A Conversation With Pippa Norris on ‘Cosmopolitan Communications’

Is cultural diversity at risk because of the Internet? No, according to Pippa Norris, who shared results from her research and upcoming book today at the Berkman Center. The starting point for this concern about cultural hegemony is rooted in the long-running debate around globalization. Critics like Ben Barber worry about the ‘McDonalds-ization’ and ‘Coca-Colonization’ of foreign cultures by the US. You could also add Naomi Klein’s widely cited No Logo. For the critics, globalization is a major threat to local cultures and languages.

Cultural goods, including traditional published works, TV, and new media are washing across borders. Pippa showed a graph that demonstrates that the US has the dominate position in audio-visual trade, and America has also expanded how many cultural products it has produced over time. This dominance doesn’t even include the informal cultural market, the pirated copying and distribution of movies, which is quite significant, and would probably magnify US cultural dominance by several orders of magnitude.

There are four theories according to Pippa that attempt to explain the impact of transnational information flows, and the dominance of US cultural production. First, it can lead to ‘convergence’ around western values and culture, putting smaller countries and their cultures under threat. In her book Pippa looks at the case of Bhutan, which until 1999 did not have the Internet or TV, which many in Bhutan blamed for increased violence among children. Another theory argues that increased information flows and cultural production that is dominated by the US will lead to increased polarization–other cultures will simply reject western cultural values. Third, a ‘hybrid culture’ may emerge, where cultures mix the best of the existing culture with that from the outside. And fourth is Pippa’s view, which she calls the the firewall model. There are a number of firewalls that prevent or inhibit cultural dominance by the west. These barriers include trade integration (or lack there of), existing internal barriers to communication including cost and the digital divide, as well as a county’s openness to learning and ability to integrate foreign cultures.

Pippa also discussed her Cosmopolitanism Index. At the very bottom are Burma, Rwanda, Burundi and Iran. At the very top Luxembourg, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and the United States. So what does this mean for Trust in Outsiders? The Cosmo Index shows that parochial societies have the least trust of outsiders, and that even within those parochial countries, the more access you have to media the more likely you are to trust outsiders. One of the least trusting of outsiders is China. Those that are most trusting include Norway, Sweden and the US.

Pippa concludes that increased access to news media is positively associated with increased trust of outsiders, and also limits nationalism. This sounds obvious, but it blows a big hole in Putnam’s theory that TV and the Internet are destroying civic trust. Her policy conclusion is that globalization of news media is much less of a threat to national diversity than many of the pessimists would have us believe. More details are on her website.

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