Sense of belonging in a globalizing world

Globalization is a major topic of interest today. Not just in businesses and the social sciences, but also in our daily lives. It is 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. People have traded and 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. Information is available in quantities previously unknown to the human race. Change keeps occurring at a speed our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. Beside the many possibilities this interconnectedness offers, this ‘instability’ in our environment is still very new to us.

The socially skilled human has alway used the sharing of knowledge and traditions to help shape a cultural identity. Psychologically a cultural identity provides us with a sense of belonging. Yet in this era of increased mobility, people are confronted with unfamiliarity more than ever before. Cultural identities are therefore exposed to an increased amount of external pressure. When the things we know keep changing, it’s a challenge to keep experiencing a sense of belonging.

Humans are extremely adaptable. Many cultures for example respond to increased global contact by highlighting certain traditions. A traditionally unimportant dance in an African village may suddenly become important, in order to emphasize and hold together a cultural identity. This can be caused by the arrival of television and hordes of foreign tourists, causing challenging cultural scenes for all.

Also when people voluntarily move to a new country, traditions from their home country may become more emphasized than they were originally. These could be music, language, certain habits or religion. I myself remember how much I started valuing traditional Dutch delicacies when I was living in Australia, because it triggered familiar emotions I’d felt in the Netherlands. People are good at finding ways of holding on to a threatened cultural identity and thus maintaining their sense of belonging.

It’s highly unlikely that a truly global society will ever exist. Even though the world is becoming more interconnected, the influence of global processes is always complemented by local forces. Unique cultural mixes between the local and the global emerge everywhere. Some anthropologists, like Thomas Erikson, therefore rather speak of glocalization instead of globalization. Even local cultures themselves are becoming more diverse, since individuals are influenced by a wide variety of sources. One’s choices in (social) media, books or travel enhance different perspectives in every individual.

It’s only human to hold on to cultural identities and, for that reason, necessary. These identities are always subject to gradual change and will know shifts in how they’re being emphasized over time. It seems that people are capable of continuously shape-shifting their cultural identities, in order to cope with constant identity threats in an increasingly interconnected world. Perhaps one day we’ll find out the boundaries of how far the human psyche can stretch this way.

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