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Globalizing and Changing Culture

Summary and Keywords

Although there is no exact definition of globalization, and relatively little empirical evidence on how it affects people’s lives, most scholars argue that it reflects an increasingly mobile and interconnected world. People travel for pleasure or work, or they migrate to other parts of the world. They also communicate with linguistic and cultural others, either face-to-face or via modern communication technologies, which requires them to use a global lingua franca (English). This leads to greater interdependence and a sense of sharedness, but also to more intergroup conflicts. Thus, the world has become more interconnected, but also more fragmented, and social and economic inequality both within and across nation-states has become more visible.

The importance of culture as an analytical concept in (intercultural) communication research is another pertinent topic in the literature. Some scholars have argued that culture has lost its potency as a meaningful analytical concept and therefore should no longer take center stage in communication research. Others claim that culture will always be salient and influence behavior. How and to what extent globalization changes culture has also been discussed extensively in recent years. Some scholars argue that globalization leads to sameness and uniformity, and ultimately to the end of the nation-state. Others disagree and posit that globalization leads to a strengthening of the nation-state and of the cultural values we associate with it.

A meaningful way to test theoretical assumptions about globalization and culture is to analyze communication and work practices in global organizations. Research from these contexts suggests that globalization has not led to cultural assimilation and uniformity. Employees in the global workplace and student sojourners use national stereotypes as a frame of reference when they communicate with cultural others, and they demonstrate high awareness of cultural differences and how they impact their communication, study, and work practices.

Recent research on cultural change and globalization has included a critical dimension that questions a world order where the increase in power and cultural and economic wealth in developed countries happens at the expense of poor people with no voice and little visibility living in developing countries. Critical (intercultural) communication research considers these imbalances and also provides a critique of Anglocentric research paradigms, which do not include the cultural and linguistic experiences of non-Western cultural others.

Keywords: globalization, culture, (critical) intercultural communication, social constructionism, cultural practices, global inequality, power, antiglobalization

What Is Globalization?

Globalization is a fashionable term. It permeates contemporary political debates and educational policies across the world, and it is a key term in both scientific and popular discourses on economy, technology, culture, and communication. Although there is no exact definition of globalization, most scholars agree that it has something to do with an increasingly dynamic and mobile world. People are less restricted by national borders as a consequence of globalization; they travel for pleasure or work, they migrate to other countries, and they communicate with cultural “others” in different parts of the world, either face-to-face or via modern communication technologies. This leads to greater interdependence and a sense of shared interests but also to a potential for more intergroup conflicts and interreligious tension. Thus, under globalization, the world has become more interconnected but also more fragmented, and social and economic inequality both within and across nations has become more conspicuous.

Globalization and the effects it has on people’s lives are difficult to study empirically, and this may be one reason why hard evidence about its effects and exact definitions of the term are hard to come by. However, in the burgeoning literature on globalization, much of which has been published in the last decade, there is some consensus that it involves the following key components: (1) increased capacity of information technologies to compress and reduce time and space; (2) increased interconnectivity of people from around the world; (3) increased exchange of information, cultures, commodities, people, and ideas (giving rise to notions like “the global village”); and finally, (4) the rise of various forms of global awareness, sometimes referred to as “cosmopolitanism” (Turner & Holton, 2016, pp. 5, 10).

Life for most people in today’s globalized world is characterized by dynamic interactions between the local and the global: They live in particular geographical locations where they use their language(s) and deploy their cultural identities, but they are also connected, through communications technology such as social media, email and phone, or interpersonal networks, with people in other geographical locations, usually by means of a global lingua franca such as English. Thus, people live their lives at the interface between local cultures and languages and global processes—a concept that has been referred to as “glocalization” (Robertson, 1995).

Research on globalization has gone through at least three stages of development, each leading to different theoretical developments (Turner & Holton, 2016). The initial studies focused on economic globalization and argued that any attempt to study economic development in the modern world would need to look at the multiple connections between societies and the global processes that shape them (e.g., Wallerstein, 1974). The next stage focused on culture and communication, including the role of the information technology (IT) revolution (not least the Internet) in spreading cultural values, advertising commodities, and enhancing communication across borders (e.g., Castells, 1996). The third phase looked at the political consequences of globalization, raising questions about global governance, democracy, and cosmopolitanism (e.g., Held, 1995; Keane, 2003).

Another trend in the literature on globalization is that studies tend to be either extremely pessimistic or naïvely optimistic (Turner & Holton, 2016). The optimistic accounts have emphasized increased mobility across borders and the opportunities this provides, more flexible and open societies, the prospects of global peace and stability, and the ability to pursue human rights issues on a global scale (e.g., Ong, 1999). The pessimistic accounts have emphasized increased social and economic inequality (e.g., Walby, 2009), resurgent nationalism, antimigration rhetoric and policies, global jihad, and the spread of McDonaldization leading to uniform global cultures “devoid of value” (e.g., Ritzer, 2007).

In recent research on globalization, the trend is toward increased skepticism and a more pessimistic outlook on the future. Friedman (2006) talks about vertical polarization as a characteristic feature of postmodern (Western) societies under globalization. National populations are separated into upwardly and downwardly mobile sectors: The lower half “indigenizes” while the upper half “cosmopolitanizes.” This results in extreme polarization where “the bottom becomes increasingly xenophobic and indigenizing in its search for a secure identity, [while] the top identifies as the wards of the multicultural world that has been produced by globalization” (p. 405). Friedman’s observation has become even more pertinent if one keeps recent political developments in mind. With Brexit in the 2016 U.K. referendum, and Donald Trump’s rise to power in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the world has seen a surge in nationalism and antiglobalization rhetoric that is unprecedented in recent times. Trump’s “America First” mantra and the pro-Brexit camp’s “We don’t need Europe” banners have made it legitimate to express openly nationalistic sentiments and reject the cultural “other,” even by (to-be) state leaders. The same tendency has been seen in Asia with Duterte’s rise to power in the Philippines, and with it a widespread rejection of international collaboration and “foreign” influence, and Xi Jinping’s return to localism, a revival of “Chinese values,” and consolidation of the Communist Party’s leadership in China, and with it a rejection of “alien” (non-Chinese) influences and of a global outlook.

In some parts of the world, the antiglobalization rhetoric is simply a rejection of hegemonic Americanization, but in Europe and the United States, it represents (extreme) nationalism and a rejection of cosmopolitanism. Friedman’s downwardly mobile bottom half of society rejects the multicultural society that has been advanced by globalization, and with it the politicians and academics who have advanced multiculturalism and a global ecumene but at the same time separated themselves from the multicultural bottom that they so celebrate (Friedman, 2006). Paradoxically, the strongest rejections of globalization come from former or current superpowers that have arguably benefited the most from globalization and that stand to lose the least in terms of national identity, culture, and language as a consequence of globalization. This is perhaps related to another recent trend in global communications: News is no longer written predominantly by reporters, published in newspapers, and shown on television. It is written by individual news consumers, experts and nonexperts alike, and posted on social media like Facebook and Twitter for all to see, and with no scrutiny as to the credibility of the stories that are published. Thus, it becomes hard to distinguish between facts and fiction about key issues related to globalization such as trade, global warming, immigration, the spread of Islam, and open borders. “Alternative facts” have become legitimate and the truthfulness of any given claim seems to be determined by the number of “likes” it receives on social media (D’Ancona, 2017). Ironically, the antiglobalization rhetoric that is so dominant in today’s global communication networks is itself an expression of globalization, and the fact that it happens simultaneously throughout the world underlines one of the key assumptions about globalization: that the world is interconnected and characterized by the compression of time and space, and by high-frequency exchanges of ideas and commodities.

Conceptualizations of Globalization

Trends in Existing Research

There is a tendency in the literature (as well as in many people’s conceptualization) to think of globalization as a relatively recent phenomenon. However, several scholars have suggested that it has been happening for hundreds of years (Hirst, Thompson, & Bromley, 2009), so perhaps a more accurate characterization would be to argue that we currently live in a distinctive era of globalization that is intensified by increased space-time compression and interconnectivity of people and ideas (Harvey, 1990). Globalization studies have become a major field of inquiry in the 21st century, but observations about its characteristics and impact on people’s lives were made much earlier, many of them in the 1990s. Some of the earlier research identified four different conceptualizations of globalization (cf. Sklair, 1999, p. 149):

  1. 1. The world-systems approach: This approach to globalization works from the assumption that within a capitalist world-system, countries can be categorized into core, semiperipheral, and peripheral, based on their changing roles in the international division of labor (e.g., Wallerstein, 1974).

  2. 2. The global culture approach: In this strand of research, the focus is on the problems for individual and national identity posed by a homogenized, media-based global culture. It problematizes the world as a “global village” where everybody shares the same cultural values (e.g., Featherstone, 1990).

  3. 3. The global society approach: This conceptualization attributes great significance to the notion of “global awareness.” It argues that science, technology, and universal values are creating a new world, one different from any past age; this leads to decreasing power and significance of nation-states, and increases the power of supranational global institutions (e.g., Giddens, 1990).

  4. 4. The global capitalism approach: This approach argues that the dominant forces behind globalization are to be found in global capitalism and its transnational practices, which originate in non-state-specific actors and cross state borders (Sklair, 1995).

Later attempts to categorize different schools of thinking about globalization include a distinction between the hyperglobalizers, the skeptics, and the transformationalists (e.g., Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, & Perraton, 2000). The hyperglobalizers see the developments in contemporary society, strongly influenced or even determined by globalization, as an indication of a new era that marks the end of the nation-state and where the values and conditions of the global marketplace are imposed on people no matter where they live (e.g., Ohmae, 1995). The skeptics argue against the hyperglobalizers and maintain that nation-states and national governments are still powerful and play a significant role in terms of supporting internationalization. They claim that the international economy can be divided into three major areas—North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific—and within these entities, nation-states are meaningful units of analysis (e.g., Hirst & Thompson, 1996). The third school of thought, the transformationalists, also see globalization as a force leading to profound changes, not least caused by developments in technology and the spread of universal values. The key concept is that the world is far more interrelated and uncertain than it was before (e.g., Giddens, 1990).

Many of the attempts to conceptualize globalization share common ground. The hyperglobal perspective has much in common with the global culture and the global society approach, and the skeptics’ perspective shares common ground with the world-systems approach. So, despite the complexity and fuzziness of the concept itself, it is possible to identify common issues in globalization research and unify them theoretically. In one sentence, we can sum up research on globalization as: the study and theorization of the growing frequency, volume, and interrelatedness of cultures, commodities, peoples, and ideas across space and time, and the increasing capacity of modern information technologies to reduce and compress time and space and thus create a sense of an interconnected world (cf. Beckford, 2003, p. 119). This interconnected world, some have argued, leads to a homogenization of values and ideas, which gives the impression that we live in a “global village” where local events are shaped by events far away, and vice versa (Giddens, 1990).

An alternative approach to analyzing globalization is to look at folk perceptions—that is, nonexperts’ attitudes toward globalization. Folk perceptions are considered important in many academic disciplines because people respond to what they perceive the environment to be rather than what it actually is. Studies of nonexperts’ perceptions of globalization have found that associations vary significantly across cultures. Garrett, Evans, and Williams (2006) asked people in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand to write down their spontaneous associations with the word “globalization.” They ended up with a list of 1,673 keywords, which they categorized into eight groups: (1) corporations and businesses (the dominance of multinational businesses and corporate expansion, the demise of small businesses); (2) economy, money, and trade (capitalism, global markets, economic links and removal of trade barriers, prosperity and availability of products); (3) culture, cooperation, and diversity (acceptance of other cultures, cultural convergence and assimilation, multiculturalism and change of cultures); (4) power (domination, Westernization, Americanization); (5) communication and technology (the dominance of English as a world lingua franca, communication technology); (6) ecology and health (the environment and climate, pollution and well-being); (7) antiglobalization (antiglobalization protests); and (8) war and peace (wars, conflict, peace). The authors found salient differences when they compared the responses across cultures. “Culture” was a significant marker of globalization across all national groups, but more so for the United States, where more than half of the comments were about culture. Another salient difference was in the perception of globalization: Associations were generally more positive among the U.S. respondents compared to U.K., Australian, and New Zealand participants, whose comments were more varied, including many negative comments on sameness and cultural uniformity, and supportive of antiglobalization. The idea of cultural assimilation was common across all national groups.

Caveats in Globalization Research

There is some justification for claiming that some approaches to globalization have overstated the economic causes and consequences of globalization, such as free trade, neoliberalism, financial deregulation, and integrated production (Turner & Holton, 2016). Sociologists and anthropologists have therefore suggested a renewed commitment to studying globalization as “the interconnectedness of the world as a whole and the corresponding increase in reflexive, global consciousness” (Turner & Holton, 2016, p. 10). This also means a renewed commitment to studying the interaction between the local and the global that often results in complex hybrid cultures—also referred to as Third Cultures—which, as Featherstone (1990, p. 1) points out, “are conduits for all sorts of cultural flows which cannot be merely understood as the product of bilateral exchanges between nation-states.” Another area that has received relatively little attention in the literature is the role of religion in cultural politics and globalization theory (Turner, 2013). World religions like Christianity and Islam were powerful forces of globalization long before the modern period. Through trade and missionary activities, which often happened in combination with cultural expansionism and colonization in Africa and Asia, religion became a major driving force for globalization. Nevertheless, this trend has often been neglected in theories on globalization, which is somewhat surprising given the close association between cultural values and religious beliefs. The growth of Muslim communities across the world through migration and the Internet, as well as the growth of political Islam and radical fundamentalism in recent years, has made the call for globalization theory to seriously consider the importance of religion even more pertinent (Turner & Holton, 2016).

Yet another area that is only beginning to gain serious attention is the role of (mass) migration in globalization theory. Although the changes brought about by the increased mobility and interconnectivity of people have long been recognized as a key component of globalization (Giddens, 2003), little empirical research has been done on the specific consequences of mass migration and how it implicates globalization theory. An estimated 214 million people live outside their country of origin; many have migrated by choice because the qualifications they possess are sought after in the global economy. But many more have migrated out of necessity: unskilled migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, or people at “the bottom of the globalization market,” as Blommaert (2010, p. 179) calls them, who have fled from war-torn countries, or migrated to more developed societies because they do not see a future or cannot provide for their families in their home countries. There are close to 10 million Filipino and 4.5 million Indonesian migrant workers who live and work away from close family members such as spouses and children. And close to 800,000 new migrant workers, overwhelmingly women, leave Indonesia every year to work, predominantly as domestic helpers for affluent families in the Middle East or in other Asian countries. The push-and-pull mechanism that drives migrant workers away from their home countries and pulls them toward affluent societies so they can provide for their families has been labeled as a win-win situation by many Asian governments because it simultaneously addresses labor shortages in developed countries and unemployment in developing countries. However, what this optimistic account ignores is the detrimental consequences migration has for migrant workers and their families. Migrant workers are subjected to rampant abuse and exploitation, and even if they are not abused, they have to endure the pain of long-term separation from their children and other loved ones (Ladegaard, 2017a).

Our current thinking about globalization is informed almost exclusively by Western scholars (Turner & Holton, 2016). Prominent sociologists like Ulrich Beck (2006) and Anthony Giddens (2003) have described how globalization deepens and intensifies people’s experience of modernity, both at the individual level and in terms of macro-level structural changes, and how our experiences are tied up with mobility and a sense of an interconnected world. However, these scholars do not engage with the developing world, and their work has therefore been criticized for providing a one-sided interpretation of globalization, based on universalizing accounts of the Western experience (Loyal, 2003). Existing accounts of people’s experiences of mobility and the opportunities it provides in a globalized world are provided predominantly by elite groups who are traveling for education, business, or tourism (MacDonald & O’Regan, 2012). The accounts they provide are often overwhelmingly positive, stressing favorable attributes such as increased tolerance of the “other,” a global mindset, increased language competence, and preparedness for the global workplace (Jackson, 2017). Thus, the call for scholars to engage with the experiences of less privileged groups like migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers is long overdue. This group of people epitomizes how inequality has become one of the driving forces of globalization, providing some people with increased visibility and chances of success and, at the same time, seriously constraining other people’s lives and opportunities (Ladegaard, forthcoming). The voices of disenfranchised groups need to be heard, and their experiences of globalization included, in order for us to move forward in our thinking about globalization and how it transforms our lives.

Defining Culture

Like globalization, “culture” is notoriously difficult to define. Several scholars have looked at the many ways it has been conceptualized over the years and concluded that the list of definitions is almost infinite. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) suggested at least 164 different definitions, and Apte (1994) argued that despite a century of efforts to define culture, there was still (in the early 1990s) no agreement among anthropologists as to its exact meaning and nature. Avruch (1998) claims that much of the difficulty involved in defining culture is caused by the different ways the concept has been used in the 19th century. He refers to three broad conceptualizations of culture, all of which are still being used today. First, culture has been used to signify intellectual endeavors, which only a small minority of people in society were said to have. This view, as exemplified in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1867), has been referred to as high culture, as opposed to popular culture, or the culture of the masses. Second, partly in response to this elitist conceptualization, Edward Tylor, in Primitive Culture (1871), refers to culture as a quality that everybody possesses, no matter his/her social status. Culture, in Tylor’s view, is organized along an evolutionary continuum from savagery through barbarism to civilization, but the important point is that human beings acquire culture through membership in social groups. His definition is still widely quoted:

Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, moral, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

(Tylor, 1871, p. 1)

Avruch (1998) argues that the legacy of Tylor’s definition lies in his “complex whole” formulation—that is, cultures as integrated systems, a view that was accepted even by the anthropologists who later forcefully rejected his evolutionary approach to culture. The third conceptualization of culture was proposed in opposition to this evolutionary idea and emphasized the uniqueness and value of the multiple and varied (sub)cultures that exist in any society. Anthropologists like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Clifford Geertz, who dismissed the value judgments implicit in both Arnold’s and Tylor’s work, proposed this view. Boas, Mead, and Geertz analyzed people and their different cultural systems, usually in what was then perceived as remote corners of the world, in order to better understand how their own socialization limited their self-perception and worldview. To them, culture is the invisible influence that cannot be separated from our experience and therefore is difficult to examine. Thus, part of the problem in defining culture is in the concept’s multiple meanings. These different meanings are not just conceptual or semantic but “can be attached to different political or ideological agendas that, in one form or another, still resonate today” (Avruch, 1998, p. 7).

When we analyze the culture of particular groups or organizations, it is helpful to distinguish between three manifestations of culture: observable artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions (Spencer-Oatey & Franklin, 2009). Observable artifacts could be anything from physical setting and dress code to verbal and nonverbal communication, mission statements, and annual reports. While most cultural artifacts are readily available, they are often more difficult to interpret. Values, on the other hand, are difficult to observe and would need to be inferred by analysts, unless one wants to rely on what people say their values are. Therefore, the cultural assumptions behind received values would need to be considered; such assumptions are usually not conscious and would often be related to prominent ideological positions in society. A key issue in the critique of this sociocognitive approach to cultural analysis is that it relies heavily on reported values, attitudes, and behavior.

From Culture to Intercultural: Culture as Causal Agent

From around 1960 onward, scholars became increasingly interested in what happens when people from different cultural backgrounds come into contact with each other. Edward T. Hall (1959) introduced the term “intercultural communication” (ICC). He was among the first to study culture as it relates to communication, and in particular as a framework for understanding miscommunication. Hall saw culture as shared meaning that enables communication on the one hand, and makes misunderstanding and conflict an inevitable consequence of intergroup contact on the other. He saw culture as “the silent language”: the ever-present invisible influence on people’s behavior. He therefore posited that the greatest feat of all in ICC is for people to free themselves from the grip of their cultural beliefs (Hall, 1976). Hall also proposed a close reciprocity between culture and communication in its broadest sense, and argued that “culture is communication and communication is culture” (Hall, 1959, p. 169).

Perhaps more than any other culture-related study, Geert Hofstede’s (1984) value survey model has had, and continues to have, major impact on ICC research, particularly in marketing and communication. In Hofstede’s early research, 116,000 IBM employees in 70 countries participated in a survey on work-related values and provided him with evidence of four salient cultural dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, and masculinity versus femininity. Later, more research of a similar nature was carried out, and a fifth dimension, short-term versus long-term orientation, was added to better reflect values grounded in Asian contexts.1 Based on participants’ responses to a large number of questions that reflected these values, Hofstede was able to give every country scores for each of the four (or five) cultural dimensions and thus make cross-cultural comparisons.

Hofstede’s (1991) conceptualization of culture is based on the idea of “mental programming,” or the “software of the mind” that determines how individuals think and act. By using the programming metaphor, Hofstede infers that individuals are passive beings who, through socialization into a particular cultural environment, are provided with cultural input that determines their behavior. Collective values are fundamental components in the idea of mental programming; they constitute the core of culture, and Hofstede’s (1984, p. 21) widely cited definition of culture is therefore: “Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes members of one group from another.” Thus, in Hofstede’s framework, people are bearers of culture; they are passive agents who are “programmed” with particular values and therefore will react in similar predictable ways depending on their cultural background. Hofstede’s research, as well as other value-oriented large-scale cultural surveys (such as Trompenaars, 1993), has advocated the idea that there are common national characteristics in the way people think and act. People behave in uniform predictable ways depending on their origin, and therefore it makes sense to talk about German culture, U.S. culture, Japanese culture, etc.

The idea of (national) culture as an a priori explanation for behavior has been widely criticized, particularly in the last 15 to 20 years. Many have pointed out that multilingualism and multiculturalism are the norm in many societies, and in these contexts it makes little sense to talk about national culture (Bond, Žegarac, & Spencer-Oatey, 2000). Studies have found that in nations that are composed of multiple cultural groups, significant value differences are reported across language communities (Schwartz, 1994). Globalization has also led to increasing mobility and displacement. Migrant workers and refugees settle in other countries, and their presence will inevitably have an impact on the culture of the regions in which they live. Methodological issues have also been mentioned in the critique of Hofstede’s research (McSweeney, 2002). The study used IBM employees, largely from the marketing and servicing divisions and predominantly male, so respondents were not a representative sample of the societies in which they live. Another criticism is that IBM is a well-known American corporation, which is said to have a distinctive corporate culture, so the link from IBM micro-culture to the macro-culture of the surrounding society is arguably also problematic.

Overwhelmingly, research on culture and communication has used questionnaire studies, which either do not consider the behavioral aspect or rely exclusively on self-reported behavior. Communication scholars have studied the link between the values of respondents belonging to diverse cultural groups and their self-reported language behavior (e.g., Gudykunst, Gao, & Franklyn-Stokes, 1996), but they rarely consider the well-documented discrepancy between actual and reported behavior. Studies have compared what participants say about the importance of culture in a questionnaire or interview with what they actually do when they interact with their colleagues in the workplace. When asked about the importance of culture for their daily work, people will often claim it has important implications for what they say and do, particularly in multicultural workplaces. However, recordings and analysis of actual language behavior have shown that people do not orient to culture when they go about doing their jobs, even in multicultural workplaces (Schnurr & Zaytz, 2012). Even so, the fact that participants do not orient to culture, or talk about “cultural stuff” (Holmes, 2017), does not necessarily mean that it does not have an impact on behavior, which goes to show that relying exclusively on questionnaire data may give us a limited perspective on the importance of culture for linguistic and communicative behavior.

Social Constructionism: Culture as Discursive Accomplishment

More recent research on culture and communication has questioned the validity of questionnaire research, or at least proposed that eclectic approaches that supplement questionnaire or interview data with analyses of actual language behavior (or other forms of behavioral data) may yield more reliable findings. This research is a result of years of critical scholarship that problematized the use of national culture as the analytical concept in ICC research. It was argued that if any form of “difference” is explained universally as result of culture (nationality), this would mean that other potentially salient categories such as gender, ethnicity, and class are ignored (Ono, 1998). In an early critical essay, Street (1993) proposed a key problem in conceptualizing culture in terms of shared values: “The problem is that when culture is defined as that which is shared, questions about this sharedness—is it actually shared? to what extent? by whom? how does it come to be shared?—disappear by definition” (Street, 1993, p. 35, referring to Cowan, 1990, p. 11). These and other critical papers thus represented a move away from quantitative questionnaire studies adopting a static conceptualization of culture toward dialectical approaches (Martin & Nakayama, 1999).

From the mid-1990s onward, a new critical scholarship on culture and communication was gaining ground. It challenged the essentialist, nation-based assumptions on which ICC research had been founded, and it critiqued the burgeoning intercultural training industry, which arguably reinforced differences between people and tended toward a perpetuation of cultural stereotypes rather than their alleviation (MacDonald & O’Regan, 2014). This new critical scholarship dismissed the homology of culture and the nation-state (Holliday, 1999) and questioned the conceptualization of culture as static cognitive traits and as a causal a priori. Instead, it proposed to regard culture as a fluid, flexible, multifaceted, and ever-changing phenomenon. This social constructionist approach to culture argued that culture is a discursive construction, created, negotiated, and re-created in situ as people engage in social interaction (Parker, 1998).

A social constructionist approach to culture and communication would maintain that cultural categories and stereotypes are discursively constructed and negotiated in context. Research has shown that if people are asked to answer questions about cultural groups and categorizations in a questionnaire, and then later asked to discuss what they put in their questionnaire, they frequently contradict themselves and claim to have mentioned things they did not mention. Alternatively, they invent categories in situ in response to the communicative context irrespective of what they put in their questionnaire (Ladegaard & Cheng, 2014). This research calls for caution in terms of relying exclusively on questionnaire data, and it emphasizes the importance of the rhetorical context (Billig, 1996). People respond to contextual factors and group dynamics; this also has impact on the formation of cultural generalizations.

MacDonald and O’Regan (2012, p. 560) sum up the two main conceptualizations of culture found in the literature as follows: It can be an explanatory concept that precedes the phenomena analyzed by research (a priori/deductive), or it can be performed by people as an effect of communication (a fortiori/inductive). Social psychological approaches to cultural analysis tend to subscribe to a priori conceptualizations of culture; critical and poststructuralist approaches, on the other hand, tend to see culture as “performativity.”

Less Researched Perspectives on Culture and Communication

It is not surprising that there would be no uniform approach to research on culture and communication given the large number of disciplines, each with its own preferred methodology, that have contributed to the area. The less researched perspectives below are not missing in the literature per se, but have generally not received much attention. They are, however, important when we consider the changing perspectives on culture and communication that have characterized the field over the years.


In much of the early theorizing about (intercultural) communication and culture, it was assumed that intercultural encounters would lead to problems, because each speaker would behave in accordance with the values characteristic of his/her national culture. Thus, a German speaker communicating with a Japanese speaker, for example, would be assumed to represent a problem, because each person’s behavior would be determined by his/her own cultural background. The conversation becomes an example of “German culture” interacting with “Japanese culture,” something which is likely to lead to miscommunication. However, this conceptualization ignores the fact that people respond to contextual factors, and it is not likely that a German person expects his/her Japanese interlocutor to behave according to German values and norms and vice versa. As Verschueren (2008, p. 24) argues, “an intercultural context is not to be equated with the sum of two different contexts, but essentially the creation of a new one.” Research shows that people do not use their own cultural norms as reference points in intercultural encounters. Rather, they negotiate and compromise, and they even use their interlocutors’ perceived cultural values and linguistic norms as reference points in their interaction rather than their own (Rasmussen, 1998). They adapt and accommodate to contextual factors, and ICC research has demonstrated repeatedly that interlocutors in intercultural encounters are contextually sensitive and usually do their utmost to cooperate. This means they engage in communicative and cultural accommodation (Giles, 2016), which may result in the creation of complex hybrid cultures.

Does this mean then that this new critical scholarship on culture and communication has invalidated Hofstede’s value survey research? It has been suggested that value surveys should not be seen as a measure of actual behavior of individuals or groups, but rather, they provide information about normative behavior in a given geographical area. Thus, a national character, as portrayed in various value surveys, should be understood as an ideal type/archetype that may or may not exist in real life, but whose characteristics convey information about normative values. As such, the archetypal German, for example, can be used as an analytical tool useful for marketing purposes, but should not be seen as an indicator of how Germans actually behave or what values they have (Askegaard, Gertsen, & Madsen, 1991).

It has also been suggested that culture should not be perceived as either relatively static or forever changing, but rather as both. While culture in more recent discourse-based research now appears to be widely conceptualized as fluid, ever changing, multifaceted, and constructed in situ, Ladegaard and Jenks (2017) suggest that it may be time to turn the page and consider what may have been lost by blatantly rejecting national culture and ethnicity as a priori categories for explaining communicative behavior. Kecskes (2014, pp. 4–5) proposes a happy marriage between these two seemingly opposing conceptualizations of culture: “Culture has fuzzy boundaries and [should be] considered neither relatively static nor ever-changing, but both. It has both a priori and emergent figures. Culture changes diachronically (slowly through decades) and synchronically (emerges on the spot, in the moment of speech).” Kecskes (2014) criticizes what he calls the current mainstream approach to culture in ICC, which assumes “that culture in no way imposes cultural or ethnic characteristics into communicative behavior” (p. 5). He argues this position is just as one-sided as the opposing view arguing for a linear connection between culture and communication. He proposes a compromise that allows for the possibility of a priori cultural and ethnic marking in communicative behavior on the one hand, but also acknowledges that the situational context is salient and participants may co-construct (inter)cultures in situ (for further discussion, see Holliday, 2010; Ladegaard & Jenks, 2017).

Culture and Stereotypes

Another area in research on culture and communication that has received relatively little attention is the importance of the observer and his/her cultural background. It is a well-known fact that “people react to a perceived environment; their behavior frequently appears to reflect the images they form of the social and physical environment around them, rather than the ‘true’ environment—whatever that might be, and however it might be defined and measured” (Gould, 1977, p. 111). The cultural environment we respond to is often based on the stereotypes we have of other people, rather than any objective observations about how and what these people actually are. It is also a well-known fact that we notice differences and ignore similarities. When Hong Kong Chinese students discuss their cultural generalizations of Americans, for example, and subsequently stereotype them as people with “strong physical appearance,” “big size,” and “big talk,” this arguably says more about the observers and how they do not (want to) see themselves than about the observed (Ladegaard, 2011, p. 141).

This should remind us that it is often not “the other” we meet in intercultural encounters but our stereotypes of what the cultural other is like. An important finding in stereotype research is that we see what we expect to see and ignore the rest. And because stereotypes often function as self-fulfilling prophecies, it is likely that we do not necessarily see what is in front of us, but we see what others have carved out for us, and we see it in the form stereotyped for us by our culture (Lippmann, 1965). Thus, the observer of cultural others cannot be separated from the observed: S/He is part of the discursive construction of cultural stereotypes. This position could be aptly summed up in the following quote:

Often it is not the Other that we meet in intercultural situations, but our imagination of his/her culture as it is conveyed through different types of discourses on which mass (and nowadays social) media tend to focus. Culture then tends to prescribe how these individuals should be seen, met, understood, dealt with, and so on, rather than recognizing who they are in their diverse diversities (gender, social class, religion, age, etc.), as an individual Self (Dervin & Machart, 2015, p. 3) (emphasis in original).

Minority-Majority Perspectives

In recent years, some critical scholars in anthropology, sociology, and ICC have questioned not only national culture as a meaningful concept but also the usefulness of the culture concept as an analytical tool. It has been referred to as “old and tired” (Latour, 2008) and as “a floating signifier which means either too much or too little” (Jahoda, 2012, in Dervin & Machart, 2015, p. 2). For Phipps and Gonzales (2004), a key problem is that culture has produced various representations of otherness, which in turn have been used to claim cultural superiority (of the Occident over the Orient, for example; Said, 1978). Thus, for some authors, the main issue is that the culture concept becomes an obstacle. Phipps and Gonzales (2004, p. 230) sum up their opposition as follows: “Culture is a problematic term. It is ideology ridden. It starts culture wars, it atomises, it creates understandings of difference that stand, ultimately, in direct opposition to the kinds of integrative, intercultural being that we are advocating. . . . Culture is no longer a helpful discursive construct. It creates more problems than it solves.” So, while there is no shortage of voices criticizing the culture concept, there is little attempt to propose what could replace it. If it is no longer a helpful analytical concept, if it creates more problems than it solves, it might be time to replace it with something else. But so far, it seems that no viable alternatives have been proposed.

Although there is often a discrepancy between what people say they do (such as orient to culture in their daily work) and what they actually do (such as being focused on getting the job done), it is equally true that people do not know how much, or how little, culture affects their behavior. They usually do not explicitly orient to culture, or talk about “cultural stuff,” but that does not mean that culture has no potential impact on their behavior. At least one perspective is often missing in the debate: When research reports on minority group members, these members themselves will often affirm that culture plays a significant role in their lives and experiences (Holmes, 2017). Hall (1976, p. 46) claims that “most cross-cultural exploration begins with the annoyance of being lost,” and it is arguably more likely that minority group members will experience the annoyance of being lost. Participants in ICC research have testified that they have felt “lost in translation,” misconstrued and misunderstood, and this has made them realize that culture is of paramount importance for understanding intergroup communication and conflict: “It constructs ingroups and outgroups, it includes and excludes, and it explains animosities and intergroup conflict” (Ladegaard, 2017b, p. 12).

Culture and Globalization

A fairly recent topic in the ICC literature is the relationship between culture and globalization, or the extent to which globalization has changed cultural practices and the way is which culture is perceived. In ICC research, globalization has often been associated with the idea of cultural assimilation, integration, cultural adaptation, and homogenization on the one hand, but on the other hand also with the idea that in this increasingly interconnected world, intergroup tension and conflicts are as persistent as ever. Scholars have argued that there are (at least) two different theories about the relationship between culture and globalization in the literature, both of which support the idea that national culture as an analytical concept is fast becoming obsolete due to globalization (Blasco, 2004). However, this development is not related to the perceived fuzziness of the culture concept, nor to the critique of the national culture concept as discussed previously, but rather to the idea that globalization has led to some degree of cultural uniformity and sameness. The first theory sees globalization as leading to cultural convergence and increasing integration of diverse cultural views. It argues that because of globalization, culture has escaped the boundaries of the nation-state and turned the world into a single place where diversity can unfold. Culture is seen as an ever-changing process, and a central idea is that cultural integration not only takes place at the inter-state level but also transcends state-society borders, and is therefore seen as happening both at the trans-national and trans-society level. What emerges then are sets of third cultures, which themselves are carriers of diverse cultural flows that are more than just a product of bilateral exchanges between nation-states (Featherstone, 1990). Kramsch (2002) argues along the same lines that culture under globalization has become less a question of national consensus and more a question of consensus built on mutual ethnic, generational, ideological, occupational, or gender-related interests, within and across national boundaries. She refers to Geertz (2000) and argues that before the age of globalization, culture meant national culture, understood as what different peoples had and held in common; but today, the world—across national cultures—has become “a scramble of differences in a field of connections” (Geertz, 2000, p. 250).

A key issue in the second theory about culture and globalization is that globalization has led to a weakening of the nation-state as a source of identity. It claims that national identities are no longer salient and that what appears instead is cultural complexity, diversity, cosmopolitanism, and various forms of transnational identities that center around nonnational foci such as multinational corporations or transnational social movements. Smith (1990) writes within this framework and argues that the era of the nation-state is over, and the new world order is dominated by economic giants and superpowers, multinational corporations and military blocs, vast communications networks, and an international division of labor. He further argues that in these new service societies, where technological development is of paramount importance, nations and nationalism have fast become obsolete and are being replaced by a new concept, which is labeled “global culture.” This floating concept is “tied to no place or period. It is context-less, a true mélange of disparate components drawn from everywhere and nowhere, borne upon the modern chariots of global telecommunications systems” (Smith, 1990, p. 177). He continues that this new floating concept, by definition and intention, is supranational and “answers to no living needs, no identity in the making” (Smith, 1990, p. 180), and is put together as an artificial construct out of the numerous existing national identities that humanity has been divided into.

In this view, global culture is an artificial postmodern construct, a new “melting pot” made up of fragments of preexisting national cultures and folklore and centered on global institutions, corporations, and networks. What happens in this artificially created melting pot is that because the same telecommunication systems are used and the same supranational norms applied, cultural differences between members become eroded, and a genuinely global culture will be created in the communication process. Consequently, Smith (1990, p. 176) concludes, “tourism and museology alone will preserve the memory of an earlier era of ‘national cultures.’” However, more important in the context of this chapter is the idea that “the process of convergence goes faster and deeper. It reaches well beyond taste to much more fundamental dimensions of worldview, mind-set, and even thought processes” (Ohmae, 1995, p. 15). In other words, what Ohmae, Smith, and others claim is that the influence of global culture, and the media associated with the worldwide distribution of global culture and communication, are so pervasive that they will ultimately affect, or even determine, how people perceive the world. So, cultural assimilation is believed to relate not only to taste and cultural values but also to perception and worldview.

Whichever of these two conceptual frameworks about culture and globalization is applied to our thinking about cultural change, the outcome is more or less the same. The literature that has just been reviewed argues that, in the age of globalization, nation-states have lost their role as meaningful points of reference and as meaningful units of participation. The world has become borderless and one of the consequences of this process is that global exposure to the same information and the same cultural icons and patterns of consumption will lead to cultural convergence, also referred to as the McDonaldization of society (Ritzer, 2015). In fact, several scholars in favor of this cultural convergence thesis argue that the world is moving toward a single model of society and that model is indisputably American (e.g., Spybey, 1996). There is no doubt that the United States has played a pivotal role in modern globalization, but other scholars have argued that it is too simplistic to explain the whole process of globalization as being merely Americanization (Turner & Holton, 2016). The impact of Japan and Korea, and increasingly also China and India, on manufacture, cuisine, fashion, and films is just one example of the increasing influence of Asia on the rest of the world.

So, whether in its extreme form as expressed by theorists in the 1990s (e.g., Smith, 1990) or in a more moderate version as expressed in more recent theories, (e.g., Beck, 2006), globalization is seen as leading to some degree of cultural assimilation and uniformity. Consequently, if we apply these theoretical perspectives on globalization to the perceptions of people who work in globalized workplaces and communicate regularly with people from all over the world, or to students who go overseas to study, we would expect to see cultural assimilation and uniformity reflected in their communication, attitudes, and work practices. We would expect the notion of “global culture,” or at least some degree of cultural convergence, to be reflected in the way these people work, the way they speak about “the other,” and the statements they make about their work practices. We would expect to see evidence that global employees perceive the world as one place (cf. Giddens, 2003) where borders and national cultures are perceived as less important, and where the same norms, standards and procedures apply to communication no matter who the interlocutor is, and no matter where s/he is. These global employees would also be expected to share similar worldviews (cf. Ohmae, 1995), and their cross-national/global communication would be seen as relatively unproblematic, because the culture-bound norms that are believed to have adverse impact on successful intergroup communication have been dissolved, or at least diluted. The next section will address these questions.

Work and Communication Practices in Global Organizations

The Global Workplace

One significant problem with the theoretical assumptions about increased cultural sameness and uniformity under globalization that have been discussed above is that they generally do not include much empirical evidence to substantiate theoretical claims. Arguably, only by studying cultural and linguistic practices in people’s lives as they work, study, talk, socialize, and go about their everyday business do we get an insight into their orientations and dispositions in a globalized world (Ladegaard & Jenks, 2017). Hannerz (2001) argues that the most appropriate way to think about culture in a global ecumene is to look at cultural analyses as everyday practice. He proposes therefore that the personal experiences people have of globalization should “allow them to participate in our rethinking of culture” (p. 69). However, little research has been done to try to explore that link. Giddens (2003) posits that in the age of globalization, nation-states and institutions such as work and the family have acquired new meanings. They have become “shell institutions” that can no longer be used as meaningful frames of reference. However, studies of employees’ cultural and communicative practices in the global workplace and the internationalizing university tell a different story.

Ladegaard (2007, 2017c) studied work practices in the IT support unit of a large global organization. The company has sales companies in nearly 40 countries and production units in 10 countries, and it employs some 8,500 people worldwide. Any request for IT support in subsidiaries across Europe would go to this IT support unit, and employees would also be involved in ad hoc projects with colleagues from all over the world. The research in the IT Service Center consisted of six types of data: an online questionnaire about work practices and language abilities distributed to everybody, ethnographic observations for about four weeks, recordings of discussion groups/focus groups, recordings of meetings, interviews with selected staff members, and analysis of service call requests and other types of email communication. In the analysis of employees’ work practices, perceptions, communication patterns, and personal experiences, there is no support for the theoretical assumptions about globalization and culture that have been reviewed above. Nowhere do we see any evidence of cultural convergence, or harmonization of worldviews and thought processes. What is evident over and again is that employees use (stereotypes of) nation-states as a frame of reference, whereas the notion of “global culture” is a hypothetical construct more than anything else. Only once in the 30 hours of recordings that have been analyzed do the employees refer to something we might call “global uniformity,” and this statement refers specifically to technology: that within the company, the same procedures and standards for communication must be applied across the world.

Even these uniform communication procedures are sometimes difficult to agree on in the global workplace. In another large multinational corporation, which was studied under the auspices of the Global Communications Project,2 the company headquarters decided that in all subsidiaries across the world, employees had to adopt uniform procedures for forms of address: In all official correspondence, employees had to use “Dear given name + family name.”3 Soon after the new policy was implemented, emails of complaint started pouring in from all over the world arguing that the new procedures violated culturally appropriate terms of address, which in some cultures would dictate “Dear title + family name,” in others a more formal approach “Dear title + given name + family name,” and in others a more informal approach: “Dear first name.” After several months of agitated email exchanges back and forth between HQ and an increasing number of subsidiaries, the company decided to scrap all attempts to apply uniform procedures in their official communication and advised that colleagues could use the forms that were most natural and culturally appropriate to them.

What the study of work practices and communication patterns in the global workplace reveals is that employees use (stereotypes of) national cultures as a frame of reference. They use cultural stereotypes, or the “pictures in their heads” that govern the process of perception (Lippmann, 1965), to construct a pseudo-environment, a simpler and more manageable environment that they can understand, relate to, and act in. It is noticeable that nation-states and stereotypes of national cultures are used as the only meaningful frame of reference in the employees’ conceptualization of a manageable world that they can describe and act in. Perhaps the fuzziness of the concept that is being discussed, and tentatively described, is part of the problem. The terms “global” and “globalization” are still, certainly as far as folk perceptions are concerned, not clearly defined and hence not cognitively real and operationable for these global employees. Similarly, a “global citizen” is a hypothetical construct, which cannot be used for guidance and orientation in everyday work encounters. Therefore, what is left—cognitively real and operationable—is the nation-state and the cultural stereotypes associated with nation-states.

Unlike the folk perceptions studied by Garrett et al. (2006), who found that comments on cultural assimilation and cultural uniformity were frequent, studies of global employees’ linguistic and cultural practices in the workplace show that people tend to view the world as a multitude of different nation-states. Therefore, what they have to relate to in their day-to-day work practices is how linguistic expressions and cultural phenomena are applied and interpreted differently in different national contexts. They need to provide guidance and orientation, and thus make sense of the world, and for this, they use archetypal national characters.

Another example of the failure of global strategies is provided in a case reported in Ladegaard and Jenks (2017, p. 3):

A global company with subsidiaries in 38 countries across the world introduces a new set of global strategies, which should apply to all employees irrespective of where they work. These strategies stipulate that pay, status, and rank in the company will be determined by the employees’ ability to “step up, utilize their resources, think outside the box, be proactive, be vocal, and challenge conventional thinking” (from the company’s internal paper, released to all employees in the spring of 2013).

This case suggests that the alleged homogeneity and standardization that globalization has supposedly brought about have made their way into organizational policies. They illustrate, as Kramsch (2002, p. 284) points out, that the concept of intercultural communication as it is frequently used, both in large segments of the literature and in the world of business, is often hijacked by “a global ideology of ‘effective communication’ Anglo-Saxon style, which speaks an English discourse even as it expresses itself in many different languages.” Despite several notable attempts to change this (e.g., Asante, Miike, & Yin, 2013; Nakayama & Halualani, 2010), Anglo-centric frameworks still seem to weigh heavy in many workplaces and educational settings and in scholarly work. Asian scholars have argued that Western frameworks, such as Hofstede’s (1991) taxonomies, or Brown and Levinson’s (1987) Politeness Theory, do not adequately relate to the Asian experience; even so, these models are still widely applied to research in Asian contexts (see Matsumoto, 1988, for a critique).

In the attempt to propose non-Anglo-centric approaches to (intercultural/global) communication studies, Shi-xu (2009, p. 41) suggests that Asian paradigms should (1) formulate locally grounded, globally minded, and historically conscientious analytical frameworks; (2) bear their own cultural-intellectual identities; (3) be mindful of and reflect on Eastern past experiences and present conditions; and (4) converse with Western paradigms. Such attempts could address, for example, the areligious nature of frameworks in studies of communication and culture, and the absence of issues of faith and interfaith dialogue in the globalization debate. In an increasingly interconnected world where people migrate, travel, and communicate on a global scale, it is obvious that people’s religious faith will also be an essential part of the global experience and of intergroup conflict. This is particularly true in Asia and Africa, but increasingly also in Europe, North America, and other Western contexts because of migration, and yet the globalization debate and intercultural communication models are still largely areligious (see Beyer, 2013, for a discussion of religion and globalization).

The Global University

Another area that has received increased attention from researchers recently is the internationalizing university and its impact on globalization (e.g., Young, Handford, & Schartner, 2017). There are currently more than four million people studying outside their country of origin, either permanently or on short-term exchange for one or two semesters, and this has radically transformed universities all over the world from national institutions of learning to international universities providing education on a global scale. Universities around the world now have as one of their key mission statements a more internationalized campus. To further this goal, they have established international offices and created exchange programs, and they promote themselves as global universities that cater to an international student body. Thus, tertiary education under globalization has become a commodity; it is advertised on a global scale, and universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and increasingly Europe compete for “customers” through online advertising and education fairs, arguing that their university is more internationalized and global than other universities.

Buzzwords like “education for global citizenship,” “intercultural competence,” and “global awareness” abound in university mission statements, curricula, and scholarly work, but relatively little research has been done to show the impact of globalization and increased international exchange on students’ learning. It is widely acknowledged that internationalization has radically changed the university environment. The presence of hundreds or thousands of nonlocal students will impact what courses are being taught and how. Local students in non-English-speaking countries have had to accept that (many) subjects are now taught in English, leading to a loss not only in language but also in content (Tange & Millar, 2016) and inevitably to subject teachers being less confident in how they teach. The positive benefits of global education have been highlighted in recent research pointing out, for example, that overseas exchange improves students’ personal maturity and self-confidence as well as their English language proficiency. Sojourners also claim it leads to increased tolerance of cultural diversity and a more global outlook (Jackson, 2017).

Nevertheless, recent research has also questioned some of the alleged benefits of global education, arguing that increasing the number of nonlocal students and staff on campus does not necessarily lead to a more internationalized study environment (Knight, 2011). Recent research in a Hong Kong university found that local and nonlocal students live completely separate lives on campus. They do not socialize or work together unless forced to do so by their teachers (Ladegaard & Cheng, 2014). The research also found that negative outgroup stereotypes abound. Each of the distinctly different student groups that coexist on any Hong Kong university campus (Hong Kong Chinese, mainland Chinese, and overseas exchange students) made prejudiced statements about “the other.” Some students reported that they were simultaneously within and without: within the study environment but without connection to other students and a sense of belonging. Some students made racist comments about their peers, while others struggled to reconcile themselves with racist statements made by their peers. Thus, intergroup conflict was common and some students felt that their negative outgroup stereotypes had been reinforced during their sojourn rather than alleviated (Ladegaard, 2017b).

These examples of intercultural encounters in the internationalizing university provide further evidence that globalization has generally not led to increased cultural homogenization and sameness. There is no indication that international students share similar worldviews and mindsets, or that the nation-state has lost its significance as a salient identity marker for them. Like the employees in the global workplace, they use national stereotypes to provide orientation, or they categorize the world into ingroups and outgroups and let their prejudiced beliefs about cultural “others” guide their actions (Tajfel, 1981). Thus, national categories and the stereotypes they produce have not lost their significance because of the globalization of education; if anything, they may have gained significance (Pitts & Brooks, 2017).

This finding resonates with the conclusion in several more recent theories on globalization and culture, which argue that nation-states have not lost their importance because of globalization (e.g., Calhoun, 2008). The idea that globalization has fostered cultural standardization and produced a uniform “global village” seems to be on the decline in favor of a theory of cultural hybridity. Holton (2011) argues that hybridization theory, which sees the global field as multicentered and complex—a “mixture” of cultural elements with different origins—is a more appropriate framework for understanding the relationship between culture and globalization than theories of homogenization. Hybridization theory is also concerned with conceptual attempts to overcome the dichotomy between the local and the global, as signified by Robertson’s (1995) term “glocalization.” The claim that it is beneficial to theorize globalization in terms of hybridity is supported by the fact that globalization does not just involve a Westernization of the non-Western world; the influences are mutual. Thus, as Frello (2013, p. 2) argues, “by focusing on the hybridization of culture, it is possible to grasp the complexities involved in the process of mutual adaptations and reinterpretations of cultural forms in the contemporary world.”

Globalization, Culture, and Power: Issues for Future Consideration

Critical intercultural communication scholarship is defined as an area of inquiry that “foregrounds issues of power, context, socioeconomic relations, and historical/structural forces as constituting and shaping culture and intercultural communication encounters, relationships, and contexts” (Halualani & Nakayama, 2010, p. 1). Scholars within this tradition often focus on historical, social, and political macro contexts and the hidden and destabilizing aspects of culture, and they explain that the critical perspective aims to “understand the role of power and contextual constraints on communication in order ultimately to achieve a more equitable society” (Martin & Nakayama, 2000, p. 8). This dialectical approach to culture and communication foregrounds the forces that constrain communicative choices; individuals are not equal in their power relations and in their access to languages and other powerful means of communication. Thus, it reveals “the complexities of culture, as well as the various interests at work driving cultural hierarchies” (Martin & Nakayama, 2017, p. 19).

Despite these attempts to critically review the scholarship on communication and culture in the light of globalization, a pertinent question remains: Is the scholarship truly intercultural? Miike (2003) asks whether “the topics we pursue, the theories we build, the methods we employ, and the materials we read adequately reflect and respond to the diversity of our communicative experiences in a globalizing world?” (pp. 243–244). If we consider the affiliation of scholars in the field, even in critical intercultural communication, there is no doubt that they are heavily biased toward Anglo-American contexts and experiences. And if, as Rogers and Steinfatt (1999) have posited, the cultural values of ICC scholars affect not only what they study and the methods they use but also what they find and how they interpret their findings, then the cultural bias among scholars of culture and communication is a potential problem. Thus, a call for more Asian and African scholars to enter the field and enrich it with their perspectives on globalization and culture is as pertinent as ever (see Ladegaard & Jenks, 2017, for a discussion).

Critical scholarship on culture, communication, and globalization should address current viewpoints that seriously disadvantage people at “the bottom of the globalization market,” such as ideologies of “homogenism” (Blommaert & Verschueren, 1998). The hallmark of this widespread ideology is that cultural and linguistic homogeneity is seen as the norm and the ideal for any society; therefore, diversity is seen as a deviation and consequently abnormal, and negative reactions to diversity therefore become acceptable. However, because neither deviations from normative homogeneity nor xenophobic or racist reactions are desirable in a tolerant society, some form of “re-homogenization” is required. This implies renewed commitments to cultural and linguistic integration, which increasingly has come to mean full assimilation. The “homogenism” ideology draws on the idea that cultures are stable, group-based identities that can be used for comparison. However, as Verschueren (2008) puts it, a static comparison of cultures is the worst possible basis for studying ICC. He argues that any linguistic-pragmatic description of communication needs to consider three basic concepts: variability, negotiability, and adaptability. An intercultural/global context is not to be equated with the sum of the cultural contexts that are involved. Rather, it is the creation of a new variable context, discursively constructed and negotiated in situ by the interlocutors involved in the exchange, where power asymmetry always has to be considered a potentially salient variable. Thus, echoing the social constructionist and dialectical approaches to culture and communication, Verschueren (2008, p. 28) concludes that the language/communication–culture nexus is located in “practical instances of discourse rather than at some level of abstraction defined in terms of an untenable concept of ‘culture.’”

In a world that is not only increasingly mobile and interconnected but also increasingly fragmented and marred by intergroup conflict and religious tensions, it is perhaps premature to make universalist claims about cultural assimilation and intercultural understanding. Kramsch (2002) argues that the search for intercultural understanding has largely been fueled by a belief in the universal value of information, communication, and reason (and, we might add, technology) as well as by individual interest and profit as a common goal in the global economy. But rarely is it acknowledged that the gains and losses of globalization are not equally shared: Increased wealth and the reinforcement of cultural and linguistic superiority in developed countries happen at the expense of developing countries. Kramsch (2002, p. 283) sums up the essence of critical scholarship on ICC and globalization as follows:

To realize how much intercultural communication itself is typical of a certain Anglo-Saxon culture, discourse, and worldview, proponents of intercultural communication would have to confront inequalities among cultures, the inevitability of conflict, and the tragic dimensions of human action. The concept of intercultural communication can be used to gloss over the increasingly deep divide between the haves and have nots, between those who have access to Western discourse and power and those who don’t.

Perhaps one noticeable change in the global world order needs to be added to Kramsch’s critique. Globalization has led some nations to power and world dominance (most notably China), and it is arguably no longer sufficient to say that the deep divide is only between those who have access to Western discourses and those who do not. Certain non-Western discourses have gained power and global dominance in recent years. The voices of smaller countries and territories are being repressed by the new superpowers, whose powerful discourses and cultural imperialism have not yet been subjected to the same scrutiny and critical scholarship that their Anglo-American counterparts have been. Cultural and linguistic imperialism is no longer just about English (Phillipson, 1992), and the call to critically assess non-Western powerful discourses and their impact on the globalization of culture is long overdue.

The recent rejection of globalization, as reflected in the renewed criticism of the multicultural society and its hybridity of cultures, and the retreat to what we might call a new wave of nationalism, also needs further attention from scholars. It is premature to predict the impact of this new wave on (“inter”)-culture, but it is possible it may lead to a new trend away from glocalization and hybridization toward increased localization and idealization of the nation-state. This makes Sorrell’s (2013, p. 245) call for new relationships of engagement and intercultural activism even more pertinent, because “taking up our responsibility as global citizens, developing our intercultural competences, and engaging in intercultural activism offer opportunities to challenge systems of domination, question hierarchies of power, and create a more equitable world.”


Malcolm MacDonald, Jacob Mey, and two anonymous reviewers made critical comments on earlier versions of this article for which I’m truly grateful. Any shortcomings that remain are of course my responsibility.

Further Reading

Alred, G., Byram, M., & Fleming, M. (Eds.). (2003). Intercultural experience and education. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.Find this resource:

    Assante, M. K., Miike, Y., & Yin, J. (Eds.). (2013). The global intercultural communication reader (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

      Bales, K. (2012). Disposable people: New slavery in the global economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

        Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

          Hopper, P. (2007). Understanding cultural globalization. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Find this resource:

            Jackson, J. (Ed.). (2012). The Routledge handbook of language and intercultural communication. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

              Ladegaard, H. J., & Jenks, C. J. (Eds.). (2017). Language and intercultural communication in the workplace: Critical approaches to theory and practice. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                Nakayama, T. K., & Halualani, R. T. (Eds.). (2010). The handbook of critical intercultural communication. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1.) In the 3rd edition of Cultures and Organizations from 2010, Hofstede and his coauthors present a sixth dimension, indulgence versus restraint, based on more recent World Values Survey data by coauthor Michael Minkov.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2.) The Global Communications Project was a five-year research project sponsored by the Danish Research Council for the Humanities and two multinational business corporations, and it allowed a team of 10 researchers to study patterns of communication and work practices in two multinational business enterprises over a period of close to two years.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (3.) This practice would of course not work in Chinese, where family name is always stated first and given name last.