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Global Encounters: Media and Cultural Transformation

Editor: Gitte Stald, Thomas Tufte
Publisher: UK: University of Luton Press, 2002
Review Published: December 2003

 REVIEW 1: Kevin Douglas Kuswa
 REVIEW 2: Radhika Seth
 REVIEW 3: Charles Ess

Of all the books and articles I have read in the past two years -- specifically on the topic of 'cosmopolitanism' -- two stand out as volumes that are not only worth citing and including in one's library: in addition, these are volumes worth dwelling with. By dwelling I mean: spending time with reflectively; reading and re-reading; marking up, erasing, and re-marking -- and above all, enthusiastically recommending to friends and colleagues whose interests and current work intersect with one or more of the books' themes and contents. The first is Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1991). The second is this collection edited by Gitte Stald and Thomas Tufte, two Danish scholars whose work is -- or should be -- well known beyond the lovely borders of Scandinavia.

While I have tried to be brief, this review is nonetheless divided into three sections. The first attempts to evaluate the book vis-à-vis the goals it sets for itself. The second is modestly titled, "What This Book Means to Me" -- a somewhat more idiosyncratic and personal view. The third is immodestly titled "How to Use this Book" -- i.e., how I use it, and thus how you, dear reader, should use it as well ...

I. A Book and its Goals ...

At least one reasonably fair way to review a book is to consider how well it lives up to its own goals. The editors state these as follows:
    to theorise about and empirically study the processes of cultural globalisation, recalling the social, economic and political contexts in which they occur;

    to give explicit attention to the role of the media in the processes of cultural globalisation;

    to approach this defined mediacentric field from as many angles as possible, including product, genre and audience;

    to maintain a theory-praxis dynamic in the book, where empirical data inform the theory;

    to illustrate, through the case studies, how cultural globalisation can be studied, stressing methodological reflections -- ie on transparency and reflexivity -- as a pertinent issue. (2f.)
To accomplish these goals, the editors have collected twelve chapters (including a chapter authored by each) under three different headings: (I) Globalisation, differentiation, and world modernity; (II) Cultural urbanization, world media and global commons; and (III) Cosmopolitanism, diaspora and cultural diversity. As might be expected, individual contributions overlap these headings. So, for example, the first and third chapters in part I, Jonathan Friedman's "Globalisation and the Making of a Global Imaginary," and Renato Ortiz's "Cultural Diversity and Cosmopolitanism," centrally address our understandings of 'cosmopolitanism,' and thereby provide important background and complement to the chapters in Part III.

Moreover -- and this is one of the central values of the book for me -- the expected threads of cultural homogenization as an impact of globalization process on national identities and cultures are helpfully complemented by what was for me a relatively new thread. So, in Part II, Danish media scholar Stig Hjarvard argues -- contra notions of a McLuhanesque "electronic global village" -- that global media instead effect a kind of cultural and mental urbanization, so that any emerging 'global' society made possible by the rapidly expanding nets of electronic communication rather resembles a metropolis, not a simple village. By the same token, the specific studies on youth, diaspora, and minority identities included in Part III -- of young Danes' media use (Stald); of rural black African males in a South African university (Larry Strelitz); South Asian families in London (Marie Gillespie) -- complemented by a study on how 'global' media have become localized in India, with a specific focus on conflicts regarding gender identity (Norbert Wildermuth); Iranian immigrants in London (Annabelle Sreberny); and, finally, media use among young immigrant Danes (Tufte) -- flesh out in comprehensive detail just what some of the neighborhoods in Hjarvard's communicative metropolis look like: who lives there, where they come from, how they understand themselves vis-à-vis a majority culture -- and how media use interacts with these often widely diverse experiences and constructions of complex identities.

In these ways, the centrifugal forces at work in this collection -- i.e., its effort to include as many different perspectives as possible (four continents, 8 countries), thereby running the risk of simply presenting a disconnected collection -- are helpfully counterbalanced by themes and threads that connect the diverse chapters on multiple levels.

I hope this initial overview makes two things clear. One, the book pursues ambitious and important goals. Two, despite the clear risks of fragmentation that issue both from such a range of goals and the range of contributors, topics, approaches, etc., - both individual contributions and the book as a whole rather offer extended and important insights into the interactions between media, globalization, and multiple ways in which these two interact with a range of diverse cultural identities. Simply put, the book achieves its goals in good measure. In doing so, it stands as a very significant contribution to the growing literature on culture, technology, and communication more broadly -- and more specifically, as an essential text for anyone interested in issues of media, globalization, and cultural identities.

II. What This Book Means To Me ...

To begin with, it must be said that this volume -- like virtually all anthologies -- is not a perfect book. As an editor of three such volumes, and reader of many more, I will be the first to confess that anthologies almost inevitably include one or more contributions that simply fail to live up to the quality and depth of the others. Readers of this anthology will certainly discover the comparatively weaker -- but, I would argue, still worthwhile -- components.

That said, I cannot recommend this volume emphatically enough -- to begin with, for those of us whose primary working language is English and who thereby, try as we might, tend to remain shaped, if not contained, by the views and perspectives of the Anglo-American worlds. If only because several contributions in the book allow us to read research and reflection from Scandinavia, Brazil, France, the Netherlands, India, South Africa, and, o.k., the U.K. and the States, on globalization, cultural diversity, and prevailing conceptions of 'cosmopolitanism,' the collection should be required reading for anyone interested in expanding their reading and research in these important directions.

But beyond the critical service of expanding the diversity of our sources -- as my opening description of the thread of 'global media metropolis' suggests, working through the chapters of this book has not only richly expanded my awareness of how diverse cultural groups take up (or fail to take up) new media, including the Internet: moreover, both individual chapters and the overall threads and trajectories they build have dramatically challenged some of my most carefully built and (I thought) well-informed assumptions about culture, identity/identities, and what we might mean by 'cosmopolitanism.'

To begin with, Friedman offers a valuable critique of (among other things) prevailing notions of 'cosmopolitanism' -- notions that, on his showing, present diverse identities as not "serious enough to lead to conflict," but rather as "neutralized as objects of consumption, like the exotica of a global museum" (29). It will be an instructive exercise indeed to examine whether or not one's notions of 'cosmopolitanism' -- including those we may think are well-informed, respective of diverse cultural identities, etc. -- can stand up to Friedman's critiques, and/or whether his critiques, in turn, may be critiqued.

Still more powerfully, Roger Silverstone argues that "It is clear that the cosmopolitanism of capital has its shadow in the minor cosmopolitanism of migration, exile and the diaspora" (119) -- and it is this latter cosmopolitanism that is rightly brought to the foreground by many of the chapters included here.

Still more forcefully, Sreberny puts the gender point on it:
    In much of the literature on cosmopolitanism, there is a lingering sense that male western intellectuals are the 'cosmopolitans' and that one arrives at a position of cosmopolitanism through theory/understanding rather than through experience. I suggest that the 'new cosmopolitans' include recent diasporic movements of people whose lives are lived on the cusp of many identities, both external and internal to their groups. (232)
Sreberny further cites Mitchell Cohen (1992), who defines cosmopolitanism as "the legitimacy of plural loyalties" (482), and David A. Hollinger (1995) who speaks of "belonging as a member to a number of different communities" (86). These multiple identities (what I (2002) have called polybrids, so as to include more familiar notions of hybridity) mean first of all, as she goes on to emphasize, that it is dangerous to assume any singularity of identity when analyzing diasporic communities (Sreberny, 232). Following out the point made by Hjarvard -- and reinforced by Friedman's opening critique of CNN 'cosmopolitanism' -- the complex identities emerging in minority communities around the world may serve as instructive microcosms of more macrocosm processes. If this suggestion holds, our future 'cosmopolitanism' may well resemble something rather removed from such CNN visions, much less the totalizing/homogenizing cosmopolitanism described and (rightly) feared by Benjamin Barber (1995) as the engine of 'McWorld' -- much less a "global village" [1]. Rather, our emerging cosmopolitanism may indeed be much more like Hjarvard's metropolis -- one replete with minorities and majorities, each jostling with the other, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, in an ongoing process of identity building that, indeed, includes Us (e.g., Tufte's minority Danes) against Them (the majority Danish culture).

In addition, especially as the studies on minority media use collected here and elsewhere (e.g., Wilson 2002) make clear -- these identities will not be built through extensive use of the Internet. Rather, other media -- perhaps most notably, at least in the Danish cases, the mobile phone -- figure far more prominently in peoples' media use and access. Especially those among us who sustain fond hopes for the Internet as a democratizing -- if not 'globalizing' -- medium will need to take note: many of these studies indicate that the Internet is the least preferred and least used of all media.

III. How to Use this Book ...

As I hope this example will suggest, the articles in this volume, both individually and collectively, richly reward careful study -- indeed, dwelling. Scholars and specialists will no doubt find fault with particular places and pieces that I as a generalist will read less critically. Nonetheless, I strongly commend it because I, at least, continue to learn from it and presume that others will as well.

Finally, my most lavish praise. I have found this collection to be so significant for my own research and thinking that I have used -- and will continue to use -- it in my teaching. This includes an undergraduate course on "Global Futures" which focuses extensively on globalization. Alongside the excellent reader I already use (O'Meara et al, 2000), multiple chapters in this collection stand as more up-to-date and often much more sophisticated analyses on both theoretical and practical levels -- and especially with a regard for cross-cultural perspectives.

Many of the chapters, finally, should become standard readings for any course that seeks to examine genuinely cross-cultural views on globalization and media, minority media use, new hybrid/polybrid identities facilitated by media, and media use vis-à-vis diaspora communities.

1. Barber's use of "Jihad" offends not only the vast majority of Muslims, but also anyone else concerned with fair and helpful discourse about and between religious communities. Barber is careful to point out that "Jihad" in Islam means first of all an internal struggle against temptation for the sake of greater righteousness, so that its association with 'holy war' is secondary: so using it in this latter way, as is all too frequently done in Western media, only fuels Western stereotypes of Islam and its followers, thereby only reinforcing mutual misunderstanding and hostility. Nonetheless, Barber choses to follow this journalistic usage precisely because it iconizes the polarities he seeks to examine. For my part, however, I avoid using the term in this way and would strongly encourage others to avoid such use as well.

Barber, Benjamin. 1995. Jihad versus McWorld. New York: Times Books.

Cohen, Mitchell. 1992. Rooted Cosmopolitanism, Dissent 39 (4): 478-83.

Ess, Charles. 2002. "Cultures in Collision: Philosophical Lessons from Computer-Mediated Communication." In James H. Moor and Terrell Ward Bynum (eds.), CyberPhilosophy: The Intersection of Philosophy and Computing, 219-242. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Hollinger, David A. 1995. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books.

O, Meara, Patrick, Howard D. Mehlinger, and Matthew Krain, eds. 2000 Globalization and the Challenges of a New Century: A Reader. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Toulmin, Stephen. 1991. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York: Free Press.

Wilson, Mary. 2002. Communication, Organizations, and Diverse Populations. In Fay Sudweeks and Charles Ess (eds), Proceedings: Cultural Attitudes Towards Communication and Technology 2002, Université de Montréal, 69-88. Murdoch, Western Australia: School of Information Technology, Murdoch University. Available online: www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/catac.

Charles Ess:
Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Drury University, Charles Ess has received awards for teaching excellence and scholarship, and a national award for his work in hypermedia. He has published in comparative (East-West) and applied ethics, history of philosophy, and interdisciplinary approaches to Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC), including two edited volumes for SUNY Press. As chair of the Association for Internet Researchers' ethics working committee, he helped author the AoIR ethical guidelines. Ess has lectured on and taught Information Ethics at Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok, Thailand), University of Roskilde (Denmark), and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Trondheim). He is Visiting Professor at IT-University, Copenhagen, during Fall, 2003.  <cmess@lib.drury.edu>

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