Integral Manifesto Pt I(6): Three Cautionary Tales of Scale/ Geographies

Books Discussed in this Section

The limits to scale?  Methodological reflections on scalar structuration, Neil Brenner 2001. Progress in Human Geography 25, 4 pp. 591-614 / retrieved from

Saskia Sassen (2004), Local Actors in Global Politics. Retrieved from


In his paper on conceptual analysis of sociospatial scale, Neil Brenner explores “the methodological danger” of “blunting the concept of geographical scale as it has been blended unreflexively into other core geographical concepts such as place, locality, territory and space.”  Brenner believes that instead of merely identifying the limits to scale as, for example, a “mere social construction”, a more sustained and constructive exploration of how processes of scalar structuration are relationally intertwined may build what he terms “theoretical vocabularies” which might help decode the main dynamics and contours of the “extraordinary hypercomplexity” of social and political spaces. Brenner’s motivation is the liberation of the  political economy from hegemonic versions of scalar analysis, in ways that have the capacity to “mobilize geographical scale in strategic, often highly creative ways.”

Two distinct meanings of “politics of scale” emerge through his analysis– one, the singular and more conventional meaning, is that of the kinds of scalar relations we “see” in the political arena. The objects of this conventional meaning of “the politics of scale” are peoples, regions, nations, territories, economies, and the like. The objects of inquiry related to the second, plural meaning of “the politics of scale” are the scalar relations themselves– how they underly, overlay and/or overdetermine the political discourse. Brenner makes the distinction as follows:

The singular meaning of the phrase “politics of scale” can then be redscribed through Jonas’ notion of the ‘scale politics of spatiality,’ provided the distinctively scalar content of the sociospatial practices in question is not presupposed but is investigated explicitly. … I would propose to redescribe the plural connotation of the ‘politics of scale’– which … arguably denotes the core analytical focus for any systematic account of scale production and scale transformation– as a politics of scalar structuration or, more simply, as a politics of scaling.

To this end, Brenner identifies eleven methodological hypotheses to serve as starting points for the investigation of scalar structuration, namely

  1. Scalar structuration is a dimension of sociospatial process.
  2. Processes of scalar structuration are constituted and continually reworked through everyday social routines and struggles.
  3. Processes of scalar structuration are dialectically intertwined with other forsm of sociospatial structuration.
  4. There are multiple forms and patterns of scalar structuration.
  5. Scales evolve relationally within tangled hierarchies and dispersed interscalar networks.
  6. There are multiple spatialities of scale.
  7. Scalar hierarchies constitute mosaics not pyramids.
  8. Processes of scalar structuration generate contextually specific causal effects.
  9. Processes of scalar structuration may crystallize into scalar fixes.
  10. Established scalar fixes may constrain the subsequent evolution of scalar configurations.
  11. Processes of scalar structuration consitute geographies and choreographies of social power.

It is important to note from this list, that “processes of scalar structuration” are both epistemic processes as well as processes endemic to human action that occur in geosocial, political, and intersubjective spaces. There is not always a clear or unidirectional causal relationship between these two arenas of scalar structuration. However, it is generally the case that structures that are generated primarily from epistemic processes (theories, models) are too conveniently neatly defined to serve us in trying to understand the more complex and entangled processes in the other arenas. As Brenner himself explains:

Processes of scalar structuration do not produce a single nested scalar hierarchy, an absolute pyramid of neatly interlocking scales, but are better understood as a mosaic of unevenly superimposed and densely interlayered scalar geometries. For, as Allen, Massey, and Cochrane indicate, ‘… different kinds of social process have very different geographies and they do not all fit neatly into the same set of nested hierarchies.’ Hence the meaning of scalar terms such as global, national, regional, and urban will differ qualitatively depending upong the historically and contextually specific scalar partitionings of the sociospatialprocess in question. In this context we can also speak of a “kaleidoscope effect” in which the organization of scalar patterns changes qualitatively according to the perspective from which they are perceived and/or acted upon.

In situations where the process is not suppressed, as in pre-modern times, scalar relations of the geo-sociospatial grow organically from their precursors: the cohering forms of social collectives engaging their collective environment. These forms have varied across time and give rise to the ranges of cultures and the shared recognition of their membership as well as shared perceptions of the outlying boundaries of non-membership. When the scales of geo-sociospatial spaces that frame human action are enforced from the outside as a result of foreign conquest, occupation or colonialism, the superimposed scalar frameworks conflict with the preexisting forms of social collectives, and both forms become increasingly incoherent and unstable. The insistence of nation state sovereignty as a fundamental unit of geo-sociospatial scale, with respect to collectives that have rich histories of sociospatial coherence outside of the concept of nationhood, and more importantly with respect for the historical development of disempowered cultures, must be regarded as one of the major sources– if not the major source– of instability in the world today. Geo-sociospatial scales that rely on inclusivist hierarchic relationships based on the notion of the nation state, and a power structure that scales from the national, to the multi-national, transnational and global through a nested and impervious hierarchy, serves only to reinforce and re-embed the old assumptions of geo-sociospatial scales that were never appropriate for non-Western subcultures in the first place, and no longer adequate for adapting to emergent human realities. As early as 2004, Saskia Sassen was writing about “the possibility of escaping nested hierarchies of scales” and of subjects who can “directly access other such local actors whether in the same country or across borders.

That this situation is beginning to crack can be interpreted as an important time of transformative potential on the stage of human action, in which again organic dynamics are creating new and newly coherent forms of socio-spatial connectedness. The new forms emerge in response for the need for subjects to create collective identities that are meaningful and meaning-making in their lives. Sassen writes:

A key nexus in this configuration is that the weakening of the exclusive formal authority of states over national territory facilitates the ascendence of sub- and transnational spaces and actors in politico-civic processes. … Among these are spaces … that have evolved as novel types in the context of globalization and the new Information & CommunicationTechnologies (ICT’s). The loss of power at the national level produces the possibility of new forms of power and politics at the sub-national and at the supra-national level. The national as a container of social process and power is cracked. … This cracked casing opens up a geography of politics and civics that link subnational spaces.

This feature of our modern human condition is being increasingly well documented. As actors in this transformation, subjects are reclaiming the space of appearance, the capacity to show up as subjects, as well as the capacity to completely redefine what it means to be an actor. In her paper, Local Actors and Global Politics, Sassen profiles these emergent developments in this way

Globalization and the new ICT’s have enabled a variety of local political actors to enter international arenas once exclusive to national states. A key question … is the ways in which … localized actors and struggles can be constitutive of new types of global politics and subjectivities. The argument is that local, including geographically immobile and resource-poo, actors can contribute to the formation of global dominance or virtual public spheres and thereby to a type of local political subjectivity that needs to be distinguished from what we would usually consider local. … The result has been that particular instantiations of the local can actually be constituted at multiple scales and thereby construct global formations that tend toward lateralization and horizontal networks rather than the certical and hierarchical forms typical of major global actors, such as the IMF and WTO. … These developments contribute to distinct kinds of political practices and subjectivities … and have enabled local actors to become part of global netowkrs. … people experience themselves as part of global non-state networks as they live their daily lives. They enact some version of the global in the micro-spaces of daily life rather than on some putative global stage.

From this analysis it seems to me not only relevant but crucial to acknowledge that one of the components of any systematic analysis involving scalar relations must simultaneously relativize the components and conditions of “fixed grid” as a frame of reference, as well as the perspectives from which — and within which– they are perceived and/or acted upon. Finally then, this question of perspectives and perceptions– the simultaneous participation of the subject(s) as objects of (subject to) inquiry and also as the subject(s) of the variables in play– throws back our inquiry onto the nature of subjects and subjectivity itself


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