The Global is Local At All Points: Latour on Globalization

June 14, 2013

Some of the things that have caused me to re-engage with Latour and Actor-Network Theory are issues that specifically follow from working on public diplomacy.  PD exists in multiple places at the same time – not least in foreign ministries and in embassies.  As a field of research it exists in Communications and International Relations but Communications tends to focus on ‘small’ things like effects and strategies while IR deals with ‘big’ things like states and states-systems.  How then do you bring together the global and the local and the micro and the macro  to use a couple of distinctions beloved of theoretically minded social scientists?

Latour offers an attractively radical solution: throw the whole lot out.  The addiction to big/small, micro/macro, local/global are just more of the misunderstandings that social scientists use to confuse themselves.

So what does he offer in its place?

You can sum it up in the maxim that the global is local at all points.  Here he introduces the analogy of the railway – although you can travel for huge distances it never becomes ‘global’ it is made up of stations, tracks, signals, ticket collectors that are located in places.  ‘global’ networks are just collections of local places that are connected in some way.  The railway has another valuable property for Latour, however far you travel you can’t go everywhere; either because the track doesn’t go there or because the train doesn’t stop.  Networks are full of holes so deploying ‘global’ is a rhetorical strategy not a description of reality.  ‘Electromagnetic waves may be everywhere, but I still have to have an antenna, a subscription and a decoder if I am to get CNN’ (Latour 1993: ), The same applies to ideas, norms, culture they circulate within particular networks.  The challenge that Latour lays down is to follow the connections.

The basic characteristic of the modern world is that we have built networks that that connect more things in more places together but have mistaken changes in size for the emergence of new levels.

What, for example, is the size of IBM, or the Red Army, or the French Ministry of Education, or the world market? To be sure, there are all actors of great size, since they mobilize hundreds of thousands or even millions of agents….However if we wander about inside IBM, if we follow the chains of command of the Red Army, if we inquire in the corridors of the Ministry of Education, if we study the process of selling and buying a bar of soap, we never leave the local level. We are always in interaction with four or five people; the building superintendent has his territory well staked out; the directors’ conversations sound just like those of the employees; as for the salespeople, they go on and on giving change and filling out their invoices…Could IBM be made up of a series of local interactions? The Red Army of an aggregate of conversations in the mess hall? The Ministry of Education of a mountain of pieces of paper? The world market of a host of local exchanges and arrangements? (Latour 1993: 120-1)

The key to making sense of this is to follow ‘the thread of networks of practices and instruments, of documents and translations.’  (Latour 1993: 121)

I think this is good advice for studying public diplomacy.  Follow the networks but keep in mind that the network doesn’t go everywhere; public diplomacy is frequently a story about failure and unintended consequences.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.



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