Of Individual and International Identities: Notions of Nationalism and Nationhood

UN Chronicle, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Of Individual and International Identities: Notions of Nationalism and Nationhood


"Globalization" is what everyone seems to be talking about as one millennium yields to the next. What does this elusive, variously defined concept represent in the context of an organization whose formal membership comprises 188 States and whose effective constituency transcends six billion human beings? The Chronicle hopes to offer ideas and perspectives in this regard over the coming year and, to initiate the debate, brings to its pages the thoughts of Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo in Norway, who is the author, among other works, of "Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives". He graciously contributed, at our invitation, his views on "Globalization and the Politics of Identity".

In a certain, important sense, the present world is more tightly integrated than at any earlier point in history. In the age of the jet plane, satellite dish, global capitalism, ubiquitous markets and global mass media, various commentators have claimed that the world is rapidly becoming a single place. Although this slightly exaggerated description has an important point to make, perhaps an even more striking aspect of the post-cold-war world is the emergence, seemingly everywhere, of identity politics, whose explicit aim is the restoration of rooted tradition, religious fervour and/or commitment to ethnic or national identities.

It is doubtless true that globalization is a pervasive tendency influencing the lives of people everywhere- from the Amazon rainforest to Japanese cities. The concept has recently become a fashionable one and, as a result, its meaning is becoming fuzzy. I would propose, therefore, a view of globalization as all the sociocultural processes that contribute to making distance irrelevant. It has important economic, political and cultural dimensions, as well as equally important ethical implications. Truly, global processes affect the conditions of people living in particular localities, creating new opportunities and new forms of vulnerability. Risks are globally shared in the age of the nuclear bomb and potential ecological disasters. On the same note, the economic conditions, in particular in localities, frequently (some would say always) depend on events taking place elsewhere in the global system.

Patterns of consumption also seem to merge in certain respects; people nearly everywhere desire similar goods, from cellular phones to ready-made garments. Naturally, a precondition for this to happen is the more or less successful implementation of certain institutional dimensions of modernity, notably that of a monetary economy-if not necessarily wage-work and literacy. The ever-increasing transnational flow of commodities, be they material or immaterial, seems to create a set of common cultural denominators which threaten to eradicate local distinctions. Investment capital, military power and world literature are similarly being disembedded from the constraints of space; they no longer belong to a particular locality. With the development of the jet plane, the satellite dish and more recently the Internet, distance no longer seems a limiting factor for the flow of influence, investments and cultural meaning. Globalization is, in other words, not merely another word for the growing transnational economy.

It is true that globalization is Largely driven by technology and economic interests, but it must be kept in mind that it encompasses a wide range of processes that are not in themselves technological or economic. Take the human rights discourse, for example. In the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the ideas and values associated with human rights have spread from educated elites worldwide (and not just, as some wrongly believe, in the West) to villagers and farmers in remote areas. The rapid dissemination of human rights ideas is probably one of the most spectacular successes of globalization.

This new political scene, difficult to fit into the old left-right divide, is interpreted in very different ways by the many academics and journalists who have studied it.

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