Lecture 1 (spring semester). Globalization theory: a sceptical introduction


I’m Dr. Matt Merefield, a historico-political sociologist working on trans-national migration and im/mobility, drawing on historical materialist and intersectional approaches.

I’d like to start by sharing a brief transnational autobiography with you, reflecting on my situation as a subject/citizen, imbued with particular attributes of class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and “race” [video1]

This course takes a historico-political sociological and intersectional approach to understanding trans-nationalism mobility and immobility, and the relationships between the two. Thus the course uses the hyphenated term “im/mobility”.

The course is primarily concern with the im/mobility of people. We examine how  im/mobility involves physical, social, and economic mobility for some, while others have their mobility restricted, are rendered immobile or, alternatively, are unable to stay (as is the case, for example, for refugees, and also for ). The course also examines contests over the desire (or ‘right’) to stay, and the conflicting relationships given to place by, for example Indigenous people and settlers, or elite and precarious residents in “global” or “world” cities such as London, Beijing and Sydney.

The course examines stratifications of im/mobility through the lens of people movements and stasis. In examining relationships between mobility an stasis we seek to understand how the mobility of some, for example, elite migrants, relates to the immobility of others such as precariously employed workers, or asylum seekers in camps and detention centres. Conversely, how does privileged stasis among elite groups related to coerced and forced mobility and ‘dis-habitation’ among precariat groups?

The course posits that the migration and stasis of people needs to be understood in relation to other kinds of im/mobilities including, for example, those of finance, economic, socio-cultural and political capital, goods and information. Accordingly our approach employs configurations of social, cultural, economic and political analysis that differ in terms of the balance between them in relation to the specific empirical matters being engaged with.

In the first semester we focus on people movements and use an intersectional approach to consider how categories such as class, gender, ethnicity, faith, nationality and “race” stratify people in terms of trans-nationalism, globalisation, mobility and migration.

In the second semester we focus on immobilities, reactions to trans-national mobilities and relationships between the two. Between the two semesters we aim to examine ways in which increasing connectedness is met with new and diverse forms of bordering and contest.

Some Key Globalization and “New Mobilities” concepts

This is not a course on globalization, nor does it follow the anti-materialist approach of the “New Mobilities” school (Urry, 2004; Cresswell et al, 2006). However in this and the third lecture we’re going to start by looking at key concepts of globalization, the sociological shift from the nation-state to the international, transnational and global, and “New Mobilities” as they have operated as nascent paradigm for understanding mobilities and immobilities in recent sociology.

Keep in mind the following questions:

  • What is the idea of globalization?
  • Is it a useful paradigm for understanding relationships between the infra, inter and transnational mobility dynamics?
  • Does a focus on flows and networks negate the importance of political and economic structure and relationship to place?

Sociology shifts from national to global and mobility paradigms

Let’s briefly map some of the developments in sociology that led up to the globalisation scholarship that began around the late 1980s.

Sociology early-mid 20th Century: bound to the national  context

Early sociological thinkers (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Comte, Spencer) were internationalist


  • Anthropologists focused on difference rather than commonality (often in an ‘Orientalist mode)
  • early to mid 20th century sociologists nation-focused, at a time of xenophobia, racial and ethno-nationalism (WWI)
  • Internationalism left to radical movements
  • English Sociologists focused on domestic social issues; the Great Depression; men at war, women in the workforce

Post 1945 transformations in sociology

  • US post war dominance
  • Imperial decline, de colonization, i.e, India, 1947…Indonesia 1949, Algeria, 1962
  • Proliferation of new state actors,
  • Cold War fought in other states
  • Universal Rights discourse and institutions
  • Decentred area/postcolonial studies; Cardosa, Alavi, Amin, Fanon, Patterson, rediscovery of De Bois
  • Civil rights, anti-racism

Internationalist sociology

Dependency theory Andre Gunder Frank

‘Modernization’ Talcott Parsons

‘Third World’ Peter Worsley

  • Shift from comparative internationalist thinking to thinking in terms of global processes and dynamics
  • Partial shift from the nation-state as the unit of analysis to interpenetration between states:
  • differentiate between different groups within states and their relation to corresponding groups in other states
  • Travel, Migration, Financial flows, Cultures in common

Thinking globally:  World Systems

  • Capitalist trade networks across nations more important than static political structures (states)
  • Core, semi-periphery, periphery bound together through transnational trade & competition
  • Logic of Accumulation dominates:
  • System expansive and self-protecting; tends to entrench advantage
  • Politically pluralist; economically unifying; socially divisive
  • World systems: Capitalism progressively ties more and more societies into the global market
  • System tends to maximise comparative advantage through adaption of labour & market relations
  • Criticisms: underplays importance of political and state structures (incl. state driven technological & commercial developments), colonial conquest and pathways

Globalization = the increasing interconnectedness of the world

Through greater movement and flows of people, finance, objects, information and ideas

  ….  across space ….

                                  and at a faster speed than in previous eras ….

“Compression of the world” bringing the far apart and different together” (Robertson, 1992:8)


How are the global and local connected? Held et al. distinguish between flows and networks.

Flows = movements of things, people, symbols, tokens and information across space

Networks = regularised or patterned interacts

Networks include those of communication and information technology, and interpersonal networks involving individuals and groups (Singh Grewal 2008).

The concept of globalization includes the supposition that an increasing number of social structures (e.g. states, cities, law) and social institutions (the family, religion, sport) are interconnected 21

Amin (2002: 395) argues, global networks allow innumerable business, cultural, migrant, political, criminal and other agents to ‘make space’ work for them by connecting and energizing their previously separate practices.

According to Castells (1996: 470), by the 1990s networks dependent on IT become the most dynamic and appropriate vehicles through which to deal with virtually all kinds of global activity, Cohen, Kennedy (Page 37).

Paul Ritzer (2010: 14) emphasizes the role of information technology.

Digital networks provide the technological infrastructure for the emergence of contemporary network-based social forms … enhancing the speed, flexibility, and global reach of information flows, allowing for communication at a distance in real time, … allowing communities to sustain interactions across vast distances.

People involved in networks can communicate all sorts of information to one another in various ways – telephone calls, snail-mail, e-mail, blogs, social networking sites, and so on. These networks have revolutionized and greatly expanded the global flow of information. As with all other structures, such networks can be blocked (or ‘bordered’) d in various ways (e.g. the “Great Firewall”).

Global Cities

The local and the global are also connected, or relayed through centrifugal nodes called “global” or “world” cities whose networks transcend and remodel that nation-state.

Global (Sassen 1991, 2013) and world cities (Derudder et al. 2012)  are increasingly interconnected with one another directly rather than through the nation-states in which they happen to exist. The financial markets of the world cities of New York, London, and Tokyo are tightly linked with the result that all sorts of financial products flow among them and at lightning speed ( Ritzer and Dean,  14).

Deterritorialization, supraterritorialization, and aterritoriality

A key aspect of globalization theory in relation to im/mobilities is the idea that the nation-state and its territory are being transgressed, or ‘debordered’ by globalizing flows (including the movement of people).

In globalization theories, frameworks for understanding, action and relationships shift beyond the local and national bordered territory  (Robertson, 1992:8).

Scholte (2005) originally used the term ‘deterritorialization” as the central feature of globalization. However, he came to think that the term exaggerated the extent to which the territorial (i.e., that  which is bounded within the nation state) had been overcome and re-developed his concept as “supraterritorialization”.

Supraterritoriality refers to a form of (re-)spatialization in which social space
is not confined by territory, distance or time.

Supraterritorialization is more than just transplanetary connection. It involves breaks with territorialist geography.

Supraterritorial relations involve not just an intensification of links across the world but different types of global connectivity. This intensification of links across boundaries also involves the decline of those boundaries. Links transcend and detach from territory. (Martell, 8/277)

Supraterritorialial linkages are more than just Time space Compression (David Harvey 1989), the shrinking of space, and the reduction of the time required by a wide range of processes, brought about by changes in transportation and communication technologies advanced mainly by capitalist corporations (Ritzer & Dean, 2012:238).

Compression is the intensification of links and relations. Scholte argues that Supraterritorialism involves new kinds of relations that transcend the bordered territory of the nation state.

These links involve simultaneity and instantaneity. Examples include telecommunications; global media; finance; migration; the internet; ecological problems; global consciousness.

Supre/de-territorialised nation states

The deterritorialising aspects of mobility problematise static concepts of the state, sovereignty, citizenship and subjectivity. The state is thought to have had its sovereignty diminished as global economic actors became powerful enough to dictate the forms of political economy required of nation-states. Evans (2009) focuses on the ways in which neoliberal globalization has weakened state interest in and capacity to implement national social policy. Actors such as the IMF have a strong influence over national government, including the extent of the welfare state. Conversely, states are not necessarily passive recipients but have, to differing degrees, the capacity to actively position themselves in accordance with the requirements of the global economy (Dadush and Shaw: 2012) Sassen (2006)
emphasized the role that state actions played in contributing to the
development of globalization.

Qualified critique of the territorial

Scholte’s supranationalism is qualified by the acknowledgement that the territorial remains important, especially in some areas: production, governance, ecology and,
allegiance. Global liquidity and flows are not assumed to be unhindered.

Held et al make a similar qualification in their concept of globalization as aterritorial. By this they mean it make involve activities that go beyond being coterminious with territories (activities that are deterritorialising), but also involve reterritorialization, involving globalization being established in regions and subnational areas, as well as encouraging, in some instances, nationalism (Held et al, Martell 10/277).

While claiming that global supraterritoriality is new,  Scholte conceded that  territories and borders remain important. Sceptics argue that it is hard to see how the examples he uses are anymore more than instances of transplanetary connections, and that his examples are better described as instances of liberalisation, internationalisation and westernisation (all dynamics predating globalization).

In terms of people movements, supraterritoriality (the global transformation of bordered territoriality) doesn’t appear to be empirically valid. If it were, there should be forms of borderless travel and migration on a global scale. Instead we have contested forms of movement within regional, international and national regulation, in combination with a minor degree of elite transnationalism (i.e, financial services, investment migration).

For Neil Brenner (1999) argued, globalization, to the degree that it consists of deterritorialisation – the increase in the intensity of the trans-bordered flows of processes such as capital, information, and communication which lend themselves to immediacy – is premised upon processes of re-territorialisation that facilitate these flows, wherein space is regulated in order to enable these temporal flows.

Re and de-territorialized spatio-temporalities – for example – those of the privileging (through, for example, the transnational architecture of financial deregulation) of global cities and their concentric maps of production – also work to re-border the global process of production Subsequently, as Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan (200) observe, the compression of spatio-temporality is matched by its expansion, ‘with the result that some cities, countries and regions have become increasingly disassociated and marginalised’.

Globalism and Cosmopolitanism

One of the key ways globalization theorists think of interconnectedness is ideational and normative. Many globalization theorists have a committment to cosmopolitanism (see, for example, Archibugi and Held, 1995; Held, 1995; Archibugi, 2004). This involves the development of what is sometimes called global consciousness. Issues are seen as affecting people globally and as needing a global response rather than national responses. Human rights, war, ecological problems, drugs, crime, economic instability, inequality are some of the issues that cosmpolitans view as requiring a global response. For this, they turn to global fora and international interventions, based on cooperation grounded by a cosmopolitan consciousness.Other globalization theorists who see global consciousness as akey element of globalization include Robertson, Water (2001), and Holton (2005).

Global consciousness is thought to be developing in relation to shared opportunities and risks and opportunities:

Age of global Opportunity

  • New conditions of openess and democratic possibility (Robertson 1992, Albrow 1996)
  • Global crisis requires and therefore enables global cooperation (states cannot act alone)

e.g. global warming, refugees, tax regulation

  • Cohen & Kennedy (2012:10) suggest shared experience of global crisis enables fraternity between wealthy elites and poor

Age of Uncertainty: Global risks

“Global postmodernity” (Stuart Hall, 1992)

  • Uneven development and economic crisis = global uncertainty & insecurity:
  • stable lifetime employment replaced by casualisation, low incomes, lack of meaning & camaraderie

“Risk Society” (Ulrich Beck, 1992)

  • Societies united beyond borders by manufactured risk

e.g., man-made environmental risks: carbon consumption, nuclear power, deforestation

  • Blurring of boundaries between us/them (i.e., race, nation, gender)
  • Insecurity of meaning making and identity; age of anxiety
  • limited sovereignty and control of borders because of ‘global’ migration flows; diminished citizenship rights vis-a-vis cheap labour migration and welfare migration

Sociological approaches to the Globalization paradigm

  • Hyperglobalists; globalization as a new era in history, borderless world
  • Skeptics; globalization is not new; the extent of globalization overstated
  • Transformationalists; acknowledge criticism of skeptics, however, see globalization as the central driving force reshaping modern societies (Held et al, 1999)

Hyperglobalists and the supposed demise of the nation-state

Hyperglobalists argue that:

  • The global marketplace has increased in the last three decades and continues to increase
  • Globalization transcends national borders
  • Era of the nation state is over

With increasing economic globalization, transnational governance organizations and corporations = increasingly important.

  • National governments lose influence, forced to operate increasingly according to rules they do not create.
  • Demise of the welfare state?
  • Demise of sovereignty/ability to ‘protect’ borders?

Hyperglobalist perspective as an approach which sees globalization as a new epoch in human history. This new epoch is characterized by the declining relevance and authority of nation-states, brought about largely through the economic logic of a global market. Economies are becoming “denationalized.”

The spread liberal democracy will extend the global reach of more universal principles of economic and political organization. A truly global civilization will become possible.

Conflicting forms of hyperglobalism

Neo-liberal versus neo-Marxist orientations

  • Neo-liberals view globalization as largely a good thing (despite the risks it engenders), part of progress towards global civilization. They say that nearly all countries have a comparative advantage in one way or another. Some groups who will be worse off, but on the whole, the benefits are greater than in the past, and the advantages will ‘trickle down’.
  • Neo-Marxist: Global capitalism will only create and reinforce inequalities within and between countries.

Globalization Transformationalists

  • There is no single cause (the market or economic logic) behind globalization
  • The outcome of processes of globalization is not determined
  • While agreeing with some of the sceptics’ criticisms of the concept of globalization (and particularly hyperglobalization and the claim that the nation state has been deterritorialised) they argue that there is actually a process of transformation occuring involving some degree of globalization.

Critiques of transformationalist concepts of globalization.

The transformationalist approach doesn’t really take the concept of globalization further than the sceptics’ position. While some of the dynamic concepts such as networks and flows are empirically valid, they do not need to be anchored to the concept of globalization and its transcending of nation-state territoriality. Nation-states have been and are themselves transforming in relation to the transnational economy, but this may be better thought of in terms of the contemporary stages of capitalism. That is precsely the framework transformationalists wish to avoid, in line with their commitments to the cultural turn in sociology, and refutation of historical materialism. They therefore tie themselves in knots trying to save the concept of globalization despite agreeing with most of the criticisms of the concept raised by sceptics.

Historical materialist (“social”) transformationalists

Key migration theorists in the historical materialist tradition sometimes equate ‘globalization with neoliberalism”. Stephen Castles (2008), for example, a dominant political describes contradiction between the national principle upon which the sovereignty of states is founded, and the transnational principle of global mobility driven by  neoliberal principles of a ‘small state’, privatisation of utilities and services, economic deregulation and the opening of markets (especially those of developing countries) to global competition. Defining his approach in terms of “social transformations”, Castles analyses globalization and national sovereignty as undergoing complex transformations, as do the Weberian transformationalists. However, unlike Held et al., Castles positions its complexity in terms of the working of the global political economy.

Sceptics: national, inter, multi and tranationalism, not globalization

Sceptics doubt that what is called “globalization” is anything more than internationalism. Many multinational business flows, for example, are rooted in the company’s country of origin and involve trade relations between particular countries not relations of a global reach.

They also question whether things that are described as being global in reach are not actually limited by inequality, conflict and exclusion, and therefore less than global.

Some argue that internationalism was more intense in previous eras (particularly the belle epoque 1890-1914) and that without its claim of newness based on unprecedented connectedness, the concept of globalization fails.

Skeptics have been especially critical of the idea of deterritorialization, arguing that the national context remains important and that the role of the nation state has not been superceded by forms of global governance even if it has been limited to some extent by some forms of global and regional governance, or by neoliberalism. Even then, the nation state is an active participant in international and transnational dynamics, not a passive recipient.

Sociologist Smitha Radhakrishnan argues for the use of transnationalism as a scale of analysis (we will discuss her work later in the semester when looking at elite migration). Radhakrishnan argues that the academic concept of the global is vague, refers to multiple things, and follows Manuel Castell’s and others in seeing the concept as defining nothing more than “a realm of interaction that is counterposed with the “local”. When the concept is applied to empirical contexts, it becomes difficult to designate which practices are produced in the local and which are produced in the global because the global has been shown to always take place in the local (Burawoy et al, 2000; Hart, 2002).

Sociology, as we noted above, was traditionally bound by the nation state. Class, for example, was theorized as stratfication, division and conflict in the context of national economies and societies (Bourdieu 1984; 1995; Weber, 1978; Marx). Those nation states were often implicity theorised as unitary actors within a global political economy. Marxist system theory maintained the notion of class competition as internal to the nation state.

More recently, theorists have anaysed class divisions across rather than (just) between nation states. Aihwa Ong (1999) and Leslie Sklair (2001) examined the practices of elite business people controlling capital across national boundaries. Ong’s (1999) ‘flexible citizenship’ describes a resourcing process in which travelling or displaced subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions within the  cultural logic of capitalist accumulation. For Ong, it is access to resources and resourcefulness rather than mobility that is the issue (Skeggs, 51).

For Radhakrishnan, “transnationalism” can be used to examine “the connections and relationships between different places” (Levitt and Khagram 2008; Mitchell 2002; Yeoh, Willis and Fakhri 2003). The term allows us to maintain a focus on the national while examining the ways in which it is transgressed.

Useful concepts but not a paradigm

That the global is not a useful academic concept for the scale of analysis does not mean that its popular uses are not of interest, nor that its array of associated concepts are not important. The use of the global as an idea of cosmopolitanism, or the transgression of national boundaries or borders is central to many studies of mobility, including, for example Radhakhrishnan’s own study of elite Indian labour mobility.


Martell, Luke, (2017), Introduction: Concepts of Globalization, The Sociology of Globalization. Wiley.(Ch. 1-2)

Kennedy, P (2010) Local Lives and Global Transformations: Towards World Society,

Castles, S. (2008) Migration and Social Transformation, Migration Studies Unit Working Paper, No. 2008/1, LSE.

Cohen, R. and Kennedy, P. (2013) Global Sociology, 3rd Edition, Basingstoke: Macmillan, Held et al, (1999) Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Ch. 1)

Hall, S. & Gieben, B. eds., (1992) Formations of Modernity, Cambridge, Open University Press(Ch. 6)

Beck, U. (1992) The Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage

Dadush, U. and W. Shaw (2012) ‘Is the Labour Market Global?’, Current History,
111 (741), 9–13.

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Sassen, S. (2006) Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages
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Cohen, R and Van Hear, N. (2008) Global Diasporas: An Introduction, Abingdon, Oxon. And New York, Routledge

Chua, A (2004) World on Fire: How Exporting Free-Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, London, Arrow Books

Albrow, M.(1996) The Global Age, Cambridge, Polity

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Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, vol. 1, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Oxford: Blackwell (rev. edn 2000).

Urry, J (2000) Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-first Century, London: Routledge.

Urry, J (2003) Global Complexity, Cambridge: Polity.


Author: shabbycheek

Lecturer and researcher in intersectional cultural studies, historical sociology, American and migration studies. Working in China on America, British, Australian and Chinese social justice issues using Feminist materialist, post-Marxist (Gramscian), Critical Race Studies and post-colonial perspectives.

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