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Modernity at Large:Cultural Dimensions of Globalization

Ilhan Kaya
Arjun Appadurai

Abstract: Appadurai's work offers a very critical and deep analysis of modernity and
globalization. He believes that no single theory can describe modernity's complexity, for
he believes that a theory cannot be universalistic, and because societies are much
messier than our theories about them. His focus is more on globalization's cultural
dimensions, as opposed to its economic ones. In addition, he looks at globalization in
terms of homogenization and heterogenization, for migration and media create both
sameness and difference in today's globalized world. Migrating people and media,
particularly television, produce different cultural spheres in different countries. As a
result, he looks for irregularities as much as he looks for regularities in the modern or
postmodern social world.

Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization
In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Appadurai examines new
dimensions of globalization, particularly cultural ones. He argues that few theories
describe modernity, and that all of them either declare or desire universal applicability.
Looking at modernity and globalization from a historical context, he argues that
modernity was very much a product of the Enlightenment. However, he is not
convinced that the Enlightenment created modernity and made people wish to become
modern (p. 1).

Modernism originated in the late-sixteenth century after the rise of capitalism. However,
it is not limited to economic dimensions, for it also contains cultural and political ones.
Becoming more visible after the Industrial Revolution, modernism eventually became
the dominant culture of the West and then of the world.

The understanding and theorizing associated with modernity is very much a part of
Western social science, for it was shaped by such leading Western social scientists as
Karl Marx (d. 1883), Auguste Comte (d. 1857), Max Weber (d. 1961), and Emile
Durkeim (d. 1917). Appadurai sees Western social science as problematic, for it
reinforces the sense of a single moment (which he calls the modern moment) serving as
a dramatic and unparalleled break between past and present. Western social science has
focused on categorizing and typologizing traditional and modern societies, practices that
Appadurai argues distort the meanings of change and the past, and assumes that the
Western experience of modernity is universal.

Modernity, however, is irregularly self-conscious and unevenly experienced in different
parts of the world. This causes Appadurai to disagree with modernization theory's
identification of societies as modern vs. traditional, urban vs. rural, small family vs.
large family, and so on, for he sees irregularities within so-called modern and traditional
societies. He claims that modernity is experienced differently over space and throughout
time. For instance, such modern metropolitan cities as Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and
Cairo experience modernity and tradition simultaneously. The same is true of Germany,
the United States, or any other modern state in which both traditional and modern ways
of life are practiced at the same time in different parts these countries.

Appadurai thinks that the media and population migration are the most important
factors defining today's global world. He explores their joint effect on the work of the
imagination, as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity. Both media and migration
create specific irregularities. For example, he analyzes both print and electronic media,
while claiming that electronic media, especially television, has been much more
influential in terms of modifying cultural spaces and cultural worlds: Electronic media
give a new twist to the environment within which the modern and the global often
appear as flip sides of the same coin (p. 44). He believes that the electronic media's
ability to transform the sense of distance between viewer and event transforms everyday
discourse. It also shapes and reshapes society and the self in all different types of
societies and people.

Migration is the second constitutive force. This is not limited to moving or migrating
people; rather, he includes within this concept a process of transporting ideas, values,
life styles, and everyday lives from the home of origin. As he puts it: When the story of
mass-migration is juxtaposed with the rapid flow of mass-mediated images, scripts, and
sensations, we have a new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities
(p. 44).

Migrants create diasporic public spheres that confound theories that depend on the
continued salience of the nationstate as key arbiter of important social changes (p. 4).
For instance, Turkish guest workers in Germany watch Turkish movies and gather
together to celebrate religious and traditional festivals. This is an irregularity in modern
German society, as different cultural groups lead everyday lives that have nothing to do
the dominant culture of the country in which they live.

When discussing migration, one must realize that the young or new generation are the
agents of social challenge and change, not the elderly. The new generation experiences
and pushes new ways of life, and is people's minds migrate along with their bodies and
produce change.

Appadurai considers globalization as both cultural homogenization and, at the same
time, cultural heterogenization (p. 32). He urges us to think of the new global cultural
economy in terms of complexity, overlap, and disorder. Moreover, he is unsure if
existing center-periphery models can address such complexity and irregularity. Nor is
he convinced that traditional models, such as the pullpush migration model or
surpluses and deficits, can explain the global cultural economy.

Therefore, he proposes a new framework for understanding the new global cultural
economy's complexity and messiness. This consists of five dimensions of global
cultural flows: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, techno-scapes, financescapes, and ideocapes
(p. 33). He uses the suffix -scape to point out the fluid and irregular shapes of
landscapes. These deeply perspectival constructs are inflected by nation-states,
multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as religious, political, and economic
groupings and movements confronting such groups as neighborhoods and families.

I am not going to discuss each cultural landscape. Suffice it to say, as Appadurai asserts,
that these cultural landscapes are the building blocks for imagined worlds. He quotes
this from Anderson's discussion of imagined communities. These worlds are socially
and historically constructed by historically situated people and social groups all over the

Appadurai disagrees with the idea that goods and services end in consumption. Calling
it an illusion, he urges us to re-situate consumption in time and place. He especially
focuses on history, periodicity, process, and how demand is produced and consumption
is achieved. How do people make their preferences? How is demand produced?

Although people seemingly make free choices in their everyday lives, their choices are
structured through the market. Everything is commodified, from food and medical care
to transportation and housing, from education and leisure to body and knowledge.
Everything is bought and sold in the capitalist market. Thus, it is important to know that
commodities are socially constructed and humanly produced.

Expanding capitalism allowed scholars and philosophers to rework time and space. New
philosophies showed social constructions of time and space. We know that they are not
natural; rather, they are human constructions.

I conclude with a few words about knowledge relations. Appadurai proves that
different cultural landscapes exist. It also is important to realize that all cultural
landscapes are socially made, and that we produce those landscapes with our everyday
practices, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Landscapes, maps, and cultural spheres are social products, and their construction
reflects ongoing power relations. Appadurai deals with this when discussing how
Britain measured its Indian colony (e.g., census and maps) to control it. The resulting
knowledge served British imperial interests, not those of India. Maps as social texts
were not used for social betterment, but as tools of social control.

As a result, Appadurai urges, if we are to understand today's cultural, economic, and
political globalized world, we need to understand it in those time space contexts and
knowledgepower relations that have shaped both its homogeneous and heterogeneous
cultural, economic, and political realities


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.