Dr. Gail Ferguson discusses how globalization impacts identity


Photo courtesy of Dr. Gail Ferguson.

Rachel Kelly, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, Oct. 12, Macalester welcomed Dr. Gail Ferguson from the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development to give a lecture titled “Globalization as a Crucible for Cultural Identity Development and Family Resilience.” 

Dr. Ferguson is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota whose areas of interest include translational research, families and parenting, socialization of youth, intervention and resilience building. 

After being welcomed by Macalester’s psychology professor Steve Guglielmo, Dr. Ferguson summarized the topics of her research and the contents of the talk. The main focus of the lecture was the idea that globalization is the crucible for cultural identity development and family resilience. Globalization offers both positive opportunities for growth and numerous negative consequences, both on individual and communal levels.

“The aim of the work of my lab is to describe, explain, predict, and then intervene on the ramifications of globalization as a new macro-context for human development,” Dr. Ferguson said. 

The main research question Dr. Ferguson focused on was how these facets of globalization impact youth and adolescent development, and how people learn about other cultures and how parents choose to socialize their children.

“We’re studying three facets of globalization in particular,” Ferguson said. “First, media and its impact as a socializing force. Second, migration and so we’re doing work with immigrants and refugees. And third, multiculturalism, which includes everybody else living in diverse societies.”

She defined globalization to ensure the audience understood the basic idea of the lecture.

“[Globalization is the] multidirectional flow of goods, people and ideas,” Ferguson said. “[Technology creates] new modes of culture [movement] … People can be exposed to these new cultural forms much faster … and so this has implications.”

Dr. Ferguson broke down four examples of globalization as the crucible for identity development and family resilience. She started with the COVID-19 pandemic. She argued that COVID-19 spread due to increased movement of peoples and the crisis it created was a crucible. COVID-19 changed family dynamics which allowed for both challenges and opportunities to arise. 

“Work plus school at home equals stress,” Ferguson said. “We concluded that we saw a lot of resilience in these families because they talk about the early days… they could remember when [COVID-19]  first struck and schools were immediately closed, and they talked about how they were adjusting over time, and so we could even see that process of resilience at work as they were dealing with adversity,” she said, referencing a study she published called “Family resilience and psychological distress in the COVID-19 pandemic: A mixed-methods study”. 

Her next example still revolved around the COVID-19 but zoomed in on how Somali families are coping with the whiteness pandemic during the time of COVID-19, also called a racism epidemic. Her psychological research included interviews and questionnaires with 89 Somali-American and Jamaican-American adolescents in Minnesota and Florida. 

“These two locations were chosen because these are the highest concentrations of these two Black immigrant and refugee populations,” Ferguson said. “They were about 14 years old on average, and 75% of the sample was from the Minneapolis metro, and then 25% Jamaicans in the Miami metro [FL].”

The negative consequences of globalization on adolescent wellbeing included forced or voluntary assimilation, high levels of screen time and discrimination. The positive benefits of the pandemic included a strong cultural identity, increased integration of cultures meaning bicultural or tricultural and remote enculturation which allowed for positive feelings of belonging. Screen self-regulation also occurred where students would limit the amount of time spent online, a sign of increased resiliency.

The next example was called the whiteness pandemic project. This research looked at white mothers and how the development of their own identity changes the way they socialize their children. Dr. Ferguson clarified that the research focused on mothers because they are generally the parent responsible for emotional education and socialization. 

“[The whiteness pandemic refers to] the intergenerational transmission of the culture of whiteness into which white children are socialized but it’s very covert, not overt racism, just covert silence and passivity and inaction when [racial justice] action is needed,” Dr. Ferguson said.

She examined how many white mothers she talked with were silent about the murder of George Floyd, choosing to shield their children instead of educate them. However, after a year passed and the mothers were interviewed again, 75% of the mothers showed significant growth in their own identity development, using media to learn which in turn, influenced their children’s socialization. 

Dr. Ferguson used the last example to go more in depth about her own research and ideas of intervention within psychological development and creation of family and individual resilience. She also gave background on her own identity, including being born and raised in Jamaica and then studying as an international student for her undergraduate education and her story to the research she was talking about.

Dr. Ferguson decided to study families in Jamaica to understand how globalization and spread of American culture impacts identity development in youth and family relations. She found that one third of the Jamaicans she surveyed were what she labeled Americanized Jamaicans, people who identify with American identity and culture and associated themselves with the U.S. despite never having been there. Youth who identified more with America had increased tensions within family units, but were more prepared for the global marketplace.

The degree of American orientation and enjoyment of cable TV was related to increased consumption of junk food. Eating fast food or junk food from the U.S. allowed Jamaican youth to associate with American culture. 

“If media is a risk factor, US produced media, it seemed to me that having some skills to counteract that media would be a possible buffer and that’s called media literacy,” Dr. Ferguson said.

Media literacy allows Jamaicans to understand American advertisements more effectively, so increased media doesn’t correlate with increased food consumption. This protective factor of media literacy is what fueled Dr. Ferguson’s workshop, JUS Media. 

This workshop brought mothers and children together to critique advertisements from the U.S. and make their own advertisements instead, centering balanced meals. Dr. Ferguson decided to digitize the workshop, originally done in person in Jamaica, and then adapted the material to fit new communities, with particular focus on Somali immigrant communities in the U.S. 

“Every culture has both healthy and unhealthy foods. Traditional diets from your own heritage culture often include a balance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. On the other hand, the mainstream American diet includes a lot of junk food like salty snacks and chips, fried foods and sugary cookies, candies and sodas which are all bad for your health. Staying connected to your heritage culture can protect you from the negative influences of the unhealthy mainstream white American diet,” a video shown at the lecture narrated. 

She also explained the larger systemic issues her workshop doesn’t address. While helping families bond and develop media literacy is important, systems need to change too. Healthier foods need to be cheaper and unhealthy foods should be subsidized. There are ways local businesses are pushing against the increased number of fast food restaurants in Jamaica too. Mass production of Jamaican food connects easy, cheap food, with cultural heritage and health. 

The lecture ended with a Q & A during which the audience was able to ask questions or share related stories and experiences. 

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