Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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The New Cosmopolitans

As globalization proceeds, with the help of ever-faster communications, faster travel, and more powerful multinational corporations, a new, cosmopolitan social class seems to be emerging. These citizens of the world are developing loyalties to each other that cross national boundaries.

I was at a dinner the other night with Yale World Fellows, a carefully selected group of professionals, representing every major country of the world, who spend a semester here. It was an unusual experience, because I began to feel that none of these people were really foreign to me. It seemed they were probably easier to talk to than the local Americans who were waiting on us as and serving food.

Of course, a cosmopolitan class is hardly new. In fact, 50 years ago, in his classic book Social Theory and Social Structure, the late sociologist Robert K. Merton described the results of a case study of influential people in a typical American town, Rovere, New Jersey. As a sociologist, he chose this tiny town to study how people relate to each other and influence each other, just as biologists study tiny worms with only a few hundred cells so that they can study how each cell relates to an organism as a whole.

Merton discovered a strong pattern. Rovere’s influential people seemed to be sharply divided into “cosmopolitan influentials,” who habitually orient themselves with respect to the world at large, and “local influentials,” who orient themselves with respect to their own town. As he and his assistants interviewed people, the division between the two groups became more intriguing, and significant, in his mind.

Merton did not say that the cosmopolitan influentials were influential outside Rovere – apparently none of them was. What stood out instead was their habitual frame of reference, which was tied to their personal identities. When Merton engaged people in conversation, any topic would remind the cosmopolitan influentials of the world at large, while local influentials were reminded of things in their own town.

Cosmopolitan influentials, Merton said, tended to hang their success on their general knowledge, whereas locals relied on their friendships and connections. The cosmopolitan influentials were often uninterested in meeting new people in town; the locals wanted to know everyone. The cosmopolitan influentials tended to take positions in local government that reflected their broad expertise: board of health, housing committee, or board of education. The local influentials tend to be in positions that they got through their local popularity: street commissioner, mayor, or township board member.

The cosmopolitan influential in the town is like the medical specialist; the local influential is like the family doctor. Merton concluded: “It appears that the cosmopolitan influential has a following because he knows , the local influential because he understands .”

The local influentials, Merton discovered, spoke affectionately of their town, as if it were a unique and special place, and often said they would never leave. The cosmopolitans spoke as if they might leave any day.

What was true in Merton’s day is becoming even more starkly true in today’s globalized economy. What I find particularly striking is the sense of loyalty developing among cosmopolitans.

After the World Fellows Dinner, the Fellow from Namibia was extolling to me, in impeccable and relaxed English, the beautiful vacation homes I might find (and even buy) there. I felt as if I could perhaps fall into a relationship with him that might work against the interests of the locals in Namibia. I could picture doing that, and he and I would be natural allies, if I let it happen.

I was left wondering why this is happening on such a scale now. Obviously, improved communications technology plays a role. But how much does that explain the impression that the division between cosmopolitans and locals is so much wider now?

One must realize that individuals choose whether to play the role of cosmopolitan or local, and how much to invest in that role. People make a conscious choice to become either cosmopolitans or locals, depending on their own personal talents and the perceived returns from making the choice.

In the twenty-first century, the new information age creates opportunities not just to be cosmopolitan in spirit and orientation, but to forge strong connections with other cosmopolitans. The cosmopolitans have shared experiences: they are directly communicating with each other across the globe. Many cosmopolitans around the world now also share the English language, the new lingua franca.

The term “global village” was first popularized in the late 1960’s by Canadian communications maven Marshall McLuhan in response to the already powerful communications media of that day. But McLuhan could not have anticipated the cosmopolitan class, because he could not have anticipated the immense development of direct interpersonal communications media that allow cosmopolitans around the world to form friendships.

The cosmopolitans tend to be increasingly wealthy, and their wealth helps mark them as cosmopolitan. Thus, economic inequality is felt differently in today’s world. Perhaps it is accepted resignedly, as the cosmopolitan class is too amorphous and ill-defined to be the target of any social movement. There is no spokesperson for the cosmopolitan class, no organization that could be blamed for what is happening.

I fear for the future. How will the cosmopolitan class behave as their role in the world economy continues to strengthen? How unfeeling will they come to be about the people who share their neighborhoods? Most importantly, if resentment by the locals emerges, what political consequences will result?

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