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Deciphering the Global: Its Scales, Spaces and Subjects

Saskia Sassen (Editor)

New York: Routledge (2007), 366 pages. Paperback (£22.99) ISBN: 0415957338.

Reviewed by Henry Wai-chung Yeung, National University of Singapore.

For at least over a decade now, the heated debate on globalization has been mapped onto complex rescaling processes in urban and regional territories. Human geography is clearly at the frontier of such mapping exercise. But its allies in urban and political sociology are equally important in this “scalar turn” in the social theorization of globalization and its manifold outcomes. In this volume brought together by one of the world’s foremost urban sociologists, the celebration of key concepts in geography such as scales and spaces is clearly evident and welcome. Indeed, Saskia Sassen explicitly noted in her introductory chapter that “Two disciplines more than any others have contributed significantly to the study of the global as it gets constituted subnationally. They are geography and anthropology, specifically, particular branches of each. Economic and political geography have done so especially through a critical development of scale and scaling. This work recognizes the historicity of scales and thus resists the reification and naturalization of the national scale as present in most of social science” (p.4). How else should we not endorse such a friendly overture by our intellectual allies?

This collective volume is indeed very much a collective and yet laudable effort that seeks to bring together diverse theoretically grounded empirical studies conducted by some sixteen graduate students at Chicago spanning almost one decade. The one common thread amongst these dissertations and their post-doctoral refinement is that each of them is concerned not so much with the grand claims of globalization theorists. Rather, they are interested in unpacking what it means to be global and how “global” processes are constituted at different scales, in diverse spaces, and through variegated subjects. This strong central theme of the book is undoubtedly its core competence, as all chapters have a common theoretical focus on examining the global via its local constitution and formations. Their collective argument leads to a reframing of the global as neither necessarily the only privileged scale of action nor an anti-thesis of the nation-state. To them, the global is expressed in the complex interwoven scaling of processes beyond a single scale, be it global, national, subnational, or local.

I particularly like this translocal approach to the study of globalization and its variegated outcomes for two important reasons. First, the book conveys a sense of a relational approach that constantly interrogates different scalar relations, from the global to the regional, the national, and the local. This relational approach connects very well with the kind of relational economic geography since Doreen Massey’s call for a relational thinking in human geography during the late 1990s. Second, the collection offers an explicit recognition of the multiscalarity approach to globalization, an approach equally well recognized in recent work in economic and political geography. While none of the authors is a geographer, their appreciation of cutting-edge geographical studies is unusual and highly welcome. Indeed, most chapters have referenced major contributions by geographers to the debates on scales, networks, and globalization.

More specifically, the book is organized into three parts. After Sassen’s excellent introduction that lays down the project’s intellectual foundation, each part presents some five to six chapters each of which deals with solid empirical case materials mostly drawn from detail ethnographic work over many years. In Part 1, five authors offer a refreshing re-reading of the global via microspaces in different localities as diverse as bohemian neighbourhoods in Chicago, public concerts in Los Angeles, the Old Havana in Cuba, religious centres in Russia, and slums in Sao Paulo. These different stories point to the complex scaling of global microspaces that crosscut different territories and social formations. In Part 2, another five authors further extend these scalings to notions of translocal circuits and their mobilities through diverse empirical investigations into social movements in the US, global nomadism, transnational expatriation in Nepal and Japan, and localized transformation of the London Gold Fix. These chapters bring to the forefront critical dynamics of globalization through circuits of flows and mobilities of their key subjects. In the final part, another six chapters focus more specifically on the political in globalization. These authors draw upon diverse examples in such shifting spaces and subjects as translocal Sudanese politics in London, Chicago’s ghetto cosmopolitanism, extra-state legal policing in coffee-growing regions in Mexico, human rights in Israel, documentary citizenships in Malaysia, and sovereign debt restructuring in developing countries.

With such richness in empirical materials driven by a central analytical concern, one will expect a thorough integration of theory and evidence. Still, some of the chapters may be overtly descriptive, focusing too much on the detail “stories” and losing sight of some of the generality of their arguments. This perhaps reflects an ethnographic approach to writing and presentation commonly found in anthropology. Another minor quibble I have is that the book, for its size and diversity, includes virtually no graphics at all. I can literally find only three tables and one photo in three different chapters. As a geographer, I often found it hard to follow the excessively detail descriptions of particular places and spaces that were not indicated in maps.

Notwithstanding these minor defects, the collection has certainly succeeded in its core mission in deciphering the global to the extent that we are confronted with diverse examples of how the global is constituted well beyond the national and its naturalized territorial spaces. Given the common origin of the authors in the Chicago school, there is a good deal of complementarity and consistency among most chapters. This is not surprising as many authors attended the same series of workshops organized by Saskia Sassen, Arjun Appadurai, and Neil Brenner. The book appeals very much to graduate students who may often wonder how grand theories about globalization can be “operationalized” in their own doctoral studies; this book has at least a dozen well done examples! Academic geographers will also find much fun reading these diverse articulations of translocal processes at a variety of spatial scales.

(Added 02 July 2008)