The Social Dimension of Globalization: A Review of the Literature

By Gunter, Bernhard G.; van der Hoeven, Rolph | International Labour Review, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Social Dimension of Globalization: A Review of the Literature


Gunter, Bernhard G., van der Hoeven, Rolph, International Labour Review


The term globalization is used in many different contexts. Indeed, it has become a buzzword with a multitude of meanings and interpretations. In this literature review, however, globalization is taken to mean the gradual integration of economies and societies driven by new technologies, new economic relationships and the national and international policies of a wide range of actors, including governments, international organizations, business, labour and civil society. Some contributors to the literature have suggested distinguishing between specific facets of globalization (e.g. increased international trade) and parallel developments (e.g. technological advances); others have argued that a separation of interconnected processes is not feasible.

From a conceptual point of view, however, it is useful to split the globalization process into two parts. The first concerns factors such as trade, investment, technology, cross-border production systems, information flows and communication. Though all these factors have brought some economies and some societies closer together, they have also marginalized many countries and individuals. There is concern that because of an increasingly knowledge-driven world economy, more and more people will become marginalized, especially if the digital divide cannot be drastically reduced. The second aspect of the globalization process concerns the increased homogenization of policies and institutions across the world, e.g. trade and capital market liberalization; the dismantling of the welfare state; international agreements on intellectual property rights; and the standardization of policies and behaviours that have promoted globalization. While the first aspect is irreversible, the second is not inevitable but the result of policy choices. Depending on which policies and international agreements are selected (such as the adoption of international core labour standards),1 influence can be brought to bear on the social impact of globalization. With sufficiently drastic policy changes, the current economic globalization process could be altered.

The social dimension of globalization relates to the impact of globalization on the life and work of people, their families, and their societies. Concern is often raised about the impact of globalization on employment, working conditions, income and social protection. Beyond the world of work, the social dimension includes security, culture and identity, inclusion or exclusion from society and the cohesiveness of families and communities. This literature review will consider the impact of economic globalization on wages and taxes, poverty, inequality, insecurity, child labour, gender and migration.

The intention of this survey is not to present the broad spectrum of contrasting views that exists in the literature, but to summarize some recent significant articles and publications on the various social dimensions of the economic globalization process and to suggest some key policy responses to make globalization a fairer and more sustainable process for all.

This literature review draws on over 1,200 articles and books collected for the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization2 and listed in the Commission's bibliography on the social impact of globalization (see Gunter (2004)). It is structured as follows. First, a brief review is made of the key economic characteristics of the globalization process, based on data for 1985-2002, which provides recent historical context. Different aspects of the social impact of the recent globalization process are then considered, summarized on the basis of the recent literature. Though considerable controversy still surrounds some of these aspects, a consensus does seem to be emerging on others. Using this emerging consensus, the next section reviews a range of national and international policy responses proposed in the literature. Currently, there is broad agreement that some policy responses are needed to make globalization more sustainable and equitable and to deliver what working people and their families aspire to everywhere: a decent job, security and a voice in the decision-making process.

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