Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life

by E. Summerson Carr and Michael Lempert, co-editors of Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life

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9780520291799When Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, encounters the skeletal remains of a beached whale, he begins to make what he characterizes as “a simple, plain statement” that relays the creature’s enormity. Not even two sentences into his description, Ishmael finds that even a whale must be made big. To do so, Ishmael rattles off scalar descriptors. He starts with various quantifications of the whale, detailing its estimated length, height, and circumference, as well as its mass, both in terms of its fleshy past as well as its skeletal present.

Ishmael’s description also betrays that scaling can never be accomplished through quantification alone. He employs an array of scalar metaphors: the whale is like a Gothic cathedral, it’s as big as a village, one thousand inhabitants could fit within its frame, the whale is the Leviathan. It is only through this intricate interscalar description that Ishmael can be sure—and perhaps not even then that landsmen can properly see the awesome stuff of the seafarer’s world.

In Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life, eleven anthropologists present ethnographic case studies that show that Ishmael is hardly alone in the laborious work of scaling. Scholars across many disciplines have long grappled with questions of scale. Rather than try to solve the problem of scale, as if one could reconcile the “micro” and “macro” or the event and the longue duree once and for all, we treat scale as an empirical and ethnographic matter.

The ethnographic case studies that comprise this book show that scale is always process before it is a product. For, as it turns out, people and institutions work very hard to concretize scale. Accordingly, rather than taking people’s scalar assumptions for granted, the book’s authors ask questions like: How do people even get to the point that they understand some practice as “local” or “global” and experience its efficacy as such?

In approaching scale as a kind of activity rather than an established platform for other practices, we emphasize that scaling requires sign activity, understood as an interrelation of media and material. For example, as Richard Bauman shows for US presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, Bryan didn’t just need the railway to create a populist “mass” during his whistle-stop campaign tour, but also an interdiscursive chain (rally, word-of-mouth, print journalism, phonograph) through which to amplify his message.

Scale—our ethnographies keenly demonstrate—is also perspectival and therefore political. After all, one person’s macro is another person’s micro. Scaling is a way of bringing some phenomena into focus at the expense of others. For this reason, scaling can be violent. Judith Irvine’s chapter shows, for example, how some scalar logics claim sovereign vision: whether in an early ethnographer’s claim to “see the big picture of culture” to which natives are putatively blind, or in the colonial census practices she examines.

Yet scaling doesn’t just obscure, distinguish, and establish hierarchies; it is also way that relationships are forged across time and space, communities and collectivities are established, and ethical and political projects are undertaken.

In the end, Scale makes a methodological statement: whether our focus is the professions, cities, commodities, nation states, rituals, or financial markets, it is imperative that anthropologists do not assume scale in advance and remain open to seeing how people scale their worlds.

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E. Summerson Carr is Associate Professor, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago.

Michael Lempert is Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan.