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.