“Scale Making” In My Ear

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!

7 thoughts on ““Scale Making” In My Ear

  1. re: geographers, Neil Smith also makes some interesting points about scale in his earlier works; I’ll see if I can dig up the references.

  2. Is this an example of scale-making?

    (from today’s “NYT”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/world/europe/08torch.html ) “The prospect of the Chinese Olympic torch traveling through Europe’s cities — from Athens to Istanbul, St. Petersburg, London and now Paris — has even created a bond between groups of protesters who previously had little in common. In Paris, at the Trocadero opposite the Eiffel Tower, Amnesty International, the human rights group and Reporters Without Borders, which advocates greater press freedom, protested side by side with representatives from a banned underground Chinese democracy party, Taiwan nationalists and proponents of independence for the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in western China. “We all have the same problem,” Can Asgar, a leader of the Uighur diaspora in Munich, yelled into a microphone at Trocadero. “Freedom for Uighurs. Freedom for Tibet. We must fight together.” “

  3. Serendipitously, I have been asked to review a seriously good book, Sunderland, Patricia L. and Rita M. Denny (2007) _Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research_. For those who might be interested, it provides, through a series of case studies, an ethnography of ethnography conducted on behalf of corporate clients, addressing the analytic, presentation, and ethical issues that arise when anthropologists work in the liminal zone between disciplinary demands and the circumstances of corporate work. It offers the best articulation of cultural analysis, as opposed to “a psychological motivation, rational action or normative frequency box” that I have ever seen and also addresses issues raised by new information technologies, video and digital photography. Yes, I recommend the book.

    I mention it here, however, because of a passage that bears directly on “scale.”

    bq. As Dominique Desjeux, a professor of anthropology at the Sorbonne with an active consumer research consultancy, has formulated it, in anthropological practice, the research focus, “the zoom,” is set to a different scale of observation, the scale of the social. More specifically, as Desjeux notes, the heuristic scale for “ethnomarketing” (a term he coined with Sophie Taponier to refer to the application of anthropology to marketing) is often the micro-social (the realm of personal interactions and small groups) with consideration of the meso-social (organizations, institutions, systems of actions) and the macro-social (national, international, global) scales as context. The focus of cultural analysis on the social scale means that the kinds of questions one asks of data in culturally analytic consumer research are often different than those asked in other consumer research analyses—the issues are examined through a different lens of refraction—and thus the answers one derives are different as well, even if at first glance the questions can seem the same.

  4. There’s quite a literature (As Adam says above, this is usually known as the “politics of scale” literature). In addition to some of the people who’ve been mentioned:

    Cox, K. R. (1998). Spaces of dependence, spaces of engagement and the politics of scale, or: looking for local politics. Political Geography 17 (1), 1-23. (and some responses in the same issue)

    Swyngedouw, E. (2000). Authoritarian governance, power, and the politics of rescaling. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18, 63-76.
    Swyngedouw, E. and Heynen, N. (2003). Urban political ecology, justice and the politics of scale. Antipode, 898-918.

    Harrison, J. (2006). “‘Accidents’ and invisibilities: Scaled discourse and the naturalization of regulatory neglect in California’s pesticide drift conflict” Political Geography, 506-529. May still be available at: http://www.drs.wisc.edu/harrison/_docs/Harrison2006PoliticalGeography.pdf

    An interesting and entertaining use of Neil Smith’s categories of scale is the organizing structure of
    David Bell and Gill Valentine. (1997). Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat (Routledge)

    My own modest contribution to the area is:
    Nespor, J. (2003). Educational Scale-making. Pedagogy, Culture, and Society, 12(3)

    Doreen Massey questions the whole notion, arguing instead that we think in terms of “constellations of temporary coherence” or something like that (quoting from memory).

Comments are closed.