Realsociology

A hyperreflexive blog focussing on critical sociology, infographics, Buddhism and extreme early retirement

Summary of Runaway World by Anthony Giddens

Posted by Realsociology on October 23, 2010

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There has been a considerable amount of research and theorising into globalisation and its consequences over the past decade, yet little of this has filtered down to students of A level Sociology. This article aims to address this by summarizing Anthony Giddens’ views on globalisation and its consequences for culture and identity in the West, focusing on the two core themes of risk and detraditionalisation. This article is written with the new AQA AS module in Culture and Identity in mind, and should be useful to any student who wishes to better understand how Globalisation affects daily life.

 

Giddens illustrates how  two consequences of Globalisation, namely the rise of a ‘risk consciousness’ and detraditionalisation,  undermine the ability of institutions such as the Nation State, the family and religion, to provide us with a sense of security and stability. These institutions are no longer able to offer us a clearly defined norms and values that tell us how we should act in society. This situation has far reaching consequences for how individuals experience daily life and for how they go about constructing their identities.

Globalisation, manufactured risks and risk consciousness

The title of Giddens’ accessible modern classic ‘Runaway World’ immediately suggests to the reader that he perceives globalisation as an unpredictable, destabilsing process. In Giddens’ own words: “We are the first generation to live in global society, whose contours we can as yet only dimly see. It is shaking up our existing ways of life, no matter where we happen to be. This is…. emerging in an anarchic, haphazard, fashion… it is not settled or secure, but fraught with anxieties, as well as scarred by deep divisions. Many of us feel in the grip of forces over which we have no control” (Giddens 2002).

One aspect of globalisation is the emergence of ‘manufactured risks’ which are man made, having arisen as a result of new technologies developed through advances in scientific knowledge. Many of these new technologies, such as nuclear and biotechnologies bring about risks which are truly global in scope. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, for example, resulted in nuclear fall out spreading thousands of miles to several countries, while the burning of fossil fuels in the United States may lead to flooding in Bangladesh.

According to Giddens, we have little experience of how to deal with these new threats as they have only been in existence for the last half a century. He argues that there is a “new riskiness to risk” in that these new technologies could have catastrophic consequences for humanity, yet we do not yet know all of the consequences associated with them. We cannot be certain, for example, of the possible effects that modifying the genetic structure of our basic food stuffs will have, and we do not know exactly how much of global warming is due to human influence.

Many of the above problems require international action, as well as co-coordinated local action; and in this context, Nation States appear ill equipped to deal with such global problems. In addition, in the context of imperfect knowledge, competing expert voices emerge, such as with the debate over whether Britain should build more nuclear power stations, or whether or not we should support Genetically Modified crops. As a result, the experts employed by politicians become just one voice amidst a field of experts citing different evidence that point to different courses of action.

Globalisation, Risk and Identity  

So what are the consequences of this situation for self identity? On the one hand, we have identity politics and on the other, we have apolitical apathy. Those who are concerned about the global problems mentioned above and who perceive the government as being ill equipped to deal with these new global risks, have gravitated towards New Social Movements such as the green movement. At the more radical end of these movements, one’s whole lifestyle, one’s whole being and identity is oriented towards addressing global problems, at the local and international level, through protesting globally and acting locally.

However, such radical action is only undertaken by the relative few, and many remain apathetic towards global risks. Political apathy can also be easily justified in the context of imperfect knowledge, in which no one can ever be certain of the full extent of these global risks.

Detraditionalisation

A second major theme of Giddens’ work is that of detraditionalisation. Giddens argues that “For someone following a traditional practice, questions don’t have to be asked about alternatives. Tradition provides a framework for action that can go largely unquestioned… tradition gives stability, and the ability to construct a self identity against a stable background.

Globalisation brings this to an end as local cultures and traditions are exposed to new cultures and ideas, which often means that traditional ways of acting come to be questioned. As a result of globalisation, societies and cultures go through a process of detraditionalisation, where day to day life becomes less and less informed by ‘tradition for the sake of tradition’.

A good example of an institution undergoing this process is marriage. Although the tradition of marriage remains, a couple is much less likely to get married simply for the sake of marriage, either  because it is ‘what people do, or what their parents did’. A typical couple today will discuss whether they should get married or not; they will think about whether it is right for them, and if they do decide to get married, they will then discuss where they should get married, and a whole range of other aspects associated with the marriage ceremony itself.

This theme of Detraditionalisation is to be found in many other areas of life. If we think back to the example of identity politics as expressed through New Social Movements, this tells us that traditional ways of political engagement are changing. Giddens also argues that globalisation has even lead to religions becoming detraditionalised, and there is plenty of evidence that he is right, as practices such as church attendance in Christianity and veiling in Islam appear to be more a matter of personal choice than of unquestioning adherence to tradition.

Cosmopolitanism and Democratisation

The positive side of detraditionalisation is the spread of what Giddens refers to as cosmopolitanism in which the individual is much less constrained by arbitrary tradition than in ‘traditional’ or pre-global societies. In a cosmopolitan society, the individual has much more freedom to reflect on already existing cultural practices such as those associated with marriage, religion and politics, and to choose which aspects of these cultural practices suit him or her.

As a result of this, culture becomes something that is more fluid, more open to debate and more open to adaptations by individuals than ever before in human history. Culture, according to Giddens, becomes more democratic as more people have more of a say in how culture will inform their lives.

Detraditionalisation and self identity

Detraditionalisation also has consequences for self-identity. According to Giddens “Where tradition lapses, and life-style choice prevails, self-identity has to be created and recreated on a more active basis than before.” Giddens further argues that individuals must engage in an ongoing process of reflecting upon their lives and adapting them in the light of new knowledge that arises in a rapidly changing, globalising world. This whole process of ongoing reflecting on one’s life and changing accordingly is known as reflexivity.

Reflexivity is necessary because many of our institutions no longer provide us with a clear set of pre-given norms and values. Modern relationships, including marriages, no longer come with a set of clear norms and values, duties and responsibilities, instead, these need to be negotiated. Similarly, for those that are religious, the ‘meaning of ‘being Christian’ or ‘being ‘Muslim’ is much more open to debate than ever before, and for those who want to get political, this is no longer limited to union membership, or party membership and voting in general and local elections, one has to choose between a whole range of political activism. The individual is faced today with a situation in which modern institutions no longer simply tell the individual how to act, or how to ‘be’, they no longer act as stabilizing forces that anchor individuals to society in clearly defined ways. Instead, we have to choose which aspects of tradition suit us, and be able to justify to others why we have made these choices.

Even once we have decided on what the rules of a relationship are, on what our religion means to us, or what kind of political action we should engage in, the rapid pace of social change, brought on by globalization means that we may well have to redefine our relationships and our religious and political identities over an over again. To give examples, a foreign firm relocating outside the United Kingdom may mean a career change, which could mean a renegotiation of the terms of a relationship; The recent decision of the government to build more nuclear power stations will lead many green activists to shift their political attentions to this issue, and the ongoing ‘threat of Islamic extremism’, exaggerated or not, has lead to a debate over the meaning of what it means to be British and Muslim.

Reflexivity, expert systems and therapy

Giddens argues that this constant need to adapt our identities in line with global changes has lead to the emergence of ‘expert systems’. These are found everywhere in British society, from the careers advisor, helping us to choose which degree is best suited to us, to the therapist and counselor, providing us assistance in the necessary task of continually reconstructing our identities.

The negative consequences of Globalisation and detraditionalisation

While Giddens is cautiously optimistic about the changes brought about by globalisation, in that he believes that global risks are something we can work together to deal with, and detraditionalisation opens up the possibility of a radical democratization of daily life, he does also point to two major problems.

The first of these is the increase in addiction in modern society. Today, people can develop recognized addictions to sex, food, gambling and even shopping. Giddens perceives this increase in addictions as being linked to detraditionalisation. In pre-global societies, stable traditions provided individuals with a link to the past, now this is gone, addiction is seen as an attempt by individuals to construct a coherent ‘narrative of the self’ through repetitive actions that provide comfort, thus linking actions today with actions to the past.

The second negative consequence of detraditionalisation is the rise of Fundamentalism, which Giddens sees as traditional practices that are defended by a blinkered commitment to ideologies and beliefs, and a resistance to engaging in dialogue about those views.

Evaluating  Giddens

Many contemporary critics, argue that Giddens’ view of contemporary societies is too optimistic.

Zygmunt Bauman essentially agrees with the fact that uncertainty in society requires most individuals to constantly engage in ‘identity construction’, but he also points out that the wealthy and powerful are the ones both creating and benefiting from an unstable, rapidly changing world, and that these people are much more able to defend themselves against the negative consequences of living in a runaway world.

Frank Furedi, who draws on Bauman,  argues that the expert systems that have emerged to assist us in the construction of our identities are not neutral institutions. He argues, amongst other things, that far from allowing individuals to be more autonomous actors, they actually encourage individuals to be dependent on expert advice.

I will summarise the work of these two contemporary critics of Giddens in a future article. Suffice to say for now that all three agree that Globalisation has far reaching consequences for the British society, culture and the ways in which we construct our identities.

You might also like…

A summary of Liquid Times by Zygmunt Bauman

Giddens’ Critique of Postmodernism – an uber-brief summary.

 

Bibliography

Giddens, Anthony (2002) Runaway World

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self Identity

Bauman, Zymunt (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty

Furedi, Frank (2004) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age.

2 Responses to “Summary of Runaway World by Anthony Giddens”

  1.   SHAJI,E. Says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am Shaji,E is a sociology Phd Research Scholar, in Barkatullah University, Bhoal, Madhya Pradesh, India. I wish to read more on Globalization as it is a relevant subject for us all.
    Thanks for your article. It is very encouraging to see such a beautiful article.
    Thanks and mail me good articles of Mr. Antony Giddens.Shaji,E.

  2.   stringy Says:

    hi sir
    my name is daniel from west africa.Reading sociology as part of my courses at the university, I came across the runaway world,and there and then I had interest in it.It has really being of good help to me.But I would like, if possible, to get a succinct, clear and a concise overview of chapter 2 and 3 that is between pages 20-50.I would be very greatful if I get it.A review of not more than 3 pages on the aforementioned chapters. thanks for considering my plea

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