Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post. In response to my queries, I was able to track down some excellent overviews of the human geography literature where the keyword to search for is “politics of scale.” (See especially here and here.)
In that post I failed to link to Rex’s piece from last year, where he wrote:
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’.
Having spent the better part of the last few days going over this material, I better understand the distinction Rex was making. Indeed, it seems that the way the term is used by human geographers often suffers from assuming that scale is an ontological category. Rex is more interested in looking at “the imputation of agency to collective subjects versus individual ones.” And I am more interested in the contested ideologies of scale which define the “local” in Taiwan in relation to the Austronesian linguistic sphere versus the Chinese one. Both of these projects relate to the making of scale through social action as opposed to the operation of individuals at pre-defined levels of scale.
However, having already spent some time going over the literature on scale within human geography, I think it would be a mistake to either abandon the term entirely (as Rex seems to suggest) or to ignore its genealogy outside of anthropology (as Tsing chooses to do). As Richard Howitt’s excellent review shows us, we have a lot to learn from the various debates over the use of the term within that discipline. For instance, too great an emphasis on process and human agency might blind us to the very real constraints on scale created by existing corporate, legal, and political institutions. In his sections on “the idea of scale” and “empirical studies of scale” Howitt shows how geographers have struggled with social-constructionist approaches to the concept of scale in ways which seem to anticipate some of the issues anthropologists have tackled in thinking about these issues.