Scale Making Revisited

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.

12 thoughts on “Scale Making Revisited

  1. Thanks for the two recent posts. I love this kind of inter-disciplinary cross-fertilization and it’s one of the reasons I read SM myself, to get the cultural anthro perspective. I was previously in an Anthro & Geog department and think they go well together on a lot (tho not all) issues. If anthropology can learn from geography about scale I think geography can profit from the anth literature on race, esp. bio and physical anthropology.

    One the best books I’ve read on this was Jonathan Mark’s Human Biodiversity. It’s a great history of the topic in anthropology. I’ve since met him twice and even appeared at the same event as him which was pretty neat!

  2. Thanks for this.

    A networked notion of ‘scale’ in terms of non-linear (or chaotic) emergence is gaining some traction in science studies. The point here is that scale effects emerge at thresholds within thermodynamic systems (e.g. economies, societies) — there’s a tip-over from quantitative accumulation or dissipation to qualitative difference, to oversimplify. This helps to understand what otherwise look like causal discontinuities.

    Anyhoo, a good start on this might be How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition (New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century). Here’s the blurb:

    “How Nature Speaks illustrates the convergence of complexity theory in the biophysical and social sciences and the implications of the science of complexity for environmental politics and practice. This collection of essays focuses on uncertainty, surprise, and positionality—situated rather than absolute knowledge—in studies of nature by people embedded within the very thing they purport to study from the outside. The contributors address the complicated relationship between scientists and nature as part of a broader reassessment of how we conceive of ourselves, knowledge, and the world that we both inhabit and shape.

    Exploring ways of conceiving the complexity and multiplicity of humans’ many interactive relationships with the environment, the contributors provide in-depth case studies of the interweaving of culture and nature in socio-historical processes. The case studies focus on the origin of environmental movements, the politicization of environmental issues in city politics, the development of a local energy production system, and the convergence of forest management practices toward a dominant scheme. They are supported by explorations of big-picture issues: recurring themes in studies of social and environmental dynamics, the difficulties of deliberative democracy, and the potential gains for socio-ecological research offered by developmental systems theory and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of intentionality.

    How Nature Speaks includes a helpful primer, “On Thinking Dynamically about the Human Ecological Condition,” which explains the basic principles of complexity and nonlinear thinking.

    Contributors. Chuck Dyke, Yrjö Haila, Ari Jokinen, Ville Lähde, Markus Laine, Iordanis Marcoulatos, John O’Neill, Susan Oyama, Taru Peltola, Lasse Peltonen, John Shotter, Peter Taylor.”

    An older but still-helpful exposition is C. Dyke, The Evolutionary Dynamics of Complex Systems: A Study in Biosocial Complexity which has some really smashing explanations of the value of non-linear thermodynamics and chaos theory for social analysis. (Btw C. Dyke is my dad, not me.)

    In a philosophy of explanation vein, I’ve seen nothing better on discontinuities of scale and the explanatory confusions that result than Alan Garfinkel, Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions in Social Theory, which despite the tame title is a blockbuster.

  3. Re: “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.'”

    Regarding scale-making as a discursive project, then, one might want to look at work in the whole ‘politics of scale’ tradition by Hilda Kurtz. She has a contribution in the Herod and Wright volume I mentioned earlier, and also this:

  4. No one has mentioned it yet, but I thought that Chris Kelty’s paper on scale, delivered at the AAA meetings in San Jose as part of the panel that Kim Christen organized to discuss Friction, was outstanding.

  5. What about all the “old” anthropology that uses scale to refer to aspects of social and cultural organisation? See Roy C Dudgeon Appropriate Cultural Scale Theory: An Introduction for a clear concise statement. (google it)

    This way of using scale gives the concept force and substance- in that societies of the same scale are organised similarly. The approach is used in Bodley’s text Cultural Anthropology, with a slew of great diagrams etc. I can’t really understand the sense in which scale is being used in this thread. Anyone care to enlighten me in the context of the more venerable anthropological take on scale?

  6. Agree with you that scale suffers from being treated as an ontological category in human geography. However recent approaches, such as the Hilda Kurtz piece mentioned above, are moving beyond this and starting to treat scale as a category of practice. You might be interested (beware—shameless self-promotion by a lowly graduate student!) in a recent article I wrote arguing for a shift toward the latter conceptualization of scale: Moore, A. (2008). “Rethinking scale as a geographical category: from analysis to practice” Progress in Human Geography 32(2), 203-225

  7. Add another fieldnote. A link to the following popped up above my Gmail today.


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  8. I think Hal is referring to the Helium article. I don’t see anything in the Dudgeon article which isn’t directly addressed by Tsing, Brenner, Marston, Moore, etc. All of which are fairly harsh in their criticisms of the essentialist notions of scale represented in that article.

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