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The Humanist Institute

Globalization Theory and Humanism

Robert B. Tapp

Our inhabited worlds are smaller in some very immediate sense--closer in space and more contemporary in time. This phenomenon transcends literacy, and is largely a function of media technology and availability. Think of the limited contemporary information available during World War II. Today, military censorships are only part of the problem. In more recent times, we (and my "we" here is intended to be quite global) have been instantaneously aware of events in Tiananmen Square, at the Berlin Wall, at Chernobyl, to Salman Rushdie, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, at Rancho Santa Fe. Television and faxes showed the Chinese demonstrators and their repression to the world. Add to this the internet, and we have an instantaneously and widely-interconnected world. Close management of information is no longer easy for nation-states or interest groups.

An emphasis on the rise of a global economy is too simple. Yes, McDonalds are (almost) everywhere, and Coke and Pepsi slug it out for market shares. But pop music and sports flow both ways, and talk about any American empire in the cultural sense leaves too many gaps and anomalies. When we attend to the cultural world--of education, literature, fashion, leisure, entertainment, religion, art, music--metaphors from economics and political science have lost their former utility. The suggestion here is that globalization theorizing and analysis which is emerging among sociologists provides a fuller vision.

The World

While we can postulate some tribal past in which the "world" consisted of the space between the mountains, our ancestors quite early came to distinguish themselves from some other(s) who inhabited other places and valleys. Was the other to be conquered, avoided, converted, or assimilated? All were strategies adopted innumerable times by innumerable tribes. Throughout most of our history on this planet, such were the choices. Were there even stranger things beyond the known world? Herodotus is the Western writer most associated with such fancies.

My focus in this paper will be on sociological theories regarding this problem and its solutions. Classical economists and political scientists tended to use the nation state as the basis for analysis, but this is too narrow. A number of sociological theories have emerged that take a broader space-focus and the best of them include a broader time-focus. In particular we will devote attention to Roland Robertson's work as one of the pioneers of "globalization" theory. More recently he has tried to shift colleagues to a "glocalization" terminology. For Robertson, our time sees the world as "one place," encompassing a number of lesser entities such as civilizations, nation-states, and individuals.

The Modern

When did the modern world begin? Typically posed in the "West," this question presupposed being situated in such a world and trying to look back in space/time to a starting point. Usually, some current period of rapid change was contrasted to a more static pre-modern period. Innovations such as democracy, revolution, technology/science, nation-states are seen as starting markers..

If modernity stems from the use of comparative data to discern patterns of industrialization, and the assigning of relative potencies and priorities to such patterns, we should regard Karl Marx as the first modernist. Not only did the economic base determine the other (superstructural) elements of culture. The amassing of empirical data was the way to establish this. In many ways, the several founders of modern sociology were heavily indebted to Marx even when they took different points of departure.

One popular view was associated with Talcott Parsons. He saw the seeds of the modern in ancient Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures. (Parsons 1966). Max Weber had picked a more recent starting point in the Protestant reformation, particularly its Calvinist wing. Ernst Troeltsch moved the time closer to the Enlightenment. Walter Lippman spoke of the "acids of modernity," and there appear to be such dissolving forces in the modern with respect to feudalism, authoritarianism, and traditionalism. In particular, the (Western) modern challenged traditional religion. Proponents of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reflected various versions of deism and atheism that ruled out divine interventions and miracles in order to center human attention on morality as the sole gateway to improvement and to the enjoyment of immortality.

Their reading of history saw religious (Christian) institutions as almost always on the wrong side of the ideological fence. Therefore the appropriate response was to foster education, individuality, and freedom from religious impositions. Comte, for example, saw the modern as the emergence of a new stage of history that would be "positive," governed by science.

An inevitable corollary was secularization--the expectation that religious impulses (which were stimulated by the creation and offer of other-worldly rewards) would attenuate. The rapid changes involved in societal modernizing would weaken the authority of all previous traditions, especially if they could not show that they fostered the new desires.

Among elite cultures in Northern Europe and its tributaries, this appeared to be the direction. Ideologically, many theologians tried to modernize Christianity. Miracles lost their importance, and biblical materials were studied historically and metaphorically in order to be able to proffer interpretations that would not violate scientific sensibilities. On the social level, these same elites moved toward a socializing of education, social control, and welfare. Especially on the more liberal flank emerged various versions of a "social gospel" which would transform society both as a religious duty and as a more effective way to transform persons. By the present century this provoked enormous splits between the traditional Christians and their reformist colleagues.


For a few post-World War II years, a reigning theory in the social sciences was "modernization." Societies, it was held, would adopt industrial culture in similar stages to those patterned by Western Europe, US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Division of labor would be necessary to the success of industrialization as well as changes in social organization and their bureaucratic management. Above all, urbanization would increase rapidly.

Society itself would become the central object of attention (the strand from Emile Durkheim) and its processes would be increasingly subject to rationalization (the strand from Max Weber). In such a this-worldly, materialistic orientation, the desires of individuals would come to the fore and become increasingly directive of social change and supportive of further individualism.

Marx of course had predicted much of this because of the revolutionary nature of capital accumulation. Modernization theories built upon that insight while insisting on Marxism's shortcoming in relating all change to the forces of production and distribution. In a looser sense, one could also argue that modernization theory was carrying out the Enlightenment project which had assumed that the liberation of persons would free both suppressed and new desires into the societal arena.


Modernization theorists tended to see religions as things from the past that would disappear under the secularization that accompanied modernization. They also assumed the universality of the causal sequence between modernization and secularization. Today it would be hard to find sociologists who defended this assumption. Some attribute the earlier view to the secular outlook of many social scientists--or simply the intellectual Zeitgeist of this century in the West.

Andrew Greeley was one of the earliest nay-sayers among the sociologists. His own experience with survey research led him to cast a broader net to catch the "religious," and he found, for instance, claims of essentially "mystical" experiences to be widespread and constant. Ironically, the claim to constancy involved a closer scrutiny of the common wisdom that piety had been widespread during the nineteenth century. Bryan Martin's close examination of British parish records showed this not to be the case. The Gallup poll shows a consistent 97 percent of U. S. citizens believing in "God." Most recently, a replication study of Leuba's 1916 examination of religious beliefs of distinguished scientists shows essentially no diminution of religiosity. Perhaps the most persuasive study is Finke and Stark's 1992 examination of newly-recovered census data from 1976-90. They found a steady increase in religious belief and practice among the more conservative Protestants, coupled with a sharp drop-off among the more liberal churchgoers. Overall, a steady increase of religious joining (and presumably also belief and activity) was documented. In other words, those mainstream religious historians and theologians had been romanticizing their own pasts and overlooking their competitors.

Peter Berger sees Japan as a case in point that modernization and industrialization have not disrupted the Shinto foundations of that society. In 1963 I witnessed the inauguration of a Hindustan Antibiotics plant in Pune, India by involved ritual activities of Hindu priests. This took place during the lifetime of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had dedicated a new steel-mill as "a temple of modern India." And it will be remembered that as recently as Eisenhower's presidency in the U. S., ". . . under God" was inserted into the salute to the flag.

Martin Luther may have been a better observer of our human propensities than many social scientists when he said "Mann hat Gott oder Abgott" (humans will have either a god or a demon). If one takes the high level of nominally-traditional religious beliefs in the U. S. plus the wide variety of New Age, neo-Eastern, and neo-Pagan partisans, either a denial of modernity or a rejection of secularization theory becomes necessary.

Even more striking, the newly-granted respectability to varieties of religious literalism and ecclesiastical assertions appears everywhere. To the extent that modern persons get most of their information via television, what they see of "Protestantism" and to a lesser extent of Roman Catholicism is skewed toward those televangelists who can afford air-time. My own surveys of university students during the last 35 years further illustrate this point. Minnesota is dominated by Lutherans and Catholics, and neither group officially endorses "creationism," the belief that the universe was created by God in its present form less than 10,000 years ago. Nonetheless around 30 percent of the sons and daughters of these religious moderates do reject Darwin. Most surprising is the fact that Catholics share this science-rejection in almost equal percentages. The obvious inference is that they have learned much about Christianity from its noisier advocates and not from their own nuns and priests. Even more significant is the fact that these "other faith" views find psychological homes rather than rejections.

In many ways the journalists have been ahead of the religious professionals in testing the exportability of the U. S. category of "fundamentalism" and finding that it fits well in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism as well. If fundamentalism stands for rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity and change (and not simply affirmation of some quite-specific doctrinal points), it is one of the most widespread and virulent characteristics of the present period of history, quite irrespective of degrees of cultural modernism.


Rapid industrialization and urbanization in the U.S. in the latter part of the nineteenth century created a need for cheap labor. Famine and economic crises in Ireland and southern Europe supplied this by large-scale immigration. The newly-created public schools became the way to make "Americans" of the children, and adult classes were created for the parents. On the assumption that these were "willing" immigrants, this push toward assimilation seemed highly proper. "Difficult" names were often changed during the Ellis Island stay, and in many other ways the new citizens were encouraged to shed their old identities. Since many had come on the basis of economic hardship, assimilation had its appeals.

The "America" of these social engineers was in many ways the WASP America of the Eastern seaboard. Non-WASP immigrants entered it out of economic need and hope, and their children grew up distancing themselves from the "Old World" cultural hangovers of their parents.

Cultural Pluralism

The first use of "cultural pluralism" was by Horace Kallen, a student of John Dewey. Shortly thereafter Randolph Bourne used the term, and so did Dewey himself. Kallen assumed that there was no serious contradiction between keeping some parts of one's former culture and adopting the new American identity. All three were insisting that some desirable richness is lost when the goal is simply integration and assimilation. Instead, new citizens should be taught that the desirable elements of their former culture could/should be maintained. It should also be noted that this consideration of pluralism did not yet extend to African-Americans.

Intercultural Education

The Depression and World War II pushed aside the debate between exponents of Americanization and cultural pluralism. That war experience revealed many of the fissures in U. S. culture (e.g. segregation) and led to a revival of cultural pluralism under a slightly different name. The goal here was to make persons cognitively aware of differences in their neighbors' homes and heads. "Race riots" during and after the war had led many politicians to seek to dampen violence by wider acquaintance.

Nevertheless, intercultural education reflected a commitment on the part of many governmental agencies to incorporate African-Americans into its fabric/mosaic of concerns. Toward the end of the war, steps were taken to reduce the impact of segregation in military life and this spilled over into the civilian sector.

Civil Rights

The immediate backdrop for the present U. S. situation is ithe 1960s. The Supreme Court had rejected the "separate but equal" fallacy that governed much of U. S. life in the Brown decision on school integration. The implementation of such an order was more complex and evoked enormous white resistance and consequent black resentment. Earlier court attacks on segregated housing through restrictive covenants had minimal effect in most cities.

Following the assassination of President Kennedy, major civil rights and voting rights laws were pushed through the Congress. Again there was resistance to implementation across the land. This stepped up the activities of civil rights proponents but also facilitated the emergence of a Black Power movement. If Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement stood for integration based on justice and the admission and repentance of white racists, Malcolm X saw no future in relying upon white generosity and fairness and therefore stressed the need for blacks to affirm and defend their own culture as a road to the necessary self-respect that could rebuild black communities.

The resultant polarization has only recently seeped into the awareness of the white majority. Perhaps it appears most clearly in the question of schools. White liberals wanted to integrate public education and used busing and other devices to attempt this. Much of the failure of integration is due to the flight from the cities of the non-liberal whites. All along, the deeper concern of black parents appears to have been for a good education for their children, whether the classrooms were integrated or not. Other factors, of course, have been the flight of industries/jobs/people to the suburbs, and the failure to open the housing market to any but well-off blacks.


Concomitant with these shifting angers (i.e. since the 70s), has been the emergence of a number of postmodernisms. Let us focus on one new theme of this relativism, which blurs any differences between high and low culture. A recent example of this is in the Ebonics flare-up which views deviant grammar as standardized in some other language system. A full postmodernism would, of course, hold that any set of linguistic symbols is useful to the extent that it communicates. "Standard" speech becomes one more illusion of the modernist "essentialists."

In a similar vein, varying human culture patterns are relativized, rendering earlier pedagogical strategies irrelevant. If the Enlightenment saw science and reason as desirable and liberating, postmodernism sees this as simply one option among many--one narrative among many, with no metanarrative being possible. If the gender screening of postmodernism becomes operative, the first hypothesis is that existing culture patterns are male-created and therefore automatically suspect. Furthermore, their underlying purpose was to establish dominance and wrest power from others.

Humanists, in slightly different ways, have always rejected the essentialism of supernatural religions. But they have insisted on the transcultural nature of constructs such as human rights, and viewed the corresponding human drive for justice as deeply embedded in the human animal.


The failures of civil rights movements, coupled with the relativizations of postmodernism, set the stage for multiculturalism. Students, it was now maintained, must learn to understand and appreciate all the varying cultures that surround them. And each of these cultures has an equal right to attention and emulation. It is much easier to describe what the proponents of multiculturalism are against than what they are for when it applies to the school curriculum. Nathan Glazer argues quite persuasively that in the aftermath of civil rights failures, the need to defend a persisting black subculture drives the whole movement.

Unitarian Universalists will remember the late 60s as the contest between a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) and Black and White Action (BAWA), acronyms for black empowerment partisans in the former case, and integrationists in the other. This struggle polarized a group that had been known for its social liberalism.

Globalization--a new and better theory?

As mentioned earlier, classical sociologists attempted to describe patterns that operated among humans wherever and whenever they lived. Max Weber, for instance, tested his "rationalization theory" against the historical developments of India and China. More recent sociologists have, by and large, settled for concrete, non-crosscultural empirical analyses of existing societies. The nation-state has thus been the outer perimeter.

Imperialism as well as modernization theory saw the West as possessing a dynamism that would conquer all, given time, since it was self-evidently desirable and superior. If the natural resources of the planet were viewed by industrialism as a raw material to be exploited, subject peoples were similarly destined to be emptied and refilled with this desirable culture. The West took great comfort in the fact that so many of them claimed to want to be refilled.

As those imperialisms were overthrownm after World War II, postcolonial and subaltern analyses emerged, often turning into simply reversals of the earlier vantage point. The problem was that they simply treated power in unilinear terms, often using a Gramscian construct of hegemony as the best starting point. Using a different neo-Marxian assumption, Immanuel Wallerstein viewed capitalism as the prime expander into the rest of the world.

Enter Roland Robertson, a British scholar who now moves back and forth between the U. S. and the U. K., Robertson has remained sensitive to the religious factors in culture (his debt to Weber and Parsons) but began in an analysis of the effects of the crumbling British empire. But where others saw domination (by either the conquerors or the newly-liberated former subjects), Robertson moved beyond this simplistic causal model to a model that took the globe/world as a new and yet unrealized awareness.

This more subtle position caught on with a few others and some rich studies have emerged since the early 1990s. One way to understand the discussion is to contemplate the polarities in these two columns.

particular global

local cosmopolitan

particular universal

Gemeinschaft Gesellschaft

tradition modernity

local international

tribal national

heterogeneity homogeneity

Traditional sociological theories have seen an inevitable temporal flow from the left toward the right column, from the smaller to the larger. Robertson and his colleagues came to see that a different explanation was more predictive in our times, and that the awareness of a global field was the appropriate starting point, with a predictable reflexivity. As Robertson's thinking developed, modernity's ambiguities are faced and theorized. The formation of self, for instance, so carefully deveoped in the tradition of G. H. Mead, is developed more significantly: significant others are also affected as well as affecting. Similarly, the "world system of societies" is seen as interacting with a larger concept of "humankind." The idea of citizenship is "relativised" by the awareness of humankind. And, a national society is relativised by an awareness of a world system of societies.

Globalization, in other words 

assumes a modernized, rationalized world, but a world where--alongside globally institutionalized rationalization--nostalgia and the search for authenticity through the construction of memory and the ritualization of mythic pasts have become routinized; a world where tribalisms, ethnicities, national yearnings, and otherness, in general, have surfaced as potent forces; a world, ironically, made small and vulnerable to tradition by the project of modernity itself.

Robertson has been careful to stress what globalization does not mean, and particularly to guard the concept against easy assimilations. First, recognize that the new element is the awareness of the world-as-a-whole, a process that requires both theoretical reorientation and careful empirical studies. Consequently, Robertson regards this as 

. . . an urgent matter partly because much of the contemporary discussion about the global scene is being conducted by interpreters operating under the umbrella of 'cultural studies' with exceedingly little attention to the issue of global complexity and structural contingency, except for frequently invoked cliches about 'late capitalism' and/or the salience of 'the multinational corporation'. This is not at all to say that the economic factor is unimportant, nor certainly that the textual (or 'power-knowledge') aspect of the 'world system' is of minor significance. Rather, I am insisting that both the economics and the culture of the global scene should be analytically connected to the general structural and actional features of the global system.

Put this another way. The nation state emerged in Europe in the late 15th century in the context/matrix of a crumbling Holy Roman Empire. One's ethnic group surfaces in the context of a nation which may comprise other ethnic groups. Alliances of nations arise in the context of other alliances or threats. The "self" emerges not simply from some within but in the context of a set of social shells. These shells connect reflexively, as noted long ago by George Herbert Mead. And hovering at the outermost limit is global humankind.

Pieterse (1995) has recently suggested that one result of this continual reciprocal and reflexive flow is the creation of "hybrids." The best instance of this is probably in the U. S. with is continuing interplay of "ethnicities" (a much more useful construct than "race"). He is here combining some postmodern emphases on time-space compression in a useful way.

Michael Lind has been analyzing census figures and concludes that the U. S. of the near future will have a "beige" majority as a result of intermarriage and two sizeable minorities, white and black. The figures are indeed impressive, and suggest the emergence of multiethnic individuals who will have a difficult time identifying with any particular group. Will they redefine "Americanness" without the traditional color-consciousness of the former WASP majority? Think of Tiger Woods! 

[A]ccording to an analysis of the 1990 U.S. Census data for persons aged 25-34 by Reynolds Farley, a demographer with the Russell Sage Foundation, 31.6 percent of native-born Hispanic husbands and 31.4 percent of native-born Hispanic wives had white spouses. The figures were even higher for Asians: 36 percent for native-born Asian husbands and 45.2 percent for native-born Asian wives. (In fact, Asian wives were as likely to marry white Americans as they were to marry Asian-Americans.) The highest intermarriage rates are those of American Indians. Majorities of American Indian men (52.9 percent) and American Indian women (53.9 percent) married whites rather than American Indians (40.3 percent and 37.2 percent, respectively). And these figures, which themselves document the creolization of America, undoubtedly understate the extent of racial intermarriage that the 2000 Census will reveal.

Equally fruitful are the conceptual suggestions of Appadurai. Rejecting the center/periphery contrasts of the economists, he delineates a "cultural economy" with more complex flows. We should be attending to ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes at the global levels. The -scape suffix reminds us that the viewpoint determines what is perceived. The "imagined spaces" that ensue are not simply fantasies but places where more and more of us virtually live.

The present state of global complexity has been a long time in the making as Robertson reads the history. A first "germinal" phase lasted in Europe from the fifteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. The second, "incipient," phase lasted until 1870. From then until the 1920s was the "take-off" phase in which the emerging national societies were set into an "international society," and both were subject to discussions of correctness and acceptability. The fourth phase, "struggle-for-hegemony," lasts until the mid-1960s, when the current "uncertainty" phase emerged.

The relativizing forces are now in full swing, and lives are defined and lived in a series of 'betweens': self/society; nation/international, society/humanity. The results emerge at both points of the polarity. We define human rights on a world scale at the same time local groups insist on their exemptions. We struggle for international laws and responsibilities and at the same time assert unique rights for the powerful nations. We attempt to define universal meanings and at the same time cling to parochial religious meanings. We uphold the objectivity of the sciences and nevertheless recognize the cultural biases in selecting and funding scientific researchers and projects.

Implications for Humanists

Some of the directions of globalization theory bear directly on our problems and shortcomings as humanists. We too readily take our particular group's experience of humanism as normative. More specifically, we take our civilizational experience as normative and then include a number of societal, national, and group experiences in that normativity. We then assume that this is the only kind of true humanism. (Like the Danish missionaries in China who insisted that their converts learn Danish hymns). So far the best inhibitor of our chauvinism has been the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), but its origins are so clearly Western (and Euro-American) that it is easily tempted by the imperialistic heritages of its societies.

Our vocabularies also have this parochial tinge. Even among ourselves we have difficulty with such terms as "religion," "science," and "spiritual." As global currents flow through us (which they already are), this parochialism will hinder our communication. Our histories, too often, start in Palestine and Greece (even if we reject the mainstreams of both), and this makes true cross-cultural and global conversation more difficult.

Many of us have difficulty in intergenerational empathy, which is already much more tractable than intercivilizational empathy. Rock music, postmodern nihilisms, pop arts, performance arts. Where our cultural parochialisms block us from exploring these, how will we ever come to terms with karma and samsara (to take an Indian example as one from among many)? How will we be able to recognize or understand the humanism that arises in little-known matrices?

The core of humanism, I would contend, is a focus upon this world as the only world, and a loving focus at that. Our rejection of supernaturals stems from their disparagement of this world. Our rejection of psychological and physical oppressions stems from their degradation of the human persons who should be free to love this world. Our reliance on science stems from its ability to map this world more accurately than previous speculative constructions. And our love of humans stems from their ability to transform this world into more enhancing and loving structures.

Globalization should help us see that potency of "humankind," the largest domain we can envisage. What we need is fuller communication among humans who have reached humanist positions. Less attention should be given to non-humanists in our several societies. It is much more important to attend to therapeutic growth within new humanists than to upbraid our neighbors who are not-yet- or even anti-humanists. Constructive alliances for humanist causes--reproductive responsibility, human rights, information freedom, environmental sensitivity, rationality in problem-solving, pursuing excellence, bringing market economies under moral oversight, eliminating violence as a falsely-assumed conflict resolver--such alliances should dominate our agenda. Not only will we thus embody the rhetoric that has evolved among humanists, but we will find ourselves enriched because we have put ourselves into the global flows.

© 1998 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

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