Issue 38, April 2006 A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s  R e v i e w

Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report edited by Shaun Wilson, Gabrielle Meagher, Rachel Gibson, David Denmark and Mark Western

Reviewed by Paul James

© all rights reserved

Questions focused on in this response:

  1. Are Australians open to globalisation? by Ian Marsh, Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson

  2. Immigration, multiculturalism and national identity. by Murray Goot and Ian Watson

  3. Are postmaterialists engaged citizens? by Mark Western and Bruce Tranter

Australian responses to the various processes of globalization are contradictory. They vary across class, gender and education. Moreover, given that 'globalization' is a contested and variously defined term, it is notoriously hard to pin down social attitudes to the processes and layers of globalization in a meaningful way without conducting synthetic research across both quantitative and qualitative methods. The potential responses to a apparently pointed survey question such as 'Is globalization a good, bad or neutral phenomenon?' are so dependent on how each person defines the term as to make the sentiment being measured vague and shifting across individual presumptions and the dominant ideologically-charged projections of our time. This is not to suggest that such a question is completely unhelpful, but empirical work requires extraordinary care, and the interpretations that can be drawn from such work need to be sensitive to the profound limitations of what can be claimed. The recently published Australian Social Attitudes report shows all the strengths and weaknesses of analysis based almost entirely on two entry points into researching subjective values - a questionnaire and national statistical data (Wilson, Meagher, Gibson, Denemark and Western, 2005). In this brief review I am not going to try to work my way through the Report in general, but mostly confine my comments to the areas of globalization, national identity, immigration and lifestyle consumption.

Most studies on the impacts of globalization are focused on developments at an international level and their impacts on nation-states and supra-regions, with contemporary globalization most often equated with capitalist economic expansion and associated neoliberal ideologies, 'globalization from above' (Falk, 1999). Two recent international studies (Savage, Bagnall, and Longhurst, 2005; and Brennan, 2003) have made a start on reversing the emphasis, but the field is still very thin and completely under-researched. Given the extraordinary impact of globalization on Australia, it is doubly surprisingly that so little work has been done in this country on social attitudes to its various processes, let alone to the more complex question of the relationship between local-global ways of living and globalizing change. This all makes the chapter on globalization in the Australian Social Attitudes report all the more important, but also means that it carries a burden of heavy expectation that it cannot meet.

The chapter begins by appropriately acknowledging the elusiveness of the phenomenon of globalization. Importantly, countering the dominant neo-liberal definitions that tend to come out in state and business documents, it recognizes that globalization is a broader phenomenon than an economic process of market integration and 'freedom'. Consistent with this, the survey questions are more specific than 'globalism, good or bad?' and broader than just on economic issues. For example, the survey ranges across areas as broad as economic 'openness' and commodity exchange, the role of international organizations, and Australia's relationship to Asia The authors of the chapter on globalization, Ian Marsh, Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson, are concerned to talk about Australians mixed attitudes and the analysis and conclusions remain carefully restrained by the parameters of questionnaires. The findings of the chapter can be summed up in one sentence: 'This chapter has shown that Australians are comparatively 'closed' to globalization on key subjective and objective measures, and that Australian attitudes to global engagement are shaped by the respondents' economic security and views about the effect of an open economy on jobs' (p. 255) In other words, Australian responses to globalization divide along the line between winners and losers.

That sounds a sustainable assessment as far as it goes. However, despite their care, the authors succumb to a number of pitfalls, including two that they set out to avoid: first, an overemphasis on the economy, and, secondly, reducing globalization to a one-dimensional process. A third limitation of the Report, one that remained unforeseen by its framers, was that by relying upon nationally-defined demographics the Report's framework makes it intrinsically impossible for its interpreters having anything to say about one of the most important subjective phenomena of globalization--the intensification of localization and the relation between the local and the global.

There are many analytical ways of talking about different processes of globalization. When, for example, Ian Marsh, Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson suggest that Australians tend to be 'closed' to globalization, they are overgeneralizing about responses on one plane of global interchange. To clarify this we need to get beyond the conventional distinction between the globalizations of economics, politics and culture. When each of these spheres is increasingly seen in terms of the market the distinctions start to lose their critical usefulness. This can also be seen in the way that Mark Western and Bruce Tranter in their chapter 'Are Postmaterialists Engaged Citizens?' uncritically deploy the term 'postmaterialism'. They assume the conclusions of Ron Inglehardt's dubious 'World Values Survey', also based almost exclusively on national questionnaire data-sets. It suggests that across the globe in 'advanced democracies' we are seeing a generalized shift from materialist values imbued with concerns about economic advancement to postmaterialist values about quality of life and self-expression. This is a questionable conclusion which turns on a distinction that is completely misleading. The concept of 'postmaterialism' itself is thoroughly caught up in an ideological shift which leave questionnaires unable to distinguish between how a person expresses surface values and how they live deeper sensibilities. To be blunt about it, what is the meaning of a term like 'postmaterialism' when in this supposedly 'postmaterial' world we produce and consume more 'goods' than ever before in human history. With the globalization of the market and the commodification and instrumentalization of an increasing range of things and processes, including self-expression (all dimensions of the new materialism), the claim about 'postmaterialism' becomes soggy with the liberal, rationalizing aspirationalism of its authors. It is indicative that Mark Western and Bruce Tranter do not seem to notice bizarre outcomes in their analysis: for example, that 'Religion is more important to materialists than others' (p. 93). Karl Marx and Max Weber would have a field day on that one.

These points taken together suggest, firstly, the need for a series of methodological step beyond empirical generalization based on questionaires, and, secondly, a sensitivity to the theories of subjective formation and the changing nature of selfhood in the globalizing West. There is only the space to take one of those steps here. If we further cut across the economy, politics, culture distinctions with further complimentary way of working through the range of globalizations--namely, from the embodied integration and movement of people to the most disembodied and abstract processes of financial and electronic mediated exchange--then the issues become a little clearer. The four-fold classification of forms of globalization that I tend to draw upon sounds a little complicated at first, but it will allow us to make some finer-grained distinctions in relation to the nature of globalization and social responses to it (Nairn and James, 2005):

embodied globalization
object-extended globalization
agency-extended globalization
disembodied globalization

Embodied globalization includes the movements of peoples across the world, the oldest form of globalism and a dominant characteristic of traditional globalization. This form is still current today in the staccato, concentrated and regulated movements (not flows) of refugees, emigrants, and tourists. What we find is that Australian attitudes to embodied globalization have varied considerably across the last decade or so; however, as the intriguing chapter on immigration by Murray Goot and Ian Watson shows, opposition to immigration has fallen significantly across the period of 1996 to 2003. In 2003, 69 per cent of respondents thought that 'Immigrants are generally good for the economy' and 74 per cent believed that 'Immigrants make Australia open to new ideas and cultures'. These figures, completely passed over by the chapter of globalization, run directly counter to its conclusions. It would be similarly interesting to have access to the figures on responses to tourism; that is, including the movement of friends, families and ourselves around the world as one of the bourgeoning 'postmaterial' forms of life-style consumerism. We can presume from the objective evidence of increasing tourism that as consuming individuals that many Australians are in favour of the opening opportunities for global travel.

Object-extended globalization involves the movements of objects, in particular traded commodities, as well as those most ubiquitous objects of exchange and communication: coins and stamps. It is no small irony that Nike once a religiously-grounded Greek goddess is now the name of a modern/postmodern globalized consumption object largely produced in the Global South on consignment to a company that no longer produces anything itself except a corporate advertising image. Australians, it seems, are in favour of the increasing goods available from global sources, but also in favour of protecting the Australian economy. Without wanting to reduce the complexity of the changing nature of the self in relation to the market and the nation-state, this makes sense for persons responding simultaneously as autonomous selves and national citizens. As individuals we are happy to have more global choice and as national citizens we still assume the importance of the national economy.

Agency-extended globalization can be characterized by the movements of agents of institutions such as corporations and states so prominent today, though gaining ground quite early with the first expansionist empires. In the present, this form of globalization is complicated by the bourgeoning number of non-governmental and international organizations (NGOs and IOs), networks, syndicates and cartels, with states as only one form of transnational 'actor' amongst others. At this level of globalized integration, 'Australian' responses to global interchange are also understandably complex. Australians are concerned about international organizations (a technical term in the literature), but as the authors of the chapter on globalization point out, this may not mean that Australians are against the United Nations or World Trade Organization (to take two controversial examples that would elicit completely different political responses), but also be taken in the popular culture to include global corporations.  

Finally, disembodied-extended globalization is defined in terms of the flows of 'immaterial' things and processes including images, electronic texts and encoded capital. This is the only new level of contemporary globalization, with both modern and postmodern layers. It has its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, but it only really took off in a substantial way with the development of electronic communications and computerized exchange of the late twentieth century. This is the least regulated form of globalization, with embodied globalization the most state-regulated. From the evidence presented in the chapter on globalization there is little to say about this area of interchange, however if we link this theme to David Denemark's chapter on the media, we can again question the conclusion of the authors of the globalization chapter that 'Australians' are comparatively 'closed' to globalization. Seventy per cent of respondents said that they had access to the World Wide Web, a pre-eminent medium of disembodied globalization.

All of this adds up to a plea for treating social surveys as always part of a matrix of methodologies and lifting the analysis above the theoretical level of empirical generalization. The Australian Social Attitudes report is extraordinarily interesting, but without cross-cutting methods of getting data including follow-up interviews and newspaper content analysis, as well as a more generalizing theoretical orientation, the report will stay, as the Prime Minister of Australia has said on many occasions, as the poll that does not make much difference.


Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report was published by UNSW Press, Sydney in 2005. ISBN 0 86840 671 6.

Paul James is Director of the Globalism Institute at RMIT, an editor of Arena Journal, and on the Council of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies. His book with Tom Nairn, Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-Terror, has just been published by Pluto Press, and Globalism, Nationalism Tribalism: Bringing Theory Back In will be published by Sage shortly.



Brennan, T., Globalization and its Terrors: Daily Life in the West , Routledge, London, 2003.

Falk, R.A., Predatory Globalization: A Critique , Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Nairn, T and P. James, Global Matrix , Pluto Press, London, 2005.

Savage, M., G. Bagnall and B. Longhurst, Globalization and Belonging , Sage Publications, London, 2005.

Wilson, S., G Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Denemark, and M. Western, Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report , UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005.

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