Mohammadi Ali, (ed.), (1997) International Communication and Globalisation. London: Sage Publications. 228 pages
Nabil Echchaibi <firstname.lastname@example.org>
We all seem to partake –somehow- in a new streak of research where the concept of globalisation takes form of some sort of mantra, rendering previously valid questions irrelevant and imposing new paradigm shifts in a variety of disciplines. In the field of International communication, the process of globalisation is not only about the emergence of huge transnational corporations. It also implies changes in communication policies and their impact on cultural autonomy and identity not only in weaker nations but in the most powerful ones as well.
It is in this context that International Communication scholars are forced to rethink their existing theories of the free flow of information, the rapid growth of information technology, and the distribution of cultural power in a new environment where boundaries have become porous.
Ali Mohammadi’s International Communication and Globalisation is the latest, not the first as the editor would like us to believe, in that effort. This book is a compilation of essays written by the most noted scholars in the field (Barrett, Hamelink, Halloran, Tehranian, Tomlinson…) representing different schools of research.
At first read, there is little that is new in the topics discussed or the authors who wrote them. Almost all the essays are summaries of arguments the contributors have already made in their own books. There is a lot of value, however, in the way Mohammadi organizes his book in four parts, three of which share a macrosocial approach of examining the limitations and directions of international communication research and the impact of globalisation on media markets and technology transfer. The fourth part, entitled ‘Globalisation, Culture, and the Control of Difference’, follows more of a microlevel, cultural studies approach regarding the cultural dimensions of globalisation and their impact on identity.
The first part of this book features an interesting discussion about two key and contending research tendencies in the field of International Communication: an ‘Orthodox’ trend usually associated with the American tradition of quantitative research, and a ‘Critical’ trend that started in Western Europe with a qualitative and theoretical interest in the study of culture in terms of impact on ‘forms of consciousness and ways of life.’(p.7) This dichotomization might have been true in the early beginnings of International Communication research, but it no longer holds today as more American scholars adopt a critical approach in their enquiry of the effects of global communication on national cultures. Besides, Mohammadi should have asked someone else who not only writes about but also does critical research. James Halloran, who was given the task to represent the critical tradition, is more concerned with mass communication and public- policy making than cultural processes.
The section on communication technology, deregulation and their impact on Third World countries is a discussion of how globalization and rapid technological change increase competition and accentuate the need for developing countries to adapt quickly. Adaptation, however, entails submission to a non-privileging economic order dictated by international financial institution, which helps to erode the autonomy of nation-states. As averred earlier, these arguments have been reverberated in other places and do not add anything new or challenging.
The last part in this book about globalization and its impact on culture is probably the most beneficial despite its repetitiveness. Tomlinson’s chapter is almost a summary of his landmark book called Cultural Imperialism, in which he predicted that the discourse of imperialism will eventually be replaced by globalization as a more ambiguous and less culturally directed process. Globalization, he argues, is a "decentered" process
whereby "the patterns of distribution of power are unstable and shifting and … power is in some ways diffused rather than concentrated" (p. 185). This critique, supported by an example of
how CNN influences the culture of a remote island in the South Atlantic, offers a much more complex view of how cultural globalisation operates in a new setting where the core-periphery model fails to account for the shifting patterns of both economic and cultural power. Instead of decrying a cultural homogenization by virtue of exposure to Western images --a conclusion usually visited by Cultural Imperialism theorists--, Tomlinson wants us to think of the implications of cultural globalisation as an ‘incontrollable’ phenomenon that even the well-established power centers of today could not predict.
Maxwell’s chapter on market research and its influence on consumers’ notion of "desire and identity" is concerned with how the seemingly innocent global techniques of marketers are useful for better control over people’s consumption habits in Third World countries. Using concrete examples of how transnational commodities fail to thrive in particular localities, Maxwell describes how market research has turned to more grounded and qualitative techniques to understand audiences’ re-interpretations and re-appropriations of global messages.
Both chapters seem more narrowed down in terms of their scope and argumentations, citing empirical studies to validate their arguments. The International Communication critique has been, until recently, fixed on the political and economic debates of the uneven flow of information without capitalizing enough –and more adequately-- on the cultural implications of global communications as adopted in different contexts. This nascent emphasis on cultural studies in the field, as documented by Tomlinson and Maxwell in Mohammadi’s book, will most certainly help us read through the complex implications of cultural globalisation and individuate the existing processes of adoption and diffusion.
If research on the impact of globalization on media markets and nation-states is still valid and useful, empirical studies on the effects of globalization on national cultures and identities are even more so. The last part of this book is a summary of the effort in that direction, but scholars in this field need more critical research couched in a cultural studies tradition to rewrite their theories of cultural power and the role of the global media in the same way Tomlinson and others did to rethink their premises of cultural imperialism theory.
Overall, this book is a useful one in the sense that it sums up the major trends, past and present, of international communication and provides insightful directions for a global future.