Creating a sense of belonging in a globalizing world

Globalization is a major topic of interest today. Not only in business and the social sciences, but also in our daily lives. It’s the process of increasing global interconnectedness. People, products, information; we are witnessing the greatest mobility in human communication ever.

Global interconnectedness is not a new phenomenon in itself. People have traded and have communicated globally since far before the agricultural revolution. What is different in our age, is that since roughly a century global interconnectedness has been increasing at unprecedented speed. In our globalizing world information is available in quantities previously unknown to humanity. Change keeps occurring at a speed our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. Besides the many possibilities this interconnectedness may bring us, the ‘instability’ in our environment is still very new to us.

Shared knowledge and traditions help us shape a cultural identity. Psychologically, a cultural identity provides us with a sense of belonging. In this era of increased mobility, people are confronted with unfamiliarity more than ever before. Cultural identities are therefore also exposed to an amount of external pressure we have never felt before. We’re facing new challenges in how we can still experience a sense of belonging in a globalizing world, where the things we know keep changing.

Many cultures respond to increased global contact by highlighting certain traditions. For example, a traditionally unimportant dance in an African village may suddenly become important in order to emphasize and hold together a cultural identity. This occurs amidst the arrival of television or hordes of foreign tourists, causing interesting cultural scenes for an anthropologist.

Even when people voluntarily move to a new country, traditions from their home country may become more emphasized than they were originally. I remember how much I started valuing typical Dutch delicacies when I was living in Australia, just because it enforced how I’d felt like in the Netherlands. Or more who I had felt like. This also happens with music, language, certain habits and religion. People are good at finding ways to hold on to a threatened cultural identity, that is providing a sense of belonging.

We find ways to cope. As a species this makes us extremely adaptable. So adaptable that we have spread across the globe. But holding on to the past is of course not the main thing that’s making us adaptable. Being able to change is what makes humans adaptable. By holding on to certain cultural habits we keep our psyche steady, helping us cope with massive change. Both traits together make us so adaptable.

It’s therefore highly unlikely that a global society will emerge. Even though the world is becoming more interconnected, the influence of global or universal processes is always complemented by local cultures and socio-economic systems. Unique cultural mixes between the local and the global exist everywhere. Some anthropologists, like Thomas Erikson, rather speak of glocalization instead of globalization. Even local cultures themselves are very diverse. Individuals are influenced by a wide variety of people and environments. Alone one’s choice of digital entertainment, social media, books or travel creates a rather different perspective on the world in every individual.

It’s only human to hold on to cultural identities and, for that reason, necessary. Yet these identities are subjective to gradual change and will know shifts in how they’re emphasized over time. It seems that people are capable of continuously shape-shifting their identities, in order to cope with the constant identity threats in an extremely interconnected world. It remains to see whether this is a sustainable way of living for the human psyche. I guess that in the next few centuries we’ll learn much about adaptable the human species truly is.

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