Cultural Identity, Globalization and the Digital Divide
I am working on the last book for my Sociology of Culture seminar. Its a decent read – a world beyond difference: cultureal identity in the age of globalization by ronald niezen. I had to write a summary of chapter 4, (anti)Globalization from Below concerning the different strategies distinct societies use to identify and distinguish themselves within a global context, and what role the internet plays in maintaining ‘indigenous’ communities.
Here is my review:
Chapter 4 – (Anti)Globalization from Below addresses the issue of how distinct societies and ‘indigenous peoples’ maintain their cultural identity within an increasing state of globalization. For ‘distinct’ communities to remain distinct within a global context, they must communicate their ‘distinctness’ to the global community. This can occur when the community in question either rejects difference, and actively ‘work against the interests of a wider pluralism’ or they can find ways to compromise and work towards a collective willingness to change through negotiated peace [p. 58]. Essentially, this chapter will demonstrate the two sides of the anti-globalization activism coin – one side that harnesses the current tools of debate, and the other that rejects them completely.
To do this, Niezen compares a ‘radical Islamic reform movement in Mali West Africa’ with, as Niezen describes it, “creative uses of democratic values and electronic media by those who sometimes refer to themselves as ‘indigenous peoples’” [p59], specifically a Nordic indigenous group called the Sami’s and the Canadian Crees.
Niezen begins with the extreme example of the Islamic village of Dar al-Salam. As a response to increasing globalization and dilution of Islam, the founder of the reform movement, Seydu Idrissa, created an environment with no contact with the outside world for children and women and minimal contact for adult males. The movement follows a ‘rigid orthodoxy’ that not only encompasses spirituality but also emphasizes valued aspects of community life seen to be challenged by the outside world. [Niezen notes a reliance on elders as one of the primary values challenged].
The goal of the movement was not to keep technology and other beneficial elements of contemporary society out, but to strongly filter any influence that was not directly related to the forwarding the orthodox views of Islam of the movement. Technology was accepted in some agricultural and medical cases, but only when deemed vital to the overall survival of the community.
This was not a community that existed for hundreds of years in isolation, rather it was one that was created out of globalization – or in response to globalization. In an attempt to maintain a pure Islam, it was deemed necessary to create a strict ‘distinctness’ distinguishing between those ‘who were willing to sacrifice their freedom for an elect community’ [p.65] and those who did not. In this blatant rejection of the globalized emphasis on individualism, the isolation of Dar al-Salam is one that strives to maintain a collective ideal within a larger politicized country.
This isolation is an example of anti-globalization that stands in contrast to the concept of the collective ‘indigenous people’ around the world. A term meant to signify distinction, it acts as a unifying term that encompasses many different ‘distinct’ peoples around the world who consider themselves to be ‘self-determining’. This idea of a global collective has allowed individual societies to negotiate for their people within the larger political climate of their country, as well as on an international level as well.
Niezin provides us with the exceptional case of the Sami people, native to Scandinavia and northern Russia, to demonstrate how a closed society (as one that has definite boundaries of entry) can exist within a global context using the technological and bureaucratic tools made possible by the very entity they are fighting – globalization.
The Sami people have, in a way, worked from within the system to distinguish themselves as separate from it. Through political pressure (politics of shame) and demonstrating a strong presence in international forums, the Sami people have established a sort of “cultural parliament” that allows them to control the educational and cultural aspects of their community’s autonomy. This form of ‘cultural parliament’ also exists in Belgium, where the Flemish people maintain the same type of cultural control within the larger political state. Niezen points out that this type of ‘distinct’ and often ‘traditional’ community strikes a hybrid chord in that those who aim to protect their indigenous status must do so through the very institutions they are working to separate themselves with.
In the example of the James Bay Crees, the internet becomes an important tool to promote the longevity of their native language, creating web-tools that allow Crees to communicate in their mother tongue.
This is also an area that the Sami’s have embraced. Developing online communities allows a culture to maintain ties through language and communication despite geographic limitations. But although these digital communities allow indigenous people to coalesce, it also redefines who they are through the digital medium.
For a people that are traditionally defined through their natural connection with their native land, cyberspace creates a form of ‘universal’ identity by being online. As Niezen states “The digital divide is in the process of becoming part of a wider phenomenon in which cases for protection of distinct societies can only be presented through globally uniform avenues, in other words, in which distinct societies are made essentially similar through their strategies of defence” [p. 79]. This is to say, in a sense, that by being online, their distinctiveness becomes a little less … distinct.
The question then becomes, is isolation – in the sense of Dar al-Salam – really the only viable option for a community to remain untouched by globalization? Or is the hybrid form of indigenous people demonstrated throughout the chapter a worthwhile compromise in a fast-changing world? And where do the communities who don’t have digital access stand in keeping their culture alive and unharmed by globalization?