free web hosting | free hosting | Business Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting

Wim van Binsbergen

Globalisation, consumption and development

a key note address


van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Globalization, consumption and development: A key note address? in: Fardon, R., van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & van Dijk, R., 1999, eds., Modernity on a shoestring: Dimensions of globalization, consumption and development in Africa and beyond: Based on an EIDOS conference held at The Hague 13-16 March 1997, Leiden/London: EIDOS [ European Interuniversity Deveopment Opportunities Study group ] , pp. 1-7

?1997-2002 Wim van Binsbergen*

International conference organised by EIDOS (‘European Interuniversity Development Opportunities Study-Group?/WOTRO programme on ‘Globalization and the construction of communal identities?Afrika-Studiecentrum, 13-16 March, 1997


This conference explores the connection between two dominant features of the world today: globalisation and consumption, and seeks to interpret their interplay from a perspective of development. Our approach is interdisciplinary, and our delegates hail from such diverse fields as the sociology of development, development economics, anthropology, history, ethnic studies, media studies, cultural studies and religious studies. The conference has an anthropological slant in that one of our aims is to understand the experiences, conceptions, actions and interactions of actors in local and regional contexts in Africa, Asia and Latin America by situating these local and regional contexts in the wider, ultimately global context. We realise of course that for an understanding of that global context in itself, more is required than the extrapolation of local and regional case studies, and we expect our non-anthropological delegates to help us fill in those aspects. Yet at the same time that global context remains an empty abstraction unless mediated, translated, towards concrete settings where we can discern concrete actors.

          ?           ?The three catch words of the conference make for three pairs:

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">    ? globalisation and consumption

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">    ? globalisation and development

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">    ? consumption and development

Each of these pairs conjures up a world of connections and images, but they are not all equally familiar and obvious.

          ?           ?But let us first briefly define the youngest catchword among our three: globalisation, as the social (including economic, political, cultural and religious) effects of dramatic advances in communication technology. Given the globular shape of the earth, even fairly rudimentary communication technologies of earlier millennia (those of the footpath, the hand-written text, the horse and camel as mounts, the sailing boat) have given rise to early forms of ‘proto?globalisation ?early globalising political projects such as the Akkadian, Assyrian, Roman, Chinese empires; globalising religious projects such as Christianity and Islam; globalising intellectual projects such as the emergence and spread of philosophy and science. However, in the second half of the twentieth century AD communication technologies have advanced so dramatically as to reduce the costs of time and place to nearly zero. This has produced massive qualitative changes in the world at large ?changes for which the term globalisation in the narrower sense of the word is appropriate.

Globalisation and consumption

‘Globalisation and consumption?is probably the most obvious pair of themes, reminding us of the fact that in the world today it is mainly as consumers, far more than as producers, that individual actors position themselves vis-a-vis the world-wide stream of manufactured goods, of information, ideas, images that the dramatic increase of means of communication (both physical and electronic) in the course of the second century has made available right down to the very peripheries of the earth. Apparently, sub-Saharan Africa with its c. 60% agricultural producers occupies an exceptional position in this overall set-up. Yet stagnant production has relegated more and more poor African people to the status of consumers of purchased food-stuffs. Meanwhile, in the course of the last decade, the opening up of African markets under conditions of Structural Adjustment Programmes has meant ?if not active and massive consumption ?then at least potential, desired, frustrated consumption of many other manufactured items besides food.

          ?           ?On the general point of globalisation and consumption, the essential point to explore during our conference is that this apparently global flow, this apparently unchecked play of world-wide market forces, is in fact neither ubiquitous nor unimpeded, nor does it produce sheer uniformity.

          ?           ?One of the most important ideas coined in the first half of the twentieth century has been that of the plurality of distinct, equivalent human cultures. This presupposes that social meaning (as distinct from individual idiosyncrasy and delusion) is being created by a process of localisation, in the course of which a set of people, through their converging interactions, create a collective identity underpinned by meanings peculiar to them as a social group. In the process they raise around themselves both conceptual and interactional boundaries so as to protect the locus of meaning and identity which organises their experience and justifies their actions. In the articulation of such boundaries, objects tend to play a dominant role?as potential items of consumption and elements in a life style. One positions oneself e.g. as a member of the urban middle class by a certain type of house, furniture, clothing etc.; one identifies e.g. as a member of an Independent African church by the purchase of a church uniform, by participation in particular types of services and in the contribution of particular donations, and by the rejection of specific other forms of consumption, e.g. those involving alcohol and tobacco, and various other taboos on food and dress.

          ?           ?In this set-up, the intrusion of a global flow of potential consumption items in principle disrupts the loosely bounded localities of meaning and identity hitherto in existence. At first view it may be supposed to produce chaos and meaninglessness and (in resemblance to the products it brings along) a temptation towards uniformity which destroys identity. In actual fact little of the sort turns out to happen. The new objects are co-opted into pre-existing and ?more typically ?into new identities, within which they acquire new, localised meanings; thus their flow is no longer unimpeded, and instead of creating uniformity, brings about eddies of new identities hitherto unpredictable.

          ?           ?In many cases, the global flow of new objects is imagined rather than real anyway, since many actors especially in the South lack the means to effectively acquire any of the globally mediated manufactured objects, and instead have to creatively make shift with dreams and local imitations ? with ‘lecher la fenetre?(Mbembe), impotently and insolvently staring at the shop windows.

          ?           ?Meanwhile we have to appreciate that the globalisation process implies a trend towards commodification which is manifested not only in regard to new manufactured products coming in from the outside, but also in regard to locally available aspects of culture, whose value is increasingly defined not by reference to time-honoured local cosmologies and social practices in the fields of ceremonial exchange, kinship. ritual etc., but is drawn into a market context, where all these historic (‘traditional? local cultural forms have to compete with the actors?increasing commitment to individual and household consumption.

          ?           ?Central research questions in this field concern, among others, the organisational and conceptual conditions under which new identities emerge and consolidate themselves, the transformations which practices, conceptualisations and meanings surrounding objects undergo in the process, the ways in which this gives rise to new definitions of the person, of space and time, new inequalities, and a dramatically widening horizon of reference, mimesis and commitment within which the person relates to the world.

globalisation and development

From a successful local strategy, first in the North Atlantic, then in Japan, to industrialise economies and to create the affluent consumers that keep those economies going, development has primarily become a framework in which to organise North-South relations. For current development thinking, globalisation means at least two things:

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">    ? development increasingly situates itself in a context largely determined by processes of globalisation

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     as a result, development in itself has increasingly taken on globalising features

Development as increasingly situated within a globalising context

In recent development thinking, the earlier hegemony of the theory of development economics has largely given way to an ideology of development in terms of neo-liberal emphasis on the market and on competition. Whereas in earlier decades developing countries had a choice between capitalist and socialist blueprints, the demise of communism is interpreted as the victory of the neo-liberalism as the sole remaining alternative. Besides, a greatly increased attention, in development thinking, for local cultural factors is to reveal how development (now conceived in terms of the free flow of market forces) can be facilitated by good governance and by the curbing of local cultural practices such as patronage.

          ?           ?These shifts in development objectives in recent decades, far from being a merely fashionable rotation of paradigms, bear witness to the fact that development thinking takes place in the context of globalising processes, and their effects, on the local scene in African, Asian and Latin American context.

                ?           ?The effective power of nation-states in the South and East has been surrendered to globalising market forces (making for unprecedented flows of capital and international labour) which cannot be contained within the boundaries of the nation-state. In the face of these market forces nation-states are increasingly incapable of preventing the demolition of the natural environment. They are equally unable to stay such ethnic and religious conflicts as are inherent in any complex society. Ethnic and religious conflicts have also internationalised and have acquired logistic and military resources in a global market, thereby dramatically enhancing the scope and intensity of their violence. As I said above, Islam and Christianity have been (proto-)globalising projects from their very start in the first millennium CE; however, in the most recent decades the spread of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism has been greatly facilitated by advances in communication technology, whereas these fundamentalisms situate themselves in two further ways in the globalisation process. They offer retreats within enclaves of identity and meaning against the chaotic outside of uncontrolled global flow; and they offer such retreats particularly to those who, as the urban poor, as unemployed youths, are the most conspicuous victims of the free lay of global market forces; subjected to increasing impoverishment they may well dream up the globally mediated images of consumption but are more frustrated than ever from actual consumption.

                ?           ?Meanwhile these social and political processes have changed the very texture of development thinking.

Development as an increasingly globalising project

Even since World War II, development has constituted one of the most conspicuous globalisation projects in the world today in that it sought to effectively impose upon all local peripheries the same universalist logic of incorporation, participation and rationalisation which had produced the viable economies of the North Atlantic and Japan. As a movement of concern and intervention, development has spanned the globe. In doing so it has had to make full use of a state-of-the-art technology of communication, management and control.

          ?           ?However, under recent condition of globalisation in the narrower sense of the word, significant shifts have taken place in development thinking. Of course, the principal objective of poverty alleviation has not been abandoned. But the framework in which desired effects of intervention are defined and assessed, has expanded so as to reach world-wide dimensions. The familiar image of local development projects aiming to produce a specifically local effect of increased production (albeit through the application of universalist concepts and theories), has given way to an emphasis on world-wide objectives which are no longer predominantly formulated in production terms. Sustainable development today means nothing less than an appeal to all mankind’s shared stewardship of the earth in so far as natural resources are concerned. It is explicitly situated in a context of the containment of ethnic and religious conflict at a supra-national, continental and intercontinental scale. Through Structural Adjustment Programmes impediments to the free flow of global market forces are cleared out of the way. Even ecological concerns can be expressed in this idiom, e.g. by ecological swaps of forest conservation as against a reduced debt load. In a similar conditional manner, the globalised concern for human rights is appended to the North-South development discourse, and so may be the staying of religious and ethnic fundamentalisms and the support for cultural diversity. The interests of the entire world (and therefore, by implication, also those of the North) have come to dominate development thinking to such an extent that it is no exaggeration to speak of globalisation as having captured development.

Under the sub-theme of globalisation and development, therefore, obvious topics for research include: exploring the largely uncharted implications of the nature of development as a globalising project and as an endeavour caught in globalisation; and defining, on the basis of profound descriptive, historical and comparative research, recent transformations in structures of conflict, violence, the state, the market, identity, ethnicity, fundamentalism, in order to feed and to critically assess development strategies and their implementation. Broad and ambitious as this research agenda is, many of its topics do overlap with the present conference; others are pursued in other contexts, in which many of our delegates also participate.

          ?           ?Given the convergence in topics and agendas between development planners and current academic research on globalisation in Africa, Asia and Latin America, what we now need most urgently is a serious dialogue, a constructive exchange of views based on proper knowledge and appreciation of the respective positions, specific procedures and working routines, and structural constraints, on each side.

consumption and development: the implications in the cultural domain

Macro-economics including development economics have always concentrated on identifying the conditions for consumption, and while even glossing over distribution, have tended to consider consumption as the over-obvious, relatively uninteresting end-piece of the economic process; as if consumption mainly means, to the economist’s relieve, the condition under which we can produce all over again. To the extent to which development thinking has been dominated by economic theory, it is therefore hard to make meaningful pronouncements with regard to our third and final pair of concepts. However, this is somewhat easier within a development philosophy that, in the 1980s, has discovered culture, and within the framework of a conference concentrating on the effects of new modes of global consumption upon culture and identity.?

          ?           ?From a perspective both of globalisation and of current ethnicity studies, ‘cultures? are no longer to be considered as bounded, self-contained, distinct entities encompassing entire societies. Today the academic researcher of culture would raise all sorts of questions with regard to the emerging development discourse on culture. Ironically, we have become somewhat less prone to put culture on a pedestal, less inclined now than in the heyday of cultural relativism to advocate a total, unconditional respect for the self-staged claims of identity and authenticity of vocal cultural actors in the world scene today. We would stress, e.g.:

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     invented tradition under elite instigation (so that what poses as time-honoured, uncompromising ‘authentic culture?is more often than not recently re-modelled optional folklore)

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     cultural convergence under the impact of globally mediated models and images, and the selective nature of such convergence both in terms of cultural items and of sections of the population involved

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     the transformation (partly in emulation of, but often as a move away from, a global trend to manufactured uniformity) of pre-existing local cultural idioms, and the emergence of new cultural idioms. These are no longer coterminous with local, regional or national societies, but are typically found in distinct subgroups, in a bid to create new identities and new boundaries to stay the global flow, and to create new meaning informed by transformations of both local meaning and the globally mediated meaning of a very different provenance.

          ?           ?As I have argued and as the present conference will elaborate, current processes of cultural reorientation in the South and East are intimately linked up with consumption, including the subjective frustration of consumption. Consumption, and the attainment of such income levels for specific individuals, households, and social groups as to enable them to engage in more than mere ‘virtual?or ‘symbolic? consumption (cf. ethnic and religious fundamentalism), is the necessary implication of a development discourse aiming at poverty alleviation. Recent anthropological work has demonstrated that an understanding of current shifts in consumption in the South and East, requires the joint efforts of macro-economics, development sociology and an anthropology more than in the 1970s and 1980s geared to symbolic processes and material culture. Our conference will explore the great extent to which shifts in consumption are relevant for development, and in this exploration will lie its particular significance to development planners.


Without slighting the essential contribution from the WOTRO programme on ‘Globalization and the construction of communal identities?and from the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands, this conference is mainly conceived as the second in an EIDOS series called ‘The retreat from the real? and as such mainly funded by the wing on development co-operation of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The series?objective has been to formulate a constructive critique of development thinking and practices, by investigating patterns of sustained unreality, both in the development field, and in the South and East settings at which development practices concentrate. Assessing the virtualities (but also the realities and achievements) of consumption and cultural production in the South, with a critique (but also intellectual support) of development thinking on these topics, the agenda of this conference is hoped to live up to the original objectives of the EIDOS series?initiators, both in academia and in the planning field. Dialogue and cross-fertilisation have been prominent among those objectives, and it is by exhorting you to engage in eminently constructive forms of exchange that I wish to end this key note.

*            ?Wim van Binsbergen holds the chair of ‘ethnicity and ideology in development processes in the Third World?at the Free University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; he is also head of the Theme group on ‘Globalisation and socio-cultural transformation?at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands. He is one of the convenors of the present conference, with Richard Fardon and Rijk van Dijk. The conference situates itself within a wider framework, set by the EIDOS conference programme ‘The retreat from the real?(initiated by Flip Quarles van Ufford and Marc Hobart); the WOTRO programme on ‘‘Globalization and the construction of communal identities? initiated by Peter Geschiere & Wim van Binsbergen, and subsequently directed by a Steering Committee comprising, in addition, Bonno Thoden van Velzen and Peter van der Veer; and the research objectives of the African Studies Centre and specifically of its Theme group on ‘Globalisation and socio-cultural transformation?56t7y8u9


**          ?I am indebted to the policy-makers J. Boer, P.J. Sciarone, W.A. Erath, W.J. Veenstra, and to my academic colleagues F. Quarles van Ufford, R. van Dijk and H. Meilink, for extensive discussions which have helped to inspire and improve the present paper, for the shortcomings of which, however, I remain solely responsible.



page last modified: 10-04-02 10:06:00 Easy Submit  
  Add Me!