Random thoughts on scale

Human geography — and particularly Marxist human geographers such as the work of Harvey, Smith, and LeFevre — have developed the notion of ‘scale’ that have found their way into anthropological theory. Thus we have notions of scale making and scale jumping percolating into the works of Tsing, West, and so forth. These concepts have always seemed naggingly imprecise to me although it is difficult exactly to say why. I want to take a stab at explaining why here, even though I’m hardly an expert on this literature.

Scale, technically, is the representative fraction that indicates the relationship of a unit of distance on a map to a distance on earth — one inch to a mile, and so forth. ‘Issues’ of scale arise when geographers enter the realm of (as Neokantians might put it) problems selection and focus — what ‘scale’ is appropiate for a particular research topic? That of the country, the region, the city? Since geography is (almost by definition) catrographically inclined, issues of research focus and design are expressed in spatial terms.

This is all well and good, but when anthropology begins adopting these terms this spatial metaphor for problem selection — appropriate for cartographic endeavors — gets stretched to the point where it becomes a hinderance rather than a help. This is particularly true, I feel, in the case of the literature on globalization.

Anthropological literature on globalization still does not actually get much beyond ‘the village’ (and, I hasten to add, this is find with me). True, the anthropological ‘fieldwork imaginary’ now often includes the metropole that first-world anthropologists fly into on their way to their third-world fieldsites. But books like Friction and Conservation Is Our Government Now (to take the two I’ve been thinking about most lately) are, despite attempts (and chapters) to the contrary, still mostly about Kalimantan and Papua New Guinea and make little attempt to do an ethnography of globalization that truly involves sites from around the globe.

In fact most of what we anthropologists talk about when we talk about ‘scale making’ is not an investigation of regional or global processes. We do not attempt to discern how many places we will have to travel to to examine these processes. Instead we talk about how people in the localities that we do our fieldwork ‘make scale’.

But note that this is not, technically, an investigation into the spatial extension of certain sociopolitical processes across the surface of the earth. It is rather an investigation into the imputation of agency to collective subjects versus individual ones. We are speaking of the ways in which the actions of Pericles get attributed to the polis of Athens, or the way that some white guy in Jakarta convinces others that he represents ‘global flows of finance’ insofar as he represents Deloitte Touche.

These are questions of the framing of issues and identities that tie in with the literature on communicative practice or the social construction of reality as we find it in, for instance in the ‘social problems’ literature and the work of its heir apparent, Bruno Latour.

Of course narratives of time-and-space spanning puissance are not disconnected from time-and-space spanning puissance. Indeed, the only way to get the latter is to make the former sufficiently taken-for-granted and efficacious that they actually entail behavior. And indeed, as Latour and Callon pointed out long ago, when anthropologists assume the existence of corporate subjectivities such as ‘Renault’ or ‘The State’ they help these macro-actors come to appear taken-for-granted.

The situation here is similar to the literature on “spatializing the state”:/2006/09/11/making-the-state-feasible/. Understanding the relationship between the ‘state ideology’ or ‘globalization ideology’ (in the sense of ‘language ideology’) is hard, and using loosely-fitted metaphors like ‘spatializing the state’ or ‘scale making’ just make it even harder.

Let us remember the lessons learned from the processural anthropology of the later 1970s and early 1980s: It is exactly the interplay between claims to airtight regimentation of social life — as Sally Falk Moore called it — and what happens when these rules are deployed in practice that constitutes our subject matter as anthropologists. To me, notions of scale developed in adjacent disciplines confuse complex issues and prevent us from seeing possible relationships with other more closely aligned works of theory.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

10 thoughts on “Random thoughts on scale

  1. –I don’t think you’ve shown how ‘scale making’ and ‘spatializing the state’ make understanding ‘state ideology’ or ‘globalization ideology’ harder, at least not in this post. Aren’t those rubrics attempts to find a language to do exactly what you are ostensibly calling for: ways of making explicit (rather than taking for granted) the elicitation of ‘collective’ agents, as for example in the rhetorical (symbolic, discursive, representational) construct of the state as vertically integrative, as ‘above’?

    –I have followed with great interest and continuing admiration your insistence that ‘big’ actors (states) be subjected to the same de-naturalizing analysis to which small actors (tribes) are routinely subjected. Can you tell us how military power fits in your current thinking on how states are entified or thing-ed? E.g., ok, Marxist critique relies in large part on the social mechanisms through which surplus is systematically extracted from the laboring masses who actually create the value that animates and underwrite society and social life. A crucial aspect of the way the system works is through the application of or the threat of force. How do -you- conceptualize force?

    –In a related query, that is not exactly tangential but might seem a bit oblique: Are you freaking out about the Iraq war? Cause I am. I go through these phases of becoming sort of mentally consumed by what’s going on — almost unhinged. It started shortly after invasion, subsided, rose again, etc. I was very concerned over the year I spent in San Diego, where anti-war activism is incredibly robust and serious (that was way back in 03-04). I’m thrilled that there is quite vocal opposition to the war in the States (from what I can tell), that the Democrats are pursuing the kind of oppositional oversight that they needed to have been doing all along. And yet, I just don’t see any good paths out of the situation and it frankly frightens me. A friend reports from the World Social Forum in Nairobi that there is a palpable sense amongst many folks that things are headed for a big big war.

    –OK, back to main point: force and entification, plus space and scale. Military technologies of course are one way in which states have been able to make ‘space’ almost irrelevant to the exercise of force. We can imagine ICBMs of course, and the notion that nuclear annihiliation might have, at any given moment, already begun and be only 30 minutes away, to the development of things like the C-17, which is designed to ‘extend the reach’ of US military muscle into remote dirt airstrips. How does Pericles get equated with Athens? More to the point: How does ‘the decider’ get equated with US (and us)?

  2. Strong-
    This post totally made me think about the Iraq war and I’m freaking out too, though I wasn’t so much just awhile ago, like you said, phases.

    Now, if I can try to pull this back to the original post, what makes me freak out about the war is scale. From time to time I will visit websites such as Faces of the Fallen (the Washington Post’s project which chronicles all US military deaths in Iraq & Afghanistan in a visual, searchable interface and offers RSS feeds of the information) and Iraq Body Count (a project which compiles and posts information on Iraqi deaths and offers web counters of the total number of deaths). When I visit these sites and read the updated death tolls, I tend to compare the numbers to groups of people I interact with, and that’s when I really start freaking out. Right now, Faces of the Fallen shows the death count at 3,385, that’s 112 primary school classes (30 kids/class). And, the Iraq Body Count is at 54,982, that’s 2 UC Irvines. I know that this kind of comparison isn’t exactly “scale,” but it’s a popular conceptualization of scale that I and, I believe, many other people have adopted to think about things like the Iraq war.

    Again, “more to the point: How does ‘the decider’ get equated with US (and us)?” And then, how do we (“us”) deal with that equation? How can I, me, one person, one average college grad with no particular authority in matters of international affairs, have that responsibility? How can I do anything about the 3,385 and the 54,982? How can I not do anything about the 112 primary school classes and 2 UC Irvines? This anxiety is what really freaks me out. I can calm myself of the freaking out that we are at the edge of nuclear annihilation by telling myself, “Everyone’s been saying we’re at the edge of nuclear annihilation since the invention of nuclear weapons and it hasn’t happened yet. ” Maybe I’m too optimistic or naive, but I believe that those in control of nuclear weapons are just as afraid of annihilation as everyone else and so won’t actually pull the trigger. The escalation of war I envision is more money, more time, more troops, more nations, more civilians, until someone finally gives up. Plus, I’ve got (perhaps misguided) faith in our new Congress, maybe things will start to turn around, I’m not freaked out . . . for now . . .

  3. I think Strong raises some interesting points, and I echo his sentiment that it\’s hard to see in your post the specific role that you see \”scale-making\” as having in anthropological work on globalization and the state(-making), and thus how it harms the understanding of such processes. I\’d be interested in knowing how you see this role.

    There are some people that do subject \”\’big\’ actors (states) to the same de-naturalizing analysis to which small actors (tribes) are routinely subjected,\” without making the State into an actor itself. I\’m thinking of Douglas Holmes\’ \”Integral Europe\” and the article he wrote with George Marcus, \”Cultures of Expertise and the Management of Globalization,\” which seems to get a bit muddled by the (Marcusian, I\’m assuming) idea of \”para-ethnography,\” but suggests an interesting analysis of bureaucrats through the example of the Federal Reserve and Alan Greenspan. In French, there is also Marc Abélès\’s book \”Un ethnologue à l\’assemblée\” (An Anthropologist at the House of Representatives) where he studies French congressmen discourse and practice, as well as his study of high-tech works in Silicon Valley. I\’m not sure that all of these works deal with scale and scale-making as you discuss it (certainly the Holmes book does and Abeles uses the concept of scale and \’changes of scale\’ a lot), but they do provide interesting possibilities to reflect on scale and the space of the State/Anthropological research.

  4. Just a note RE geography, space, and scale:

    Lefebvre developed the idea of space as a social product, Harvey picked it up and showed how space is made under the conditions we think of as postmodernity and Smith expanded it to show how what we imagine as nature is actually socially produced space.

    Soja developed the idea of scale as the set of ideas that people use to move through and understand socially produced space and Smith and Marston developed the idea that one reason that different social groups (races, classes, genders, different cultures) clash is because they experience scalular life in radically different ways. Smith developed the idea of jumping scale.

    Space is the socially produced world around us (both our experience of it and its materiality – think second nature if you are a Marx-loving) and scale is how people make sense of that space.

  5. Amelia: Thanks for the camaraderie.
    Rex: I seem to remember a discussion on SM earlier about armies/states and feasability… but I can’t find the link.

  6. Well I do admit that I am thinking out loud here about mine closure (not Iraq), and may end up being totally wrong. Also this is an ‘internal’ argument as it were — the scale folks and I are attempting to do the same thing, I just have quibbles about how to do it. Consider this (truncated) passage from Swyngedouw’s contribution to “Scale and Geogrpahic Inquiry”:

    “In 1998 controversy arose in Paris abou IBM’s tapping of ancient underground aquifers. The state at a variety of scales was caught up in the myriad of tensions ensuing from this: protection of the natural environment versus economic princples, the competing claims of different companies, etc…”

    Here ‘scale’ is tied to space in some sense (as Nancy Munn always puts it: this isn’t too hard to pull off since pretty much everything happens in time and space) but only in the loosest sense. This is actually about the multiple analytic perspectives that one might bring to bear on a single ethnographic example.

    Or Smith from the same volume:

    “The Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington’s local association petitioned city hall to no avail and so took their struggle to the state capital in Harrisburg… again rebuffed, they took their case to the United Nations. Something very odd is hapening here… domestic activists are not supposed to jumps scale and appeal to international authority… Entrenched assumtpions about what kinds of social activities fit properly at which scales are being systematically challendged and upset”

    Here we have a local organization appealing to increasingly-inclusive political association until it (inappropriately) adresses the most maximally inclusive body (the UN). This is vaguely tied to ideas regarding the spatial extent of each organization’s control (Harrisburg controls ‘Pennsylvania’ while the UN controls ‘the world’) but it is also about the physical movement of Kensington advocates northward to ever more prominent locii of power, as well as to changing sense of possible frames in which demands might be articulated (i.e. from ‘social justice’ to ‘human rights’).

    There is a lot going on in these examples, and the scale literature does address quite a lot of it, but perhaps this gives you some sense of the way that it also makes harder the picking apart of some of what is going on here. We are combining:

    1. The attribution of agency of certain individuals to the collective subjects which they claim to represent

    2. Their own imagination of the relations that do or should obtain between the total galaxy of other collectives subjects out there.

    3. These collective subject’s claims to be able to achieve goals through time and space through organizing action

    4. The actual ability of the collective subject’s claims to organize these sorts of things.

    I think partially my beef here is as someone who studies the mining industry and the incredible logistic accomplishments made within it. Space really _isn’t_ socially constructed! To return to the Iraq example: It is hard to invade a country thousands of miles away from Smallville, USA. We must be able to separate our ability to convince ourselves that such an entity exists as ‘the Iraqi government’ exists from an analysis which examines whether this all this scale-bending and scale-jumping discourse ‘constructs’ it in such a way as to have practical effect.

    I’m not saying that the scale making literature can’t do this — I just think that it makes it harder than it needs to be to do this. Does that make sense?

  7. I’ve been following this one, and having some trouble understanding exactly what your criticism is, Rex. It sort of sounds like you’re expecting to arrive at a clear distinction between the ‘real’ scalar power and the ‘ascribed,’ which seems problematic. To the extent that one can argue for a distinction there at all, the two are undoubtedly quite tangled in each other. The fact that Kensington’s appeal to the UN appeared ‘inappropriate’ is a demonstration of how depictions of appropriate scale are tools of ‘real’ power.

    On the other hand, maybe you’re just arguing for more attention to material aspects of power over and against discursive ones – i.e. Smallville doesn’t have the military might to invade Iraq by itself no matter how it s citizens construct themselves vis-a-vis a foreign state. That seems like a meaningful concern, although not by any means lacking in the ‘politics of scale’ literature as I know it. The problem here lying largely in an attempt to disaggregate material and discursive resources for political action – a chicken-or-egg kind of thing.

    A volume that might help clarify some of this is Andy Herod and Mellissa Wright’s “Geographies of Power: Placing Scale”
    It opens with a useful analogy about the attack on the WTC, and how it was discursively fixed as an act of global terrorism, rather than an interstate conflict or even a metropolitan crime. Conceiving of it as ‘global’ was the result of multiple discursive acts from media, gov’t spokespeople, etc. that took place in real time shortly after the event. Having the attack placed that way has been fundamental to mobilizing the “Global War on Terror” as we’ve known it. The failure of the various administrations to enroll enough actors in that vision has a lot to do with the failure of the GWOT to become what it might have if they’d had their way.

    I guess maybe what I’m saying is that it seems to me that the four categories of problem Rex describes above are necessarily woven together in the scale literature because they are woven together in the events in question, and in any reasonable response to those events.

  8. Thanks — I’ll take a look at the book.

    Well as I said above, the devil is in the details — clearly all four of these categories of problems are mixed together, and the problem is not whether or not the concept of scale responds to all four, but _how_ exactly it disentangles them. My sense is that at the end of the day notions of ‘scale’ don’t do _enough_ to disentangle them.

    Also, please don’t misread me. It is common for some people to separate out ‘real’ power from ‘symbolic’ power in some sort of ghetto political science way but this is not what I’ve done in these posts, since I believe all power is symbolic and all symbols are real. So, Adam, you make the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘ascribed’ power — not me.

    My point is rather more different (and more worthwhile and complex, I think, but also probably much more incoherent as well!) but drawn from work on practice theory, which insists that we must examine both the cultural orders that people use to regiment their lives (which are ‘real’) as well as how they are executed in practice (that is to say, ‘symbolically’) and how social life is the result of the ongoing dialectic between sociocultural orders and the pragmatic performance of them. This is different than seperating ‘real power’ (i.e. ‘with guns’ from the ‘merely symbolic’.

  9. Thanks, Rex, that seems a little more in character. Still, I’d like to hear the argument extended, or clarified. I guess some of the confusion here may lie in the fact that scale is both an analytic category, that is, a problem for the analyst; and also a strategic category, that is a variety of ways of approaching political struggle. Hilda Kurtz’ contribution to the volume I mentioned earlier deals with that pretty well, in reference to an environmental justice conflict in Louisiana. EJ is a good place to talk about scale and power, by the way, but that might be wandering off-topic a little too much.

  10. Well again look at what is happening here “some of the confusion here may lie in the fact that scale is both an analytic category, that is, a problem for the analyst; and also a strategic category, that is a variety of ways of approaching political struggle.” ‘Scale’ the academic concept might not be in fact one used by actors although the things which they subsume under that label may be. Additionally, I don’t think the ‘analytic category/strategic category’ distinction captures adequately the multiple levels of reflexivity at work here. For starters, it assumes that political struggle always involves self-reflexive, purposive-rational strategies which are somehow different from ‘analysis’. So yes — it is clear that ‘all of these things are connected’. But the problem is exactly how you separate them out, and in practice the work on scale that I’ve read does not do this in a way that (for me) provides the sort of clarity I seek.

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