Friday Feb 24

Globalization on the Backroads

Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

Beyond the Landing Places of Network Value

Globalization has hitherto been viewed from a limited range of perspectives. The flip-flop trail tilts the angle of conception from the commanding heights of globalization, from what I have at various points along the trail referred to as ‘mainstream globalization’ or the ‘global superhighways’, to less hegemonic, less sensational, quieter, more mundane streams of global traffic and trans-local connection.

Shifting the lens from high finance, media images, fast food chains and other high-profile vectors of global intersection, creates a conceptual space for other versions of globalization in other places, to take shape. These are not better or more real than the insights of iconic-hegemonic versions, but they do reveal globalization from different angles, exposing its less prominent features, and adding to what we know about it by other means. While globalization theorists now admit its lesser-known geographies, the term globalization with Chinese characters acknowledges the particularity of routes through China, they rarely focus their inquiries on them. Instead they rework the same, limited, empirical scenarios and territories, for deeper and ever more abstract truths. This challenge to the grip of hegemonic globalization on the imagination of global theorists questions, for example, Castells’ most excellent conception of globalization for its focus on the key landing places of network value. My book shows that globalization is more than this. It is more plural and open. It constantly reroutes trails and opens new ones. New trails, new routes, new configurations and articulations of social and material fabrics, form the mutating substance of globalization.

The flip-flop trail discourages conceptual complacency. It shows that globalization is always a work in progress. Only provisional assessments, pending further investigation of something so vast and diverse as globalization, are appropriate. Further investigation of a diverse range of circumstances and vantage-points is urgently needed. In the interim, our theoretical pronouncements should be provisional and the limitations of their circumstances acknowledged, moderating claims to general truths. This is the first of the insights with implications for how we conceptualize globalization, to come from the flip-flop trail.

Logics of Travel

The second of these insights is the consequences of shifting the framework of globalization from objects (as commodities) to people, embarked on the journeys of everyday life. The flip-flop trail pursues globalization from inside the logics of travel, unusually, foregrounding its mobile human substance. Journeys both embed the core logic of globalization in movement and offer a way of investigating it empirically. The logics of travel foreground the everyday lives of people collaborating, in different ways, with the businesses of globalization, with the macro as well as the micro landscapes that co-produce them. These living, moving, story-telling human fabrics graphically depict the substance of globalization, and the landscapes on which its multiple possibilities are enacted. Their journeys reveal the skills with which people navigate and customize the trails they weave through their neighborhoods. The benefit this brings to an understanding of globalization will be unfolded further below.

Fragility and Precarity

The third insight on globalization from the flip-flop trail challenges the robust, solid, and enduring and thus, perhaps, apparently unchallengeable networked monolith presented in globalization theory. The flip-flop trail instead exposes globalization’s fragility as an unstable, shifting and ad hoc tangle of translocal routes, which can, and do, as we observed on the trail, reroute in directions that cannot always be predicted. Flip-flop production is particularly fragile on account of its mobility. Low wages and easily learned technical skills make flip-flop production possible in thousands of locations. If flip-flops were people they would be experienced migrants living in transit.

What is, perhaps, more surprising are the fragilities and precarities of the hegemonic forms of globalization, developed around oil and petrochemicals. Viewed from the humanistic perspective of the flip-flop trail, life in Kuwait and Korea is precarious in its own ways, as we observed. On each of the platforms composing the trail, materials, objects
and livelihoods can move in any number of directions. This is not to suggest that Kuwaiti, Korean, Chinese, Somali and Ethiopian fragilities are commensurable. They are not, as we could see. Fragilities take different forms and intensities in people’s lives.

Globalization’s fragilities and instabilities weave their way through people’s lives along the trail as incommensurable, personal insecurities and precarities. Precarity refers to the different ways in which risk is shifted from public and commercial bodies onto the personal circumstances of individual workers and their families. Precarities manifest themselves in being unable to eat three times a day, circumstances which Chinese producers and Ethiopian consumers share. They are manifested in risking imprisonment for evading import duties, in having to drive a taxi or dig clams in old age, and in fearing of invasion and violence. For much of the human substance of globalization we witness on the trail, the fragile forms of stability available to them in a shifting, precarious world entail remaining poor, so that jobs are not relocated to still poorer places and people. People’s navigational skills are attuned to the shifting precarities with which they coexist. They are skilled navigators, as we saw, of globalization’s precarities.

As a counterpoint to the stable networks, strengths and inevitabilities of classic globalization theory, the flip-flop trail reveals, in the fabric of people’s lives, another side to globalization. This side is anything but consistent and stable. It is instead, an inchoate, ad hoc matrix of shifting, cross-cutting trails that are difficult to anticipate, and even more difficult to live. Globalization produces fragile and precarious lives, even for those who live in its more privileged locations.

Globalization on the Back Roads

Straying from the well-trodden superhighways of globalization, departing from its hegemonic routes, taking the roads less known, striking out on new geographies, following an object without knowing where it is headed and generally wandering off the beaten track, furnishes new thinking on what globalization is and how it works. What follows unravels the benefits of the back roads a bit further. The idea of back-road globalization is intended to convey a sense of it as an alternative set of routes. I am not making a conceptual distinction between it and hegemonic versions of globalization. On the contrary, as the flip-flop trail shows, the two closely intersect. Back roads depart from the main roads, with which they form significant junctions, they cross, and run alongside other main roads, forged by other steams of business animating other lives. Distinguishing back and main roads is thus a matter of descriptive convenience, signaling departure from hegemonic versions of globalization, rather than a fundamental distinction. Back roads do not lack significance, or large scales of traffic as we have seen. They are back roads in carrying low-value goods and in not marking the landing places of network value, two factors which rule them out as vantage-points onto globalization. Network value aside, the flip-flop trail reveals some of globalization’s macro-contours forming the social morphology of our time. Three revelations of the trail in particular display the benefits of these back roads.

They reveal significant streams of global migration. In the process they display the rhythms, scales of movement and volition driving these forms of human mobility. They expose the logics of rural-to-urban migrations and difference between points on the trail. These are in full swing across China, over in Korea, and scaled down in Ethiopia. They expose female transnational migration between Ethiopia and Kuwait. Indeed, at the end of the flip-flop trail, further trails are generated from the rubbish dump to the Middle East. They expose another stream of movements too, in the traffic between Africa and China, which brings Chinese migrants to Africa, and Africans to China.

Second, these back roads reveal what is happening in China. As a global production center in transition to becoming a major economic powerhouse, China is a twenty-first century force to be reckoned with. Accounts of globalization should take this into account. These back roads unpack some of its small-scale factory production and the people whose lives it weaves. These back roads reveal China’s (quasi-colonial?) relationship with Africa. This is important in rising (competition and) opportunity and (unevenly distributed) prosperity on this continent.

Third, these back roads reveal the current securitization efforts and, sometimes, the military interventions of the twenty-first century, in borderland struggles with insurgents, jihadists, disaffected citizens and pirates. They expose the seizures and violence undermining the security and prosperity of the global North. In these moments local precarities are transformed and passed along, creating new routes to new places, in which they take new forms. Back roads through Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia vividly display the tensions in the (macro) geopolitics of the moment.


Journeys place everyone in the same frame. They enable comparisons between locations, and between lives in the same locations. Journeys display the contours of comparative (dis)advantage. They offer a means of grouping and differentiating people, avoiding the juggernauts of social categorization, providing instead, as we observed, fine-grained portraits of lives and the circumstances of their living. Journeys reveal the scale on which lives are lived. They expose the hyper-local and the long-distance traveler, along with the rhythms of their routes. They reveal people’s calculations and navigational skills, the capacities and circumstances that make their journeys possible.

Journeys reveal places. They expose the missing urban geographies of globalization. They provide a series of lenses through which cities can be apprehended and analyzed. They problematize the relationship between cities, as well as between cities and the routes composing them. Journeys, as I hope I have shown, provide sophisticated urban analytics, while placing the lives fabricating them at the center of our concerns. Globalization is increasingly lived in and through cities, in one way or another. In paying close attention to landscape we see the environmental impact of globalization on the flip-flop trail, in the detritus on the oil and petrochemical landscapes in Kuwait and Korea, in the way discarded flip-flops sit in the landfill site on the edge of Addis, picked over by scratchers, and, perhaps, turned into biomass electricity.

It’s All Local

Finally, in among the seething inchoate mobilities composing globalization, its hyper locality is declared. Globalization is lived in houses and in neighborhoods. It is lived through work. And it is lived in the social relationships of these restless groundings. What stretches these things beyond the local, what makes them global, is a chaotic patchwork of movement, on different scales, by different people, by objects like flip flops, by materials like plastics, and by substances like food. The flip-flop trail shows that globalization is made in little, hyper-local sections, all of them connected, in different ways to the next stage or platform on the trail. At no point, and this would seem to be crucial in thinking about globalization, is an entire trail, or even large sections of it, revealed. Not even in the algorithms of logistics. Trails jolt uncertainly across the opaque intersections between neighborhoods, locales and nation-states.

Globalization is not what we think it is. As the flip-flop trail has shown, it is a loose patchwork of human and object journeys. It is an unstable, shifting, contingent mass of ad hoc-ery, with pockets of opportunity within overwhelming landscapes of precarity. Above all, globalization needs to be re-examined for the opportunities for maneuver its instabilities might provide for the mass of people worldwide who struggle in their own ways to navigate it.

This is an excerpt from Flip-Flop: A Journey Through Globilisation’s Backroads by Caroline Knowles, available from Pluto Press ( published in 2014.

Carolyn Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Latest Issue

Read The New Issue