World History Connected Home    
 
 
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          
   

Book Review

 

Schaeffer, Robert K. Understanding Globalization: The Social Consequences of Political, Economic, and Environmental Change, second edition (Lanham, Md.; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003). 336 pp, $27.95.

 
     Robert K. Schaeffer has written an erudite, thoroughly researched, and lucid discussion of issues related to the question of globalization in the contemporary world. The book is full of interesting data, insightful commentary, and astute analysis of global change over the last thirty five years. Schaeffer is ambitious in the scope of the issues he attempts to discuss, tackling everything from currency to climate change to drug trafficking. It is an interesting and informative read for anyone curious about recent events in world history, economics, politics, or sociology. Yet the book is also often frustrating. An emphasis on economic developments to the exclusion of other issues related to globalization, an excessive focus on the United States and the North-South divide, and reliance on some out-dated data, hinder Schaeffer's arguments. 1
     In his introduction, Schaeffer quickly surveys the literature on globalization, taking issue with much of it for either being too narrowly focused, too broad in the conclusions it draws about the effects of globalization, or misguided in its dating of the beginning of globalization. The reader is left a bit uneasy at the outset, because Schaeffer never gets around to precisely defining globalization, except to say that it refers to the growth and spread of investment, trade, production, and technology around the world. Most scholars agree with Schaeffer when he describes, in the introduction, the multiplicity of factors involved in globalization. Where Schaeffer is more original is in his insistence on the 1970s as the transformative moment in the history of recent globalization. Schaeffer also wants to distinguish himself from other students of globalization by arguing that globalization cannot be considered uniformly. "The attempt to generalize or universalize about globalization is mistaken," Schaeffer writes, arguing instead that globalization has "diverse consequences" that "are not uniformly positive or negative but simultaneously good for some and bad for others." (11) 2
     Despite such original claims, it is precisely on these that the book disappoints. On the one hand, Schaeffer is unconvincing in his effort to establish the early 1970s as the beginning of globalization. This is because he places so much primacy on the devaluation of the US dollar and rising interest rates in the United States and Europe in the 1970s. To be sure, Schaeffer develops a fine case for the wide ranging consequences of these developments around the world in the 1970s and after. However, he only rarely acknowledges that the very processes of globalization that he discusses were well underway before the early 1970s. Instead Schaeffer argues that the abandonment of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s has led to increased economic instability in the world, because fluctuations in the value of currencies have led to volatility in the prices of commodities and labor. But he ignores similar periods of currency volatility, uneven foreign investment, and volatility in the prices of commodities that have had global repercussions in previous periods in history. One need think only of the export boom in Latin America between 1870 and 1930, the concomitant foreign investment in the region, and the subsequent bust in the prices of Latin American goods from beef to guano, which resulted in political change and instability across Latin America during the 1930s and 1940s. There are many parallels between this history and the story Schaeffer tells about debt crisis and political change in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s. Even when Schaeffer does recognize historical precedent, such as in his discussion of the global drug trade in Chapter 13 (which he dates as far back as the 19th century), he undermines his argument that the beginning of the processes of globalization began in the 1970s. 3
     On the other hand, although Schaeffer warns against generalizing about the processes of globalization, his study focuses primarily on economics, and thus the subtitle of his book turns out to be rather misleading. US monetary policy in the 1970s is the foundation of contemporary globalization for Schaeffer, and it is economic change that seems to interest Schaeffer the most. Indeed, he focuses on changes in technology, culture, and gender in their global context only in so far as developments in these areas occurred as a result of the economic developments of the 1970s. Moreover, Schaeffer neglects to include in his study any discussion of the impact of advances in transportation (such as standardized shipping containers) or communication (the Internet and the use of cell phones). Regardless of the impact of the macroeconomic changes Schaeffer identifies, these other kinds of developments are significant because they have revolutionized the ability of people in various parts of the world to interact with each other, with both positive and negative consequences for all. 4
     One final frustration with the book is its emphasis on the United States and the North-South divide. Schaeffer places so much primacy on the effects of dollar devaluations and rising interest rates in the United States and Western Europe in his chapter on the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s that his argument recalls the claims of dependency theorists who wrote on US-Latin American relations in the 1970s. His chapter on commodity prices focuses almost exclusively on the "North" and the "South," and though he identifies exceptions in passing (for example, he points out on page 127 that Colombia escaped the economic crises that plagued many countries in the "South" by shifting its coffee production to Arabica beans which were more highly sought after in the "North"), he too frequently lumps the countries of the "South" together, neglecting the differences between them. One interested in exploring the effects of globalization for diverse peoples might have noted the experiences during the 1980s of countries of the "South" such as Chile and Peru, which weathered the storm of the debt crisis rather differently. While Chileans enjoyed political and economic stability during this period (even through the transition from dictatorship to democracy), the road has been far more rocky and tenuous for their Peruvian neighbors who have dealt with recurring labor strikes, political corruption, and economic instability. 5
      Thus, while Schaeffer shows clearly that workers and farmers in America and developing countries may have been effected differently by the processes of globalization, he at times falls into the same trap of generalization for which he criticizes others. Schaeffer is clearly frustrated with those who proclaim globalization "good" or "bad," and his desire to explore the different effects of globalization is admirable. But after reading the book, the reader is left with the feeling that for Schaeffer, globalization has had essentially two sets of results: mixed results for the United States and Western Europe, and negative consequences for the developing countries of the world. This is a very general and uniform conclusion. Moreover, Schaeffer's exploration of the processes of globalization is not, in fact, "global": rather, it focuses mainly on the United States and Western Europe and those parts of the developing world that were immediately influenced by the west. Conspicuously absent from Schaeffer's book, except for passing references, are any significant discussions about Russia, China, and even Africa. It is particularly striking that Schaeffer spends so little time discussing the economic changes that have taken place in the Chinese economy over the last fifteen years, which have been largely influenced by the processes of globalization. 6
     Finally, out-dated data on a topic of such currency is unavoidable to some degree, but Schaeffer frequently uses empirical data, much of which could have been updated in this edition of the book. Data on world carbon dioxide emissions is from 1994 (183), and public opinion data from Russia on the merits of communism are also from that year (303). By 2003, the ration of US carbon emissions and Chinese carbon emissions per capita had narrowed, from ten to one, which Schaeffer cites, to about 7.3 to one. And in 2000, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported that only 36% of Russians were dissatisfied with the political and economic progress that had been made in Russia since 1991. This is in stark contrast to Schaeffer's note that two-thirds of Russians felt better off under communism. Numbers such as these should have been updated in the second edition of the book. 7
     Despite these criticisms, the book remains informative and useful for those seeking an introduction to the processes and issues related to globalization in the last thirty to sixty years—especially those who are interested in economic developments. Schaeffer makes an intentional effort to write the book in a way that allows each chapter to stand on its own. This structure has two merits. First, Schaeffer's argument about the importance of currency valuations and interest rates, which is complex, is made very clear throughout the book. Those unfamiliar with the global ramifications of rising or falling interest rates, for example, will find the book easy to read due to Schaeffer's lucid explanations and his willingness to restate and redevelop key points in several places throughout the book. A second strength of this structure, particularly for teachers and students, is that it allows the book to be read in bits and pieces. This can be frustrating for those reading the book for Schaeffer's larger arguments, though some chapters, such as Chapter 7 on "Food, Trade, and Hunger" are quite effective in providing both a great deal of detail and integrating the topic into the larger themes of globalization. That said, this structure will allow those who cannot, or who choose not to, read the book in its entirety to select those topics which they find most compelling or pertinent to their interests. 8
     Robert Schaeffer's Understanding Globalization is a valuable read for its breadth and its clarity. Students in advanced high school courses, undergraduates, and general readers will find Schaeffer's book an accessible and valuable introduction to global economic developments and, to a lesser extent, their political and cultural repercussions since the 1970s. The text would make a nice end piece to a course in world history, particularly if students can recognize and critique the emphasis Schaeffer places on US monetary policy. Finally, individual chapters on food, democratization, and the drug trade make worthwhile pieces for discussion on their own, and also could serve as jumping off points for further research. 9
John A. King, Jr.
Ransom Everglades School

 
Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.


Terms and Conditions of Use