Skip to main content
Survival of the Local and Cultural Identity
Jul 1, 2015

Ermek Tursynov's Shal (2012) ("The Old Man") is one of the many masterpieces Kazakh cinema produced both during the Soviet era and following independence. It depicts a few days in the life of an old man on the steppes in beautiful Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world. In the midst of Eurasia, Kazakhstan stretches over thousands of miles and has a continental climate.

Kasym lives with his grandson and daughter-in-law in the steppes. These steppes, native Kazakh land, can present challenges, particularly in winter. A harsh climate and specific geographic characteristics make life difficult. For those who are not born and raised there, things may be even harder. Daily life, work, travel, and other activities require struggles against nature's routines. Kasym shepherds a herd of sheep on the steppes through winter and fights with the hardships of the season. On the other hand, some visiting hunters, equipped with advanced modern technology such as a vehicle, weapons, and a navigation tool, get lost; some even die.

Extreme cold weather and wild animals, mainly wolves, challenge the herd and the old man; they face fatal dangers. His grandson, Erali, having not heard from his grandfather for longer than expected takes off to search for Kasym. Although Erali and the old man do not seem to be on very good terms with each other, Erali's efforts in looking for Kasym reveal his love towards his grandfather. Local folks, along with some rescuers, join Erali in his endeavor. Kasym is able to use his knowledge of the native land, where he spent all his life, to survive against the cold and the wolves' attacks. Constantly moving, he manages to help a surviving hunter as well. Days later, just as his hopes are fading, Erali finds Kasym, who outwits nature while the visiting hunters lose their battle against the steppes.

Some critiques emphasize the parallels between Shal and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, about an old fisherman's fight for a catch while fishing. This may be so on the surface as both plots weave an old man figure against nature. Both may convey a deeper message, though - the advantage of the native. Kasym's refined local skills allow him to fight the great steppes, while a team of non-natives turn helpless. As a man of dala, the great openness, Kasym knows every trick the winter in the steppes will play on him and is ready to hit back. Kasym's grandson, Erali, who helped initiate the rescue, may, on another level, be considered the heir to the local knowledge. Aware of the challenges in the steppes, despite his young age, Erali, a native too, is worried that the old man may be in danger.

Shal is a successful depiction of life in the dala, the great openness, of Kazakhstan. Stories such as Shal inspire thoughts on globalization and cultural identity. The artistic sphere reflects on global and local issues and provides insight into human experience. Globalization stands as one of the major issues affecting local cultures. As the world globalizes, it raises questions of a shared global culture versus local identity. A global culture comes into being through various social and cultural processes, sharing a worldview, language, opportunities, and even food (Bird - Stevens, 2003; Khondker, 2004). Cultural identity is defined by concepts of common history, and shared experiences, practices, and culture codes (Hall, 1996). Cultural identity, which may be shared by a nation, a people, or a community - as well as a diaspora - may provide people with the power for survival. It is alive and it is reshaped through new experiences (Fanon, 2007).

Many worry that the cultural identity of communities is threatened by globalization, since a global culture has been thought to be against the idea of local culture. Many questions have been put forward: Would globalization pose threats to local knowledge? Should the local be protected against globalization? Do global agreements respect local identities?

Financial gains as well as the social impacts of globalization have been the topics of many discussions and talks. Contemporary developments in internet technology and communication, through the outreach they provide, as well as improved transportation, seem to support globalization. Social media helps send messages around the globe in an instant. We are able to learn the news around the world with just a click. The globe "becomes flat" (Friedman, 2006), as multi-national companies turn borderless. Websites sell products to international customers.

Globalization, as threatening as it may sound to some, serves the common good in many respects. Smart phones, tablets, and other electronic devices accompany individuals around the clock, with apps constituting a globally shared environment where global and local characteristics interact. For instance, travelers around the globe are able to track international and local flights in an instant, no matter where they may be. International locations such as airports offer services available and known to travelers around the globe. Global aid organizations such as Kimse Yok Mu or Doctors without Borders reach those in need of assistance around the world. Policies about certain issues such as global warming cover millions, even billions, of people. Through global efforts to protect the environment, awareness is raised among many people. Global values such as human rights protect vast swaths of people (Castells, 2005). Global interfaith and intercultural dialogue efforts reach communities that are trying to avoid conflict. Various groups, communities, and nations may come to understand one another and resolve conflicts through global dialogue efforts. Different experiences are shared by the global community.

At the same time, what we consider global may help define its opposite, the local. Tomlinson's (2003) approach to globalization and cultural identity brings along a broader lens through which to view globalization and identity. Contrary to perceiving globalization as the destroyer of cultural identity, Tomlinson puts forward globalization to generate identity. People may tend to identify with their own community the most in the event of globalization; their shared values, sense of space, and cultural identity empower continuity (Widdis, 2006). In a sense, awareness of globalization brings about awareness of local cultural identity. As in Thai educational reform (Jungck - Kajornsin, 2003), local wisdom is brought back to provide a larger living arena for generations to come. Local wisdom lives on as gleaned from a cultural existence in a local surrounding. On another level, Dupuis (2014) looked into cultural management issues between Canadian and French environments. What he concluded may be valid for localities around the globe. He emphasized the differences in local cultures and the variability of interaction between any global force and local elements. Thus, global contribution may rely on local wisdom.

In 1984, Kundera wrote in The Tragedy of Central Europe that the identity owned by a people is reflected in its culture and the culture becomes an increasingly-owned value for people if their shared identity is threatened. When global activities threaten local identity, it will be protected and emphasized more. The impact of globalization on local elements deserves longitudinal investigation. Yet, today, whenever there is some discussion of globalization, locality is invariably involved and the local elements affected by global activities are on the agenda of those interested.

Similarly, European Union regulations, when evaluated as documents with global characteristics, are almost always mentioned along with respect for local elements. EU legislation ensures respect for locality. Tomlinson (2003) stated that cultural identity, which will not be easily shaken by globalization, is a powerful dimension of community life. Global activities, instead of threatening, may be highlighting the local identities that represent various forms of belonging - belonging to a land, belonging in a particular culture, or belonging to a community or group. For instance, there is no doubt that locals seem to have an advantage in their own territories when extreme locations such as deserts, poles, or glaciers are considered. Populations living in or around these territories possess localized knowledge, experience, and familiarity, all of which define their identities. It would take a foreigner, no matter how well equipped, years to attain and master such knowledge.

The interaction between globalization and local elements may be viewed from even more diverse angles. For instance, although conflict on the international level is more visible (than interdependence), global activities may indicate a dimension of interdependence (Pevehouse, 2004) between the local and the global, similar to the interdependence among states in the US or the interdependence among EU countries. In Wittgenstein's words, interdependence is very much a part of the natural context:

"Just as we cannot think of spatial objects at all apart from space, or temporal objects apart from time, so we cannot think of any object apart from the possibility of its connection with other things."

Various considerations of globalization and locality breed new concepts such as glocalization and grobalization. Glocalization refers to the interaction between the global and the local, with distinct outcomes in some geographic regions (Ritzer, 2003). Singapore may be one example where glocalization processes prevailed. Grobalization, on the other hand, is about growth and globalization concerns in a more corporate sense. Both glocalization and grobalization, and related concepts of hybridity and creolization, are worth further appreciation. They are hereby mentioned solely for the sake of suggestion.

Thus, in the Shal, Kasym's story would have taken a different course if the visiting hunters had collaborated with him, the native. Shal offers a beautifully painted picture of struggles for survival on a harsh land where local knowledge, wisdom, and expertise are invaluable and global information may mostly be short of depth.


  • Bird, A., - Stevens, M. J. (2003). Toward an emergent global culture and the effects of globalization on obsolescing national cultures. Journal of International Management, 9(4), 395-407.
  • Castells, M. (2010). Globalisation and identity. Quaderns de la Mediterrania, (5), 183-189.
  • Dupuis, J. P. (2014). New approaches in cross-cultural management research The importance of context and meaning in the perception of management styles. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 14(1), 67-84.
  • Fanon, F. (2007). The wretched of the earth. Grove Press.
  • Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat [updated and expanded]: A brief history of the twenty-first century. Macmillan.
  • Hall, S. (1996). Cultural identity and cinematic representation. Black British cultural studies: A reader, 210-222.
  • Jungck, S., - Kajornsin, B. (2003). Thai wisdom" and glocalization: Negotiating the global and the local in Thailand's national education reform. Local meanings, global schooling: Anthropology and world culture theory, 27-49.
  • Khondker, H. H. (2004). Globalization to Glocalization: Evolution of a Sociological Concept. Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.
  • Kundera, M. (1984). The tragedy of central Europe. The New York Review of Books, 31(7), 33-38.
  • Pevehouse, J. C. (2004). Interdependence theory and the measurement of international conflict. Journal of Politics, 66(1), 247-266.
  • Ritzer, G. (2003). Rethinking globalization: Glocalization/grobalization and something/nothing. Sociological theory, 21(3), 193-209.
  • Widdis, R. W. (2006). Globalization, Glocalization and the Canadian West as Region: A Geographer's View. Acadiensis, 129-137.