This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on April 20, 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World. By Michael Burawoy, Joseph Blum, Sheba George, Zauzaa Gill, Teresa Gowan, Lynne Haney, Maren Klawiter, Steven Lopez, Sean O'Riain, Mille Thayer, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press (2000), 392 pp.


Reviewed by Mary E. Hancock, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara.


Global Ethnography, a volume that evolved from a graduate seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, is polished, smart, and energetic. The seminar-cum-working group was led by Burawoy, and sought to take on the thorny problem of how one might best engage globalization through ethnography without losing sight of either the sometimes concealed global forces and institutions that shape localities and the experiences of their inhabitants, or the individual experiences, narratives and situated knowledges that make up everyday lived experience. The result is a collection of individually authored articles that explore the articulations and disarticulations of global and local institutions, practices and ideas. In addition to providing historically and ethnographically rich descriptions, the articles serve as methodological examples of how one might study specific instances of the conditions and processes of globalization, along with its material and ideological effects.

The papers the volume comprises are clustered into three sections "Global Forces," "Global Connections," and "Global Imaginations," topics corresponding to the major heuristic categories developed by the group to analyze the varied encounters with globalization. Each major section is introduced with a brief discussion authored by those whose individual papers are included in that section. The articles are compelling and well-written - each one is based on serious and often prolonged ethnographic engagement. Four of the articles (those by Blum, George, Gilles, and Klawiter) are revised versions of papers that won national awards. All contributors write with an intensity that suggests deep intellectual and political commitment to their subjects.

The collection has both an "Introduction" and "Conclusion" by Burawoy. These chapters situate the volume in the larger trajectory of historically-informed ethnography influenced by the Chicago school of urban sociology and the Manchester school of extended case method. Burawoy charts his own intellectual/political genealogy in order to underscore how the boundaries of the nation-state, which implicitly framed most ethnographic endeavors of the twentieth century, are being challenged by the institutions and processes that are considered hallmarks of globalization. He does not, however, advocate the jettisoning of earlier approaches, rather he argues that their methods and theories can be mined and re-worked to yield new questions and explanatory paradigms. This ambitious goal is what Global Ethnography aims to accomplish and its contributions are significant and instructive.

Part One deals with the effects of global economic forces (global trade and governance measures administered by organizations such as WTO, World Bank as well as multinational economic ventures) on individuals and communities, charting the experience of downward mobility for working people in urban US (San Francisco) and Europe (Hungary). The three articles discuss welfare reform in post-socialist Hungary (Haney), the work of homeless recyclers in San Francisco (Gowan), and the fates of skilled shipyard laborers, also in San Francisco (Blum).

Haney documents the material effects of shifting discourses on poverty in Hungary, following its embrace of World Bank directed structural adjustment after the break-up of the Soviet bloc. She describes the breakdown of the socialist welfare state and its replacement by capitalist economic institutions and a new bureaucratic infrastructure for the delivery of social welfare. Following the directives of First World funders, the latter agencies make decisions on the basis of quantifiable poverty indicators and offer welfare that is primarily financial in contrast to the broader social assessments and interventions that had existed under the prior system. Gowan also focuses on the lived experiences of globalization with an article about the work of San Francisco's homeless recyclers, many of whom are displaced shipyard workers and/or discharged military personnel. She privileges their own accounts of becoming homeless and of struggling for subsistence as well as dignity. Embedded in their stories are references, deemed nostalgic by Gowan, to the kinds of work and life prior to homelessness. Gowan finds a political edge in their nostalgia, arguing that the memory of their earlier working lives frames their efforts to invest recycling with moral and material value. Blum, himself a skilled, longtime shipyard worker, writes about the downward mobility experienced by skilled laborers as a result of corporate restructuring. Departing from Braverman's influential work, Blum finds that labor, itself, (the skills required to perform specific tasks) is not simplified or diminished, but a new regime of "flexible discipline," reflecting changes in union and managerial decision making processes, has been inaugurated. The outcome is that, although skilled labor continues to be a necessity for shipyard production, the craft labor system of work and training that had prevailed in the post-WWII period of military-industrial mobilization and expansion has been undermined.

Part Two explores the character of new global connections that function within, define, and reorganize transnational social space. Contributors point out that globalization has fostered greater interconnectedness among diverse places and groups, especially across national boundaries, and their focus is on the transnational publics that have emerged in the spaces between institutionalized power structures - in domestic and religious realms, in sociality fostered through occupational roles, and in transnational social movements. They suggest that some persons and communities are positioned to take advantage of cross-border flows and to forge new identities, follow new opportunities and pursue social transformations.

Sheba George shows how migration to the US by Indian nurses has opened up new economic opportunities to these women but has initiated a struggle over class and gender ideologies within the immigrant community, a struggle that appropriates and re-draws gendered norms of the homeland and the adopted country. Sean O'Riain describes how Irish software developers take advantage of increasing opportunities in an emerging industry and use their social networks and job-hopping strategies to negotiate their place in local and global labor markets. The software developers are better able to maintain their autonomy within the transnational social sphere than the Indian nurses because they have, in effect, cut themselves loose from the Irish transnational community and formed an uneasy alliance with transnational corporations. Millie Thayer analyzes how feminist activists in Brazil draw on feminist discourses authored in the First World, translating and adapting them for local realities. Brazilian feminists moved from a focus on women's health and reproduction that had been inspired by the work of the Boston Women's Health Collective, to an explicitly political focus on gender and citizenship articulated through engagement with the Brazilian state and with international funding agencies. She describes the complex linking of critique and engagement that connect the Brazilian groups to transnational feminist social spaces, on the one hand, and to the state and international agencies that seek to define and administer women's needs, on the other.

Part Three examines how the construction and deployment of global imaginations have become central to new political projects and controversies. Like the contributions to Part One, these articles chart the deleterious effects of global capitalism on working conditions; but the writers also show, as do contributors to Part Two, how other global discourses and institutions can be deployed to challenge global capitalism. Lopez discusses the threats to public service worker unions introduced by municipal government's drive to make Pittsburgh more attractive to global investment through tax cuts and the privatization of public services. Though unions held off some privatization measures by appealing to universal principles of justice (arguing that weakening their unions would result in substandard care for vulnerable groups, notably nursing home residents), they continue to grapple with the profound challenges to union organization, recruitment and decision-making that economic globalization poses. Gilles studied Hungarian villages and environmental activists who, under socialism, had been marginalized because of the state's protection of industry, which shielded industrial hazards from public view. While the dismantling of the socialist state has not allowed villagers to escape the effects of decades of industrial pollution, it has allowed them to maneuver by both reaching out to the global environmental movement and bargaining with the global industries that dispose of hazardous wastes. Finally, Klawiter shows how American breast cancer patients, once marginalized, individualized and stigmatized by American medicine, politicized their disease by a combined strategy of reversing its stigma, questioning medical authority and globalizing their cause by linking breast cancer to global pollution. She argues that it was not actual reductions in the disease's incidence that politicized patients, but that the efforts to make breast cancer and treatment into public issues produced new subjects, solidarities, and sensibilities and in so doing laid the groundwork for the development of social movements.

The individual case studies are amply documented and tightly argued. There are, however, implicit contentions among the arguments posed. Though these are alluded to in the Preface, I was surprised by the dearth of intertextual references in the articles themselves. This is especially noteworthy given the gestation of the project and the close working relations among contributors. Several, for example, deal with the ways that unions' organizational structures, representational effectiveness, and societal goals have changed and are presently subject to contentious re-evaluation in light of the globalizing political economy. None, however, refer to the others in the body of their discussions. I also noted that the only contributors who specifically problematized the gendered conditions and outcomes of globalization were those who focused on women's engagement with global economic and social processes. That is, as is typical in much social science, it is women to whom "gender" is attributed. By contrast, the analyses of male sociality and economic displacement treated men as workers, corporate managers, and union actors - that is, as representatives of class alignments - with little attention to the ways that masculinities are formed through contentious interactions and discourses among men and between men and women. For example, in Gowan's trenchant and evocative account of homeless men's struggle to recall and discursively claim an identity tied to their past lives as workers, is not their "nostalgia" also a way to name and appropriate the normative masculinity that underwrote Fordist and nationalist economic institutions?

Lastly, individual articles do not consistently take on the theoretical accounts of globalization to which the volume, as a whole, is oriented. All are concerned with the "new" global order, but define its components differently, emphasizing forces (Part One), connections (Part Two) and imaginations (Part Three) and use these framing ideas to untangle the specificities of particular cases. None take on directly the master narratives of globalization described by Burawoy in his Conclusion as "radical" (Giddens, Castells) "skeptical" (Harvey, Jameson), and "perspectival" (Clifford, Marcus, Fisher). Burawoy, however, does outline the contours of this larger project by discussing the relations between the historicization of the ideology of "globalism" on the one hand, and the situated, historically specific, accounts of global-local articulations on the other. In this light, Burawoy positions the volume as a project that extends, empirically and theoretically, Stuart Hall's notion of the "global postmodern." This multivalent term refers, in economic terms, to the tendency of flexible accumulation to exploit and recreate difference; in political terms, to the emergence of processes and institutions that operate both above and below the nation-state, and, in cultural terms, to the proliferation of hybrid, recombinant, and often fragile identities. The volume's case studies are likened to archaeological sites scattered across world that, together, yield a picture of the displacement of global imperialism and the emergence of global postmodernity.

While readers of the collection can appreciate the broader theoretical claims about globalization that Burawoy makes, the thinness of intertextual references means that readers are denied access to what was surely a lively and productive part of the working collaboration that produced the volume.

My queries and criticisms should not be read as diminishing the value of what is, overall, a persuasive and powerful document about the ways that globalization is materialized in specific ways of living and working in different, but always connected locales. Global Ethnography provides a model for engaged ethnographic work as well as for pedagogy and I look forward to using it in both graduate and upper-division undergraduate classes.