Author Archive

Studying Regional Variations in Globalization

September 5, 2013

Jonathan Lewis


We would expect to find that people view globalization differently depending on where they live. While an international opinion survey would probably be the preferable way to measure these differences in understanding, this article proposes a much cheaper proxy: freely available information about books on the topic of globalization that people buy in online stores around the world. Using this data is clearly inferior to a well-designed opinion survey in that it cannot provide answers to a full set of research questions, but it can tell us which aspects of globalization are perceived to be important in different regions of the world, and it might illuminate the structure of popular discussions about globalization. It also has the advantages of being non-invasive and of capturing the whole population of users of a popular online bookstore, probably more than could be reached by an opinion survey. Of course, given that this data is about the purchasing choices made by individuals among books offered by publishers, it is something of a halfway house between individuals’ views of globalization—such as might be expressed in answers to an opinion survey or in postings on social media—and the views of globalization produced and promoted by the media and publishing industries. Enough caveats: what can the data tell us?

Amazon currently has 11 stores: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the US. Of these all but the Brazilian and Indian stores offer an API that allows automatic searching. We therefore wrote a program that retrieved the top 100 books with the keyword “globalization” (or the equivalent in the relevant language) every day from these nine Amazon stores and archived the results in a database. This should be done over a period of at least several months to overcome temporary biases toward particular titles. However, as a proof of concept this article presents some results based on 15 days of data from June 2013.

Book titles

First, let us look at the words used in the titles of the books. We removed words such as “globalization,” “global,” “world,” “international,” “introduction,” and “edition.” Then we combined parts of speech and near-synonyms such as “politics”/“political” and “economy”/“economics.” Finally we calculated word frequencies. Rather than present tables of dry figures, we visualized the 50 most frequently occurring words in each store using; Japanese and Chinese need some extra processing before analysis is possible so are omitted here.

1. Canada


2. France


3. Germany


4. Italy

04_ItalyWordle5. Spain

05_SpainWordle6. United Kingdom

06_UKWordle7. United States

07_USWordleClearly, book purchasers in all the stores are extremely interested in the economic aspects of globalization. The Italian store shows an unusually high association of globalization with “crisis,” which occurs in 11 of the 150 book titles collected. It will be interesting to see whether this association continues over a longer period.

It is also interesting to compare the balance between “future” and “history.” While for Canada, Germany, the UK, and the US the two are more or less the same size, for France, Italy, and Spain we see only “history.” Book titles everywhere tend to emphasize the newness of globalization.

We also notice differences in the geopolitical associations of globalization. In the US and Canadian stores, “America” is a large presence, with “China” (plus “Asia” for Canada) just making the cut. “Europe” features prominently in all the European stores. The German and Italian stores show the greatest geographical diversity, with China, America, Africa, India, and the West joining Europe and the two home countries. The French results include “France,” “Europe,” and “Africa,” while those for the Spanish store include only “Europe.”

Co-purchasing networks

This simple analysis of the text of book titles has revealed some interesting regional variations, but we would like to get a better sense of the issues associated with globalization in different countries. When we browse in an Amazon store we see co-purchasing information (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…”). By gathering this information for each book returned in the search results for “globalization,” we can see which topics are closely associated with globalization in the different book markets. These co-purchasing data can also suggest the structure of debates about globalization in different regions: following Kreb’s analysis of political book purchases around the 2008 US presidential election (, will we see mutually unconnected “islands” of texts suggesting a polarized or fragmented popular understanding of globalization or a community of readers linked by knowledge (or at least ownership) of common texts?

In the interest of brevity, here we will confine ourselves to comparing co-purchasing networks from the German, Japanese, and US stores. In the network diagrams that follow, the red nodes are books that have been returned in the search results for “globalization” and the blue nodes are books that have also been purchased by people who have bought books on globalization. The larger the node, the higher the book’s mean sales ranking over the two-week period in June 2013. The networks have been restricted to the 200 books with the highest mean sales rankings. Smaller components (“islands”) have been omitted. The words in large font size are labels we have subjectively attached to sub-groups of books within each network in an attempt to give a broad sense of their content; the reader is invited to improve these thematic labels. Titles and authors of individual books can be seen by clicking on the image.

1. Germany


2. Japan

09_JapanNetwork3. US


The first thing we notice is that the German and US networks consist of one large component whereas the Japanese network is split into two components; the slightly smaller Japanese component is concerned with trade policy—including books debating the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership—and Japan’s relations with its neighbors. The other component centers on business and management, but also includes books aimed at people concerned about the impact of globalization on their workplace and books on university education and the children of migrants living in Japan. Poverty, inequality, and the environment are not major topics.

By contrast, the German and US store networks both have one large component that includes multiple perspectives on globalization ranging from the highly critical accounts of Jean Ziegler and Noam Chomsky to the more optimistic positions taken by, for example, Thomas Friedman. This suggests that the debate on globalization in those countries is lively but not completely polarized. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the best-selling German books on globalization and the titles bought along with them is considerably more skeptical of the benefits of globalization than that in the US store.

Final word

The preliminary results presented in this article suggest that using purchasing data from online book stores, despite its limitations, is a promising way of estimating what people in a given country are likely to understand by and associate with globalization. In order to present firm conclusions we need to gather data over a longer period, and it would be desirable to expand the coverage to include other regions and countries.

Jonathan Lewis works at the Institute for the Study of Global Issues in the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Hitotsubashi University, Japan.

A ‘Confucian’ Challenge to Global Environmentalism

August 12, 2013

Ole Bruun

Half a century ago many Western intellectuals turned against Judeo-Christian values that were being postulated at that time as uncritically guiding Western societies towards the mastery of nature and eventually the destruction of a limited resource base. Prominent writers argued for a new vision,[1] while youth culture found inspiration in Asian philosophies. Today it would seem that this picture stands to be reversed. This essay outlines research that in fact points to a major challenge to global environmentalism, built since the 1960s, from authoritarian governance with ‘Confucian’-based approaches to the Man-Nature relationship.  With China as its primary focus, the research identifies continuity between a range of popular and regime values including socio-centrism, the glorification of material wealth, and an inclination towards experiential approaches to nature. It is argued that, taken together, the combination of these values with historical authoritarianism, rising technological means of control and weak spiritual and civil societies puts China on a technocratic development path with little prospect of a decisive “environmental” turning point. Moreover, China’s global rise along this development trajectory increasingly impacts other countries, especially developing countries.

Environmental degradation in China is of a scale that Euro-American societies have never seen.[2] The country has reached a “choking point,” with 16 of the 20 most air polluted cities in the world and the entire Eastern China affected,[3] and with possibly one million premature deaths yearly. A recent Deutsche Bank report gloomily predicts that without aggressive reform measures Chinese coal consumption and increased car ownership will push pollution levels 70% higher by 2025.[4] The state of water shortages and water pollution in China are such that the World Bank warns of “catastrophic consequences for future generations.” Half of China’s population lacks safe drinking water and 90% of urban groundwater is contaminated. China’s major rivers are so polluted that large sections cannot even be used for farming. A third of China’s agricultural areas are impacted by acid rain. The rampant overuse of fertilizer and pesticides in cropland and the seeping of heavy metals (lead, arsenic, and cadmium) from factories, smelters, and mines into the ground constantly threatens China’s food supply.

The limits of simple comparison

Critics of global capitalism would commonly argue that it is in the nature of that system to destroy the resource base. Classical modernization theory, on the other hand, may point to both rising middle class values and civil societies as long-term remedies for environmental abuse. I will contend that common visions of modernization neglect the historical and cultural differences in those crucial civil, popular, and religious values which guide public debate on resource exploitation and feed into environmental activism.

In particular, two aspects of China’s ‘Confucian’ legacy figure prominently in its present environmental record, one by default is the failure to consider nature in statecraft, another is visible in an undercurrent of popular cosmology that interacts with Confucian-based authority.[5] Despite its revolutionary modern history, China’s native value system still runs deep as a social undercurrent. This includes a radical socio-centrism in which the world that matters most consists of Chinese civilization. At the same time, popular religion has a holistic outlook that sees man, nature and society as a unity, even as an experiential whole. Such metaphysical holism has been regarded as being protective of nature, yet it is very different from the epistemological holism of ecology. It tends to imply that nature is spontaneously self-generating in a constant transformation process, while man’s relationship with nature is not essentially a moral issue: man and his activities belong to nature’s own cyclical processes. Ethical extension is not encouraged, since every aspect of nature is subject to the same inherent dynamics of creation and recreation, and any given state of balance may be termed ‘harmonious’ if beneficial to man.

Protests over pollution and health threats run into the thousands every month in China, yet environmental consciousness as such is weak, and major environmental NGOs still tend to be run with foreign funding. Cultural criticism, which was vital both before and after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, has in principle been monopolized by the Chinese party-state to fit its own modernization agenda and to keep Westernization at bay. By means of censorship and repression, intellectual and civil society actors are being driven towards compliance and often commercialization, while being barred from taking state institutions to court. This has stifled those processes, including a transformation of values that would normally be regarded as the prerequisite for an environmental turn.

Global environmentalism under threat

Given China’s increasing global reach these problems at home inevitably spill over to practices abroad that affect environmental quality, particularly in relation to weak and developing states. Meanwhile, China’s increasing challenge to Western economic, political, and discursive power certainly also extends to Western environmentalism. National and international development organizations, including NGOs, will thus have a harder time pushing an environmental agenda, and China’s foreign policy will jeopardize effective sanctions.

China is in the spotlight for a growing range of global environmental issues. Its carbon dioxide emission levels are now at par with the EU on a per capita basis and rising exponentially. Chinese particulate pollution is causing alarm across Asia and beyond. As China’s own sea waters are increasingly polluted and depleted, the Chinese fishing fleet, the largest in the world, is increasing involved in illegal fishing in the waters of mainly developing countries and in fishing rights disputes with several countries. Chinese multinationals in the mining and oil extraction sectors are often seen to operate in defiance of rules and regulations, even inside national parks in African countries, while corruption is rampant among Chinese business managers in these areas. Illegal Chinese gold miners have poured into several African countries, extending practices that are already causing vast environmental destruction in Asia. Chinese companies are heavily engaged in illegal tropical hardwood logging in Southeast Asia and Africa to the extent that China is now by far the largest importer, consumer, and exporter of illegal timber. A long list of endangered species with importance for Chinese traditional medicine, including tiger, elephant, bear, rhinoceros and shark are being driven to extinction in many countries in Southeast Asia and Africa in part due to an insatiable and ready market especially in China and Vietnam. The near open influx of illegal hardwood and animal substances into China is causing outrage among environmentalists across the world.[6] China controls a huge network of rivers originating on the Tibetan Plateau and supplying fresh water to nearly half of the world’s population, yet, with dwindling and increasingly polluted water sources at home, China is also a central player in international regulation of fresh water sources while at the same time resisting many cooperative arrangements.

In short, China is stepping up its global presence while making it clear that it will not play by rules set by the Western world. Which rules it will play by remains uncertain, but environmentally protective and sustainable practices appear structurally and ideologically constrained in the Chinese context.

It is worth remembering that China’s recent history, in what may be termed its first modernity,[7] was dramatic and the population paid a high price for radical policy experimentation. If China continues on its environmentally insensitive path—itself a radical policy experiment—at the moment of its entry into a second modernity, it will have untold environmental implications both at home, in developing countries within China’s reach, and globally. The present research, to be further developed into an international research framework, aims at translating such overarching issues into a series of localized case studies of environmental policy and practice implications also reaching beyond China, for instance in Southeast and Central Asia and in East and Central Africa.

Ole Bruun is Associate Professor at the Institute of Society and Globalization, International Development Research Group, at Roskilde University in Denmark.


[1] Lynn White Jr., ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’. Science, 10 March 1967, pp. 1203-07.

[2]  Judith Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012.

[3] Thomas N. Thompson, ‘Choking on China: The Superpower that is Poisoning the World’. Foreign Affairs, Features, 8 April 2013.

[4] Deutsche Bank Market Research, China, ‘Big Bang Measures to Fight Air Pollution’. 1 March 2013.

[5] Ole Bruun, ‘When you have seen the Yellow Mountains: Approaches to Nature, Essence and Ecology in China. Forthcoming: Worldviews, DOI 10.1163/15685357-01700005.

[6] Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), ‘Environmental crime – putting the blame where it belongs.’ May 10, 2013.

[7] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage, 1992.

Race to the Bottom of the Global Knowledge Economy

July 1, 2013

Michael Curtin, UC-Santa Barbara

Two remarkable trends in the global labor economy point in seemingly opposite directions. On the one hand, service industries concentrate in major cities, attracting educated and elite workers, while on the other hand, manufacturers scramble around the world in search of cheap labor and government subsidies. As a result, highly skilled workers tend to cluster in desirable neighborhoods, while factory workers reside in marginal locales where they live with the persistent prospect of layoffs and factory closings. Such globalizing trends have exacerbated tensions in many societies, leaving policymakers with a restricted set of options. The most “visionary” response has been for public opinion leaders to tout the merits of education and infrastructure investments aimed at building bridges to the global “knowledge economy.” Proponents argue that the best jobs of the future will be creative jobs that add distinctive value to products, value that is not easily replicated elsewhere. The biotech and computer industries are emblematic of the knowledge economy, so too are elite service sectors, such as finance, engineering, and law. The most glamorous sector is media and entertainment where Hollywood reigns supreme as a hotbed of creative talent and sophisticated infrastructure, or so it would seem.

Pi PosterYet in fact Hollywood is wracked by anxieties about the flight of jobs, and nowhere was that more evident than the 2013 Academy Awards where the Oscar for best visual effects went to the Life of Pi. The winning VFX team, Rhythm and Hues, was hired by Fox 2000 Films to create the stunning illusion of a relationship between two castaways at sea, a young man and a fearsome Bengal Tiger, the latter a figment of digital technology. Besides widespread critical acclaim, Life of Pi earned more than $600 million at the global box office and many contend that the true stars of the film were its visual effects.

westenhofer-oscarAccepting the award, Bill Westenhofer expressed appreciation to his creative team and then turned his remarks to the problems confronting effects workers in Hollywood. Yet just as he began, Westenhofer was cut short by a swell of ominous music from the soundtrack of Jaws, the Academy’s signature technique for shutting down acceptance speeches that run up against the time limit. More than four hundred VFX artists protesting outside the ceremonies were incensed by this turn of events and incensed as well by the fact that Rhythm anprotest marchd Hues had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy only ten days before the Oscars. Renowned as one of the best employers in the effects business, R&H provided its employees pay and benefits that were above the industry norm. Its financial failure was both a sad commentary on the VFX business as a whole and on prospects for the workforce as well. At most effects shops, artists toil long hours under intense deadline pressures and do so without health care, vacation pay, or job security. Increasingly, they are hired for particular projects and terminated when the film is completed. Constantly searching for work, they must be willing to relocate to jobs in distant locales.

Governments around the globe have been subsidizing the development of VFX, animation, and other digital media businesses, seeing them as keys to future economic growth. Facilities in China, India, and New Zealand confidently assert that they can now compete witFG-And-Action---Making-Money-in-the-Post-Production-Services-Industry-3h Hollywood counterparts in terms of quality and cost. Yet Rhythm and Hues offers a cautionary case example, for the very same pressures and practices that brought the company to its knees are likely to confront its competitors as well.

The key to understanding these challenges is the subcontracting system employed by producers of “tentpole” feature films, such as Skyfall, The Hunger Games, and The Dark Knight Rises. Although they are financed and distributed by major studios, the actual production of each film is conducted by hundreds of employees, most of whom work for independent companies that sign contracts with studio producers to provide specific services at a set price. These contracts are negotiated during the planning stages, well before filming begins, and therefore effects companies must fashion a competitive bid but also one that provides enough leeway for the inevitable revisions that take place during filming and post-production. Such revisions can be driven by creative choices of the director or by decisions made by other talent or executives attached to the project. Yet contracts never include a clause for cost “overages,” nor do they include a profit participation clause that might bring additional revenue to a company that invests extra effort in a film that ultimately becomes a hit.

global solidarityUnder these conditions, executives at companies such as R&H are under constant pressure to bid aggressively against competitors around the world, many of them supported by tax breaks and subsidies from local governments. Some Canadian provinces offer 33 percent tax breaks on VFX production costs. Chinese officials have subsidized the construction of state-of-the-art production facilities. And Indian effects shops enjoy significant labor cost advantages.

Like all independent film and television companies, R&H had to strike a balance between creative excellence and cost containment, but they were forced to do so in a business with very thin profit margins, ranging between 3 and 5 per cent. Consequently there was little room for error and although the company had a long and distinguished track record, it operated under the shadow of financial insolvency. If one or two major projects were cancelled, delayed, or failed, the company could be pushed over the edge.

Such adverse conditions ultimately precipitated the bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues. According to industry insiders, R&H had been flourishing on revenues flowing from tentpole features for Fox and Universal that brought in roughly $90 million per year.  But in 2012, both studios cut back on effects-driven titles, engendering a perfect storm for R&H as its revenues from studio films plummeted to $18 million. Lacking a nest egg from profit participation on successful films of the past, the company ran out of operating cash on the eve of its Academy Award.

During bankruptcy proceedings, Rhythm and Hues was bought by Prana Studios, which is backed by a group of Bollywood investors. One source claims that although R&H will continue its LA operations, some 80 percent of production is likely to be conducted overseas. This will no doubt give a boost to Asian competitors, but it casts a pall over the business as a whole, as VFX shops in Asia are likely to face the very same challenges going forward. Workers find themselves in an equally tenuous situation. In recent years, many in LA have decamped to jobs overseas where in some cases they are training workers who will eventually replace them. Meanwhile, artists in the UK and Canada worry that they will lose work if government subsidies evaporate, while those in Mumbai and Shenzhen face persistent pressure to hold down pay and benefits. All VFX workers are confronting demands for longer and often unpaid work hours, especially during “crunch times” that precede the release of a major movie. Although highly skilled and creative, many VFX workers no longer share the heady optimism expressed by proponents of the global knowledge economy. Indeed, many now contend that regulation and labor organizing may offer the best hopes for their future.

Water Issues from a Global, National, and Local Perspective

September 19, 2011

untitled (Sila Dhamma ) / CC BY 3.0

By Nathaniel Uchtmann

Water is prominent on the list of global crises that are predicted to present major challenges to human populations at scales ranging from local to global. In the coming decades, water is thus expected to acquire an increasingly important position on the global agenda. Even today, water-related human morbidity and mortality, which results from widely divergent levels of both water quality and quantity, is already widespread, and almost 80% of the global population faces exposure to high threat levels of water insecurity (Vorosmarty et al 2010). The impacts of water shortages are particularly acute in the developing world, where rising populations and climate change are expected to cause severe water shortages for one-third of the population in this century (Lall 2008).

Yet, despite such findings, awareness of the global water crisis is far from commensurate with the scale of the problem. One reason, according to former UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis, is that “the people suffering the most from the water and sanitation crisis—poor people in general and poor women in particular—often lack the political voice needed to assert their claims to water” (UNDP 2006, p. vi). Additionally, the mainstream academic community involved with hydrology and water has largely ignored the issue and holds widely divergent opinions regarding whether and when the world will run out of water (Lall 2008). But according to one analyst, broad agreement does exist that  “there will be significantly increasing water scarcity that will turn ‘water’ into a key, or the key, limiting factor in food production and livelihoods generation for poor people (…) virtually throughout rural Asia and most of Africa” (Rijsberman 2004, p. 8).

Our understanding of global water issues can be greatly increased by examining three sub-issues: safe drinking water; pollution and degradation; and water scarcity (Lall 2008).

“Safe” drinking water implies that water is largely free from impurities and microorganisms that frequently cause disease or death. Unsafe drinking water significantly limits human progress—close to half of all people in developing countries suffer from health problems caused by water and sanitation deficits at any given time (UNDP 2006). To address this burden, the WHO outlines corrective measures, such as providing access to sufficient quantities of safe water, providing facilities for disposal of sanitary waste, and introducing sound hygiene behaviors (WHO 2011b). The cascade of ensuing benefits from government investment in water and sanitation is so powerful that it can even be labeled as preventive medicine, with apt analogies drawn to immunizations (UNDP 2006).

Major sources of water pollution are usefully divided into “point sources” and “non-point sources”. Far greater progress has been made in reducing the detrimental consequences from point sources (a definite source of pollution, such as a pipe), at least where sufficient political will and funds are available. In contrast, pollution from non-point sources (diffuse sources , such as farms) has proven to be more difficult to control due to greater costs, and because the effects are easier to ignore—perniciously affecting downstream ecosystems and gradually accumulating in water bodies and food chains (Lall 2008).

Water scarcity “refers to a situation when the water supply is inadequate in relation to the water demand for basic human and ecological necessities, including the production of food and other economic goods”. Scarcity is the principal component of the three-fold water crisis because it can drive or exacerbate both access and pollution (Lall 2008). The Human Development Report highlights the social, rather than environmental, origins of water scarcity: “the heart of the global water crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability” (UNDP 2006, p. 2).

The interdependence of water issues is reinforced by the following observation: “For the first time in human history, human use and pollution of freshwater have reached a level where water scarcity will potentially limit food production, ecosystem function, and urban supply in the decades to come” (Jury & Vaux 2007, p. 2). Studying water’s interconnected issues usefully illustrates the increasing global competition over scarce necessities with widely-variable distribution.

Global Framework and Recent Developments

In July 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that safe and clean drinking water and sanitation constitutes a human right essential to the enjoyment of life and all other human rights (WHO 2011a). Yet, “around 1.1 billion people globally do not have access to improved water supply sources” (WHO 2011b). Predictably, this failure leads to high rates of sickness and death among young children from preventable diseases, and arguably qualifies among the 20th century’s greatest development failures (Gleick 2004-5). Further, water’s role reaches far beyond measures of human health: clean water and sanitation rank among the most powerful drivers for human development by extending opportunity, enhancing dignity, and helping to create a virtuous cycle of improving health and rising wealth (UNDP 2006).

There has been progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goal  for safe drinking water—the world will meet or even exceed the drinking water target by 2015 (with an estimated 86% of populations in developing regions having access to improved sources of drinking water, compared to 71% in 1990) (UN 2010). Unfortunately, the target for basic sanitation is out of reach because the estimated number of people lacking access to improved sanitation (2.6 billion in 2008) is projected to rise to 2.7 billion by 2015 (UN 2010).

Local Challenges and Opportunities

Local examples can illuminate the challenges and opportunities surrounding complex global water issues. “In Africa, the world’s second-driest continent, the availability and access to water is more crucial to existence than it is almost anywhere else on Earth. Poverty is widespread and although it is rapidly urbanizing, the majority of its population is still rural-based and dependent on agriculture” (UNEP 2010, p. 13). In sub-Saharan Africa, 69% of the population has no proper sanitation facilities, and 40% has no reliable access to safe water (UNEP 2010).

Kenya, a sub-Saharan African nation with statistics that mirror the UNEP baseline, is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Unsurprisingly, water heavily impacts major sectors of Kenya’s economy, including tourism (World Bank 2004). “Kenyans use water for drinking, energy generation, livestock production, agriculture, tourism, industry, and many other livelihoods. Lack of adequate, good-quality water is therefore a significant obstacle to development” (World Resources Institute 2007, p. vii). Kenya experiences particularly high child morbidity and mortality due to exposure to unsafe water (World Resources Institute 2007), and water pollution significantly contributes to increased civil strife: “Both surface and groundwaters receive urban pollution from wastewaters and sewage and chemicals from agricultural runoff. As well, declining and degraded water supplies have led to conflicts among different users, such as between pastoralists and farmers, upstream and downstream users, humans and wildlife, among others” (UNEP 2010, p. 107).


Water access and water scarcity are effective symbols of the ubiquitous interconnections and interdependencies of the global society. Given that the bulk of global water resources are consumed by agriculture, water pollution and shortages are directly traceable to lifestyles in the “developed” world. “It is estimated that 30 percent of all water in global food today comes from a country other than the one in which the food is consumed. This fraction is anticipated to grow, meaning that global market forces will play a role in both the supply and demand for local water resources” (Lall 2008, p. 9). Fortunately, the water crisis is not inevitable and does not result from limited availability. Instead, its roots lie in both institutions and political choices: “[l]ike hunger, deprivation in access to water is a silent crisis experienced by the poor and tolerated by those with the resources, the technology and the political power to end it…. Success in addressing [water and sanitation challenges] through a concerted national and international response would act as a catalyst for progress in public health, education and poverty reduction and as a source of economic dynamism” (UNDP 2006, pgs 1-2). Recognition of this reality will benefit the whole of humanity.

Gleick, P. H. “The Millennium Development Goals for water: Crucial objectives, inadequate commitments.”
Jury, W. A. & Vaux Jr., H. J. “The Emerging Global Water Crisis: Managing Scarcity and Conflict Between Water Users.” Advances in Agronomy. Vol. 95, 2007, pp. 1-76.
Lall, U. “Water in the 21st Century: Defining the elements of global crises and potential solutions.” Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2008, vol. 61, no. 2. pp. 1-17.
Rijsberman, F.R. “Water Scarcity: Fact or fiction?” 2004. Proceedings of the 4th International

Crop Science Congress.

UN Department of Public Information. Goal 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability Fact Sheet. September 2010.
UNEP. “Africa Water Atlas.”2010.
UNDP. 2006 Human Development Report. “Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis.”
Vorosmarty, C.J. McIntyre, M.O. Gessner, O. Dudgeon, D. Prusevich, A. Green, P. Glidden, S.

Bunn, S.E. Sullivan, C.A. Reidy Liermann, C. & Davies, P.M. “Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity.” September 30, 2010. Nature 467, pp. 555–561.

World Bank. “Towards a Water-Secure Kenya: Water Resources Sector Memorandum.” April, 2004.
World Health Organization. 2011. “Recent developments on the recognition of safe and clean water and sanitation as a human right.”
World Health Organization. 2011. “Water Supply, sanitation and hygiene development.”
World Resources Institute. “Nature’s Benefits in Kenya: An Atlas of Ecosystems and Human Well-Being.” 2007.

Re-locating the U.S. Global Identity in the Post-9/11 World

June 18, 2010

Waleed Mahdi

In “The local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,” Stuart Hall identifies two forms of globes: “an older, corporate, enclosed, increasingly defensive one which has to go back to nationalism and national cultural identity in a highly defensive way, and to try to build barriers around it before it is eroded;” and a “global post-modern” one, “trying to live with, and…overcome, sublate, get hold of, and incorporate difference.” (i) The first globe, a product of modernity, created a globalization that thrived through the European/English colonial project, which wrestled with the question of nationalism in its attempt to infiltrate various geopolitical boundaries and gain access to other nation’s natural resources and cheap, if not free, labor; hence, adopting a homogenous approach that discards cultural variation and renders other nations into mini-English models. 

With the waning of the English/European power and the rising struggle of the ‘marginal’ for independence in the post-World War II, and by the time Soviet Union collapsed leading to the ascendancy of the United States to the global scale as the only supreme power, a new form of globalization has been adopted. Hall locates this globalization in a post-modern globe defined by a loosening process of the ‘nation-state’ and a subsequent weakening of the ‘national cultural identity’, augmented by an accelerated international interdependence. Ignited by the Fordist economics of mass production and consumption, and encouraged by an almost global embrace of the free market system, corporations (and often governments) have sought several ways to maximizing their profit, mainly through searching for cheap labor (relocating, outsourcing, franchising, etc.), and appealing for a global market. Faced with the challenging factor of cultural variation, the new form of globalization has accommodated the paradoxical mechanism of being ‘multi-national’ yet ‘decentralized’; capitalist institutions, consequently, would be less homogenous, and more adaptive to incorporating cultural differences.

As opposed to the English-model globalization, the American-model, according to Hall, “is not attempting to produce…little versions of Americanness,” but is rather seeking “to recognize and absorb those differences within the larger, overarching framework of what is essentially an American conception of the world.” Such a framework can be understood as a U.S. attempt to construct a global identity that markets pluralism as a commodity for both domestic and global consumption. Thus, the early association of globalization with Americanization, which has paradoxically generated both monetary revenues, e.g. Oprahfication, McDonaldization, and Disneyfication, and discursive formations of cultural and political anti-Americanism, would later be shaken as the U.S. embraced and marketed an American global identity. Meanwhile, the 1990’s witnessed a parallel domestic move to construct a global identity through celebrating the U.S. as a multicultural society, and presenting it as the micro-version of the multi-cultural globe. The twenty-first century U.S. identity, it had been speculated, was on its way be ‘global’.

9/11 & U.S. Global Identity
Two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the editor of the French newspaper Le Monde, Jean-Marie Colombani, published an editorial titled Nous sommes tous Américains (We are all Americans). The title of his editorial for May 14, 2004 asks the question Tous non-Américains? (Are We All Un-American?). The dramatic transformation in Colombani’s editorials has become an iconic citation of the international community’s reaction to the post-9/11 change in the nature of the U.S. global identity. A heightened discourse of nationalism has hyped the terror invoked by the attacks to declare a state of emergency and prohibited criticism that may potentially undermine the nation. The U.S. has been strictly defined in terms of a timeful constructed national landscape that needed to, not only retaliate through waging a war in Afghanistan and in a preventive measure in Iraq – let alone holding suspects indefinitely without charging them and endorsing interrogation torture techniques in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo facilities – but also alienate Arab/Muslim Americans from this landscape and subject them to racial profiling as a measure to fight ‘homegrown terrorism’. In her reflections on the post-9/11 U.S. state, Judith Butler stresses, “It was my sense in the fall of 2001 that the United States was missing an opportunity to redefine itself as part of a global community when, instead, it heightened nationalist discourse, extended surveillance mechanisms, suspended constitutional rights, and developed forms of explicit and implicit censorship.” (ii) All this has been packaged, as Dana Heller would put it, into a commodity named ‘9/11’ that the United States has managed to sell a re-branded vision of the nation, marketed domestically and globally through the good vs. bad and you are with us or with the terrorists paradigms. (iii)

The post-9/11 transition in the U.S. global identity – from an attempt to utilize its global superpower status as a means to transcend geopolitical boundaries in favor of reaching a global audience to a heightened discourse of bourgeois nationalism that positions the U.S. nation in a dangerous world; and from a celebration of multiculturalism as a part of an imagined American community to a racial exclusion of Arab/Muslim Americans – cannot be located within the second form of globalization that Hall identifies. It rather corresponds with a third form that overlaps the two globes, i.e. the modern and the post-modern. “The global post-modern,” Hall stresses, “is not a unitary regime because it is still in tension within itself with an older, embattled, more corporate, more unitary, more homogenous conception of its own identity.”

The United States current global role cannot, therefore, be simply conceived through a stark contrast with the English colonialist role; it can rather be understood to exhibit a paradoxical lens that depicts the U.S. as a culturally appropriating imperialist project. This paradox serves as a critical tool to understand the complexity of the U.S. post-9/11 global identity, which accounts for the contradiction in the well-reception and organized rejection of its economic, political, and cultural products. Colombani’s equivocal identification with and rejection of Americanness, for instance, resonates with a global embrace and rejection of the ‘9/11’ product. The global mediation of the images reflecting the collapse of the World Twin Towers, the rising number of innocent victims, the horror-stricken families, and the chaotic state of New York City has won the world’s consolidation with Americans and their values of freedom and democracy; yet the global mediation of images mirroring the ramifications of a unilateral nationalist sense of revenge, an emblemic of which has been the released photos of the inhumane torture of Iraqis in ‘Abu Ghraib’, has generated anger and depreciation of what the United States has come to represent.

The problematic contrasting of the two forms of globalization through an emphasis on a post-modern U.S. global identity and a modern English colonial identity is also conducive to theorizing for the triumph of the former and, subsequently, empties the U.S. global identity from its complexity, mostly defined along the interplay between the domestic and the global. In this regard, Hall raises a critical question: “Is globalization nothing but the triumph and closure of history by the West?” His suggestion not to “resolve the question too quickly” and his vision that this is not the ultimate triumph but rather another face of the triumph of the West can be regarded, not only as an early response to Francis Fukuyama’s vision charted in his 1989 essay “The End of History” which celebrates the Western Liberal democracy as the end of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution, but also as a critical observation of the dynamics of the post-modern globe that would fluctuate the U.S. global identity between an extension into universalism and a contraction to nationalism, or, as Hall aptly locates it, between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’.

i. The article was first published in 1991.

ii. See Precarious Life: The Powers of Morning and Violence. Verso, London, 2004

iii. Read Dana Heller’s “Consuming 9/11,” in The Selling of 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: 1-26.

Waleed Mahdi is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at  The University of Minnesota.

Strong Governments Underpin Globalization

May 14, 2010

Howard H. Lentner

The “great recession” has brought to light some of the foundations that underpin globalization, in particular state institutions required for guaranteeing private contracts, regulating businesses, providing money that allows transactions to continue, and propping up systemic arrangements of the economy. In the conventional view of globalization these foundations have been obscured by those who believed that the market was trumping the state. A few writers had understood the critical nature of state power and had foreseen the possibility of such vigorous government action in an emergency as we have witnessed since September 2008. In this view globalization does not pit states against markets; instead, both are essential to the stability of economic processes across the world, but the state is the indispensable component. 

Since the early 1980s in the United States and earlier in Britain and even earlier in New Zealand, governments have adopted neoliberal policies designed to reduce government participation in the economy, weaken regulatory agencies, privatize former government activities, and place great faith in the ability of markets to regulate themselves. These policies and the ideology that underlay them remained in place despite the need for significant governmental intervention to prevent economic disaster in the savings and loan crisis of 1988, the Mexican economic crisis of 1994, and the East Asian economic crisis of 1997. With the onset of the great recession in December 2007 and the financial crisis that made its appearance in September 2008, governments across the world have intervened to prevent the collapse of financial systems, bailing out banks, buying firms, and injecting large amounts of money into their respective national economies in an attempt to halt the hemorrhaging of jobs and to resume growth. In this case, governments have, in a halting and piecemeal fashion, questioned the premise that markets are self-regulating and have been putting forth legislation to build a more effective regulatory regime.

In the United States the president and Congress are promoting consumer protection legislation in the face of substantial resistance by adherents of failed neoliberal ideology and the financial services industry. The takeover of portions of the banking, insurance, and auto industries by the government of the United States included provisions for limiting the compensation of the twenty-five top executives of such companies. Underway are plans to reform bank regulation, and proposals have been made for removing government endorsement of ratings agencies. However, intermingling of elites from government and the sectors to be regulated as well as the dependence of elected officials on the largesse in campaign contributions from the leaders of large economic units has led to the rejection of certain regulatory proposals and to resistance to a comprehensive analysis within the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that might lead to coherent reform. For example, in its new protocols for listing derivative instruments on a public exchange, the Obama administration has provided a loophole for exceptions for private trades. Although it seemed unlikely that the barriers between commercial and investment banking that had been in place since the 1930s until their removal ten years ago would be reenacted, Paul Volcker’s appointment as an advisor in the White House improves the chances that barriers between commercial and investment banking may yet be erected. The administration has intervened within firms to limit the compensation of top executives and to restructure incentives, but almost no attention has been given to a preferable alternative, imposing marginal tax rates on high incomes of perhaps fifty percent on incomes of a million dollars or more up to ninety percent on those over five million dollars. Piecemeal and half-hearted reform will probably do little to change behavior, so that we can expect the same risky business practices that led to the great recession will continue. In time, then, another disorder will emerge that will require another massive intervention by the government. Because the regulatory system will have been tinkered with around the margins, the next crisis will be shaped differently in its particulars. Nevertheless the basic pattern of the government’s stepping in to save the system from the unregulated missteps, fraud, and deliberately risky calculations will ensue.

There is an alternative path to be taken. First, a sharp distinction needs to be drawn between the government, on the one side, and powerful private economic actors in society. The distinction, at base, is an intellectual one, but it can be put into practice only by the government’s assigning specific roles associated with setting rules and performing regulative tasks to itself and leaving business decisions within the constraints set to private firms. Just as the government needs to stay out of commercial decisions, it needs to keep private actors out of regulatory and legislative decisions; this can be done only by eliminating or at least minimizing private financing of election campaigns.

Second, in its regulatory capacity the government must draw sharp lines along several dimensions in the operations of the market. Among the most important is the restoration of the wall between commercial and financial investment banking as was embodied in the Glass-Steagall Act. Another border needs to be erected between the task of rating investments and consulting for the firms being rated. In regard to the ratings agencies, they need to be separated from governmental endorsement.

Third, the government needs to correct flaws in regulatory steps already taken. For example, all derivatives trades should be required to be done through a transparent exchange, so the exceptions for “private trades” needs to be eliminated from the plan put forward by the Obama administration.

Fourth, the government must enact clear, relatively simple rules that have to be followed by firms and other private institutions. For example, a rule that sets minimum leverage standards for broad categories of loans would institutionalize prudence in lending. For example, the government could set a minimum down payment for any housing purchase at twenty percent of the sales price, and it could require that each commercial bank retain cash deposits equivalent to ten percent of its loans and that each investment bank maintain a cash reserve of ten percent of its assets.

The fundamental shift required to advance globalization without the incalculable risks attending unregulated markets, especially in the financial sector, is to drop neoliberal ideology and recognize the essential functions that states perform, including the provision of security and stability in the international system and the effective oversight and enforcement of rules governing an economic system. Business cycles will remain an inherent characteristic of capitalist economies, but they need not embody system-threatening features such as firms that are regarded as “too big to fail,” and they can be smoothed out considerably by prudent and effective monitoring and regulation by competent governments.


John Cassidy 2009. How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Jeffrey Friedman 2009. “A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance, and Policy Failure,” in Critical Review 21 (2–3): 127-183.

Howard H. Lentner 2004. Power and Politics in Globalization:  The Indispensable State. New York: Routledge.

Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Report to Congress, October 21, 2009 _Quarterly_Report_to_Congress.pdf

Richard A. Posner 2009. “Financial Regulatory Reform: The Politics of Denial,” in The Economist’s Voice., November.

Andrew Ross Sorkin 2009. Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System From Crisis — and Themselves. New York: Viking.

Howard H. Lentner is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the City University of New York

Global studies abroad: toward a more integrated and meaningful study abroad experience

May 7, 2010

David Abernathy

Most undergraduate students majoring in global studies will spend some portion of their academic career studying abroad. Indeed, the “study abroad requirement” is seen as an essential component of the global studies degree at many institutions, as it provides students with an opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture and actively engage with the issues and problems they study in the classroom. But does simply including a study abroad component in a global studies major ensure that students will actually immerse and engage?  Given the subject matter of our nascent field, should we be expecting something more, or at least different, for our students when they study abroad? 

I found myself asking those questions as my institution undertook a significant overhaul of its global studies program. Considerable time was spent on the interdisciplinary curriculum, the number of credit hours, the arrangement of thematic tracks and regional concentrations, and the suite of courses that would sit at the core of the major. Study abroad, meanwhile, was barely discussed – it was simply a given. Our revised curriculum places much more emphasis on the processes and flows of globalization than before, incorporating but not privileging area studies at the level of the nation-state while addressing the increasing interconnectivity of society at all scales. We have adopted the metaphors of networks (Castells, 2000) and flows (Appadurai, 1996) as we seek to understand how globalization is changing our world. Yet our mentality toward study abroad programs seems to remain rooted in the paradigm of place. “I want to study in Ecuador,” is an example of the typical response given by a student when asked about the study abroad requirement. We may debate  the “end” or “demise” of the nation-state in our classrooms (Ohmae, 1996; Tanzi, 1998), but when it comes to study abroad the nation-state seems alive and well. Steiner asks of global studies in an earlier issue of this journal, “what is the unit of analysis?” (Steiner, 2007). We know the answer is not the nation-state (or at least not solely), yet too often that is the spatial construct we apply to our thinking on study abroad programs.

It seems appropriate and legitimate to argue that perhaps global studies students and those who teach and advise them should approach the study abroad requirement in a different manner. We should encourage students to focus on process and place together, rather than merely thinking about which international border they hope to cross. If our degree programs require students to pick a thematic track, as so often they do, then we should require our students to take the same approach to study abroad. If global studies is truly a different beast from area studies or international relations, then that difference should be reflected in the study abroad programs chosen by our students.

At my college, we are taking three steps to tailor our study abroad requirement to the specific needs of global studies students (while actively seeking input on other possible approaches). First, we are developing our own short-term study abroad courses that explicitly deal with key issues in contemporary globalization. Our first such course focuses on culture, globalization and development in Ghana, with students traveling in May 2010. Our second course examines the tensions between conservation and globalization in Panama, with study and travel planned for Spring 2011. The development of our own courses allows us to embed the learning objectives of our major directly into these study abroad opportunities.

Where internal study abroad courses are not appropriate or sufficient, we have begun working to improve our advising for external study abroad programs. We are developing a guide to study abroad programs that should be of particular interest and benefit to global studies students based on the subject matter and course of study. Study abroad institutions such as the School for International Training (SIT) and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) have developed courses that address complex global issues, and we are working to match courses like these to the academic tracks our students choose. We advise students to think about what themes and research topics they are most interested in grappling with while abroad, then look to see which courses provide the closest fit. We do not try to suggest that place is unimportant, of course – we simply want the topics and issues to be given significant weight in the decision-making process.

Finally, we are working to be more self-reflexive about the study abroad process itself, asking students to recognize that the networks and flows that position them as participants in programs across the globe can themselves be the object of study in our field. A colleague of mine once wrote about what students don’t learn abroad (Feinberg, 2002), arguing that it is near impossible for students from the Western world to escape the “imaginary world of globalized, postmodern capitalism” that puts them at the center of the globe, and asking if study abroad programs can provide a sufficient challenge to students’ preconceived notions of how the world works. His argument seems particularly germane for those of us in global studies: how can we justify a study abroad requirement if we don’t actively seek out – or create – those programs that offer such challenges, while in turn providing students with the necessary tools of critical analysis that enable them to question the very act of studying abroad?

We are working to truly integrate the study abroad requirement into our major, rather than simply treat it as a box that students must check on their way to a degree. By teaching students the necessary skills of critical analysis and asking them to apply those skills to their own study abroad experience, by advising students to focus on the themes and content of study abroad programs rather than simply locale, by identifying external study abroad programs that are particularly good fits for our major, and by developing our own internal study abroad courses that explicitly address globalization, we are increasing the likelihood that study abroad both embraces and enhances the learning objectives of our academic major.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Castells, Manuel. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. New edn. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Feinberg, Benjamin. 2002. “What Students Don’t Learn Abroad.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 3).

Ohmae, Kenichi. 1996. The End of the Nation-State: The Rise of Regional Economies. New York: Free Press.

Steiner, Niklaus. 2007. Global Migration in Global Society. Global-e (May 17).

Tanzi, Vito. 1998. The Demise of the Nation-State? IMF Working Paper. Available at

David Abernathy, PhD, is the chair of the Department of Global Studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.

Global Village/Another World: Globalization as a Contending Space

April 30, 2010

Dipankar Sinha

The ancillary contention of this essay, as distinct from the advocates of ‘quick-fix alternatives’, is that the search for the transformatory axes in politics cannot be realized by any ready-made ‘alternative’. The alternative can emerge only through painstaking nurturing of different and diffused non-dominant/ non-mainstream communication channels which question and contest the dominant order of things. Harold Lasswell(1948), though by no means a scholar of alternatives, had provided a classic formulation of political communication by advancing a set of apparently simple but extremely potent questions: “Who said what when and how?”. Keeping in mind that ‘alternative’ is a contested and somewhat slippery term, when we embark on the visualization of politics beyond the dominant- mainstream forms we can extend the Lasswellian formulation to pose the moot question: whose order is it any way?.

In the days of the inequitable globalization we increasingly hear the announcement of the “death of utopia” and the “end of history”, which emerges not only from the act of colonization of the political and economic institutions but also of the aesthetic and expressive faculties as well. The latter breeds “monoculture of the mind”. The Global Village project(Sinha 2010) not only effects material exclusion of the vast majority of people it also leads to symbolic exclusion which is effected through the denial of the “power of renaming”. The very idea of the Global Village is much hyped because it perfectly serves the interests of the globally dominant political forces to hide the tremendous disparities and discriminations. Who says that discriminations do not exist in village?

It necessarily follows that any meaningful and effective exploration of the possible and plausible alternatives to the fast-paced construction of the Global Village needs a simultaneous focus on the role of communication both as a facilitator of status quo and as a means of change. As a power-laden process of meaning generation and meaning circulation, through which the ‘reality’ is constantly produced, maintained, transferred and transformed, the process of communication, on the one hand, facilitates production and reinforcement of the dominant order; on the other hand, it also gives birth to and intensifies what we would prefer to call the zones of exclusion— both material and symbolic— of the dominant scenario to provide clues to possible routes of transformation.

In this backdrop the need of the hour is to be aware of the dangers of the ‘ritual’ communication— which enforces ‘voluntary’ submission to ‘appropriately’ patterned behaviour— by exploring ways and means to critique and subvert the high-pitched process of mainstreaming. But it has to be done by being in the mainstream and not by disengaging from the prevalent order or by engaging in a head-on-collision with it. Here we have in mind the “Delinking” thesis suggested by Samir Amin and the “Cultural Dissociation” thesis advocated by Cees Hamelink— both of which call for detachment as a deliberate strategy, respectively from the prevalent international economic order and international communication order. Their theses, so to say, are radical and tempting but impractical. If the successive protest movements against the current show of globalization raise the possibility of a “new dawn” in the struggle for alternatives they remain overwhelmingly struggles not only by communication but in communication vis-à-vis the prevalent world order. If communication is the infrastructural backbone of the discriminatory mainstream politics it would also be the same for progressing towards visualization of any viable alternative global order as well. The fundamental distinction between the two cases would be that in the mainstream form— as illustrated by the idea of Global Village— a singular kind of communication ‘order’ is being promoted, but the search for alternative politics should rely on diverse orders(Boyd Barrett, 2002) beyond the hegemony of one.

Then again, the task ahead is not easy. As hinted, the issue of alternative is not a simple one and any attempt to address it should avoid simplistic generalizations that often plague the ‘alternative euphoria’. At the core of this issue lies the question of alterity of alternatives. In most studies on alternative modes the alterity question is not addressed adequately, if at all, with the result that in these studies there is some kind of taken-for-grantedness about the specific kind of alternative being advocated. The fate of the erstwhile socialist states has revealed that the construction of an ‘alternative’ order without sufficient alterity is bound to end up in failure. If alterity connotes difference from particular others, did the alternatives that are being regarded as so, have sufficient alterity in the sense of having completely different constitutive rationale and order? Or are they basically trying to advocate a supposedly alternative order at a superficial level to gain some space in the prevalent order? These questions must be addressed in order to construct the imaginary of Another World and to transform it into reality.


Boyd Barrett, Oliver (2002)  “Global Communication Orders” in William N. Gudykunst and Bella Mody eds., Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication, Thousand Oaks: sage Publications, pp.325-42.

Lasswell, Harold (1948)  “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society” in L. Bryson ed., The Communication of Ideas, New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies.

Sinha, Dipankar (2010) “Communication: The Challenges of Globalization, Information Society, Identity and Development” in Yogendra Singh ed., Social Sciences: Communication, Anthropology and Sociology, Delhi: Pearson Longman/Centre for Studies in Civilizations, pp. 231-247.

Dipankar Sinha is a Professor of Political Science at Calcutta University as well as the Hony. Professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Kolkata.

Visual Culture and Pedagogy: Teaching Human Rights with Film and Images

November 11, 2009

Safia Swimelar, Elon University



Contemporary globalization takes place visually – whether it be images and videos transmitted by cell phone and webcams, public video surveillance in buses or on street corners, a protestor or journalist’s capturing of political violence then seen by millions, or the plethora of international films that document diverse global experiences.  Images have a democratic quality to them: regardless of one’s language, level of literacy, or nationality, looking at a photo of Iraqi prisoners assembled naked into a pyramid with American soldiers grinning behind them or a video of Iranian student Neda killed by security forces in the streets of Tehran gives one evidence and perspective on state policy, human rights, and the universality of suffering.  As Murray Edelman chronicles nicely in his From Art to Politics, our perceptions of current political events stem from the images and stories that our memory recalls from art – films, books, paintings, but also the recreated events on TV.

Given the power of images to create meaning and expose and hide multiple realities, they can be important pedagogical tools for teaching global studies and human rights; although, there are both advantages and disadvantages to its use.  Film can be used to enrich the classroom in relation to substantive content and student engagement and also in terms of what perceptions and assumptions about global issues images construct for us.

Diverse and foreign films provide students with a powerful, visual global perspective.  While this may sound obvious, film’s comparative advantage of powerful images, compelling and concrete dramatic stories, and close-up shots of conflict (that are rarely directly observed or felt) means that students can be temporarily immersed into another cultural and political milieu. This can provide a jumping off point for the academic lesson, as I discuss below.  In my experience, students are eager to see how issues look from different cultural perspectives.  For example, many students naturally think of the American case when we talk of racism and discrimination.  Showing a film with detailed stories and images of discrimination and violence against European immigrants and Roma-Gypsies or indigenous peoples in Central America can provide a needed comparative and global perspective and take the conversation to another critical level.   It enables the idea of human rights to be universalized and individualized, thus bringing the global and local together.

Film can also inform, educate, and engage students about human rights.  Not only is film crucial for representing, identifying, and providing evidence for human rights challenges, it is useful to illustrate case studies of broader concepts and importantly as catalysts for engagement and academic study.  For example, when I teach human rights foreign policy and genocide, the feature film on the Rwandan genocide Sometimes in April (dir. Raoul Peck, 2006) is a potent visual text that spurs students to ask questions about how states and international organizations grapple with the legal, political, and moral dilemmas of mass violence and genocide in general and in Rwanda in particular.  It is especially powerful because through the personal story of a mixed Hutu/Tutsi family and a Hutu extremist brother on trial, we see the Rwandan genocide personalized and individualized.  At the same time human rights are universalized – we see that mass violence and the struggle for security are common and global phenomena. Lastly, almost all aspects of the Rwandan genocide that can spin-off into class examination are represented in the film: the causes of genocide, its preparation and process, identity politics, role of U.S. and the United Nations, international war crimes trials, reconciliation, and the local gacaca trials.

Moreover, one of the ways of using film and photography in the classroom is to examine the assumptions we gain from those images.  For instance, students’ common stereotypes about conflict and poverty in Africa are reinforced through film and media images of starving African children, for example.  By contrast, Sometimes in April’s portrayal of a conventional middle-class Rwandan family does well somewhat not to fall back on these common assumptions.  This type of analysis can lead to an examination of how images can create or minimize the potential for international action, such as the importance of images of starving Bosnian concentration camp prisoners (that resembled Holocaust images) and spurred awareness and eventual NATO intervention.

Another example more dramatic and less political in its purpose, but that also illustrates the catalyzing power of film is Lilya-4-Ever (dir: Moodysson, 2002), a gripping, morose, cinematographically rich tale of child abuse and transnational trafficking that on its own does not tell us much about the broader causes, effects, and local/global efforts to ameliorate human trafficking.  It focuses intensely on Lilya’s post-Soviet life.  (Interesting, the U.S. State Department screened this film in connection with a discussion about policy on sex trafficking.)  In my experience, students gain an exceptional (yet tough-to-watch) visual representation of what a specific case of trafficking may look like today; it is also hard for students not to empathize with Lilya as she is abused and humiliated and thus be drawn into the issue and seek to learn deeper. While the use of emotion in film may be seen by some educators as a distraction, inappropriate, or too subjective, I believe that the dramatic nature of film can increase student’s interest and commitment to the subject; moreover, it can illustrate how the effects of abuse and hindrances to protection stem from psychological, personal, and socio-cultural issues, not only political and economic issues.  In learning, the categories “cognitive” and “emotional” are not distinct, but are aspects of one another.

In review, film can contribute to the goals of the human rights classroom by providing evidence and also by powerfully illustrating: (1) what abuse looks and feels like; (2) how individuals are affected by human rights struggles, including the short and long-term consequences of violations; (3) the different forms of human rights abuses and campaigns and how they are perceived cross-culturally; (4) the causes and processes, agents and actors; and (5) the explanations for action or inaction by outsiders.  Film is versatile as a form of art; it has the power to challenge conventional views, to call for social action and change, but also to reinforce entrenched assumptions.  All of these traits possess teaching moments.

This brings us to a brief overview of some of the disadvantages and concerns when using film in the global studies / human rights classroom. While emotion and personal drama can galvanize interest, there is also the potential for films with human rights content to be shallow, exploitative, and visually gratuitous in an attempt to use emotion manipulatively, thus we must be selective.  Secondly, art creates order out of disorder; it presents the ambiguous as coherent.  While this may be helpful to students, there is a risk of over-simplification, de-politicization, and de-contexualization of the problem.  Other potential disadvantages to the use of or over-reliance on film might be: (1) over time, the proliferation of negative images may become banal, unreal, and promote apathy, as Susan Sontag cautions; (2) the post-modern critique and the myth of the image: the belief that pictures can tell the whole story, while in fact they may conceal a great deal; (3) Shocking and violent images may overwhelm students.  Here, I suggest being both understanding to those students who have trouble with violent images, but also to be clear that being shocked, saddened, and uncomfortable may be part of the learning process, particularly on the subject of genocide.

In short, and despite the potential disadvantages noted above, I have found that using film and photographic images (for example, the Face of Human Rights book edited by Lars Müller) brings stories and images from the far corners of the world directly and vividly into the human rights and international studies classroom.  It can be a catalyst to engage students in critical thinking and deeper analysis .  Furthermore, while space limits further explanation, a study of images within global studies gets us to think about how our perceptions and assumptions about the world are affected by the inundation of images that surround us.

Brief List of Recommended Human Rights Films

  • Night and Fog
  • Sometimes in April
  • Ghosts of Rwanda
  • Grbavica: Land of My Dreams
  • Lilya-4-ever
  • The Lives of Others
  • Standard Operating Procedure
  • Taxi to the Dark Side
  • The Prisoner: how I planned to kill Tony Blair
  • Dead Man Walking
  • Battle of Algiers
  • Well-Founded Fear
  • Srebrenica: Triumph of Evil
  • Long Night’s Journey into Day
  • Bamako
  • Darwin’s Nightmare
  • Romero
Safia Swimelar, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of political science at Elon University in North Carolina where she teaches courses in human rights, international studies, and comparative politics. She is a Fulbright Scholar (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and recently published an article in the International Journal of Human Rights on human rights change and the Roma-Gypsies. She is currently working on a collaborative year-long project involving her students and courses examining the use of film, images and art in the teaching international studies and human rights.  She also studies human rights and politics in the contemporary Balkans.

Rethinking Gender and Human Rights in the Global Political Economy

September 9, 2009

Deborah M. Weissman

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

Globalization has required a change in our way of considering and teaching human rights, gender and justice. Gender equality had hardly begun at the national level when transnational developments called attention to the need to think about the condition of women on a global scale. The relationship between human rights and women’s equality has indeed assumed a place of prominence in the debates on globalization and international law, including universal human norms to guide the conduct of public life as well as private realms.[1]

Women’s organizations and human rights groups have frequently relied upon legal approaches and rights-based claims. Violence against women is now considered a proper subject for international human rights law.  Indeed, the issue of human rights for women has moved to center stage of the United Nations in terms of programmatic, administrative, and methodological approaches to international relations.  So too has the International Criminal Court included both substantive protections, procedural safeguards, and administrative structures that are gender-sensitive and designed to fully incorporate the needs of victims of and witnesses to gender-based crimes.

But it is more complicated, for this process is itself often a microcosm of the larger debate about globalization, specifically the degree to which old paradigms of colonialism are being recreated in the guise of global integration.  The call for women’s equality, a summons to which all people of good will cannot but be sympathetic, must, nevertheless be received warily, to be examined for hidden agendas and ulterior motives.  Transnational feminist human rights advocacy cannot yet be unhinged from nation, where one nation, the United States, so dominates global dynamics.  Caution is warranted if the pursuit of objectives that envision women’s human rights is not as an end unto itself but a means by which to enhance U.S. global interests.  To this end, this essay proposes the need for including a critical perspective in classroom debates and academic endeavors about the gendered imperative of human rights.

Certainly, advocacy efforts to develop gendered international legal standards, most often framed as human rights protections function positively in a number of ways.  As a rhetorical matter, the appeal to globalized legal standards, particularly in the area of human rights, serves as a harbinger of change and messenger of modernity and progress.  In these circumstances, rules regarding the treatment of women have, at the very least, symbolic value.  But they may likely provide benefits beyond mere signaling for instrumental purposes.  For example, in countries that ratify human rights treaties such as the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), albeit without intentions to comply, CEDAW may still serve as a signpost of the government’s obligations about which women’s rights activists can make claims and raise issues both in domestic and international fora (Hathaway 2003).

Furthermore, by reframing the issue of women’s inequality as a global issue, it may be easier for activists to raise concerns that might otherwise be relegated to the background, or perhaps even abandoned, if such issues were to be articulated as a problem arising within the modern territorial state.  For example, during times of political turmoil that threaten the stability of state regimes, when governments experience pressure, particularly in the form of external hostility, women may be reluctant to mount criticisms that target state practices.  However, when these issues are expressed as global concerns, the tension between the need to critique internal state practices and the need to defend against external threats may be lessened.

While there is little doubt that women have benefitted by using the international human rights framework to seek and obtain equality and justice, it is also true that the efforts to harness such norms on behalf of women’s equality often acts in tandem with a different set of concerns and may serve as intellectual currency to advance U.S. political interests, defined in terms of power, and its ideological purpose of global economic liberalization.

The United States has invoked the circumstances of women as a pretext for humanitarian intervention, often with devastating consequences.  During the period of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, advocates of U.S. expansionism justified military intervention in the Pacific and the Caribbean by appealing to the need to save, uplift, and civilize the women of the region (Hoganson 1998; Renda 2001; Merry 2000).  Intervention and occupation, it was claimed, would be the means by which to deliver the goods of human rights, particularly in the form of the rule of law.  Despite the inflammatory rhetoric used to describe the condition of women in order to promote intervention in the Caribbean and Pacific, these new legal measures were not designed to improve the circumstances for women.  Cuban women found themselves restricted in family arrangements and ownership and control of property (Stoner 1991; Ibarra 1998).  Once under U.S. influence, the doctrine of coverture was introduced in Hawai’i, effectively eliminating once powerful and active women from political participation (Merry 1998).  For many women, humanitarian intervention was experienced as rape and sexual harassment.

Concern for human rights continues today to function as a master narrative of U.S. imperial tendencies.  As historian Emily Rosenberg notes, at the end of the twentieth century, public commentators and scholars promoted America’s Empire as capable of delivering a host of public goods including freedom and democracy and the uplift of women (Rosenberg 2006).  The same missionary discourse that originated with saving women in the nineteenth century continues to play out in stereotyping and ongoing concerns about veils, polygamy, and women’s seclusion despite Arab feminist resistance to such formulaic depictions (Saunders 2002; Abu-Lughod 2002).  The current use of the condition of women in Afghanistan as an illustration of the need for intervention is thus, not without historical antecedents, presented in its current form as a product of a historical trend.

Moreover, human rights have been largely defined as individual political rights.  Rights pertaining to economic and social justice have been relegated to lesser considerations.  Others have described human rights initiatives targeted at women’s equality as a form of instrumental feminism that supports women’s rights as a means to enhance the development of market economies (Bessis 2004, Orford 2000).  Women are the new component of the globalized work force moving across international borders.  Gender inequality in the form of obstacles that prevent their free movement by which they enter the low-paid workforce are inimical to the interests of transnational corporations that rely on cheap female labor.

The current focus on human rights related to violence against women assumes, paradigmatically, the duty of the state to enforce standards and indeed, the obligation to punish offenders.  In a review of one study of one hundred eighty-five CEDAW reports, the most frequently noted human rights reform pertaining to gender equality was the enhancement of criminal penalties (Goldscheid, 2006).  Many of these reforms were modeled after legal developments in the United States, although such criminal intervention models may poorly serve women for a number of reasons.  State interference in the private realms of family or within local communities where gender-based human rights violations may occur is problematic in many settings, particularly where the state often poses as great a threat to human rights as do individual or local violators.  Criminal justice remedies may have little transference value in cultures where punishment for purposes of deterrence or retribution is not the norm.  Moreover, invoking state enforcement mechanisms in circumstances where economic and social justice issues are background considerations not only reduces the opportunity to eliminate human suffering, but may encourage the arbitrary exercise of power.

The benefits of the human rights discourse on behalf of global equality for women cannot be denied.  However, it is not a straightforward endeavor.  Put differently, to what extent must we question with our students and in our research whether the historical misuse of human rights create the very problems that the interveners claim they are seeking to interrupt?


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Merry Sally Engle, Law, Culture and Cultural Appropriation, 10 Yale J. L. and Human. 575(1998)

Merry Sally Engle, Colonizing Hawai’i: The Cultural Power of Law (2000)

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[1] This entry is abstracted from Deborah M. Weissman, Gender and Human Rights: Between Morals and Politics in Gender Equality: Dimensions of Women’s Equal Citizenship (Linda C. McClain & Joanna L. Grossman, eds. 2009).

Deborah Weissman is the Reef Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.