Two years ago Savage Minds, together with our readers, spent the summer reading Anna Tsing’s book Friction. Although I was somewhat underwhelmed by the book at the time, I have to admit that certain ideas have crawled in my ear and wrapped themselves around my cerebral cortex like a ceti eel. Specifically the notion of “scale making” discourses. At the time I criticized her use of the term for emphasizing vertical relationships over horizontal networks, but for various reasons I won’t go into now, the concept of scale is very useful for thinking about my current research with indigenous communities in India and Taiwan. For this reason I decided to investigate further.
Tsing is not particularly forthcoming about the genealogy of the term , but I’ve recently discovered that Google Scholar is an excellent way to identify the most widely cited source for a particular academic keyword. A search for “‘scale making’ globalization” yielded up two very useful essays. Both from 2000: The first is Sallie Marston’s “The social construction of scale” (Sage subscription or purchase required). And the second is an article by Tsing herself, entitled “The global situation” (Scribd iPaper link).
I’ll discuss Tsing first. I realize I must be one of the few idiots who hasn’t already read this piece – so I apologize to all our erudite readers for whom this reference is obviousness itself. But I want to say how much I loved this article. It is clear, insightful, and critical. It is especially critical of the triumphalist and “charismatic” discourses of globalization which so prevailed in 90s anthropology. It made me a Tsing fan in a way that Friction had not. But while the article elaborates her theory of “scale-making” it still doesn’t give us much of a sense of the genealogy of the term.
For that, I had to turn to Sallie Marston’s workmanlike piece. Marston, a human geographer, is well situated to give us this genealogy since it seems to have first caught on in English within that discipline. She traces it back to the work of Henri Lefebvre (a nice article on Lefebvre by Stanley Aronowitz can be downloaded here) and places special emphasis on the work of Neil Brenner (lots of downloads available there) and Peter Taylor (alas, no downloads). (Taylor is the only name from this article which appears in Tsing’s bibliography from the same year.)
In the last decade it seems that the term has really taken off – and has even begun to be criticized for its various inadequacies. I’m still exploring this literature and trying to figure out how to make use of it in my own work. I’m sure our readers will berate me for overlooking some obvious and important sources in my quest to trace the origins of this particular academic meme – and I look forward to it!