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Increased Cosmopolitan Communications Leads to More Trust, Reduced Nationalism
Ethan Zuckerman, 27 Feb 09

Professor Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School, is focused on “Cosmopolitan Communications” for her forthcoming book, titled “Cultural Convergence”. Working with Ronald Inglehart of the World Values Survey, she’s studying the ways that communications impact the strength of national identity and the trust in outsiders. Her findings - which surprise some of her colleagues - suggest that increased cosmopolitan communications leads to more trust in others and reduced nationalism.

The context for her talk is accelerating connection through globalization, as tracked by surveys like the KOF Globalization index. As globalization increases, we see more opportunity for information to come across national borders. Some view this as a threat - thinkers like Herbert Schiller have suggested that the spread of corporate capitalism will lead towards the spread of American values at the expense of local norms. More recently, Benjamin Barber, in books like “Jihad versus McWorld”, suggests that American capitalism and culture are fundamentally intertwined. These theories have led UNESCO to worry that the availability of information from culturally exporting nations like the US could lead to a decrease in cultural diversity.

To study this, Norris has looked at the export of cultural goods, especially movies, television shows, radio shows and audio recordings. There’s a strong, linear relationship between cultural export and import - while a few nations like the US export a lot of culture and import comparatively little, in general it’s more common to see rich nations import and export a lot of culture, and to see poor countries import and export very little. (Her statistics cover only formal markets - obviously, there’s lots of black market content import that isn’t visible in these statistics.)

American cultural export has expanded over recent decades, and we now take for granted the idea that some countries are likely to dominate cultural discourse. There’s four possible outcomes to this situation:

- A convergence around American and Western culture and values. In this scenario, we’d expect to see minority groups lose their cultural heritage. Norris offers Bhutan as a country that disconnected rather than face this cultural loss, and has seen social changes come about since connecting to the internet and television in 1999.

- Polarization. In this scenario, we might see people encounter American culture and reject it based on its clash with traditional values.

- Hybridization. Cultures encounter one another and there’s a mutual exchange of ideas. The result is something like California cuisine - a little bit French, a little Italian, a little Mexican and a whole lot mixed up.

- The Firewall model. Cultural exports have expanded, but they only impact on cultural diversity if they cross four barriers. They’ve got to be accepted via “trade integration”, they’ve got to be permitted in an environment of media freedom, they need to reach audiences which may not have access to media through digital divides, and most critically, they need to cross cultural barriers. “You’ve learned values from your family, so you’re not always going to absorb these outside influences - you’re going to have some resistance to them.”

To test which of these models might apply, Norris looks at the World Values Survey and looks for relationships between questions about media use and those about national identity and trust in outsiders. Her expectation is that countries that are more connected to others - countries which rank highly on her “cosmopolitanism index” - will have greater trust in outsiders and a less strong sense of nationalism. In addition she expects a “cross-level interaction effect”, where people who live in globalized societies and experience a wide range of media will have an especially strong trust in outsiders and especially weak nationalistic characteristics.

For the most part, this turns out to be true. There’s a loose fit between cosmopolitanism and trust in outsiders, and parochial nations turn out to be less trusting of outsiders. The outliers are especially interesting - the Netherlands, which is extremely cosmopolitan, shows only moderate trust in outsiders. Norris speculates that this is a reaction to recent tensions around Muslim immigrant populations in the Netherlands, referencing the Theo Van Gogh murder. She points to a similar pattern in Germany, where tensions with Turkish immigrants may keep connection high and trust of outsiders only moderate.

For these models to be effective, Norris tells us, we need to control a wide variety of factors. Youth, she explains, tend to be more trusting that the elderly. The better educated one is, the more trusting of outsiders one tends to be. Controlling for these factors, she sees a positive correlation between cosmopolitanism and trust in outsiders, and a similar correlation between news media use and trust. There’s an amplification effect in the case of media users in cosmopolitan societies - they’re especially trusting of outsiders, less likely to be strongly nationalistic, and more likely to feel like they are citizens of the world.

She explains that there’s need for more work on the topic. Some nations have stronger nationalistic tendencies than others - behavior that’s common in the US, like flying the national flag, would be considered provocative in the UK. The fact that nationalism has different baselines in different countries makes comparison difficult. There’s a problem with self-selection biases and media use - people who consume media may be the people most curious and interested in the outside world. And it’s hard to find data sources that accurately show cultural transmission in new media - the ITU and the UN track total internet users, but don’t have good statistics on whether people are encountering information outside their home countries. (I’m hoping to do some thinking on this topic and see if I can point the good professor in the right direction.)

I thought it was a fascinating talk, though I would offer two cautions. I don’t think it’s possible to accurately analyze cultural influence in developing nations by looking at import and export statistics. In very poor African countries, kids in isolated villages are watching pirated DVDs from the US on the one television in town, often powered by an auto battery. Cultural influence is much broader than financial influence. Second, I question whether nationalism and cosmopolitanism are actually opposed. In my experience working on Global Voices, I’ve met a large number of people who are fiercely proud of their homelands and also excited about being citizens of the world. I’d love to see a way of measuring openness that doesn’t unfairly demonize nationalism in the process.


This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's personal blog, My Heart's In Accra.

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