that before.

The feature of this globalization lies in the ‘scale, density, and stability of regional-global relationship networks and their self-definition through the mass media, as well as of social spaces and of image-flows at a cultural, political, economic and military level’ (Beck, 2000, p12)16 Beck’s particular perspective on globalization is of the risk society. This concept comes as a result of globalization. The concept of risk is used to describe the society we live in or teetering on the edge of – a risk society.

In this society the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks. Risk is defined as a ‘systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself’ (Beck, 1992, p21)17. Risks and hazards are seen as by-products of modernization/globalization and society is concerned with the problems, which arise from the very nature of a modern world – techno-economic developments etc.

Beck argues that risks are no longer personal as they were, but they are now global dangers as in the example of the storage of nuclear waste. Beck makes 5 claims which relate to risk society: 1) Risks in late modernity are of the ecological and high-tech type e. g. radioactivity, toxins and pollutants which are usually invisible and based on causal interpretations which leaves them open for social definition and construction e. g. George Bush claiming there is no global warming 2) Risk can affect some groups more than others although radioactivity knows no barriers.

There can also be international inequalities between the Third World and the industrial states and also between the industrial states themselves, creating a world risk society. 3) There can be beneficiaries of risk – capitalist development for example ‘civilization risks are a bottomless barrel of demands, unsatisfiable, infinite and self-producible’ (Beck, 1992, p23)18. 4) Anyone can be afflicted by risk; wealth and class are not determinants.

Risks are ‘ascribed by civilization’ (Beck, 1992, p23)19 5) A feature of risk society is that catastrophes can have major political potential. This is a society in which tradition has broken down and scientific advances dominate our lives, rather than nature. Human actions have caused terrible consequences for nature: pollution, global warming and BSE are examples. These consequences mean risk and uncertainty are apparent in everyday lives, and decision-making can be affected by the knowledge of possible risks.

Deborah Lupton agrees with this ‘individuals living in these societies have therefore moved towards a greater awareness of risk and are forced to deal with risk on an everyday basis’ (Lupton, 1999, p59)20. She also elaborates on Beck’s point about invisible risks, many risks today evade perception due to existing only in scientific knowledge and not known by the general public.

Risks are also seen to be the fault of human error in a world being affected by globalization, rather than some supernatural force, which was the reasoning in pre-modern societies e. g. bacterial infections are blamed on medicines resulting in antibiotic resistant bacteria, the cause of floods, landslides and famines are traced back to over-clearing of land and weather changes due to global warming’ (Lupton, 1999, p64). Sassen and Beck seem to have no similarities regarding globalisation, albeit their definitions mention the crossing of borders/national states. They also both acknowledge the existence of globalisation. There may be a lack of similarities due to their outlooks on globalisation: Sassen is far more focused on the economic face of globalisation while Beck concentrates on the social side.

It could be argued however that risk could be found in global cities and no doubt probably is, the existence of low-income jobs and a high number of immigrants could mean that holding a position in these jobs is risky as there are always other people to take your place and maybe for a lower wage. Sassen doe not make this point however. Reasons for why there are no similarities can also be found in the reasons for the differences in thought. It is apparent however, that there are differences. It could be suggested that Sassen’s study focuses on specific places and therefore only deals with the problems that these places deal with.

Beck’s theory is a far more expansive study in that it doesn’t focus on one aspect of globalization as Sassen’s does and so deals with a wider range of outcomes/problems that globalisation is argued to cause. The very nature of the aspect of globalization they study could also be argued to be a reason why there are differences. Beck focuses more on the social impact of globalization while Sassen focuses on the economic impact, although both are dealing with globalization, they approach it from differing positions. In conclusion, I found both vantage points to be convincing.

I can relate to Beck’s point more as I can see and experience what he is describing, it is also more personal a theory than a focus on cities – global warming, terrorist threats, the food I eat and the air I breathe are all perceived to be risks caused by modernity and so this echoes more resonance in me than a faceless city as these risks are real and not imagined. Sassen’s theory, although convincing, is harder to envisage and relate to. It proved an interesting topic on which to write and both theorists proved my opening statement: globalization is a disputed issue.

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