Globalization Essay

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In the past half century or so, societies have become increasingly interconnected. Through the process of globalization, activities that used to be contained within national or regional borders have spread to other countries and continents, integrating the world’s people in complex ways. The rise of new communication and transportation technologies has made it possible to exchange goods, ideas, and populations across great distances. The pace at which these exchanges now occur and the shifting ability of regulators to keep up with them have positive and negative implications for criminal justice ethics. Globalization has created massive opportunities for crime as well as more advanced systems to control it. One of the more important ethical questions in the globalization era will be how to balance privacy rights with control over increasingly sophisticated criminal activities.

It can be argued that globalization has always existed, and that the current era is nothing more than an increase in the pace of regional integration and exchange (a quantitative change). Certainly, societies were involved in trade and exploration long before the modern age of nation-states. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought new technologies that helped rapidly expand these activities. Railroads and the steam engine allowed traders to grow their markets far beyond local borders; the telegraph allowed governments to coordinate their economic policies to support these spreading markets. These changes sped up the pace of integration to such a degree that many observers see a change in the world order itself: a change of “type” rather than “degree.” From this perspective, the globalization that has occurred in the modern and postmodern eras has fundamentally remade the world’s economic, political, and social systems. Accordingly, managing crime is a different endeavor today than it was preglobalization, requiring new ways of thinking and new systems of control rather than just a faster pace of response by law enforcement.

There are two qualitative changes associated with globalization that are important for criminologists to consider. One is the decoupling of activities from their geographic origins and the resulting global movement of goods and ideas. Borders have become permeable, and in some areas essentially meaningless, making it difficult to track the movement of money, people, or contraband goods. A global digital infrastructure has been established, removing limits to communication and ultimately enabling new types of crime and surveillance. The other major change is the decreased authority of established power sources such as nation-states and the rise of alternative power sources; this shift has challenged old ways of controlling crime.

Some of the new power sources are intergovernmental and require intricate cooperation between countries as well as reduced national sovereignty. Others are extragovernmental (such as insurgent groups or transnational terrorist organizations), operating outside of state agreements and laws. Both of these qualitative changes contribute to the sense of a “driverless car”; in other words, it seems unclear which groups or forces are in control of globalization and whether its processes can be modified or reversed. This perception can muddle previously settled ethical questions regarding criminal justice, which have typically been addressed at the national level.

Global Movement of Goods and Ideas

The separation of activities from their geographic origins means that local phenomena can have a much broader influence than would have been possible prior to the age of globalization. Financial transactions, environmental pollution, or new ideologies emerging in one part of the world now affect people in even the most distant or remote areas. This change is significant for criminal justice because it becomes more difficult to use familiar means and justifications for regulating what people do. Perhaps the most influential area of activity has been economic; financial decisions made by a small set of actors can have significant consequences for the rest of the world. Because the flow of money has become essentially borderless, there are few constraints on economic activity, especially that of the powerful. For example, prior to the globalization era economic activity was generally confined to national or regional borders. Production and consumption, investment, borrowing and lending, and taxation involved one well-defined set of people, with relatively less impact outside of these borders. In the United States, for example, major infrastructure projects were financed and managed by domestic sources such as the Public Works Administration during the New Deal era. Employees of an American company like Ford Motor Company, and consumers of its products, were generally American citizens with an awareness of the firm’s business practices. Although international trade and investment did exist in the pre-globalization era, the groups involved in these exchanges had fixed geographic homes and were accountable to creditors, consumers, or lawmakers there. In terms of criminal justice, one set of national laws and regulations applied to almost all of a country’s economic actors, who could be prosecuted for any wrongdoing (for example, fraud, tax evasion, or safety violations) by domestic courts.

In the 21st century, much has changed. Capital flows easily from one country to the next; a large proportion of investment is directed outward to enterprises in other countries and can be quickly withdrawn if economic conditions change. Financial innovations that are introduced in one country quickly affect markets in many others, as the credit-default swap debacle originating in the United States made clear. Perhaps the most visible effect of the newly permeable borders has been the separation of the production process into numerous parts located all over the globe.

No longer does a car or clothing or appliance company make and sell its goods domestically; instead product design may take place in one country, raw materials sourced in another, component parts manufactured in yet another, and assembly completed elsewhere still. Online retail allows the product to be bought and shipped anywhere; even waste disposal has entered this globalized process with certain countries taking on the role of “landfill to the world.” These changes have serious implications for criminal justice ethics. It is increasingly difficult to prosecute global economic entities who may have a headquarters in one country but commit crime in another. Moreover, actions that are deemed criminal by one country’s standards may not be so in another country, which complicates prosecution. For example, it is unclear whether multinational corporations are culpable for disasters of negligence related to the production or distribution of goods (such as the 2013 Bangladesh garment factory collapse, which left over a thousand dead), and if so, whether punishment could actually be applied across national borders. It may be unethical to allow these activities to go unpunished, but it may also be unethical to impose one society’s justice system on another. These questions did not arise in the preglobalization era when economic activities were fixed to particular geographic locations.

The movement of people increasingly disregards borders as well. Global migration allows people to follow opportunities that they might not have at home. Movements from poor to prosperous parts of the world can have even broader benefits for global development when migrants send remittances or obtain skills to bring back home. At the same time, the pull of international migration has presented new criminal opportunities, with human trafficking a growing problem for law enforcement. Associated activities like the trafficking of drugs, arms, and other contraband have also been enabled by porous borders. Partly because markets are so intertwined, it is profitable for drug cartels in Latin America or ivory poachers in Africa to send their goods to countries where demand is high, despite the risk of prosecution. International transportation is cheap in the globalized age, and law enforcement agencies cannot completely seal up borders without discouraging desired flows of money, people, and goods.

While globalization has been associated with rapid development and increased well-being in a number of countries, prosperity has tended to accumulate in certain regions and among certain groups, with others facing continued or even increased poverty and instability since the advent of the globalized era. In short, the benefits of globalization have not been equally shared everywhere. These effects are relevant to criminal justice ethics because there is a clear relationship between underdevelopment, crime, and conflict. The United Nations Security Council has concluded that poorly distributed wealth and a lack of job opportunities are major factors contributing to instability and crime. Not coincidentally, the al Qaeda terrorist organization has become most influential among young men in countries with especially high levels of unemployment and underdevelopment such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Leaders of governments and other crime control organizations are beginning to consider the global economic causes of organized terrorist activity as they weigh the decision to commit resources against it.

The increasing number of terrorist incidents in recent decades can also be attributed to the increased flow of ideas across borders—another hallmark of globalization. Like money, communication has become untethered from geography. In the preglobalization era, cultural norms, values, and ideologies were generally tied to national communities; most people had little experience with other cultures until very recently. With the establishment of a global digital infrastructure for communication made up of global positioning satellites, television, and the Internet, ideas can spread rapidly between people of different backgrounds. The greater frequency of cultural exchanges is generally seen as positive, resulting in more tolerance and respect for difference as well as the spread of so-called universal values such as women’s rights. For example, sexual violence against women in some central Asian nations like India is increasingly met with domestic outrage, which many attribute to the introduction of modern egalitarian values and the decline of traditional patriarchal culture. Access to high-tech medical care is increasingly seen as a “universal” value or right as well, with the global community committing significant resources to health care modernization in poor regions of the world.

However, not all groups see this cultural integration as a positive; global terrorism and fundamentalism have been associated with a backlash against global culture. Global culture mixes so-called universal values as mentioned above with bits and pieces of many local customs and norms. Japanese graphic art, Mexican cuisine, Swedish literature, and Indian films are all part of global culture. However, Western customs and norms tend to be overrepresented in this cultural mix, which angers groups who view the greater permissiveness, individualism, and materialism associated with Western culture as unwelcome. Fundamentalist crime has been committed with the goal of protecting local values from this spreading global permissiveness; one recent example was the violent attempt by Islamist militants to impose Sharia law in Mali. Paradoxically, the ability to organize both peaceful and violent protest is enabled by the same globalized communications infrastructure that spreads global culture. Antistate and terror organizations benefit enormously from the cheap, accessible, and relatively unregulated digital network.

This communications infrastructure represents a completely new area of criminal opportunity. With so much of the world’s economic, political, and cultural activity now taking place online, many experts believe that groups with malicious intent have only begun to exploit the possibilities of cybercrime. Hacking and identity theft have mostly targeted individuals so far, but governments and markets are major potential targets. At the same time, the global digital infrastructure also enables more effective policing and monitoring of criminal activity. Shared national databases help law enforcement agencies address the increasing amount of cross-border crime. Satellites allow international peacekeeping forces to keep an eye on developing conflicts around the world. Social media turns citizens into criminal justice resources, as seen with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the “crowdsourcing” of information from international sources. The potential reach of these globalized surveillance systems presents ethical issues, however. In the globalized era, citizens have become more tolerant of privacy intrusions as a trade-off for safety and protection, but law enforcement bodies are being forced to consider whether the use of new surveillance technologies, such as military drones or Google Street View, is always ethically justified.

Rise of Alternative Power Sources

The other major change to the world order brought by globalization also has serious consequences for criminal justice and related ethics. The decline of long-standing sources of authority and the larger role for alternative power sources is changing the face of criminal justice. For much of the modern era nation-states were the building blocks of the international political system. Globalization has increased the political power of nonstate entities such as multinational corporations and international bodies; this has required major adaptations for traditional criminal justice efforts aligned with national borders. The bigger policy-making role of international regulatory organizations is especially relevant. Because so many countries now have intricately shared interests, a variety of intergovernmental groups now exists to coordinate them all. The role of these groups is to set international law, provide shared peacekeeping forces in conflict areas, organize the surveillance of threatening activity, and so on.

The most significant groups are the World Trade Organization and United Nations, but there are smaller groups in charge of everything from policing maritime piracy to monitoring human migration to maintaining arms control. Interpol is the body specifically tasked with law enforcement; it has databases with information shared by member countries and a communications network that links jurisdictions across different languages and bureaucracies. Individual countries have become increasingly dependent on it because so much criminal activity now crosses borders, but the advantages to this reliance are paired with some ethical controversy. Some observers worry that the global network has been used against human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents. Such problems are endemic to the international and borderless organizations emblematic of globalization. Without direct ties to voting citizens, such groups lack accountability among the same people they are tasked to help.

More troubling is the rise of extragovernmental power sources such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and a variety of separatist or rebel groups worldwide. The term extragovernmental refers to groups beyond or counter to the control or regulation of the government. Weak or underfunded national governments provide ample opportunities for such groups to gain influence. For example, Hezbollah is a militant organization based in Lebanon that receives political and financial support from Iran and Syria. It has flourished despite international classification as a terrorist organization—in part because it provides social services that the Lebanese government cannot provide. As noted above, tapping into transnational resources, arms, and fighters is easier than ever before for underground or quasilegal groups, so they can bypass the tax support that governments need. Controlling cross-border crime and violence by such groups is extremely challenging because they often do not abide by international agreements between nations. Global integration made such agreements necessary, but by eating into some of the sovereignty of nationstates, these same agreements have created space for new power sources to claim citizens’ allegiance. National governments weakened by debt to global creditors, unfavorable currency exchange rates, and so on have been met with decreasing support from angry citizens.


  1. Barak, Gregg. “Crime and Crime Control in an Age of Globalization: A Theoretical Dissection.”Critical Criminology, v.10 (2001).
  2. Lanier, Mark M. and Stuart Henry. “What Is Criminology? The Study of Crime, Criminals, and Victims in a Global Context.” In The Essential Criminology. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010.
  3. Passas, Nikos. “Global Anomie, Dysnomie, and Economic Crime: Hidden Consequences of Neoliberalism and Globalization in Russia and Around the World.” Social Justice, v.27/2 (2000).
  4. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment.” 2010. (Accessed May 2013).

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