Sunday, April 20, 2008

Urbanization, Westernization, and Globalization: Confusingly Similar Trends

Something occurred to me as I was reading a book by Paul and Eloise Hiebert about trends of urbanization, westernization, and globalization. Quite often the world outside of "Western" nations reacts to the sometimes oppressive influence of western culture. Individualism, naturalistic worldview, and segmented lives are considered Western values. These values and others are often considered to be threats to traditional cultures, worldviews, and ways of life, which is then associated with the West as the cause. As I was reading the Hieberts' book Incarnational Ministry, I came across a table drawn from anthropologist, Robert Redfield, compare rural life and urban life.

Rural Life

Urban Life

Established, traditional



Ascribed roles



Status quo, little change


Wholistic life

Human in scale

Sacred cosmos

Mobile, free



Achieved roles

Intersecting communities

Managed conflict

Rapid change


Segmented life


Secular cosmos

(Hiebert and Hiebert, Incarnational Ministry, 262)

When perusing the list of characteristics of urban life I noticed a strong link to the various lists of Western cultural values. An exploration of which influenced the other is not really my point here. My point is that this strong similarity between urban values and Western values is illuminating. During the twentieth century the rapid rate of urbanization in the world was extraordinary and the trend continues at an alarming rate. Around 1900 the world was just 5 percent urban. (Drucker, The Community of the Future, 2) Just a few years ago the world became over fifty percent urban and we are on the fast track to 75% urban (the United States is already considered 75% urban (Vago, Social Change, 137)). The point being, the world is quickly urbanizing.

The confusing part of this is that often urbanization is labeled westernization. Westernization has been an abused term, sometimes meaning little more than use of modern science and/or free market capitalism. But then others hear the term "westernization" and think "those nasty neo-colonial, imperialistic, paternalistic purveyors of Big-Macs." In the midst of this confusion, there is a connection between westernization and urbanization. It was, in fact, the western nations that first began this urbanization trend. Modern technology was developed on a foundation of Enlightenment scientific method and capitalism is definitely western in origin. While westernization and urbanization are certainly linked, the connotations of the west masterminding and controlling urbanization trends are unfounded (Kusno, "Architecture After Nationalism," 142).

Given the manner in which westernization and urbanization is linked, it is not a surprise that there has been little resistance to the rapid urbanization. Many of the characteristics of urban life are already shared with western characteristics. Kester Brewin points out the ways in which "rural" areas in the west are in some ways already urban: "…it is the city that has reached out and infiltrated every part of country life, from mobile phones to Internet shopping, twenty-four-hour news, and celebrity gossip." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 121)

Other parts of the world that do not share similar characteristics with the west, struggle much more with the trends of urbanization. It is understandable how it can look like a planned takeover from the west. But the reality is that in this increasingly globalized economy, urbanization is a byproduct of the global race to get a piece of the global economy pie.

What is my point in saying all of this nonsense? It is this, the urbanization and globalization are growing realities that the world is being forced to deal with. We must find ways to help those that are having such difficulties with this process. We must find new ways for rural people being thrust into urban life to be able to transition without having all of their values shot to pieces.

References Cited:
Brewin, Kester. Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That is Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

Drucker, Peter F. "Introduction: Civilizing the City." In The Community of the Future. Fraces Hesselbein, et. al. eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

Kusno, Abidin. "Architecture After Nationalism: Political Imaginings of Southeast Asian Architects." In Critical Reflections on Cities in Southeast Asia. Tim Bunnell, Lisa B. W. Drummond and K. C. Ho, eds. (Singapore: Brill, 2002), 124-149.

Vago, Steven. Social Change. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989.


Wendy said...

Upon reading that table, I was struck by how much many of the people I have come into contact with, myselft included, and especially those who would be labeled 'emergent' are trying to figure out how to reintegrate some of those characteristics of rural life into their urban experiences -- even feeling that the gospel compels them to do so. Now, this is by no means trying to recreate all of the rural characteristics -- for example, heterogeneity is honored and rapid change is unavoidable. However, ideas of community, egalitarianism and leading a wholistic rather than segmented life are becoming guideposts for many in living their lives.

Anonymous said...

Good points

M Crane said...

Wendy, that is a good point. There certainly is a yearning for many of those rural life characteristics. But as you point out, we are not ready for a complete return to the rural life. The desire for community is complicated by urbanization. In a rural context, community is automatic. In the urban context, so much vies for a person's time that community suffers. Community no longer comes automatically and is even difficult to strive for. Michael Frost shares his experience: “But I have come to realize that aiming for the community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself.” (Frost, Exiles, 108) It seems that urban living has turned us all into egocentristists. Followers of Jesus will need to make sacrifices to truly introduce community into urban contexts.

tech.samaritan said...

I would argue that resistance is a valid option. Cultures do not have to continue on a relentless march toward westernization and urbanization. Local economies will be increasingly important as the global economy cracks and shudders under the weight of the west. Globalization removes the security inherent in local systems and undermines the community's ability to withstand change.

As I move along my own path I find that my ideals are moving towards the left in the table above, even though I truly identified with the right only a few years ago. I can't help but see the right side as more prideful and selfish, which is a response/reaction to my own movement more than anything else.

It seems that community is built by shared experience and ideals, which is why it is so difficult to find or build in an urban environment where everyone is from or going somewhere else. As I am now living in a rural environment, I am finding out that community has more to do with continuity and longevity than the feeling of "connecting". You begin to feel the community when you always have the same person to talk to at the post office, always ask for help from the same guy at the hardware store, and the guy on the corner that you buy eggs from remembers details from the conversation you had a month ago. It can be found in an urban environment, but only if there is continuity, and that is what is rare. And the reason it is rare is globalization has devoured local economies which provided that security/stability.

brad brisco said...

thanks for the heads up on this book!