|Submissions »||Staff »||Archives »||About »||Links »|
Reflections from Abroad
Today it often seems that the differences between countries are diminishing; familiar products can be bought in shopping centers resembling western malls, universities are divided into the same departments, and the bureaucracy encountered at the embassy to extend a student visa is similarly frustrating.
This isomorphism, or similarity of form, gives us an illusion of a world coming together through the expansion of democracy, rule of law, and bureaucratic effectiveness, but often these forms are vacant, deprived of real content, and applied without taking into account the history and culture of the individual country.
We asked Stanford students overseas: “Have you observed isomorphism in the country you're staying in? What role do international institutions such as free trade agreements and organizations, geographic unions like the European Union, or the work of the United Nations and lending institutions such as the World Bank and IMF play in fostering isomorphism in your country? How, if at all, do you think this is affecting the culture of the country?” Here are their responses.
After the War, the United States played a large role in German recovery, but rather than just mimicking the US, the modern political and economic development in broader Germany and Berlin in particular has fostered a society not only rich in western democratic values, but also espousing a unique culture and one of the most supportive social systems in Europe.
German democracy is new compared to some of its western counterparts, but one would not know that based on its degree of development. Rather than having a vapid, bureaucratic structure, German politics has provided some of the most interesting challenges to a democratic system, and successes thereafter, including the post-war economic recovery, division during the Cold War, and eventual reunification.
Few know that today Germany is the number one exporter in the world; it overtook the US thanks to the recent strengthening of the Euro. Though showing weak growth, domestic businesses retain strength and resilience, and while participating in the global market, they remain uniquely German.
There is no lack of national identity here, despite or even because of the EU. And I doubt there is a country that is more European than Germany - geographically, historically, or with regard to self-identity. Germany is the strongest and closest neighbor to the ten new states that entered in 2004, giving it particular interest and influence in the area. While many other western European states still retain traditional patriotic or vaguely nationalist values, German citizens have seemed to abandoned those in favor of pride in ideals and actions, for example its environmental policies. These ideas are at the core of what the future of Europe should be.
The EU has shaped modern Germany, and Germany has granted the EU the same favor. Passing one of the stray Starbucks spattered around the city, I am reminded of our increasingly global world, but walking around Kreuzberg, looking at the mixture of old and new buildings, hearing spontaneous demonstrations in the street, passing political graffiti on the walls, and frequenting the diversity of bars, Berlin is still very much Berlin.
Subways or Santería?
One would expect there to be a strong American influence on the culture of the Dominican Republic, as it is a country with a long historical military and economic relationship with the United States. And indeed, walking down the street in Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city, one does notice American fast food restaurants, retail stores, and a select few Dominicans, those who either have family in the US or have been lucky enough to go to the US themselves, dripping with the accoutrements of American culture. Because of the increasingly free flow of goods between the US and the Dominican Republic (a trend that was recently codified with the signing of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), or "the treaty of free trade" as it is known to Dominicans), Americana has crept into the consumption patterns and activities of the Dominican elite. In addition, many of these Americanized elites, dubbed "Dominican Yorks" (a reference to the state to which most Dominicans emigrate), are desperate to recreate the American experience in their home country. In fact, the Dominican Republic’s president, Leonel Fernandez, one of the leading proponents of this Americanization, has proposed the construction of a subway so that Santo Domingo might become a "Little New York."
But while a traveler confined to the affluent areas of the capital might conclude that a Starbucks is destined to open up next to Columbus's tomb sometime soon, in reality, international agreements and institutions limit this isomorphism in the vast majority of the country. While the World Bank has helped many small villages obtain electricity and paved roads, which have improved their chances for prosperity, groups like United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), through funding and heritage preservation programs, are helping to preserve the culture of communities like Villa Mella, on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. Residents of such communities maintain traditional musical religious practices such as unorthodox saint worship that have long disappeared in the capital. In addition, varieties of international assistance from such groups as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and, yes, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF), take into account the socio-historical importance of rural traditions, helping Dominican citizens to keep their way of life by supporting locally-owned farms and traditional agricultural practices. Of course, with the help of these organizations, rural communities are modernizing to remain competitive in world markets, but at the same time they are not giving up their lifestyle, and not letting isomorphism permeate the whole of society.
Finally, poor application of the ideals of democratic governance further limits the influence of American culture on the masses. Politicians and wealthy Dominicans collaborate in corruption to amass fortunes at the expense of regular citizens while spurring the Americanization of a select few, further limiting the influence of American culture on the masses. That is not to say most do not want access, but inequality limits opportunities to the elite.
Thus, isomorphism as I have experienced it in the Dominican Republic is a force in the upper strata of society. However, even in a country with the closest economic and social ties to the United States, this cultural convergence does not affect the majority of the population. Indeed, for these Dominicans, the American dream has remained out of reach.
Ukraine’s newfound freedom, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has caused this country, situated between two distinct political, economic and cultural forces - Russia to the east and the Europe to the west – to take whatever purely Ukrainian cultural heritage it could amass and turn westward. Within this little heritage bundle it so proudly defends are the Ukrainian language, cultural traditions and food – things like the Ukrainian custom of painting pysankas on Easter and a beet soup called borsht, which during long years of Soviet occupation have become synonymous with Russian culture.
Ukrainian and Russian cultures were closely aligned even before Ukraine was annexed by the Soviet Union. Indeed, the battle between the Ukrainian and Russian language over dominance in Ukraine has been going on since the 17th century. Today, Russian is often not taught in schools and children read Tolstoy translated into Ukrainian. Ironically, English is considered Ukraine’s second language while it is Russian that is spoken by 24% of the population1 . The artificial trivialization of the importance of Russian is an example of how Ukraine’s aggressive nationalist policy is disregarding its nation’s history. For better or for worse, the fusion of Russian and Ukrainian cultures cannot be ignored and Ukraine may find itself left with very little if it persists in filtering all of its history through a fine sieve in order to derive only purely Ukrainian forms.
Another consequence of Ukraine’s separation from Russia and all things Russian is that by shunning one pole it has unequivocally embraced the other. This love of the West was consummated by the presidential elections in December of last year, in which the candidates, Victor Yushenko and Victor Yanukovich, represented two futures for Ukraine: one closely allied with the West and the other with Russia, respectively. By taking to the streets in the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians chose Yushenko and with him the West and everything it stands for – non-corrupt democratic government, transparency, and the rule of law. It has been a year now since that election and it is difficult to say that the Ukrainian government has become less corrupt or more transparent, but it is hugely popular for politicians and the press to measure the actions of the president according to the democratic scale and point to his faults when he does not measure up, claiming such elevated ideals as “justice” and “equality,” all for the same benefit of personal gain. This to me seems like the perfect example of isomorphism – Ukraine seems to have acquired only the empty shell of democracy.
The Orange Revolution took place in Ploshjad’ Nezalezhnosti, translated from Ukrainian into “Independence Plaza,” the space beneath which has been converted into a three story underground shopping mall resembling its American counterparts. Khreshatik, considered the main street of Kiev, runs past Ploshjad’ Nezalezhnosti. In the past few years it has turned into one giant display of Ukrainian nationalism and its successful alliance with the West. On weekends, this central street is blocked of to traffic to allow the multitude of locals and visitors to the capital to promenade up and down to the sound of Ukrainian pop music or young stars singing remakes of Ukrainian folk songs. Youth in roller skates, dressed in bright costumes advertising T-Mobile gather under building archways preparing to ride through the crowds, while passersby receive free soda given away as part of a new Sprite promotion. My Ukrainian friends are very proud of this street and of the fact that their country attracts so much Western attention. Young people flock to Kiev from the rural villages of Ukraine, eager to take part in its games of politics and nationalism, because they see it as a link to the West.
For a country ruled throughout history by Polish, Turkish, Lithuanian, German and Soviet forces, Ukraine is proud to have finally acquired its own identity. It is understandable why it looks to the successes of the West in hopes of making them its own reality, but I believe that this cannot be done unless the country has a firm understanding of, and has come to terms with, its past.
Although I am nostalgic for the peaceful, green chestnut-tree filled Kiev and a Khreshatik with grocery stores where one could buy “Kievski tort,” a Kiev specialty cake, instead of Western clothing stores and underground malls, I do not believe that people, cities, or countries should remain static. Change is a natural process but to change effectively, for the better, one must understand and accept one’s own history. Only then will Western ideals stop being merely forms and take root in Ukraine.
China in Transformation
The Best of All Possible Worlds
In the diffusion of foreign cultures through globalization, French culture
represents the best of all worlds… but of course! It’s France! Why would
one need to look any further? Actually, it is really Paris that is the
center of the entire universe, but France as a whole is still miles ahead
of the rest of the world. This is a Frenchman’s view of culture, French or
otherwise. It has existed for centuries and is still strong today. Luckily
for the Frenchman, France is wonderful and her culture is a thing worth
H&M: A case study of an international chain that does appeal to the French
1 CIA World Factbook, accessed November 23, 2005, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/up.html#People
Copyright © 2006, Stanford Journal of International Relations
Department of International Relations, Stanford University
Last updated: 5/24/06, by Hammad Ahmed.