Globalization and identity

Essential understandings (HL only)

  • There are both local and global cultural influences on our identity, attitudes and behaviour.
  • Cultures are dynamic and change as they interact with other cultures.
  • Globalization has both positive and negative effects on behaviour.
  • Globalization is difficult to operationalize, so it is difficult to study.

Globalization - that is, the process of interaction and integration among people of different nations - is a process driven by international trade and investment aided by modern information technology. One result of this is the reduction of barriers to commerce and international agreements to promote trade, investment and services. In line with this, the term 'cultural globalization' has been suggested to account for the process marked by a common consumption of cultures as a result of access to the Internet, popular culture media and international travel. Cultural globalization contributes to an increasing interconnectedness among different people and cultures because it involves the formation of shared norms and knowledge.

The values of the global culture are based on individualism, free-market economics and democracy; they include freedom of choice, individual rights, openness to change and tolerance of differences. These values dominate the global culture in part because they are the values that prevail in the countries that provide the driving energy behind globalization - in particular, the United States.

How does globalization affect the individual? Proponents of globalization argue that it allows poor countries and their citizens to develop economically and raise their standards of living. Opponents of globalization claim that the creation of international free markets has benefited multinational corporations in the Western world at the expense of local enterprises, local cultures and common people.  The argument goes that before the era of globalization, there existed local, autonomous, and well-defined cultural connections between a specific geographical place and a person's cultural experience. This constituted what we would call 'cultural identity' and 'cultural belonging' but the globalization process has resulted in the destruction of cultural identities.

Today, people are more likely to travel than fifty years ago.  Travel exposes people to other cultures; this has the potential to open up their eyes to different ways of life and challenge how they think the world “ought to be.”  As a result of immigration, we have seen a growth in diversity in our cities, not just of the people who live there, but in the types of food, clothing and activities that are available. International organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross have played a role in influencing attitudes worldwide about mental health, human rights and the role of women in society.  And finally – perhaps the greatest modern influence on modern behaviour – the Internet.  The Internet allows us to communicate with people all over the world as well as buy goods from anywhere. The media flows across national boundaries to produce images of well-being that cannot be satisfied by national standards of living. Social media provides information about human rights that may generate demands for equality. At the same time, some countries are increasing pressure to reject the global identity by restricting access to social media and contact with international groups. According to Arnette (2002), a central psychological consequence of globalization is that it results in transformations in identity - that is, in how people think about themselves in relation to the social environment.

Effects of globalization on identity

For people living in a globalized world, today it is impossible to say that our behaviour is determined solely by the community that we grow up in. All of the factors listed in the paragraph above are examples of globalization and how human beings are becoming more intertwined with each other around the world -  economically, politically, and culturally.  If we accept that globalization plays a role in behaviour, then we have to accept that our definition of culture may have to change as well.  Cultural psychologists refer to the culture that we grow up in and share with others in the same environment as our local culture. However, the culture that we come to learn and perhaps adapt to by contact with other cultures – via travel, working in international companies or through the media and social networking – is the global culture.

Adopting a global identity does not necessarily mean that one has to sacrifice one’s local or cultural identity. Psychologists argue that today most people worldwide now develop a bicultural identity that combines both the local culture and the global culture. As we will see, sometimes these two levels of culture can cause problems, including identity confusion or a sense of marginalization.

For example, one of the most influential 'global values' is individualism, which encourages people to pursue personal achievement and creates competition between individuals.  A country that traditionally has been collectivist but has been influenced by European and American culture through globalization is Japan. Individualism in Japan is seen as more negative than in the U.S. because it is perceived as being selfish and feeling lonely. Since individualism is a relatively new phenomenon, people in Japan distance themselves from existing relationships, but they do not actively build new close relationships. This might decrease Japanese happiness because interpersonal relations are an important source of happiness and subjective well-being in Japan.

Ogihara & Uchida (2014) wanted to investigate the relationship between individualistic values, subjective well-being and the number of close relationships in Japan and the USA.  The sample consisted of 114 students from a university in Japan and 62 students from a university in the U.S. The students answered questionnaires related to individualistic and collectivistic orientation, subjective well-being and the nature of their relationships. The results showed that in Japan having an individualistic orientation was negatively related to subjective well-being and fewer close relationships; but this was not the case in the sample from the U.S. The researchers wanted to know whether this negative result was due to a conflict between individualistic orientation at a personal level and the collectivistic social structure in the Japanese society.  In order to find out, they carried out a follow-up study.

Research in psychology: Ogihara & Uchida (2014)

The aim of the study was to investigate the effect of working in an individualistic workplace would have on the subjective well-being of Japanese women. The sample consisted of 334 adult Japanese women who worked for a large insurance company where performance and achievement-oriented goals were posted on the walls of the offices.  The participants answered the same questionnaires as in the first study.  The results suggest that even in the study's achievement-oriented environment, Japanese participants who were achievement-oriented scored lower on subjective well-being and had fewer close friends. The lower levels of well-being in the Japanese sample may be due to the transition that Japan is currently experiencing, where globalization is leading to a movement toward individualism in the workplace while maintaining the traditional collectivistic values in general society.

The researchers argue that a limitation of the study is that they were unable to directly test the causal relationships between an individualistic orientation and decrease of number of close friends. Therefore, it could be that be that those who have fewer friends were the ones that were drawn to working in such an environment. Consequently, it is difficult to establish a cause and effect relationship between the effects of globalization, identity and one’s well-being. Could it also be that people who are working in international companies - or working in Japanese companies that have adopted Western values - experience some kind of identity confusion because they have internalized Japanese values of collectivism during their upbringing but are now exposed to Western ideas and values of individualism?

According to the English sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991), identity in the globalized, postmodern world is a reflective project where individuals choose their life-styles and relationships. This challenges societies with a social order based firmly in a tradition where individuals live with more or less clearly defined roles and positions. Individuals in the global culture have to work out a role for themselves This may involve changes at an individual level in terms of everyday life such as gender roles, marriage, sexuality and even a redefinition of the self.  

According to Erikson's (1963) theory of psychosocial development, adolescents go through an important stage of identity development.  If they are not able to do this successfully, he argues that they experience identity confusion.  Some argue that globalization increases the proportion of young people who have a global consciousness, but very little connection to the place where they live,  an experience known as delocalization. Where a child grows up now matters less than in the past in determining what the child knows and experiences. For some people, delocalization may result in feelings of alienation as a result of the lack of a clear cultural identity. They may feel that they lack clear guidelines for behaviour and feel that they do not belong anywhere. Some young people may have trouble finding meaning in the worldview that is the basis of the global culture, with its values of individualism and consumerism. This new worldview may contradict their cultural traditions.

One of the ways which an individual may escape the identity confusion that results from globalization is to form self-selected cultures with like-minded people who wish to have an identity that is not influenced by global culture and its values.  Although this could take the very specific form of anti-globalization of groups, it more often takes the form of more traditional groups.  For example, over the past few decades, we have seen an increase in membership of fundamentalist religious groups.  Marty & Appleby (1993) argue that the common characteristics of these groups are: a strict code of conduct, a belief that their traditional religious beliefs are superior to modern values, a sense of being under attack by the modern world and a belief in the hierarchy of authority.

This was also found by Kaufman (1991) who carried out a case study of US women who grew up in secular Jewish homes but converted to Orthodox Judaism in their teens or early twenties.  Through a series of interviews, she found that they felt that orthodox Judaism offered them a “definite place in the world.”  They found the tradition and clear guidance for how to live their lives comforting. They also complained about the secular and competitive nature of the modern society.  It appears that their choice to join the culture of Orthodox Judaism was at least partly an attempt to reject the secular values of globalization and instead adopt religious values to provide the structure and meaning seen as necessary to build their personal identity.

ATL: Reflection

Looking in the mirror of cultural dimensions

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be collectivistic and have to live in an individualistic world.  In order to try to understand what this might be like, let's do a little thought experiment.

Go to Hofstede's online tools and look up your own country's dimensions.  See which dimension is the strongest in your country and which is the weakest.  For example, the Czech Republic is high on uncertainty and low on indulgence. Read the descriptors below the graph to see what this means about your country.

Now imagine that you are in a society that is the polar opposite of your country's dimensions.  So, if I am Czech, a country that is low in uncertainty and high in indulgence.  How would this affect your day-to-day activity? Do you think that this would be easy for you to adapt to?  Why or why not?

Checking for understanding

Which of the following is not a characteristic of the globalized culture?

High power distance is not characteristic of the globalized culture which promotes a sense of democracy and the ability to change one's status in life.


What is the term used by cultural psychologists to identify the culture that we grew up in?

Primary culture and native culture are not terms used by cultural psychologists. Ethnicity is defined as belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition


Which of the following is a valid conclusion of Ogihara & Uchida's study on Japanese women in an individualistic workplace?

The findings seem to indicate that there is a conflict between the women's local culture and the globalized culture of their workplace.  This leads to negative feelings about themselves and makes it difficult to maintain close friendships. The study is correlational, so no cause and effect relationship can be determined.


What is the term used to describe what happens when an individual is very conscious of global culture but very little connection to where they have grown up and live?

Alienation is one potential symptom of delocalization.


One of the ways that an individual may cope with the globalized culture is to form a self-selected culture.  Which of the following is an example of a self-selected culture?

Marty & Appleby (1993) argue that the common characteristics of these groups are: a strict code of conduct, a belief that their traditional religious beliefs are superior to modern values, a sense of being under attack by the modern world and a belief in the hierarchy of authority


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Globalization and attitudes

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