Globalization is the new fault line on the world’s ideological map: Most people seem to be either passionate supporters or violent opponents. There is virtually no middle ground.

The pitched street battles that were fought when the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle late last year and when the International Monetary (IMF) met in Washington D.C. this year are eloquent reminders of the passions that globalization has whipped up over the past few years.

Academic research and specialist writing on the subject too is deeply divided, though it is not necessarily accompanied by the thunder and fury that have followed in the wake of most public debates on globalization. Consensus is missing here as well.

In a working paper entitled "Is Globalization Civilizing, Destructive or Feeble? A Critique of Five Key Debates in the Social-Science Literature" for Wharton’s Reginald H. Jones Center, which is to appear in the next issue of The Annual Review of Sociology, management professor Mauro F. Guillen reviews the extensive literature on globalization, arguing in effect that we are still in the "infancy of our attempts to understand" this subject.

Borrowing Albert Hirschman’s celebrated metaphors, Guillen argues that globalization is not a feeble phenomenon. It is changing the nature of the world. But it is neither invariably civilizing nor destructive. It is neither monolithic nor an inevitable phenomenon. So one has to be open minded about it.

Five critical questions have been raised that are designed to help produce a clearer understanding of globalization. Is it really happening; does it produce convergence in social, political and organizational patterns; does it undermine the authority of nation states; is globality different from modernity; and is a global culture in the making.

Guillen’s extensive review of the literature on globalization attempts to figure out where the balance of opinion on each of these five critical issues tilts. First, the most important question: Is it really happening? Most research either assumes or documents that globalization is indeed happening, though the time of its birth is still a hotly contested issue.

Data from the 1980-95 period shows the progress of globalization in terms of a number of parameters, from the increasing importance of direct foreign investment to the boom in international tourism to the rise in the number of international telephone calls to the increase in international criminal activity.

What you are reading right now on your computer screen is some sort of proof that globalization is for real. This article was written in Mumbai (Bombay), India, based on research carried out at a university in Philadelphia, Pa., and is perhaps being read right now by an Algerian management student studying in London.

Though globalization is definitely happening, most empirical studies — with the important exception of the world society approach — do not find convergence in political, social and organizational patterns as a result. The conventional view in the 1950s and 1960s was that the spread of markets and technology would ensure that different societies and economies would converge. In reality, such uniformity has not materialized. Diversity endures, a fact which is now being recognized in modern research on the effects of globalization.

Another conclusion which emerges from this review of contemporary writing and research on globalization is that it neither threatens the nation-state nor the welfare state. Both will survive into the future, and there is no better testimony of this than the fact that the number of members of the United Nations has increased from 157 to 184 between 1980 and 1995. The most commonly voiced fears about globalization could be exaggerated, if not unfounded.

Perhaps the most difficult debate surrounding globalization revolves around the question of whether it is merely a continuation of the trend towards modernity or the beginning of a new era. For sociologists, the relationship between modernity and globality is of central importance. There are more and better arguments to support the case for globality being different from modernity, says Guillen.

And, finally, the fifth issue: Is a global culture in the making? The idea dates back to the 1960s and Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the global village. However, though a few contemporary scholars maintain that a global consumerist culture is indeed on the rise, they are outnumbered by those holding the opposite view. Ultimately, the issue about the alleged rise of a global culture can be examined with a simple question: What is the global language? English is the obvious answer, but it is sobering to remember that its dominance is being threatened even in traditional strongholds like the U.K. and the U.S.

Thus the social science on globalization contains important theoretical and empirical disagreements. The complexity of the entire process, argues Guillen, suggests that additional research – leading to a comparative sociology of globalization – is needed. We are far removed from any final answers about globalization and its effects on economies, societies and political systems.