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Globalization has brought about enormous changes in structural and interpersonal relations such that mechanisms of power distribution are in a state of flux. Sociology offers both descriptive and critical accounts of how shifting micro-interactions and macro-structures negotiate material, legal, and political benefits, thereby reshaping identities. These transformations can assist, improve or worsen the well-being of individuals, groups, and the environment in potentially unjust ways. Globalization augments traditional spatio-temporal boundaries of fairness, introducing concerns of intergenerational and transnational justice, for instance climate change and financial debt. The normative content of sociological research on global justice is sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit reflecting the perceived role of the discipline. Core sociological concerns here are the emergence of an international civil society, universal human rights in a world of globalized risk and the effect of enhanced communication technologies on how we understand ”globalization” itself.
Karl Polanyi’s (1944) The Great Transformation introduced the concept of ”double movement” to describe societal reaction to the changes resulting from the growth of market economies in the nineteenth century. It has been adopted by many contemporary sociologists to explain the current proliferation of civil society organizations as a counter-balance to the perceived weakening of the nation-state and a swell of corporate influence. They are understood as rejecting a depoliticized mechanical conception of globalization that serves the interests of transnational elites and causes environmental degradation, economic crises and social insecurity. There has been a documented fall in membership of political parties (50.4 percent decline between 1980 and 1998 in the USA). Nevertheless, the World Social Forum attracted some 150,000 people in 2005, on February 15, 2003, an estimated 30 million people gathered across the globe to protest against the Iraq war and in 2007 Earth Day enjoyed one billion participants.
The biological essentialism underpinning much universal rights theory is difficult to accept for many sociologists. Bryan S. Turner influentially proposed a sociological theory of human rights based on human frailty, collective sympathy and, crucially, ”the historical implications of technological change for human existence and the increasingly risky nature of social life with globalisation” (1993: 508). There is a paradox of justice for a society of such globalized risk. On the one hand it is capable of producing new and extreme forms of social exclusion and inequality, where all characteristics of a group can be reduced to its level of risk. Nonetheless, it provides unprecedented opportunities for collective action amongst groups usually differentiated according to traditional identity types as they become aware of a common risk. Ultimately, who defines ”globalization” is of fundamental sociological interest with the ability to affect this understanding itself an issue of justice.
The proliferation of cheap communication technologies has created the potential for nonpersons, those excluded by conventional media and political processes, to have a voice. Power relationships in this age are characterized by two features of these new technologies: (1) locally grounded while globally connected and (2) organized around networks not individual units (Castells 2009). Nevertheless, as more importance is invested in these technologies the threat of exclusion becomes more potent, especially as state control, processes of com-modification and legal frameworks are only beginning to grapple with the wide-ranging effects of these modes of globalized communication.
- Beck, U. (2009) Critical theory of a world risk society: a cosmopolitan vision. Constellations 16 (1): 3-22.
- Castells, (2009) Communication Power. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Turner, B. S. (1993) Outline ofa theory on human rights. Sociology 27 (3): 489-512.