'Glocalization'? What is that? The global, the local, and health policy research


I don’t do ‘global health research’. But, I do have concern for those people in the world who might not have access to the resources they need to live healthy, happy lives. So how can I make an impact on global health?

‘Global health’ is all about helping to improve the lives of the people of the world. Not to be confused with ‘International health’, global health is defined as “the area of study, research and practice that places a priority on improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide” (Koplan et al, 2009, The Lancet).

Sounds great. But the demands of my research and my work more generally focus my attention on the city and country in which I live: Toronto, Canada. This is a modern, fast-paced, urban centre, and the health system here demands a lot of attention to improve upon the issues of equity, efficiency, and quality.

Sometimes it takes just a little bit of exposure to the people and ideas of a new discipline to get a sense of how we can fit into its larger mandate. As I looked into the idea of global health and the broader context in which global health initiatives take place, I came to realize that I was locked into an old way of thinking. The excuse “but my own country needs my attention” doesn’t really apply anymore.

The reason for that comes from a particularly nice neologism (a recently ‘made up’ word) that sort of stumbles off the tongue: Glocalization. This gem of a term comes from putting ‘globalization’ and ‘localization’ together, and it’s meaning is the almost paradoxical marriage of those two important concepts.

Glocalization was popularized by the work of sociologist Roland Robertson, and he traces its roots (with the help of the Oxford Dictionary of New Words) from a Japanese business perspective emphasizing “a global outlook adapted to local conditions”. The key point of the glocalization perspective is that even our most local ways of doing things are increasingly co-constituted by the most global of social and economic trends.

That is, even when we focus on our local contexts, we must be attuned to the global trends and pressures that help to make these local contexts what they are. And conversely, we must recognize how our local decisions, systems, and preferred solutions make their way back into the global space.

We are no longer simply left to our own local devices, and this rings loud and true for our work in health care and health policy.

In an article that is currently in press in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Professor Tikki Pang of the National University of Singapore outlines key research priorities in continuing to work toward achieving the global Millennium Development Goals related to women’s health.

Without giving it all away, these priorities include (a) involving women and minorities in health research to expand the relevance of health research for these groups, and (b) broadening our perspectives on ‘women’s health’ to include the social conditions that support healthy living. These are two very concrete, very specific things that all researchers can do to help achieve the goals of global health.

These suggestions reflect the recognition that the continuous flow of people, economic capital, and cultural ideas between the global north and the global south permeate the research we all do. By broadening our perspectives on what constitutes health, and including women and minorities in our research, we can focus on the people and ideas that drive this ‘global flow’. In so doing, we can help to achieve the goals of ‘global health’.

As Professor Tikki Pang suggests in his article, “knowledge is the foundation for future progress.” We can all be a part of developing this knowledge in ways that are relevant and meaningful for a truly global audience, whatever the primary focus of our health-related research may be.

As the first annual Health Services Research conference rapidly approaches (1-3 July, 2014), I plan to further consider how I can get involved in global health. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to speak to one of the many global health leaders who will be present, including Professor Tikki Pang. Those are the conversations that inspire new territory for young researchers like myself.

In the meantime, I’ll consider a key learning from this blog: In a ‘glocalized world’, the work every researcher can reverberate around the globe in one way or another.

You can follow Jay on Twitter: @jayshaw29 and he’ll be tweeting live from the BioMed Central Health Services Research conference in July using the hashtag #HSRconf2014.

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