Hi-Tech and Alternative Medicine:
The Role of the New Middle-Class in the Globalisation of Culture
Student: Nicolas John
Supervisor: Dr. Eva Illouz
This project will investigate the new middle-class as a globalising and global class. The idea of a global class has come about because of globalisation’s effects on stratification. At the bottom of the scale is the global proletariat, urged to become more “flexible” in order to attract capital to their city/country/area, and at the top is the Transnational Capitalist Class, moving huge sums of money around the globe in the search for maximum profits. Somewhere in between these two groupings, the new middle-class has a special location within processes of globalisation. The technological advances we see as inherent to globalisation – for example, the computer revolution and other information-communication technologies – have been spearheaded by technical experts from the new middle-class. Meanwhile, the multitudinous cultural messages transmitted via those technologies – be they films and books or ideas and workplace practices – are created and then interpreted by cultural experts, also new middle-class members. In addition, many of the social movements critical of globalisation (the Greens, for instance, but also various New Age movements) – no less global than the phenomena they abhor – draw their manpower and support from the new middle-class. What links these three sub-groups is their possession and use of expertise and abstract knowledge, kinds of capital which are easily transferable across space – thus their crucial position in processes of globalisation.
There is a strong sense, then, in which members of the new middle-class, which I shall define more fully below, are the bearers and carriers of globalisation, at least in its cultural moment. This research not only hypothesizes the formation of a global new middle-class, but also suggests that it is precisely its involvement in global processes that is (becoming) a major identifying feature of the new middle-class, and an increasingly important source of its power. I shall study how globalization serves as a resource in cultural struggles on the part of both aspects of the new middle-class, and how control over it allows certain groups to stake out positions in different cultural and professional fields.
Such concerns, though, can only be properly researched within a local context: we can assume that the specific concerns of the new middle-class in India, say, differ from those in Britain. Following an imperative of research into globalisation – that the local is no less important that the global, that all global phenomena have their local expressions – the local context for this research will be Israel. Indeed, Israel during the 1990s would appear to provide rich empirical material in this regard. The nineties can be seen as Israel’s decade of globalization, accompanied by strong tendencies to individualism, liberalism and consumerism. It was also the decade in which the new middle-class established its autonomy from the state and unashamedly declared its attraction to things both “western” (especially in the field of consumption) and “eastern” (for instance, a boom in interest in “alternative” practices and holistic spirituality) – in other words, it firmly placed itself within the global cultural arena (Cohen, 2000; Illouz & John, Forthcoming; Kimmerling, 2001; Ram, 1999a, 1999b, 2000; Shafir & Peled, 2000, 2002; Shalev, 1999; Sharkansky, 1999, 2000). I do not propose to carry out research into these developments per se, and I shall have more to say about them later on. However, they constitute special circumstances against which to research the practices of a liberal, predominantly secular, middle-class. As such, they constitute the background to this research, which aims to understand how globalisation is used as a resource in furthering certain cultural-ideological aims.
The globalisation of Israeli society, of which more below, is more complex than is implied by the popular term, Americanisation.1 This is true in two senses. Firstly, Israeli society has unarguably experienced processes of “westernisation” and “Americanisation” in many respects, as is well represented by the meteoric rise of the hi-tech industry, not to mention its subsequent depression following economic developments in the USA (particularly the Nasdaq crash). However, the country has also experienced a different kind of globalisation, as testified to by the huge growth in the popularity of alternative medicine and other things “Eastern”, spiritual and “New Age”. The extent to which alternative medicine in Israel is truly “eastern” is questionable, but the blossoming of a fascination with the east, particularly eastern spirituality and healing, is undeniable. These examples – hi-tech and healing – could also stand for broad parallel trends in the contemporary trajectory of modernity: on the one hand, a Habermasian “colonisation of the lifeworld”, and on the other, a celebration of the spirit and irrationality. To acknowledge that both of these elements can be found underneath the large umbrella of globalisation is to acknowledge the multi-dimensionality of that phenomenon, something I plan to take into account in my research.
The second sense in which the globalisation of Israeli society, or indeed of any society, can be called complex lies in the concept of cultural hybridisation. For example, it is far from clear that cultural imports, be they McDonald’s or traditional Chinese medicine, are simply carbon copied into the Israeli context. Indeed, it is clear that they are not. Instead, research shows that they undergo processes of adaptation and hybridisation as they move into a new society and become in some way “Israeli” (Azaryahu, 2000; Fadlon, 1999). I shall elaborate upon this later on, but there is a tendency amongst those who use the concept of hybridisation to see it as creativity and autonomy freely employed by actors who playfully give new meanings to cultural imports. I would like to make a different claim, namely that hybridisation is a process touched by power and interests, in particular the interests of those most involved in the globalisation of culture.
Indeed, my contention is that certain people are more involved in the actual hybridisation of cultural imports than others, and that they, intentionally or otherwise, will tend to shape new cultural phenomena according to their interests, world views, and so forth, in ways that are appropriate to their local context. In other words, processes of hybridisation are not free from issues of power, control and interest, which, by and large, is how current theoretical understandings portray the situation. Furthermore, because I am dealing here with the movement of culture, its dissemination, diffusion, and, in many cases, commodification, I maintain that the group of people at the heart of all this is the new middle-class.
I propose to research the new middle-class and its special affinity with the globalisation of culture in such as a way as will take into account the complexities of both the new middle-class and globalisation. For this reason, and others which I will present later, my empirical work will be conducted in two fields enjoyed especial growth during the 1990s: hi-tech and alternative medicine. I sought two groups of representative experts or professionals (new middle-class members), people who are deeply involved in those fields, and who make them accessible to others through selling their extra-local technologies or skills. Therefore, the empirical work will be conducted amongst internet service providers and traditional Chinese Medicine. These fields incorporate both the conservative and radical sides of the new middle-class, as well as offering potentially different models of globalisation, and thus different types of new middle-class activity in relation to globalisation. Through these cases, rather than seeing globalization as a faceless and inevitable process, we can ask how the new middle-class tries to control certain identifiable processes of cultural globalization to further its own interests.