What's Critical about Critical Globalization Studies?

Peter Wood

A controversy erupted earlier this year when two students, enrolled in Sociology of Globalization at the University of California at Santa Barbara, withdrew from the course after receiving an email from their professor, William I. Robinson.  Robinson’s email, sent to all 80 students in the course, likened Israeli actions to those of the Nazis. The Los Angeles Times described it as comparing “graphic images of Jews in the Holocaust to pictures of Palestinians caught up in Israel's recent Gaza offensive." The two students, who are Jewish, mentioned their complaint to others. The Anti-Defamation League became involved, and the University opened an official investigation into Professor Robinson’s possible misuse of his email. 

Robinson’s defenders say that his action is properly covered by academic freedom. His detractors accuse him of anti-Semitism and abuse of his position as a tenured faculty member.   Both sides have valid points.   Robinson’s attack on Israeli actions during the Gaza offensive came in the context of a course that was explicitly about (among other things) “transnational migration/globalization and race/ethnicity.”   Robinson’s email broadly fit within the subject of his course.   On the other hand, both in tone and content the email violated the parameters of academic freedom as set forth in the 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles.  Those principles emphasize the scholar’s “peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression.”   Back then the AAUP also stood for some built-in limits on how a scholar should exercise academic freedom: “The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditional by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s methods and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they must be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.”

Of course, times change. The AAUP these days does not call on faculty members to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, or intemperate or sensational modes of expression.   And who is to say what a “scholar’s methods” and a “scholar’s spirit” are? The AAUP’s recent pronouncements turn this into a tautology. In documents such as the AAUP’s Freedom in the Classroom, truth is reduced to whatever a group of scholars considers it to be. Scholarship appears to be whatever a “scholar” happens to be doing at the moment.

I doubt that the UC Santa Barbara “investigation” of Professor Robinson can lead to any outcome that will satisfy those who complained.  Most likely, it will just elevate Robinson to greater national prominence as a leftist critic of Israeli.   It may also make his critics look foolish for picking the wrong fight. Robinson’s email was a shabby bit of agitprop but he lobbed it from the bunker of an academic course surrounded by the barbed wire of academic freedom. 

This article is about an alternative those critics have largely ignored. The deeper issue is whether Professor Robinson’s academic field, “critical globalization studies,” should even exist within the university. Critical globalization studies is “centrally concerned with global justice,” according to the UC Santa Barbara Global & International Studies website. Professor Robinson and his colleague Richard P. Appelbaum, who chairs the Global Studies Graduate Program, published an anthology, Critical Globalization Studies (2005). In their Introduction, Appelbaum and Robinson lay out their concept step by step:   Globalization is real and important.   By consensus the word “globalization” refers to the world having “become more interconnected in recent years.” This interconnectedness also connects with a bunch of bad stuff: wars, inequality, environmental damage, etc. A new academic field has arisen to study the new “economic, social, technical, and cultural globalizing forces.” This field is called “global studies.” 

“Global studies” is distinct from the old field of international relations (or “international studies”) which, as Appelbaum and Robinson point out, arose in the 1950s as Western colonies in the Third World gave way to new nation states. International relations as a discipline focuses on “a new world-system of nationalities,” and the “interaction of discrete nation-states.” Global studies, by contrast, focuses on “transnational processes, interactions, and flows.”   


Imagine There’s No Countries

Let’s pause a moment. It isn’t all that clear that the field of international relations is deaf and blind to matters such as international labor migration, the role of remittances in sustaining Third World economies, modern communications, trade treaties, regional associations, and the rise of NGOs. To some extent, “global studies” looks like a new name for part of what scholars in international relations already do. So what prompts this new nomenclature? 

Part of the answer is the rise of an international elite that is fairly hostile to the idea of the “nation.” International relations by its very name “privileges” the concept of the nation as the basic unit for ordering our knowledge of the humanly circumscribed world. The word “global” by contrast evokes a vague, boundary-less whole—one in which passports matter less than improvised identities. The hostility towards national identities is nowhere more prominent than in my own discipline of anthropology, in which prominent theorists have been urging for some time that we, as Arjun Appadurai at the University of Chicago puts it, “think beyond the nation.” Appadurai emphasizes the “deterritorialization of identities in a world which will become culturally hybridized through the growth of diasporic public sphere and the global flow of images, finances, technologies, and ideologies”—quoting from his web biography.   If this is a bit hard to follow, think of hybrid people driving hybrid cars in a hybrid world.

Another key figure in the anthropological de-construction of national identity is Benedict Anderson, who is a professor emeritus of International Studies, Government, and Asian Studies at Cornell. Anderson is best known for 1983 book, Imagined Communities:  Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, which has gone through several editions.  He frames his work as a contribution to Marxist analysis and ponders the artificiality of nations:

My point of departure is that nationality, or, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind.

His explanations are not always reader-friendly. Those “artefacts” that became nations, he says, arose “towards the end of the eighteenth century [and were] the spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces.” Okay. He observes that other scholars have also noted the “philosophical poverty and even incoherence of nations,” and that:

This ‘emptiness’ easily gives rise, among cosmopolitan and polylingual intellectuals, to a certain condescension.

That certain condescension is not exactly absent from Anderson’s writing. When it comes to defining the concept of nation, he opts for a view that drains the idea of its lifeblood:

It is an imagined political community…It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

Surely Anderson is right that nations, whether recently founded or tracing themselves back to the Renaissance, summon the imaginations of their citizens and couldn’t well exist without a sense of kinship or shared enterprise that transcends the face-to-face community.  Thus nations have flags, anthems, heroes, histories, and legends. But to put the emphasis so exclusively on what is imagined into being is to give short-shrift to the realities of shared life and real commonalities. 

Anderson’s use of “imagined” also touches another anthropological chord—the increasing use of the noun “imaginaries” to describe what anthropologists used to call “cultural beliefs.” Again, the change is mostly in the direction of emphasizing the unreality of ideas that form the shared basis of community. Instead of beliefs, anchored in everyday experience, people now float away in dream-like “imaginaries.” 

In any case, anthropology journals now bristle with articles that treat the “nation” not just as a fiction but as a pernicious fiction—something that serves the interests of vested elites at the top of local hierarchies and that oppresses everyone else. Nor is this limited to anthropology. The “imagined nation” conceit has been picked up in political science, history, and literature as well. 

Scholars intent on treating the nation as both imagined and as a convenience for elites, however, belong to an elite of their own. It even has a name, suggested by John Fonte at the Hudson institute, who labels the members of this elite “transnational progressives” or “Tranzis,” in David Carr’s breezier formulation. John O’Sullivan writing in The New Criterion mapped out the Tranzis as:

The international extension of the New Class—international lawyers, officials in supra-national agencies, NGO organizers, senior managers in multi-national corporations, and those officials in domestic agencies whose career path included transfers to the international level.

Surely we can also add tenured professors, whose careers likewise revolve around the anti-Copernican principle that nations, rightly understood, are just fictional impediments to human freedom.  


Global Studies vs. Critical Global Studies

Back to Appelbaum and Robinson’s introduction. I left off with their characterization of the field of international relations as a discipline focused on “a new world-system of nationalities.”   A reader unfamiliar with the subject might miss the hyphen in “world-system,” but it is a billboard-sized clue to those who know their Marxism. Long before Benedict Anderson decided that nations were imaginary, Marxists had to deal with the awkward reality that nation states weren’t disappearing in the predicted world-wide communist revolution.  Lenin offered a codicil to Marx, to the effect that capitalism had one last stage to run before its ultimate extinction. It would first aggrandize itself into world-wide imperialism. Lenin’s thesis was picked up and elaborated by a variety of scholars, most famously Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930), who came to fame with his book, The Modern World-System (1974).   We don’t need to go much further down this path. Wallerstein’s key idea is that the “capitalist world-system” is a transnational unity united by exchange but divided into three parts, a core, a periphery, and semi-periphery. The periphery is exploited by the core by having to sell raw materials at depressed prices and buy finished goods at a premium; the core dominates the world economy; and the semi-periphery is made up of the nations in between. 

Wallerstein’s world-systems theory has become a theoretical baseline for other Marxist and socialist theories that have emphasized the role of the West in dominating the rest of the world by using their economic clout to create “dependency.” Hence that hyphenated expression, “a new world-system of nationalities,” on the opening page of Appelbaum and Robinson’s book is the Marxist equivalent of “Truckers welcome!”

Appelbaum and Robinson allow that global studies is an important and fast-growing field—but global studies by itself is inadequate. Its inadequacy lies in the willingness of scholars to “study” globalization without also participating in efforts to resist or oppose it. These efforts to resist are best thought of as “a powerful global justice movement” involving “transnational social activism.” Critical global studies, as opposed to ordinary global studies, fuses the study of globalization with social justice activism on behalf of those that globalization hurts.  Or as Appelbaum and Robinson put it, theirs is an “effort to develop a globalization studies centrally concerned with global justice.” They add:

We believe that the dual objectives of understanding globalization and engaging in global social activism can best be expressed in the idea of a critical globalization studies.

This is admirably clear—which is not always the case when it comes to either social science or leftist advocacy. 


Bad Stuff

But now that we know what “critical global studies” are, we need to go back over some of the steps that got us to the definition. The alert reader of the book would have caught wind of something fishy in the very first paragraph. That’s where the authors connect globalization with bad stuff: 

There is also an apparent sense that the troubled state of humanity in the new century—escalating political military conflict, unprecedented social inequalities, cultural clashes, the disintegration of old dogmas, environmental disasters, and a crisis-ridden global economy—is somehow bound up with globalization.

I propose to torture this sentence—using water boarding and other now outlawed means—until it confesses. First, take note of the evasive beginning and end. “There is also an apparent sense…” (Apparent to whom? On what basis?) and “somehow bound up with…” (By real connections? By perception? By sheer assertion?) In between the slippery opening and the evasive ending, the sentence takes us into the twilight world of suggestive innuendo. Let’s turn up the lights. 

Escalating political military conflict? Do they mean political and military conflict? Or is “political military conflict” a higher unity like electromagnetism? Is military conflict today greater than 50, 500, or 5,000 years ago? Is political conflict something new?   Perhaps if you are thinking about Iraq in 2006, “escalating political military conflict” evokes a sense of familiarity.   But this is supposed to be an academic textbook, not a lantern show, and this claim, like a lot of others, vanishes when the lights go up. 

Unprecedented social inequalities?   What are these “unprecedented social inequalities” in a world that has long driven the once near-universal institution of slavery to the brink of extinction?   Modern medicine and technology now reach billions of people. Of course, the thirst for more and better things along with the knowledge that they exist outpaces the supply. If inequality means wanting things I can’t have, then indeed inequality is now unprecedented. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any sense in which this phrase has a credible meaning.  

Cultural clashes? They are numerous but are today’s cultural clashes more significant than those during the ages when empires clashed, or Western explorers and non-Western peoples first met face to face?   Greater than when the army of the Madhi laid siege to Khartoum and killed Gordon?   A strong case could be made that cultural clashes are at a world-historical low. They have been replaced for many American academics by identity politics, which substitutes imaginary cultural clashes for the now rare genuine article.   In the real world, we have Lost in Translation-style descents into cross-cultural ennui. We understand each other well enough. When an Australian Aborigine elder wants to extort bigger welfare payments from the government, he does the exotic thing of picking up the telephone and calling the BBC, and speaking in standard English. 

The disintegration of old dogmas? Islam and Christianity don’t appear to be in a hurry to disintegrate. Could Appelbaum and Robinson mean Marxism?   It has disintegrated as a belief system and as a practical reality in Europe, Russia, and China but lingers on in the minds of quite a few American academics who are well represented in this anthology.   Appelbaum and Robinson themselves appear to be intellectual heirs of the Marxist tradition.   What other old dogmas do they have in mind?   The Ptolemaic model of the universe? Here’s a guess: free trade. 

Environmental disasters? They are nothing new to humanity, which survived near extinction more than once in pre-history, bounded past the disappearance of the mega-fauna we used to hunt, evacuated North Africa as it turned into the Sahara Desert, coped with massive depopulation cause by successive plagues such as the Black Death that killed over 100 million people worldwide between 1348 and 1350 and reduced Europe’s population by at least a third.   Famines too have taken their toll. The Great Famine of 1315-1321 killed about ten percent of Europe’s population. Humanity has endured the sanitary disaster of mass urbanization, and coughed through the grim days of the industrial revolution.   The world we live in today is arguably cleaner and safer than at any point since the last ice age—and we have better health care.   Of course globalization does bear on environmental disaster in the sense that we now launch world-wide relief efforts for those who are afflicted.   I assume Appelbaum and Robinson are teasing the reader’s anxieties about global warming, rain forests being converted to crop land, oil spills, and nuclear waste. If you are dedicated to a belief that humanity is destroying the natural world, you ride along with Appelbaum and Robinson on the supposition that the environmental catastrophes are “bound up” with globalization. But if you are not dedicated to that belief, this is just another empty gesture.

Crisis-ridden global economy?    Finally, something we agree on. The global economy scuds from crisis to crisis, and the crises may well be amplified by the interconnectedness of everything. What happens in the U.S. housing market affects what happens in rural Chinese villages. The flatness of the world economically is plain to see. But it might be wise to temper this vision with historical reality too. Humanity has always thirsted for long-distance trade. We know from archaeological sites in Europe that Cro-Magnon men were somehow getting possession of materials from hundreds of miles away. Ancient Sumerians traded across the Arabian Sea with the Indus Valley civilization in the Peruvian Andes. Pre-Columbian Indians organized networks that traded high-altitude crops for mid-altitude and coastal products. Columbus himself set sail in the hope of short-circuiting the spice trade, a pursuit that drove the Portuguese, the Spanish (who hired the Portuguese navigator Magellan) and the Dutch half-way around the world.  In Africa cowry shells from the coast served as a currency deep into the central equatorial forest.  In the Pacific, Polynesians regularly traversed over 2,250 of miles of open ocean between Hawaii and Tahiti to maintain trade. Whenever and wherever people have lived, they have participated in a kind of global economy. And those who could exploit its inefficiencies always did so. The differences today are that the trade is vastly accelerated, the information flows much faster, and the system is more tightly integrated. 

I have, of course, made a great deal of a single sentence—a vague and inconclusive sentence at that. Appelbaum and Robinson don’t actually argue anything here. They just invoke a series of phrases that could mean almost anything, but presumably are meant to connect the reader to a particular worldview. They whisper, rather than declare, that globalization in the “new century” is an affair fraught with conflict, clash, disintegration, crisis, inequality, and disaster. The reader who encounters this in the first paragraph of a nearly 500-page book might be well-advised to stop right there.   And so will I—for now. But I plunked down my $130 for a hardcover copy of Critical Globalization Studies and I intend to follow up with a fuller report when it arrives. 


What I have so far is that critical globalization studies—the field, not the book—is yet another attempt to smuggle political advocacy into the university as if it were a legitimate form of scholarly endeavor. It never was and never will be. Of course, the critical global studies folks (cri-globies?) have plenty of precedents to build on, from black studies, Chicano studies, women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies, post-colonial studies and so on.  Occasionally an actual scholar appears in one of these fields—someone who is more interested in discovering the truth of a matter and is willing to follow the facts rather than to build a case by selective attention, special pleading, suppression of countervailing evidence, and other forms of sharp practice. But the fields themselves were founded and organized on the alluring idea that political advocacy could be married to real scholarship.  It was a delusion to start with and remains so. But it is now a familiar delusion and is buttressed by the self-hypnotic claim that all scholarship implicitly has an ideological edge or serves a political agenda.  The advocates of outright political advocacy carry this thought with them like a magic charm to ward off the ever-present danger of realizing that their scholarship is vitiated from the outset by their willingness to compromise the pursuit of truth in favor of advancing a political agenda.  Such people may be intellectuals but they do not really have an academic vocation. The rise of these pseudo-professors on campus is pretty much the whole story of the decline of American universities over the last several decades into the morass of political correctness.

So the question that UC Santa Barbara should be asking these days is not whether Professor Robinson overstepped his bounds in sending that email. It is, “Why is the University spending its scarce dollars on a degree program in a field so innocent of legitimate academic purpose as critical global studies?”

It would be interesting to know more about how UC Santa Barbara got started down this trail, and interesting to learn more about critical global studies itself. NAS is becoming a clearinghouse of sorts for the fads and follies of our academic age.  If you can illuminate the subject, please write. 



Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain 

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