Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination
Anxieties of the Global
Globalization is certainly a source of anxiety in the U.S. academic world. And the sources of this anxiety are many: Social scientists (especially economists) worry about whether markets and deregulation produce greater wealth at the price of increased inequality. Political scientists worry that their field might vanish along with their favorite object, the nation-state, if globalization truly creates a “world without borders.” Cultural theorists, especially cultural Marxists, worry that in spite of its conformity with everything they already knew about capital, there may be some embarrassing new possibilities for equity hidden in its workings. Historians, ever worried about the problem of the new, realize that globalization may not be a member of the familiar archive of large-scale historical shifts. And everyone in the academy is anxious to avoid seeming to be a mere publicist of the gigantic corporate machineries that celebrate globalization. Product differentiation is as important for (and within) the academy as it is for the corporations academics love to hate.
Outside the academy there are quite different worries about globalization that include such questions as: What does globalization mean for labor markets and fair wages? How will it affect chances for real jobs and reliable rewards? What does it mean for the ability of nations to determine the economic futures of their populations? What is the hidden dowry of globalization? Christianity? Cyber-proletarianization? New forms of structural adjustment? Americanization disguised as human rights or as MTV? Such anxieties are to be found in many national public spheres (including that of the United States) and also in the academic debates of scholars in the poorer countries.
Among the poor and their advocates the anxieties are even more specific: What are the great global agencies of aid and development up to? Is the World Bank really committed to incorporating social and cultural values into its developmental agenda? Does Northern aid really allow local communities to set their own agendas? Can large banking interests be trusted to support microcredit? Which parts of the national state are protectors of stakeholding communities and which parts are direct affiliates of global capital? Can the media ever be turned to the interests of the poor?
In the public spheres of many societies there is concern that policy debates occurring around world trade, copyright, environment, science, and technology set the stage for life-and-death decisions for ordinary farmers, vendors, slum-dwellers, merchants, and urban populations. And running through these debates is the sense that social exclusion is ever more tied to epistemological exclusion and concern that the discourses of expertise that are setting the rules for global transactions, even in the progressive parts of the international system, have left ordinary people outside and behind. The discourse of globalization is itself growing dangerously dispersed, with the language of epistemic communities, the discourse of states and inter-state fora, and the everyday understanding of global forces by the poor growing steadily apart.
There is thus a double apartheid evolving. The academy (especially in the United States) has found in globalization an object around which to conduct its special internal quarrels about such issues as representation, recognition, the “end” of history, the spectres of capital (and of comparison), and a host of others. These debates, which still set the standard of value for the global professoriate, nevertheless have an increasingly parochial quality.
Thus the first form of this apartheid is the growing divorce between these debates and those that characterise vernacular discourses about the global, worldwide, that are typically concerned with how to plausibly protect cultural autonomy and economic survival in some local, national, or regional sphere in the era of “reform” and “openness.” The second form of apartheid is that the poor and their advocates find themselves as far from the anxieties of their own national discourses about globalization as they do from the intricacies of the debates in global fora and policy discourses surrounding trade, labor, environment, disease, and warfare.
But a series of social forms has emerged to contest, interrogate, and reverse these developments and to create forms of knowledge transfer and social mobilization that proceed independently of the actions of corporate capital and the nation-state system (and its international affiliates and guarantors). These social forms rely on strategies, visions, and horizons for globalization on behalf of the poor that can be characterised as “grassroots globalization” or, put in a slightly different way, as “globalization from below.” This essay is an argument for the significance of this kind of globalization, which strives for a democratic and autonomous standing in respect to the various forms by which global power further seeks to extend its dominion.
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This essay draws on two previous publications by the author: “The Research Ethic and the Spirit of Internationalism,” Items (Social Science Research Council, New York) (December 1997) 51(4), part I; and “Globalization and the Research Imagination,” International Social Science Journal (Blackwell/UNESCO) (June 1999) 160: 229–38. The author is grateful to the Open Society Institute (New York) as well as to the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and UNESCO for providing occasions for developing the ideas contained in this essay. Srilatha Batliwalla, Ben Lee, Achille Mbembe, Sheela Patel, Kenneth Prewitt, Toby Volkman, and my colleagues in the Regional Worlds Project at the University of Chicago may recognize their provocations. My friends in SPARC (Bombay), especially Sheela Patel, might wish to regard it as a promissory note.