The Missing Folkways of Globalization

Between individual life scripts and civilization-scale Grand Narratives, there is an interesting unit of social analysis called the folkway. Historian David Hackett Fischer came up with the modern definition in 1989, in his classic, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America:

…the normative structure of values, customs and meanings that exist in any culture. This complex is not many things but one thing, with many interlocking parts…Folkways do not rise from the unconscious in even a symbolic sense — though most people do many social things without reflecting very much about them. In the modern world a folkway is apt to be a cultural artifact — the conscious instrument of human will and purpose. Often (and increasingly today) it is also the deliberate contrivance of a cultural elite.

Ever since I first encountered Fischer’s ideas, I’ve wondered whether folkways might help us understand the  social landscape of globalization. As I started thinking the idea through, it struck me that the notion of the folkway actually does the opposite. It helps explain why a force as powerful as globalization hasn’t had the social impact you would expect. The phrase “global citizen” rings hollow in a way that even the officially defunct “Yugoslavian” does not. Globalization has created a good deal of  industrial and financial infrastructure, but no real “social landscape,” Friedman-flat or otherwise. Why? I think the answer is that we are missing some folkways. Why should you care? Let me explain.

Folkway Analysis

Folkways are a particularly useful unit of analysis for America, since the sociological slate was pretty much wiped clean with the arrival of Europeans.  As Fischer shows, just four folkways, all emerging in 17th and 18th century Britain, suffice to explain much of American culture as it exists today. It is instructive to examine the American case before jumping to globalization.

So what exactly is a folkway? It’s an interrelated collection of default ways of conducting the basic, routine affairs of a society. Fischer lists the following 23 components: speech ways, building ways, family ways, gender ways, sex ways, child-rearing ways, naming ways, age ways, death ways, religious ways, magic ways, learning ways, food ways, dress ways, sport ways, work ways, time ways, wealth ways, rank ways, social ways, order ways, power ways and freedom ways.

Even a cursory examination of this list should tell you why this is such a powerful approach to analysis. If you were to describe any society through these 23 categories, you would have pretty much sequenced its genome (curious coincidence, 23 Fischer categories, 23 chromosome pairs in the human genome). You wouldn’t necessarily be able to answer every interesting social or cultural question immediately, but descriptions of the relevant folkways would contain the necessary data.

The four folkways examined by Fischer (the Puritans of New England, the Jamestown-Virginia elites, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and migrants from northern parts of Britain to Appalachia), constitute the proverbial 20% of ingredients that define 80% of the social and cultural landscape of modern America. These four original folkways created the foundations of modern American society. It is fairly easy to trace  recognizable modern American folkways, such as Red and Blue state folkways, back to the original four.

Other folkways that came later added to the base, but did not fundamentally alter the basic DNA of American society (one obvious sign: the English language as default “speech way”). Those that dissolved relatively easily into the 4-folkway matrix (such as German, Irish, Dutch or Scandinavian) are barely discernible today if you don’t know what to look for. Call them mutations. Less soluble, but high-impact ones, such as Italian, and Black (slave-descended), have turned into major subcultures that accentuate, rather than disrupt, the four-folkway matrix; rather like mitochondrial DNA. And truly alien DNA, such as Asian, has largely remained confined within insular diaspora communities; intestinal fauna, so to speak.  The one massive exception is the Latino community. In both size (current, and potential) and cultural distance from the Anglo-Saxon core, Latinos represent the only serious threat to the dominance of the four-folkway matrix. The rising Latino population led Samuel Huntington, in his controversial article in Foreign Affairs, The Hispanic Challenge, to raise an alarm about the threat to the American socio-cultural operating system. To complete our rather overwrought genetic analogy, this is a heart transplant, and Huntington was raising concerns about the risks of rejection (this is my charitable reading; there is also clearly some xenophobic anxiety at work in Huntington’s article).

I offer these details from the American case only as illustrations of the utility of the folkway concept. What interests me is the application of the concept to globalization. And I am not attempting to apply this definition merely as an academic exercise. It really is an extraordinarily solid one. It sustains Fischer’s extremely dense 2-inch thick tome (which I hope to finish by 2012). This isn’t some flippant definition made up by a shallow quick-bucks writer. It has legs.

Globalization and Folkways

Globalization is, if Tom Friedman is to be believed, an exciting process of massive social and cultural change. A great flattening. Friedman’s critics (who have written books with titles like The World is Curved) disagree about the specifics of the metaphoric geometry, but don’t contest the idea that “globalization” is creating a new kind of society. I agree that globalization is creating new technological, military and economic landscapes, but I am not sure it creating a new social landscape.

We know what the “before” looks like: an uneasy, conflict-ridden patchwork quilt of national/civilizational societies. It is a multi-polar world where, thanks to weapons of mass destruction, refined models of stateless terror, and multi-national corporations binding the fates of nations in what is starting to look like a death embrace, no one hegemon can presume to rule the world. Nobody seriously argues anymore that “Globalization” is reducible to “Americanization” (in the sense of a wholesale export of the four-folkway matrix of America). That was a genuine fear in the 80s and 90s that has since faded. The Romanization of Europe in antiquity, and the Islamization of the Middle East and North Africa in medieval times, have been the only successful examples of that dynamic.

But it is still seems reasonable to expect that this process, “globalization,” is destroying something and creating something equally coherent in its place. It is reasonable to expect that there are coherent new patterns of life emerging that deserve the label “globalized lifestyles,” and that large groups of people somewhere are living these lifestyles.  It is reasonable in short, to expect some folkways of globalization.

Surprisingly, no candidate pattern really appears to satisfy the definition of “folkway.”

With hindsight, this is not surprising. What is interesting about the list of “ways” within a folkway is the sheer quantity of stuff that must be defined, designed and matured into common use (in emergent ways of course), in order to create a basic functioning society.  Even when a society is basically sitting there, doing nothing interesting (and by “interesting”  I mean living out epic collective journeys such as the settlement of the West for America or the Meiji restoration in Japan)  there is a whole lot of activity going on.

The point here is that the activity within a folkway is not news, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. People are born, they grow up, have lives, and die. All this background folkway activity frames and contextualizes everything that happens in the foreground. The little and big epics that we take note of, and turn into everything from personal blogs to epic movies, are defined by their departure from, and return to, the canvas of folkways.

That is why, despite the power of globalization, there is “no there there,” to borrow Gertude Stein’s phrase. There is no canvas on which to paint the life stories of wannabe global citizens itching to assert a social identity that transcends tired old categories such as nationality, ethnicity, race and religion.

This wouldn’t be a problem if these venerable old folkways were in good shape. They are not. As Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone, old folkways in America are eroding faster than the ice caps are melting. Globalization itself, of course, is one of the causes. But it is not the only one. Folkways, like individual lives and civilizations, undergo rise and fall dynamics, and require periodic renewals. They have expiry dates.

Every traditional folkway today is an end-of-life social technology; internal stresses and entropy, as much as external shocks, are causing them to collapse. The erosion has perhaps progressed fastest in America, but is happening everywhere. I am enough of a nihilist to enjoy the crash-and-burn spectacle, but I am not enough of an anarchist to celebrate the lack of candidates to fill the vacuum.

The Usual Suspects

We’ve described the social “before” of globalization. What does the “after” look like? Presumably there already is (or will be) an “after,” and “globalization” is not an endless, featureless journey of continuous unstable change. That sounds like a dark sort of fun, but I suspect humans are not actually capable of living in that sort of extreme flux. We seek the security of stable patterns of life. So we should at some point be able to point to something and proclaim, there, that’s a bit of globalized society.

I once met a 19-year old second-generation Indian-American who, clearly uneasy in his skin, claimed that he thought of himself as a “global citizen.” Is there any substance to such an identity?

How is this “global citizen” born? What are the distinguishing peculiarities of his “speech ways” and “marriage ways”?  What does he eat for breakfast? What are his “building ways?”  How does this creature differ from his poor old frog-in-the-well national-identity ancestors? If there were four dominant folkways that shaped America, how many folkways are shaping the El Dorado landscape of globalization that he claims to inhabit? One? Four? Twenty? Which of this set does our hero’s story conform to? Is the Obama folkway (for want of a better word) a neo-American folkway or a global folkway?

These questions, and the difficulty of answering them, suggest that the concept of a “global citizen” is currently a pretty vacuous one.  Fischer’s point that the folkway is a complex of interlocking parts is a very important one. Most descriptions of “globalized lifestyles” fail the folkway test either because they are impoverished (they don’t offer substance in all 23 categories) or are too incoherent; they lack the systematic interlocking structure.

  1. “Multicultural” societies are no more than many decrepit old folkways living in incongruous juxtaposition, and occasionally coming together in Benneton ads and anxious mutual-admiration culture fests
  2. “Melting pot” societies are merely an outcome of some folkways dissolving into a dominant base, and others forming distinguishable subcultural flavors
  3. Cyberpunk landscapes are more fantasy than fact; a few people may be living on this gritty edge, but most are not.
  4. “Intentional” communities, which date back to early utopia experiments, have the characteristic brittleness and cultural impoverishment of too-closed communities, that limits them to marginal status.
  5. Purely virtual communities are not even worth discussing.
  6. Click-and-mortar communities, that might come together virtually, have so far been just too narrow. Take a moment to browse the groups on How many of those “interest groups” do you think have the breadth and depth to anchor a folkway?

The genetic analogy helps explain why both coverage (of the 23 categories) and “complex of interlocking parts” are important. Even the best a la carte lifestyle is a bit of a mule.  In Korea for instance, or so I am told, marriages are Western style but other important life events draw from traditional sources. Interesting, perhaps even useful, but not an independent folkway species capable of perpetuating itself as a distinct entity. That’s because a la carte gives you coverage, but not complex interlocking. On the other hand, biker gangs have complex interlocking structures and even perpetuate themselves to some extent, but do not have complete coverage. I’ve been watching some biker documentaries lately, and it is interesting how their societies default back to the four-folkway base for most of their needs, and only depart from it in some areas. They really are subcultures, not cultures.

Latte Land

I don’t know if there is even one coherent folkway of globalization, let alone the dozen or so that I think will be necessary at a minimum (some of you might in fact argue that we need thousands of  micro-Balkan folkways, but I don’t think that is a stable situation).  But I have my theories and clues.

Here’s one big clue. Remember Howard Dean and the “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show” culture?

Perhaps that’s a folkway? It wouldn’t be the first time a major folkway derived its first definition from an external source.  It sounds a la carte at first sight, but there’s some curious poetic resonance suggestive of deeper patterns.

For a long-time I was convinced that this was the case; that Blue America could be extrapolated to a Blue World, and considered the Promised Land of globalization, home to recognizable folkways. That it might allow (say)  the Bay Area, Israel, Taiwan and Bangalore to be tied together into one latte-drinking entrepreneurial folkway for instance. And maybe via a similar logic, we could bind all areas connected, and socially dominated by, Walmart supply chains into a different folkway. If Latte Land is one conceptual continent that might one day host the folkways of globalization, Walmartia would be another candidate.

I think there’s something nascent brewing there, but clearly we’re talking seeds of folkways, not fully developed ones. There are tax-hiking, latte-drinking types in Bangalore, but it is still primarily an Indian city, just as the Bay Area, despite parts achieving an Asian majority, is still recognizably and quintessentially American.

But there are interesting hints that suggest that even if Latte Land isn’t yet host to true globalized folkways, it is part of the geography that will eventually be colonized by globalization. One big hint has to do with walls and connections.

In the Age of Empires, the Chinese built the Great Wall to keep the barbarians out, and a canal system to connect the empire. The Romans built Hadrian’s wall across Britain to keep the barbarians out, and the famed Roman roads to connect the insides.

Connections within, and walls around, are characteristic features of an emerging social geography. Today the connections are fiber optic and satellite hookups between buildings in Bangalore and the Bay Area. In Bangalore, walled gated communities seal Latte Land off from the rest of India, their boundaries constituting a fractal Great Wall. In California, if you drive too far north or south of the Bay Area, the cultural change is sudden and very dramatic. Head north and you hit hippie-pot land. Head south and you hit a hangover from the ’49ers (the Gold Rush guys, not the sports team). In some parts of the middle, it is easier to find samosas than burgers. Unlike in Bangalore, there are no physical walls, but there is still a clear boundary. I don’t know how the laptop farms of Taiwan are sealed off, or the entrepreneurial digital parts of Israel from the parts fighting messy 2000 year old civilizational wars, but I bet they are.

Within the walls people are more connected to each other economically than to their host neighborhoods. Some financial shocks will propagate far faster from Bangalore to San Jose than from San Jose to (say) Merced. I know at least one couple whose “marriage way” involves the longest geometrically possible long-distance relationship, a full 180 longitude degrees apart, and maintained through frequent 17 hour flights.

Curiously, since both the insides and outsides of the new walls are internally well-connected, though in different ways, the question of who the barbarians are is not easy to answer. My tentative answer is that our side of the wall is in fact the barbarian side.  Our nascent folkways have more in common with the folkways of pastoral nomads than settled peoples.  Unlike the ancient Chinese and Romans, we’ve built the walls to seal the settled people in. I’ll argue that point another day. Trailer: the key is that “barbarians” in history haven’t actually been any more barbaric than settled peoples, and the ages of their dominance haven’t actually been “dark ages.” We may well be headed for a digital dark age driven by digital nomad-barbarians.

Our missing folkways, I think, are going to start showing up in Latte Land in the next 20 years. Also in Walmartia and other emerging globalization continents, but I don’t know as much about those.

In the meantime, I am curious if any of you have candidate folkways. Remember, it has to cover the 23 categories in “complex and interconnected” ways, and there should be a recognizable elite whose discourses are shaping it (the folkway itself can’t be limited to the elite though: the elite have always had their own globalized “jet-setting” folkways; we are talking firmly middle class here).  How many folkways do you think will emerge? 0, 1, 10 or 1000? Where? How many conceptual continents?

Random side note: This post has officially set a record for “longest gestation period.” I started this essay in 2004, two years before I started blogging. It’s kinda been a holding area for a lot of globalization ideas, about 20% of which made it into this post. I finally decided to flush it out and evolve the thread in public view rather than continue it as a working (very hard-working) paper.

Random side note #2: There are lots of books that are so thick, dense and chock-full of fantastic ideas that I could never hope to “review” or “summarize” them. In a way, this post is an alternative sort of book review, based on plucking one really good idea from a big book. Fischer’s book is a worthwhile reading project if you are ready for some intellectual heavy lifting.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This is a fascinating subject – thanks for posting it! A few thoughts.

    Folways, culture, societal norms, what ever you want to call them, are like politics: local. We can look back and say that there was a Romanization of Europe, but wasn’t that just a veneer of law codes and building projects? Deeply ingrained vestiges of Celtic culture still survive all over Europe, and no one would say that the culture of Liverpool remotely resembles that of Milan. Perhaps 2000 years killed the Roman folkways, or perhaps the old cultures of the Liverpuddlians and Milanese were never destroyed by Rome in the first place.

    I’m not sure I agree that folkways are being destroyed in America, as Putnam thinks. They are changing, perhaps, but I know that, even though I come from Latte Land here in DC, I have more in common with card-carrying NRA members in Oklahoma than I do with Latte-drinkers in Paris, no matter how much I wish the opposite were true.

    I don’t have any guesses as to what a globilized folkway might be. Maybe I’m not a believer that there will ever be a globilized “culture,” and I know part of me hopes that never happens. Globilization is an economic force, which can have profound influences on culture, but that only goes so far. Even economically, it only has a limited effect: European governments still subsidize much of their economies even after 60 years of global capitalist economists telling them what a bad idea that is. I don’t see that changing soon.

    • I think you may be underestimating the huge influence of Rome even today. It goes beyond building and law codes (and those are hardly ‘thin veneer’ … our lives are strongly shaped by architecture). Consider the fact that all European languages use the Roman Latin script. Or that the languages have so many cognates you can actually make sense of road signs in Italian even if you don’t know the language. Christianity spread along Roman roads in the Western Roman Empire after Constantine. And there’s probably Roman influence in every one of the 23 categories. The stadia in which the soccer world cup is going on are derived from those of Rome (“sport ways”). All European government forms are basically Roman in origin. Yes there is an equally strong residual Celtic/Germanic element, but I think it is fair to say that a “Romanization” of Europe occurred.

      Actually the best way to appreciate the Roman-heritage commonalities between Liverpool and Milan might be to compare the cultural distance between them to the distance between either and any place outside the Roman sphere, like in India or China. Actually, I’d argue that Roman folkways are still spreading to Asia today, via European descendants, faster than American folkways are.

      I am ambivalent about whether or not I want it to happen. There’s good in the old geographically-local folkways, but they ARE due for a makeover.

      Economic globalization… I think you have to look beyond protectionism to looser forms of dependencies. Such as network of dependencies that allowed the US subprime mortgage crisis to spread through the world through looser mechanisms like treasury bond values etc.

      You are right about the current state though. Those who “wish” for globalized lifestyles don’t have anywhere to turn to, really. That was the major point I was going for.

      • This is a little bit unrelated, but since you’ve been reading about Roman History and talking about its influence on our society, I’m wondering if you plan to write an article (or a short note on Ribbonfarm Hopper) about Roman Moral? I’m mostly interested in the differences between our society and societies where slavery is usual and acceptable.

        • Deleting the last comment, since there seems to be plenty of better material online :)

          See : Wikipedia for instance

          • Actually, my question was more about ethics in a slavery-permissive society in general rather than about the ethics of slavery itself. Although, to be sincere, I haven’t researched on this topic, yet. I just wanted to see if you had any insight on this before I started the search.

          • Afraid I don’t have much general insight to offer that isn’t better covered by online sources.

            I can see that ‘ethics in a slavery permissive society’ would be an interesting subject… a generalization of the question of how the founding fathers and their successors managed to rationalize the ‘all men are created equal’ bit for nearly 100 years. 200 if you count up to the MLK’s speech which finally made the national cognitive dissonance crystal clear.


    • With respect to Europe subsidizing its industries: are you really trying to say that the US don’t? (See: (corn) farm subsidies, support for iron industries, state support for the automobile manufacturers, …)

  2. Perhaps instead of looking to globalization for folkways, it would be more useful looking at “third culture” people.

    Third culture emerged as a term for people who grew up living in multiple cultures and never really fully adopting the folkways of any one of them. I’ve been peripherally involved with a group catering to such people and I would argue that they do have a coherent folkway that has emerged from their shared experience.

    A person who was born in America, spent 2 years in Kenya, another 5 in Shanghai and then went to college in England has more in common with a person who was born in Peru, spent 8 years in Japan and works for a French company than they do with any person who lived all of their lives in only one of those countries.

    I’m not closely enough integrated with that group to form any methodologically sound observations but, just off the cuff, there’s a strong outsider “otherness” that they all experience. They are able to see many perspectives on an issue and are often frustrated that their peers are locked into a single cultural paradigm. They tend to be not very materialistic, mainly because they understand the burden of stuff when you are constantly on the move. They tend to make superficial friends easily (or not at all and become loners) since they’ve had many experiences integrating themselves into a new culture but it’s hard for them to form deep, trusting bonds since they can be broken so easily. For marriage, I’ve heard a number of them tell me they’re more comfortable marrying another third culture person but most have, as a minimum criteria that their spouse be well traveled.

    I don’t know if all of this is coherent enough for a folkway but I would argue this is the best place to look for an emerging globalist culture.

  3. I’m skeptical that a Globalization folkway will ever develop. I think the ethic of transcending culture is too great among those who would form this new culture. They want to rise above the parochialism and nationalism and nativism and tribalism of previous generations and create something without the same danger of conflict. And I think this is incompatible with culture. You cannot both transcend culture and be part of one

    Consider the case of sports loyalty. The first stage is not caring, perhaps learning the rules. You might choose a favorite player and watch only him. The next stage is picking a team. You choose your local team, your national team or a team halfway around the world that no one you know roots for. You suffer through the hazing, the heartache of awful defeats. You wear their colors, you interrupt your schedule to watch the games, you make a pilgrimage to watch the game live. You follow all the stats. Sports are tribal and cultural.

    And if you love sports enough, you think “Wow, this could be a great career, spending every day on something I am passionate about.” So you become a journalist or a sports commentator. But to do these jobs well, you have to let go of your tribal affiliation. You stop rooting for you team and start rooting for ratings, for provocative stories, for radio show red meat. You develop a Zen-like ambivalence to the rabid emotions of die-hard fans, the ups and downs of a particular team. You transcend the tribal nature of sports. But where does that get you? There is no culture there. It’s just derivative of the culture and emotion of each team.

    One important part of culture is that you have to, as an adult, choose to accept its authority over you. Just like a confirmation ceremony or a bar mitzvah or the Amish tradition or rumspringa, where you reaffirm the religion that you were raised in, you have to accept all the folkways of your culture: you get an acceptable career, an acceptable marriage, eat and dress in acceptable ways, speak in acceptable ways, seek power and freedom in acceptable ways, uphold order in acceptable ways. If you can’t bring yourself to accept the culture’s authority over yourself, then you choose the barbarian path, to be an outlaw, living outside of the village. And if trying to transcend a culture is just one way to reject it, because you reject its authority over you. Culture requires you to be somewhere, to make a choice and deal with the opportunity cost. In this way, I especially like your idea that the global citizens are themselves the barbarians. And I’m not sure that barbarians can develop these folkways.

    • Peter:

      There is a practical problem with trying to be global on a global scale because you can’t possibly make sense of your life in relation to 6 billion others. There are even strong cognitive limits like Dunbar’s number (~150 in humans, the number of people you can think about and relate to on an individualized basis). So whatever your ideological preferences, it’ll have to fit into the 150 odd people you fit into your non-anonymous social landscape. The default is “archaic folkway” and the default reactionary outcome is “random, churning 150″ (example, bumming around the world randomly, with the occasional deeper connection in an airport lounge).

      The practical alternative is a small-scale microcosm of the globe that reflects your particular pattern of global belonging.

      Justin below mentions “glocalization” and I mean something similar but not quite the same.

      Your points about sports ‘tribes’ and a kind of “folkway contract” at a lower level than the broader social contract are intriguing, and at first sight, I am not quite sure what to think about those points.

      About ‘barbarians’ though, it is not true that they can’t develop folkways. In fact one of my hypotheses is that folkways acquire definition primarily through migration or settlement or other ‘movements.’ Traditional historians have often used ‘barbarian’ interchangeably with ‘pastoral nomad’ and all pastoral nomad peoples at least, have had very strong folk ways (with the one exception that their ‘building ways’ might be called ‘tent pitching and moving ways.’ So I think neo-Barbarians can develop folkways.

  4. The previous commentators seems sceptical about the emergence of a folkway of globalisation; I’m just sceptical.

    Stretched beyond a national and historical context, the concept of the ‘folkway’ doesn’t seem to add anything to existing theories of culture and globalisation. Though his arguments may be seductive, Huntington, as we all know, is a nutter. Instead, culture and cultural norms should be seen as in this constant state of flux, torn between power/authority and hybridity with the Other.

    So, if you’re looking for a folkway of globalisation, you need to be looking – as the above commenter suggests – at existing studies of ‘third culture children’, at Kees van der Pijl’s writings on the emergence of a transnational (global) elite as a distinct social class, at Appadurai’s work on the multiple landscapes of globalisation.

    Within anthropology, even the term ‘culture’ has been called into question as insufficiently concrete. For me, Fischer seems to have gone the other way, assuming that the 23 categories combine into a cohesive object, deserving of study. There may be something to his arguments, but it’s just too monolithic and inflexible for me to take seriously. Too arbitrary!

    The future of globalisation is going to be about glocalisation – simultaneous integration and fragmentation; strange cybernetic feedback loops. Unless things change rapidly, we’re looking at the hollowing out of the state by business, the further commodification of sovereignty, the relative decline of US hegemony, and the rapid rise of non-state actors and non-state allegiances. If you’re looking for global folkways, look to social movements (anti-globalisation, anti-nuclear, whatever), look to the cross-national subjectivity created by weather and media events such as the Icelandic ashcloud, or the sense of global citizenship created by the release of whole-earth photos from the Apollo programme. Look to your ‘cyberpunk landscapes'; they may be more fiction than fact, but they have had an impact on the social imaginary, they’re truly transnational without being necessarily reducible to a privileged social elite, and they speak the same language – of computers, technology, and social experimentation. You simply can’t discount such constituencies due to a relative lack of numbers, but have to balance their extensiveness with the intensiveness of their integration.

    And I found this quote, from anthropologist Christoph Brumann, which seemed relevant. For him, globalisation means everyone ”wearing T-shirts, mourning Lady Diana, having heard about global warming, knowing how to use a thermometer [and] liking soccer’ (Brumann, 1999: 11). Hmm.

  5. Congratulations, you’re number 4 in google search for “folkway culture”.

    I’m a little confused about the difference between folkway and culture itself. But to take your genetic analogy further:

    – New folkways arise from existing ones, mutating one characteristic at a time. So if you are looking for new ones, don’t look for something fully formed springing from the forehead of Internetius.

    – Speciation happens when populations are separated by geographical or other boundaries which prevent mixing and the damping of sexual recombination (which metaphor works rather literally in both cases). If sufficiently differentiated populations later meet, they may be unable to interbreed. Perhaps the reason America didn’t develop more folkways than the 4 it inherited was because trans-continental transportation systems became too good to allow any but the already hardened and differentiated species to form. New folkways could come only by wholesale import.

    I’m no great traveller, but from my sparse sampling of the US, India and China over the last decade, there has been a sea change. This is perhaps difficult to appreciate in the US, given that most of the change has been in Asia. The urban middle class across vastly different cultures, though still marked by their numerous folkway-chromosomal differences, have way more in common than they used to. This is a broader than Latte Land. To use the old saw, we are what we eat: so let’s look at 3 things we “eat”- literal food, consumer goods and information.

    Consumer goods accessible by the urbanites are exactly – I mean, really exactly – the same across these places, even the prices. You get the same goddamn stuff everywhere. Information – due to the Internet – is mostly in English, Google and Wikipedia are the arbiters of knowledge. Penetration is not as universal as consumer goods, and not in China just yet, but wait a generation and they’ll be the English-speaking mandarins of the.. ahem.. flat world.

    Which leaves food – the last frontier. Food is perhaps the daily consumable which still has vast amounts of local diversity and not yet McDonaldized into bland conformity.

    A decade ago, my luggage on return used to be filled to bursting with consumer goods and books unobtainable in India. Now, it’s only exotic (raw) foods – jasmine teas, coffee beans, Sichuan peppers.

  6. Getting ready to hit the road, so will try to keep this brief:

    Justin and Hang: Re: Third Culture… it has some of the characteristics of a folkway, but as you note, it has issues. If so many people end up loners etc. it means it is not a healthy folkway. I am also reluctant to make extensive movement a pre-requisite. Certainly that sort of nomadic lifestyle is increasing beyond military and diplomatic circles, but I don’t think we’ll ever economically be able to sustain high levels of “circulation” in the economy to create “movement folkways.”

    Justin: You’ve painted a lot of broad strokes arguments which would take a while to think through, but I’ll just focus on one big point that puzzles me. All these cultural focal-points, like the Icelandic ash cloud or the death of Lady Di, are extremely transient and sometimes faddish/pop-cultural pieces of glue. I can see how something truly huge like WWII could bind a global generation (and in a way it did), but I can’t see the case for these ephemera being solid enough. The same people who bonded over Diana aren’t likely to commiserate with each other over being stuck in an airport due to the ash cloud. This is random mixing and churn; nothing stable enough to be a folkway. As for your points problematizing the whole folkway concept, I can see some merit there, but we do need some sort of conceptual mechanism by which cultural ideas evolve, mature and are carried on. And since patterns do seem to persist, something must be serving as the DNA. I do agree with your glocalization point though. I’ve also heard it called “holographic” culture (fractal part=whole idea; DNA qualifies). Cybernetics isn’t particularly popular in technology anymore (the culture gang is a few centuries behind tech on this one… Wiener coined the term in the 40s in tech, and it led to something called ‘system dynamics’ which was briefly popular in the 70s, but has since been on a steady decline), but Peter Senge, one of the Cybernetics thought-leaders in recent times, makes a big deal of holographic cultures.

    Tubelite: Totally agree on most of your points, including universal availability of a consumerist “operating system” and that the genetic analogy requires differentiation/separation/speciation etc.

    The “walls” I talked about probably serve as speciation dividers… socio-culturally, it is slowly becoming more acceptable to marry inter-racially than across social classes for instance. Far likelier that people from different races will marry in the Bangalore-Bay-Area “Latte Land” belt than across the boundary in either country (latte-lander marrying uber-traditionalist from hinterland).

    When it comes to “marriage ways” the metaphor is not just a metaphor…it is kinda literally true. It takes only about a generation to kill an old culture and create a new one (happened that way with industrialization, by putting the kids of reluctant first-gen farmer-factory-laborers in industrial-style schools so they forgot all about the pleasures of pre-industrial lives and were prepped for industrial work).


    • Hmm. Touché, to a certain extent.

      Transient though those (media) events may be, I guess the point is that they are multiple and that we’re all experiencing them. For my MA dissertation, I’ve been reading Douglas Coupland’s 2009 novel Generation A. Although it rapidly decends into madness and absurdity, the early chapters do a pretty good job of representing an emerging global culture, mediated by new technologies, obsessed by these kind of frivolous media events, but not reducible to Americanization or McDonalization.

      Referencing an earlier post of yours, I guess what I was trying say is that something like the death of Princess Diana (or at least it’s media coverage) might have been a transnational social object, one of the many that are – incrimentally – forging a global subject. This draw the same kind of accusations as those laid against generational theory and all that jazz, but it feels right. So, say, Twitter makes me feel more global when I have things to discuss that allso affect the other people I’m talking with?

      Also, why do we need ‘folkways’ as a concept when we already have ‘culture’. I can kind of sense a difference, but I’m having real difficulty bending my head round it.

      • Hmm… as a social object, Di works. As a part of a folkway, she would only work if her story were integrated into some sort of folkway narrative. Does she model the aspirations/stories of a specific group globally? I don’t think so. But in a way the better-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs/techies do fit into a folkway. Linus Torvalds for instance, has a role in global programmer subculture (I wouldn’t call that a folkway).

        Folkway vs. culture: To my mind, culture is both vaguer and has a different emphasis, and at a broader scale. Elvis Presley is part of American culture, but not closely identified with a particular folkway, for instance.

        Culture focuses on “cultural stuff” … big works of art, aspirational stories etc. Folkways focus on the micro stuff: what you eat for dinner, whether you use fingers, forks or chopsticks, that sort of thing. Culture is also broader and shallower: there is a “pop culture” but no “pop folkway.” Being obsessed with Hollywood does not mean you’ll draw some unique marriage customs or kid-naming ways from Hollywood.

        That suggests a random aside thought… naming practices might well be the best radioactive tracer for mapping the contours of folkways. I forget where I saw this quote, but it stuck with me: “The naming of a child is never an insignificant act.” Names are a distilled capture of the gestalt of a folkway in many ways.

        Wonder if there’s any literature on that. I’ve read stuff about how statist efforts at governing populations effectively “rationalized” and simplified/codified naming practices (in the previously cited Scott book), but that’s still the area where folkways most express themselves.

        In the US, it is fairly easy to tell Blue/Red state names apart, as well as black names (Levitt has a nice bit on that in Freakonomics).

        I’ve been wanting to do a post on names for a really long time, but I don’t know enough.

  7. I may actually belong to a new folkway, local though it may be. I live in Vermont, a state culturally and politically transformed in the early 1970s by an influx of back-to-the-land hippies. The demographers estimate that 30,000 counterculturalists invaded a rural, agricultural, overwhelmingly Republican state of 300,000 in a few years. It was an earthquake. The key to understanding it, though, is that the hippie pioneers came to learn and be assimilated into the agricultural culture more than they came to change it.

    Although my parents arrived in 1959 and weren’t hippies by any means, I am a “biscuit Vermonter”* who has inherited the cultural mix of the 1970s. I belong to a local group of people that casually labels itself “The Homesteaders Club” and which is a sample of a larger distinct culture. We are second generation back-to-the-land types, less idealistic, more practical, only semi-agricultural, and focused on community building.

    As I looked through the “ways” listed at the beginning of the article I thought of weddings I have attended, the names of neighbor’s kids, homes we have helped each other build, clothing styles, food choices, and all the other minutiae of everyday life among the neo-communitarians of rural Vermont. There are definite patterns and commonalities that overlap but do not match the Northeast in general. It is premature to call it a fully defined folkway, but I can describe with reasonable accuracy the social practices of people within it.

    *”If a cat has kittens in the oven, do ya call ’em biscuits?” That is, a real Vermonter has family buried here.

  8. In the Pacific Northwest there is kind of an “indy folkway” if you want to call it that, based on Grafitti art and live music and making and distributing xeroxed anarchist pamphlets, wearing second hand clothes from thrift stores and shopping for organic food at co-ops.

    Its anti-globalization yet I can see that kind of thing catching on globally the most. Because, really, to me, globalization is about McDonalds and Walmart and Best Buy parking lots carpeting the globe.

    So the I predict more people will reject it and create their own local hand made culture from the ruins of the old and this will take on the flavor of the original culture with borrowed elements from all over the place. A cosmopolitan anti- global culture.

  9. Harry Pottash says:


  1. […] The Missing Folkways of Globalization by Venkat on June 16, 2010 […]