Short Teaching Module: Business History and Multilocal Approaches to World History
Globalization has meant not only greater cultural homogenization than ever before, but also growing multiculturalism, fostering many opportunities for cultural creolization and encouraging the global relaunch of different local cultures and traditions. As a result, historians of globalization are increasingly compelled to come to terms with “glocalizing” dynamics. In this essay, Giulia Crisanti discusses how business history can help us to do so. Examining the history of global corporations can provide us with innovative methods to address the history of globalization, because it encourages the adoption of a multilocal perspective. In particular, Crisanti proposes the employment of a “think global, act local” approach. This consists in overcoming nation-based points of view, by combining the historical analysis of global processes and forces unfolding and operating in different local contexts, with the parallel consideration of various local reactions and responses to globalization.
In a world increasingly global and globalized, the urgency to inquire into the global history of the world has inevitably become more pressing. But what does it mean to study and teach global history in a globalized world? If – as several scholars argue – globalization’s homogenizing drive has made the world more interdependent, integrated and similar, does this mean that it is now easier to bring closer different geographical and historical contexts and thus to effectively address issues of world and global history? As a matter of fact, the world in the age of globalization – what Benjamin Barber has defined as the “McWorld” – is not only more homogenous and/or “small,” but also more varied and localized. Globalization, rather than merely fostering increasing cultural homogenization, has proceeded hand in hand with a parallel push toward growing localization, determining not smaller, but greater cultural variety. The progressive development of the McWorld has generated more and more opportunities for cultural creolization, while also enhancing the search for authenticity and heterogeneity. Globalization led to not only the elaboration of various hybrid products, but also the global re-launch of many national and local cultural traditions. Moreover, many challenges to globalization were and are realized by appropriating the tools provided by the process itself, which facilitates the growing global circulation of products, peoples and cultures. As a result, people now live in a more multicultural environment than ever before. In light of these trends, some economists and sociologists have introduced the concept of “glocalization,” to signal the constant dialectic between the increasing emergence of global networks and processes on the one side, and the growth of localist reactions and local dynamics on the other.1
This complex interaction between the global and the local dimensions also compels historians to find new approaches to study global history, in a necessary attempt to overcome nation-based perspectives and account for the increasing glocal character of the world we live in. In the pursuit of this new approach, we can find an ally in business history and the study of multinational corporations. This is because, in the ever more globalized context, the success of many multinational companies has increasingly depended on their ability to effectively address and anticipate local backlash and adapt themselves to different local contexts. Companies like Coca Cola or McDonald’s were thus compelled to further localize their outlook and structures, building their success on their franchising strategy and on what they have defined as their “multilocal” nature.
Broadly speaking, the concept of multilocalism refers to corporations that, through franchising, operate not as “one business with a thousand branches, but as a thousand businesses with one product,” as Coca Cola man Don Wharton phrased it after WWII.2 In other words, despite selling the same products everywhere, such global companies are mutlilocal to the extent in which they conduct their businesses and are able to represent themselves not as intrusive multinational corporations, but as a wide network of local and independent producers and retailers. In doing so, they became and can be considered ideal paradigms of “glocalization:” their scope of action is global, but their operational structures are local. Moreover, multinational firms have also forced local and national actors willing to imitate or contrast their expansion to similarly think globally, but operate locally, and thus to build their own multilocal networks.
The analysis of these glocal realities and dynamics encourages historians to come to terms with a multilocal scale of action through the adoption of a similarly “think global, act local” point of view, moving across and connecting multiple localities. Business history can therefore provide us with new tools to inquire into issues of world history, because it encourages the borrowing of the same multilocal point of view employed by the companies investigated. Examining the history of most global corporations, as well as that of international movements and/or local actors challenging their expansion, requires the examination of what happens at the local level. It also requires putting different local settings into relation with one another and into an overarching global framework. This multilocal modus operandi goes beyond a merely comparative and/or transnational approach, which would still require us to think in nation-based terms.
Multilocalism can therefore help us to better understand processes that unfolded globally, but were differently received locally, bringing new perspectives to our understanding of world history. Through the adoption of a multilocal approach, it is possible to cast light on those modern processes that do not scale at the national or global level, but rather involve transboundary networks. It thereby becomes easier to connect, within a single framework, global actors facing local challenges in local contexts, and local actors facing global challenges in globalized contexts.
In order to do so, the research and selection of the primary sources must be multilocal too, through the combination of a diverse series of written and visual documents and the willingness to move across multiple localities and archives. The history of a franchising multinational company like Coca Cola offers a good example in this respect. If we want to examine Coke’s impact on production practices and on consumption habits all around the world, we must not simply look at the broader strategies and official documents produced by the mother company. We should also take into consideration and connect (between themselves and to the overarching global structure of the firm) the multiple experiences of its local and national bottlers, as well as of its various local consumers. On the one hand then, a source like Coca Cola Overseas – the official magazine dedicated by The Coca Cola Company to its foreign markets – testifies to the multilocal strategy explicitly adopted by the company to expand its markets and fruitfully advertise its presence abroad. Through the words of Coke’s officials, we learn more about the rhetoric at the root of Coca Cola’s self-representation, "The growth of the business overseas follows a pattern of decentralization that helped make the business successful at home […] in France Coca Cola is a French business. In Germany, it is a German business. In Italy, it is an Italian business."3
On the other hand, it is only by examining, connecting and comparing different local contexts that we can fully grasp the effectiveness and the limits of such a strategy and thus understand how similar corporations have entered our daily life and the extent to which they have actually changed our habits and tastes. In order to do so, we can refer to a variety of sources, ranging from the official documents produced by Coke’s local bottlers and collected by the archives of the local chambers of commerce, to the statistical data on local and national consumption levels, to the oral sources represented by the bottlers themselves.
To conclude, extending a multilocal approach from the business field to our own historical research has the merit of challenging traditionally nation-based narratives, which fail to account for the multifold networks of circulation that have shaped many world history processes both at the local level and at the global one. At the same time, it encourages us to look at non-conventional historical actors, the experience of which has been increasingly influenced as much by local and national inputs as by global trends.
1 The term “glocalization” is a linguistic hybrid combining “globalization” and “localization.” It was first introduced in the 1980s in the Harvard Business Review by Japanese economists, and later popularized by the sociologist Roland Robertson. According to the Oxford Dictionary, glocalization refers to “the practice of conducting business according to both local and global considerations,” while the Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as “the simultaneous occurrence of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies in contemporary social, political, and economic systems. See: Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: SAGE Publishing, 1992; Roland Robertson. “Globalization or Glocalization?” The Journal of International Communication 18, no. 2 (2012). Victor Roudometof, Glocalization: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2016.
2 The quote comes from: Emory University – Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, MSS 10, Robert Winship Woodruff Papers, Box 340: Don Wharton, “Coca Cola: America’s Champagne,” approximately 1940s.
3 Economic Route to Friendship,” Coca Cola Overseas, December 1952, p. 7.
Coca Cola Overseas
Multinational corporations do not usually have archives. And even when they do, these are seldom accessible. And even when this is the case, the documentation held by the archives mostly pertains to the activity of the mother company, not of its many local and national branches. Such shortage forces historians to look for sources elsewhere and/or to address the sources from a multilocal point of view. That is to simultaneously consider what a source tells us about the company’s global(izing) activity and what it reveals about the company’s local impact and strategies. When we examine an article (e.g. the one quoted in the essay) from a magazine such as Coca Cola Overseas – which was dedicated to the company’s overseas expansion, but also exclusively intended for internal use and distribution – we have to consider what purpose the article served for The Coca Cola Company in Atlanta (e.g. why did Coca Cola provide itself with an informative magazine on foreign markets? To whom was the article addressed?), and what it unveils on Coke’s penetration into a specific non-American market. In doing so, we meet two objectives. By considering the purpose of the article (for example: an article written by Coke’s representatives in Italy might serve to provide evidence of Coca Cola’s strategies there and thus justify greater investments), we make sure not to uncritically trust a source. By putting into relation what various articles reveal about Coke’s activities in different local contexts with the general strategies employed by the mother company, we establish meaningful transboundary and multilocal connections. Likewise, if we want to inquire about the history of a simultaneously global and multilocal company such as Coca Cola, we must be ready to look into the documentation produced by its local branches. The image shows one of Coke's several bottling plants in Italy: tracing all of them down enables us to understand who were the bottlers entrusted with Coca Cola's expansion, what were their strategies and whether or how and why these were different from those adopted by the mother company. We thereby enhance our comprehension of how the global dimension is intertwined with the local one and how multinational corporations are able to locally integrate their activity and thus thrive.
This source is included as part of the Business History and Multilocal Approaches to World History teaching module.
Crawford, Alice, Sarah A. Humphries and Margaret M. Geddy. “McDonald’s: A Case Study in Glocalization.” The Journal of Global Business Issues 9, no. 1, pp. 11-18.
Gobo, Giampietro. “Glocalizing Methodology? The Encounter Between the Local Methodologies.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vol. 4, no. 6, 2011, pp. 417-437.
Robertson, Roland. Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: SAGE Publishing, 1992.
Robertson, Roland. “Globalization or Glocalization?” The Journal of International Communication 18, no. 2, 2012.
Roudometof, Victor. Glocalization: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Giulia Crisanti received her Ph.D. from Fordham University and is a research fellow at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. She is currently taking part in the PRIN project “Transatlantic Transfers: The Italian Presence in Post-War America.”