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Ethnic Identity and Culture in a Globalized Multicultural World

Ethnic Identity and Culture in a Globalized Multicultural World
Globalization, multiculturism and ethnicity; how do they go together?Photo by Oberholster Venita

What blue jeans meant to a young Russian student in the late Soviet Union went beyond the mere civilizational requisite of clothing; it stood for freedom and the longing for a social reality he felt was denied to him. Blue jeans became the symbolic outcry of a generation of Russians who dreamt the good life and wanted to break away from the USSR. During the late eighties Black markets in Russia thrived with blue jeans smuggled from the United States, where people even risked jail for a nice pair of denim. The instance of blue jeans is characteristic of what sociologist George Ritzer has termed the ‘McDonaldization’ of society, where globalization not only invades the world market but also influences in culturally hegamonizing weaker societies and homogenizing ethnicities.

We live in a shrinking global village. While globalization has opened the world market for unrestricted trade practices making products available worldwide, immigration on a large scale has also seen the rise of multiculturalism particularly in advanced industrial first world countries. This situation has led to the paradox of globalization; on the one hand it has resulted in the emergence of a westernized consumer culture threatening the ethnic identity or national culture and yet at the same time it has also contributed to the rise of identity politics that resist attempts of cultural appropriation putting identity and culture in the forefront of political debates.

Ethnicities and culture vary according to time and place and one particular culture cannot claim superiority over another. However ethnic identities in a neoliberal globalised world are increasingly about power relations. Globalization has given birth to a market-driven consumer culture where the culture of the dominant economy is imposed on the other.

What is ethnicity? How do we define it? John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith in their book Ethnicity define ethnicity on the basis of a community that shares a common myth of ancestry, common past, homeland, or a common culture that includes religion, custom or language. Once local and autonomous, these began to change after continuous contact with the ‘Other’ putting their cultural practices in disarray. Ethnic identity or culture is significant for an individual in giving meaning to the life around him/her. It is through one’s culture that the individual understanding of the world is developed, shaping their evolution.

Ethnicities and culture vary according to time and place and one particular culture cannot claim superiority over another. However ethnic identities in a neoliberal globalised world are increasingly about power relations. Globalization has given birth to a market-driven consumer culture where the culture of the dominant economy is imposed on the other. Today the United States is not only a powerful country in terms of its economic wealth or strength of its armed forces but also an influential country in terms of the acceptance of its culture worldwide. The Americanization of culture is seen in how different ethnic communities are being shaped by what they buy and what they see on television. This gives the west cultural hegemony over the rest of the world in the sense of how these communities come to internalize the propagated cultural superiority of western cultures over theirs. Thus blue jeans or McDonald’s burger is seen as culturally desirable.

Today as consumers we can go to the nearest supermarket and buy products from all over the world. While sociologists emphasize on the resultant homogenization of culture and ethnicities that globalization brings in the neo-colonization of developing countries with cultural imperialism, globalization has also created a proliferation of particular national cultures. For the sake of the consumer market it insists on branding cultures as Latin American, Indian or Chinese in highly stereotypical fashion to ensure that they sell their products. Globalization has facilitated the cross border free movement of not only commodities but also people giving rise to multiculturalism. Today multiculturalism is a burning social concern in the western countries which has seen a rise in immigrant population from Eastern Europe, Asian and Middle Eastern countries since the fifties.

It has seen some negative political implication on multi-ethnic communities with sentiments of xenophobic resentment against ethnically different social groups particularly the Muslim population with the notion that the non-European culture or religion does not represent liberal, secular and modern principles or values. The many cultural nativist political groups that have emerged in the West in the last part of the twentieth century emphasize on the need to assert their civilization against the threat of the morally, intellectually and culturally inferior ‘other’, the non-European ethnic communities.

As John Tomlison writes, “the cultural implication, rather less easily swallowed by some, is that globalization involves not the simple enforced distribution of a particular western (say, liberal, secular, possessive-individualist, capitalist-consumerist) lifestyle, but a more complicated dissemination of the entire range of institutional features of cultural modernity”. Non-western societies are continuously portrayed as the civilizational other, antithetical to modernity.

Many radical ethnic political groups today militantly defend their culture against what is perceived as the western threat of cultural homogenization. While they certainly have the right to speak against the neocolonial political attitude to hegamonize their culture, some extremist organizations go far to seeing enlightenment and modernity itself as a western propaganda to fight against.

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