Colombo Telegraph

Globalisation & The Role Of Elites: Impact On Social Structures

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

There are differing views on the impact of globalisation and development associated with it on various communities and social segments or classes in developing countries in the relevant academic literature. Globalists emphasise the positive aspects of globalisation such as open borders, ability for the movement of capital, goods and services, access to employment, migration and educational opportunities, increased travel, global culture and cosmopolitanism, increased trade and market opportunities. They further point out how the development policies implemented by governments in developing countries have lifted millions of poor people out of poverty e.g. in China and India. Critics emphasise the negative effects of globalisation and associated neoliberal development by pointing out the ways they benefit the political, business, military, and other elites in developing countries while pushing the middle class, working class, and the poor to the margins of society. They also explain how communities that survived close to forests, beaches and valuable natural resources have been removed from their habitats and the land given to multinational resource and/or tourism companies for their operations. The social and cultural impact on communities and middle to lower classes by the expanding global market forces and processes in various fields have also received their attention. Various conflicts generated by the globalisation and anti globalisation forces in the context of heavy competition for natural resources are cited as examples of negative effects of globalisation. Within this opposing views what is clear is that there are unequal relations between countries and companies with large-scale capital and know how for investment and those without. Irrespective of such unequal relations, the political, bureaucratic, and military elites in developing countries tend to promote market friendly investment policies to attract foreign capital and technology to developing countries saying it is necessary to accelerate development even when such countries are caught in a severe debt trap.

The purpose of this article is to not discuss above stated problem, i.e. whether such investments are desirable or needed? The purpose is to examine the impact of globalisation on social structures in developing countries like Sri Lanka that hitherto provided identity, stability, and a way of life. Sociologists have defined social structure as a network of social relations in the whole society or within social institutions such as the state, family, market, religion, education, media, military, bureaucracy, kinship, caste, and class. Each of these arenas provides a normative framework and a certain way of life to its participants. These social institutions nurture certain values, norms and practices through hierarchical or egalitarian mechanisms depending on the case and context. They thus embody sub cultures. Thus we speak of office culture, university culture, school culture or military culture. Alumni relating to formal institutions maintain close relations while sustaining distinctive identities of respective institutions. For example, we can see many alumni organisations representing businesses, universities, schools within countries and in the diaspora.

There is no doubt about the fact that globalisation and associated neoliberal economic policies implemented by governments of developing countries during the last half century have had tremendous impact on these social structures or institutions creating substantial change. Changes can be seen in the way we consume products and services mostly imported, our communication methods, education and employment, celebrations, media, our attitudes toward material and spiritual life, our values and norms, reading materials and writing, treatment for illnesses, travel modes and patterns, worship styles, dress, music and more. In the cultural field some argue that there is a tendency for creating a global culture and homogeneity due to globalisation while marginalising and even destroying place specific cultures and localisms in developing countries in the name of modernity and progress. Measurement of progress and development in such a culture is based on, among others, the number of shopping centres in a given locality and the nature of shops and restaurants, the exotic food, clothes, music, liquor, nature of visitors, cars etc. on road. Globalisation thus facilitates the movement of goods, services and people from multiple locations around the globe to distant locations depending on where the demand is. If there is no or poor demand in a given location, a demand or desire is constructed by using modern marketing and advertising strategies. Constructed desire thus becomes part of the modern, globalising world, individual and groups.

Getting back to the topic of social structures that provided certainty and stability as well as a certain lifestyle within societies and social institutions, let’s take an example to explore how globalisation and the spaces opened by it have impacted on the former? Let’s take family and gender. When the economies of West Asia and broader Asia started to expand, the middle classes started to receive more income. The neoliberal market values and consumer products introduced to these societies encouraged a certain lifestyle for women. For example in Saudi Arabia, the policy of Saudisation encouraged women to work in public and private sectors. When this process started, they needed additional help in the domestic sphere. Thus started the movement of female domestic workers from South Asian countries to Saudi Arabia and other countries. Employment of domestic workers became a status symbol also. Yet the fact that South Asian women left their own family and children to earn an income under very trying circumstances have had tremendous impact on the female domestic workers and their families. Economists are only interested in analysing the remittance patterns. But some sociological studies have highlighted along with media reports how many such domestic workers have to endure harassment, bullying, injury and even death. The laws in host countries favour the hosts rather than employees. When I visited Singapore recently I could see hundreds of such female domestic workers from countries like Philippines, Indonesia, spending their free day (Sunday) with fellow workers sitting in front of lavish shopping centres. They were seen eating food packets in small groups rather than shopping in shopping malls because they cannot afford to spend hard earned money on expensive consumer products, as they have to send money home. What is the impact then of this process of employment on gender relations and families as well as stability of family relations? Is it enough to focus only on the income received? What about the exploitation occurring from the point of recruitment, employment, to termination of employment? Obviously employment agencies make a profit through their activities. Such agencies have sprung up in South Asian capitals and provinces similar to education agencies recruiting fee-paying students. If these examples represent globalisation, what is the bigger story and picture associated with it beyond the income and opportunity to work that are promoted by globalists, including government officials and politicians? Can we understand the true story and picture here without examining multiple dimensions of the story from the origin to destination. A doctoral student under my supervision looked at the story of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to find various abuses these women endure and violations of labour conditions. In such sociological studies, it is important to look at the big picture rather than limiting oneself to positivist research methods of empirical data collection from a sample of women and writing about their views and experiences alone. Results have to be contextualised to highlight the big picture issues associated with globalisation and corresponding development logic.

We can examine how globalisation has affected other social structures, institutions, their norms and values, modes of interaction and communication, way of life, attitudes, methods of production and consumption also. Economy in developing countries itself being such a social structure or institution can be examined in terms of the impact.  For example, we can examine how indigenous products and production methods have been impacted by globalisation and its predecessor colonisation. When tea was introduced as a commercial crop to satisfy the taste buds of the British initially and popularised among the Ceylonese, it is said that over one hundred indigenous drinks disappeared from the local food habits. Now such drinks are limited to a few street hawkers in places like Kandy who sell them as hot drinks on the streets in little carts. Many more examples can be stated starting from the local handloom cottage industry to milk industry to what’s happening to fruits and vegetables in Sri Lanka. Examples can also be cited from other South Asian countries on the impact of neoliberal economic policies that favour donor countries and how they encourage imports while replacing local products and services? The globalisation process thus highlights and add value to products and services coming from the developed West, i.e. Europe and USA and now China and India, while devaluing the products and services that are local or indigenous. This is achieved by using multiple brainwashing, marketing strategies and the consent of local elites. These imported products and services are sold at double or triple the value of local products and services. Companies selling such products and services target social segments and classes within developing countries that are either resourceful or the aspiring middle classes. Resource rich include those who are benefitting from the new enterprises such as import trade or recruitment agencies, political and other elites, t hose who moved to the diaspora, and professionals such as doctors, accountants, lawyers. An attitude and value have been created in the minds of colonial subjects that if it is produced in a foreign country it is better! This attitude continues even today in the minds of people in developing countries. It gives an economic advantage to foreign producers and service providers while creating a dependency among local population. Access to high value foreign products becomes a status symbol not only among the elites but also the aspiring classes. It becomes the defining feature of class distinction as well.

The point I am raising here is not only about these structural factors associated with the big picture story about globalisation and its predecessor colonisation. It is also about the lifestyle, norms and values thinking patterns, reading and writing, consumption, and how market forces are controlling us supported by the elites who control key social institutions in our day to lives? How in the process we are being led to believe their story, not our own story is right?

I can go on talking a lot about what impact colonisation and globalisation have had on our language, learning, literature, religion and rituals, indigenous medicine, art and music etc. also. Rather than prolonging the article, I refer readers to my academic and other publications for more on these topics (see Research gate or Academia. edu under my name). I hope this article provides a starting point and a framework for others to critically examine what is happening in the developing global south, including South Asia and Sri Lanka, as a result of globalisation promoted by the elites and other globalists as the only solution to our problems of existence in a time where the gap between the rich and the poor/working class etc. is being widened more and more irrespective of globalization and neoliberal economic development!

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