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Emre Uckardesler

Space, Scale and Political Economy

For a long time it has become commonplace to note that contemporary social science is in crisis because of extensive socio-economic transformations. Globalization, post-industrialization, post-Fordism, flexibilization, networking, and the new economy are yet some of the terms we started to use in order to make sense of various developments. No doubt, these all are highly contested terms and there is not complete conceptual/definitional agreement on what constitutes them. Nor is there an entire consensus on the possible political connotations and capacities of these terms. In the meantime, we are also observing increasing academic calls emphasizing the need for inter-disciplinarity and/or trans-disciplinarity in order to develop stronger social-scientific tools; so that we could better deal with the modern times, conceptually as well as politically.

Initially motivated by Canadian economist M. Watkins’ remark that “the beginning of wisdom and prerequisite for scholarly and political activism is to know one’s place in time and space”, my presentation focuses on the contributions of geography-inspired “spatial” and “scalar” approaches to political economy and social policy.

I will discuss implications of spatial/scalar approaches for understanding various dimensions of contemporary societies and states. As can be expected, I will give special emphasis to globalization. Evidently, it is just another contested notion, but also one without which there is hardly any analysis nowadays. Thus, I believe, thinking critically about globalization and studying its various dimensions and manifestations are still important.

I would like to argue that the contemporary -and increasing- preoccupation with “scale” and “space” is largely caused by, first, the compartmentalized structure of modern social science and attempts to overcome this compartmentalization; and second, the increasing problematization (not necessarily the decline or disappearance) of the nation state (hence the national scale) as the primary unit of social-scientific analysis and site of political action.

Having said that, I must also add, although current preoccupation with space and scale is largely motivated from scholarly and political dissatisfaction from other non-scalar explanations about globalization , it would be unfair to reduce the contribution of human geography to its utility in comprehending globalization. Rather, many points of human geographers, for example about the uneven nature of capitalism, the spatial construction of hegemony, spatial configuration of the modern state, and the social production of space, social construction of scale, precede the present debates about globalization. In other words, drawing on such a repertoire and then expanding it have enabled human geographers and geography-inspired social scientist to produce notable works about globalization.

Considering the above two issues (compartmentalized social science and increasing problematization of the nation state), I would like to argue that, when we think of the scholarly preoccupations of modern social science and its political contexts, conceptual and political dimensions are just two sides of the same coin, rather than being separate entities. It is our theoretical compression of the world that reveals or conceals several avenues of transformative action. Therefore, we need to develop analyses of agencies, structures and developments “within” and “beyond” nation states at specific spatio-temporal moments. In this regard, one of the insights of spatial/scalar analysis becomes that what is “beyond” the nation state is not necessarily a fetishized space of the “global”, but rather the actual relations of various “localities” and “trans-nationalities”. It is indeed such hierarchical and uneven relations -between sometimes territorially distant but socially connected “localities” - engendered by social classes, hegemonic projects, social movements, policy-learning processes that gives the notion of scale its analytical purchase. Considering such issues, in my presentation I will discuss space/scale under three headings:


First, I will provide a brief background on the social-scientific (and political) preoccupation with space and scale, and the development of spatial/scalar analysis since the 1970s. The relation between human geography and the mainstream social science, e.g. sociology or political science, constitutes a fascinating (love-and-hate) story; and it is still far from finished. I will briefly review the works of Harvey (1982, 1989), Smith (1984), and Soja (1989) as they have been the main figures shaping the discipline and debates since the late 1970s. {More to be added here}

In this section, I will also provide a conceptual clarification about space and scale. This is important not only for the main preoccupations of my presentation, but also because of the fact that there is a debate among scholars regarding the conceptual boundaries of space and scale.

A number of leading scholars (especially Brenner: 2001) have become highly alert to what they call the conflation of scalar dimension of spatiality with “non-scalar” dimensions of spatiality, such as territorilization, localization, place-making, networking. For, on the one hand, analytical sharpness of the conceptual tools of spatial analysis is what is at stake. In this regard, Brenner’s (2001) warning that the there might be an analytical/theoretical cost caused by the slippage between notions of (geographical) scale and other geographical concepts, was fairly important. Yet, on the other hand, delving into a fight over micro specifics of theory-building may have other costs, especially because sometimes a too resolute theoretical separation between space and scale, may lead one to discard that the production of scale and production of space are highly intertwined. In their exchange with Brenner (2001), Marston and Smith’s (2001) first reiterate the substantial clarification that “scale is a produced societal metric that differentiates space; it is not space per se”. Yet, they add, “geographical scale is not simply a hierarchically ordered system placed over pre-existing space”.

Agnew provides a useful working definition of scale, which is “the level of geographic resolution at which a given phenomenon is thought of, acted on or studied”. He then add that scale is “the focal setting at which spatial boundries are defined for a specific social claim, activity or behaviour” (Agnew 1997, in Masson 2005). Soja (1989) suggests that the thrust of the multi-scalar analysis is that social world is composed of “mutable hierarchies of nested locales”. {More should be added here; esp. on “relationality” and “social construction”; ref. also to: Dictionary of Human Geography, Johnston et al., 2000)


Second, I will discuss the contributions of spatial/scalar approaches to a much more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of globalization than the ones usually put forward in the mainstream globalization literature. To put it simply, the “social construction of scale”, which is perhaps the backbone of the contemporary human geography, and the “relational” (rather than categorical) understanding of scale, not only render many former analyses of globalization obsolete but also show that they are misleading on the ontologies of globalization. In this regard, for example, rather than being a zero-sum game or the decline of the nation state in favor of a global ontology, globalization appears as a much more complex politico-economic phenomena taking place via the processes of rescaling , and with profound territorial implications. And it is human agencies, thus social relations shaped by configurations of class, gender, ethnicity, rather than “things”, which are the constituents of scales and the rescaling.

Peck (2002) aptly puts that “The national state is not simply retreating; instead its institutional forms and regulatory agencies are being reconstituted and rescaled”. This means that states might be both downloading and assuming their responsibilities at the same time. On the one hand, for example, as Brenner (2001) observes, for the last two decades “the geo-economic project of neo-liberalism has entailed a massive assault upon established scales of sociopolitical regulation…and an aggressive attempt to forge new global, national, regional and local scalar strategies in which unrestricted capital mobility, unfettered market relations, intensified commodification and a logic of ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ competition are to be permanently institutionalized”.

One could think of, for example: 1) The rise of so-called “global cities” or “smart cities” which (nationally or internationally) compete with each other to attract foreign capital, 2) the devolution of the social policy, mostly in the form of workfare, to local authorities while no improvement in the forms of local democratic participation occur, 3) increasing role of trans-national organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, not only in the discursive popularization/naturalization of laissez-faire (or the Third Way) ideals, but also in the increasing contingency of financial aid upon structural adjustment and financial liberalization. (Of course, the nexus of aid and structural adjustment is not new, but in the contemporary era it is taking new forms too.)

On the other hand, states are assuming new responsibilities too. Especially, facing post-industrial pressures and fertility/aging crises, many advanced capitalist states are being pushed to develop policies that support alternative childcare arrangements in which there is greater place for “gender equality” (Mahon, 2003 and 2005). Indeed, the recognition that the states which do best in terms of economic productivity are indeed those which best reconciles the spheres of work and care have led to the emergence “reconciliation” as an important public policy issue.

In this respect, scalar approaches have demonstrated the increasing role of trans-national agencies in pushing forwards policies which prioritize “social policy” (stressing greater social rights and flexibility for both female and male employees), rather than “economic policy”, stressing fiscal conservatism, pro-employer flexibility, or crude developmentalism. In her insightful study of the OECD, for instance, Mahon (2005) demonstrates that as a trans-national organization with an ability to re-frame social policy issues and push them upon individual countries, the OECD is not monolithic. Rather, for the reconciliation agenda in general and the post-maternalist social policy in particular, it has two different blueprints, one being much more post-maternalist and social policy friendly. Mahon (2005) exposes that competing blueprints of the OECD come from two different “epistemic communities” within the OECD, one being more economistic and the other with a greater perception for complex dynamics of the nexus of labour market and household. {for the OECD and the EU: Armingon and Beyeler, 2004}

If the constructivist approach to scale entails that scale is not something pre-ordained but socially constituted, then the relational dimension of scalar approach further allows one to see (and theorize) the possibilities for progressive/transformative action. Peck (2002) notes that “it is not scale-levels in an absolute sense that matter, but the power laden and shifting relations between scales…Scalar relations are not determinate of outcomes; they define part of the terrain over which struggles take place”. Marston (2000) notes that the construction of scales is a political process endemic to capitalism and its outcome is always open to further transformation. In this regard, scalar approaches allow us to observe that national states are being “challenged” both from within and beyond. Along the similar lines, Perreault (2003) shows how aboriginal populations of Ecuador have made use of trans-national networks in order to bypass the old state sponsored organizations (which purposefully rejected their cultural ethnic identities) in favor of local state administrations (in which there is recognized space for their identities and citizenship rights). Along the same lines, Holston (2001) argues that in the contemporary era we are witnessing the new forms of “urban citizenship” which position themselves vis a vis the nationally organized forms of citizenship. What is contingent (rather than predetermined) is that these spatially constructed projects may restrict or enhance the neo-liberal rescaling, depending on the contexts they take place. Hence the spatio-temporal dialectic between structure and agency.

In these regards, contemporary dynamics of the EU, or more specifically the simultaneous pressures for and against Social Europe, present a very interesting case, one in which forces towards de-centralization, centralization (as seen in the recent EU constitution debates), and supra-nationalization take place, with inter-scalar transfer and implementation of policy ideas as well as relocations of social power. {should time allow, or in the discussion, the contribution of scalar analysis to path-dependency debates in the welfare state literature could also be mentioned, ref: mainly to Mahon, 2003, Faist 2004, 2001, Armingon and Beyeler, 2004}

It must also be noted that the insights of scalar/spatial approaches about globalization also go beyond the issue of globalization simply because they offer methodological/theoretical keys on the production of scales and spaces. Thus, they show, for example that the existence of the nation-state and hence prioritization of the national scale as the locus of social action (and scholarly theorization) during industrial era was not a pre-determined natural event, but rather a historical and contingent process which was based on a number of scalar/spatial projects engendered (and contested) by different social classes. In other words, naturalization of the national scale was made possible 1) by the material and discursive (hegemonic) constitution of the nation state as the socio-spatial condensation of class relations, 2) in its hierarchical positioning to other scales and 3) along with “social divisions of labour” between state, market, (local) communities, and households.

{Considering the above mentioned “tensions”, I would like to suggest that it is not a mere coincidence that some of the most inspiring and still widely utilized works from the discipline of history, are those which had a sort of spatial sensitivity and those which were cautious in not naturalizing the national scale and even the “nuclear family”, - as we see in the perceptive studies of Braudel and Annales School.

It is almost needless to say that all spatial/scalar processes are also firmly gendered, and it is this issue I will talk about in the third section of my presentation.


One can safely argue that among the many fields of contemporary social sciences contemporary feminist geography in particular and feminist political economy in general, are disciplines from which a lot of challenge and stimulation are coming. As is well-known, feminist political economy has demonstrated how deeply intertwined class and gender relations are. Then, the contribution of feminist geography has become showing that class-gender nexus does not only operates through scales, but also it effectively takes part in the hegemonic production of spaces and scales. One of the key insights of the scalar analysis is that the so-called “local” which is geographically an isolated unit, is not necessarily isolated socially, but is part of a larger politico-economic relations; such as in role of the small and medium size producers and sweatshops in the global capitalism. Extending this further, feminist scalar analysis demonstrates that such a positioning of the local within the global economy is made possible by gendered divisions of labour at the household and workplace. In this regard, feminists geography, along with feminist political economy, suggests that it is not only conventional and formal units that matter, but also informal and less conventional units, such as household, social reproduction, consumption, and the body should be taken into account.

As for the household, for example, Marston (2000) suggests that it should be seen as a very complex scale which “involves not only relations of social production, biological consumption and {capitalist} consumption, but in some cases it may also include relations of economic production. Where the home is both a paid and unpaid work space and a living space”. Along the same lines, Nagar et. al. (2002) focus attention to that “informal economies of production and caring subsidize and constitute global capitalism through cheapening production in sweatshops and homework”. Thus, they add, “a gendered analysis of globalization would reveal how inequality is actively produced in the relations between global {neoliberal} restructuring and culturally specific productions of gender difference”.

Therefore, the key challenge of feminist disciplines to their non-gendered counterparts is that unless the conceptual framework itself is gendered, the claims to inter- disciplinarity or spatial/scalar sensitivity would be improbable; because we might still be operating within the compartmentalized and usually positivistic frames and units of analysis of modern social science.

Nevertheless, from a gendered geographical perspective, women are not constructed as passive recipients of spatial construction of the ideologies and practices of class and gender. Rather, they take part in the construction as well as in the negation of them. Therefore, there is again space for agency, and this agency operates at multiple scales. For example, Marston (2000) shows how the 19th century urban middle class women were active agents in the construction of the scale of the home, in which women came to assume more direct responsibility for housekeeping, by invoking the emerging scientific principles of domestic management and adopting new conceptualizations of home and household. In her comparative study of the trajectories of child care provision in Toronto (Canada) and Stockholm (Sweden) Mahon (2003) demonstrates that both Toronto and Stockholm became notable spaces of engagement in favor of child care provision that notably differed from their established national scales, albeit with different degrees of success to sustain their gains and trajectories of further rescaling vis a vis their national welfare regimes.

A number of gender studies on development have demonstrated the Third World women’s increasing utilization of transnational networks in their struggles about home and workplace as well as in re-framing their relations with the nation state. In other words, while nation-states open up their territories to international capital by their own deregulatory policies, and play a role in the proletarianization of their female population vis a vis international capital, women (as well as men) who are getting involved in this wage-relation do seek to open up emancipatory spaces for themselves by acting through scales or by constructing them. In this regard, one could say that the increasing attention devoted to trans-national cooperation among labour unions, and increasing (though inadequate) attention of modern labour unions to gender issues are triggered by the same multi-faceted developments in contemporary capitalism.


Obviously, my presentation will be unable to cover all insights of scalar/spatial approaches. Nor could it discuss all debates taking place within these approaches, or critiques of them from without. Nevertheless, by revolving around the issues of conceptual clarifications, complexities of globalization, and gender, I am hoping to provide a fair picture of scalar/spatial contributions to modern political economy and social policy.


Brenner, N. 2001. “The Limits to Scale: Methodological Reflections on Scalar Structuration,” Progress in Human Geography, 25(4).

Harvey, D. 1982. The Limits to Capital. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, D. 1989. The condition of Postmodernity : An Enquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Marston, S. 2000. “Social Construction of Scale,” Progress in Human Geography, 24(2).

Marston, S. and Smith N. 2001. “States, Scales and Households: Limits to Scale Thinking? A Response to Brenner,” Progress in Human Geography, 25(4).

Nagar, R. et al. 2002. “Locating Globalization: Feminist (Re)readings of the Subjects and Spaces of Globalization,” Economic Geography, 78(3).

Peck, J. 2002. “Political Economies of Scale: Fast Policy, Interscalar Relations, and Neoliberal Workfare,” Economic Geography, 78(3).

Smith, N. 1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. New York: Blackwell.

Soja, E. 1989. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso.