A Scale Debate

Marston, Sallie. 2000. “The Social Construction of Scale.” Progress in Human Geography 25: 219-42.

Brenner, Neil. 2001. “The Limits to Scale? Methodological Reflections on Scalar Structuration.” Progress in Human Geography 25(4): 591–614.

Marston, Sallie and Neil Smith. 2001. “States, Scales and Households: Limits to Scale Thinking? A response to Brenner.” Progress in Human Geography 25(4): 615-619.

Marston, Sallie A., Jones, John Paul and Woodward, Keith. 2005. “Human Geography Without Scale.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30: 416-32.

Since Sallie Marston sees scaled places, following Erik Swyngedouw, as “the embodiment of social relations of empowerment and disempowerment and the arena through and in which they operate,” she expresses concern with the exclusive emphasis on capital, labor, and the state (plus social movements) in critical geography. She wants to expand the conception of scale in a way that makes possible how other overlooked socio-spatial dynamics play important roles in the constitution and transformation of scale. She makes this argument using the gendering and patriarchy of household production, consumption and reproduction.

She reviews a bulk of literature on the “social construction” of scale before turning to her empirical example, which shows how the household became a site in which women began articulating a much more overt political position vis-à-vis patriarchal U.S. state formation by, among other things, breaking the false divide between private and public spaces/social roles. She states it better:

My empirical focus is on a number of women’s movements and popular domestic practices that came to redefine the gender content of public and private life by advocating explicit female control over childbearing and the household, as well as municipal, state and federal government affairs, including organizing for the franchise and opposing the impending first world war. (235)

This took three forms: they expanded notions of citizenship, linked the home to broader sense of community, and remade the home as a unique form of private space that had very public implications.

Brenner’s Critique

Brenner’s main gripe is that the analytic sharpness of “scale” for examining socio-spatial processes is being blunted by its blurring with other key concepts in geography—namely, place, locality, territory and space. (Elsewhere he says parallel mistake is being made by geographers in conflating territory and place.) He uses Marston’s article to demonstrate his claim and to ward against what he sees are its negative consequences. Brenner says his critique is aimed at contributing to the

development of an approach to sociospatial theory in which the specifically scalar dimensions of social spatiality – in contradistinction to its many other dimensions, such as localization, place-making, territorialization, spatial distanciation, the formation of spatial networks, the production of environment/nature and so forth – may be adequately recognized and theorized. (593)

Although Brenner recognizes the importance of consumption and reproduction—saying, however, that they have not been overlooked in the literature—his main issue is with Marston’s characterization of the home as a scale. He says that Marston is more concerned with the actual production of the home as a place or a space. He calls this a singular construction of the “politics of scale.” By this he means analysis that does not consider the inter-scalar relationalities of scaling (which he terms the plural connotations of the politics of scale—or scalar structuration.

I get his point but this characterization of her argument verges pretty close to painting the women discussed by Marston as “just homemakers.” Marston later calls him out on the pretty crude comment that in U.S. capitalism households “were no more than relatively stable background structures” (598).

I agree with Brenner that Marston’s empirical example is unfortunately short, but I think it’s clear that much more could be said about it that would go much further in proving her point that households were (of course) consequential in the development of sociospatial relations (including scales). Just off the cuff it seems to me that any space that is explicitly circumscribed discursively and/or materially toward particular political ends can be a scale, but that can only be defined empirically.

Marston and Smith Respond

Their main response is that scale theory needs to be constantly reinvented. Brenner himself acknowledges that the interest in scale is a “real abstraction” because of its central importance in changing socio-spatial dynamics across the globe. “For exactly this reason the original article insisted on the constitutive but largely unheralded role of social reproduction and consumption, in conjunction with social production, in the production of geographical scale” (615).

Yet ‘geographical scale’ is not simply a ‘hierarchically ordered system’ placed over pre-existing space, however much that hierarchical ordering may itself be fluid. Rather the production of scale is integral to the production of space, all the way down. Scaled social processes pupate specific productions of space while the production of space generates distinct structures of geographical scale. The process is highly fluid and dynamic, its social authorship broad-based, and the scale of the household (or the home) is integral to this process. So too, we contend, is the scale of the body. (616)

They have some interesting critiques against Lefebvre, saying that he did not really deal very much with spatial differentiation (beyond differential apace I guess that’s true); they also claim that Brenner is drawing from Lefebvre’s arguments about space to make an argument about scale, which to me isn’t problematic in itself, but I think they’re on to something. The last point they make that got me thinking is that they say Brenner often conflates state and national, so they respond, “It is simply arbitrary that the home is relegated to a ‘place’ or ‘arena’, while the state gets to be a multifaceted ‘scale’” (618).

Flat Ontology

Marston et al. make a compelling case about the thicket of scale. Their main problem is its infusion with hierarchy, which they claim will inevitably always smuggle in a series of nasty binaries contained in their table below. I think that a lot of their critiques are really important and I respect the boldness of their thinking to really break new ground in what’s a really difficult quandary, but I just wasn’t convinced. For one thing, I have to admit that I didn’t really understand—at least, at that level of abstraction—much of what they posed as alternatives. (Clearly, this is more my own ignorance of that body of work, but it does make one wink at the (deceptively) “easy” concepts of local, national, global.

I’m out of steam today, and could go on but most of all I’m just not convinced that one has to jettison “scale” altogether to avoid falling into hierarchies and their incipient binaries. The “note” to their table two I think is precisely where a lot of work needs to be done. I think it’s precisely in the “re-imagination of [the local-global’s] oppositional associates” where there’s a lot of space for maneuver.


This entry was posted in Gender, Henri Lefebvre, Nation/Nationalism, Networks, Place, Power, Scale, Spatiality, Territory, The Body, The State. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Scale Debate

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  3. Carlo Sica says:

    I wrote an almost verbatim “meta message” across the top of my copy of Brenner’s critique – did he use the word blunted in the article(?), must have. Thanks for your thoughts, very helpful!

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