The Politics of Materiality and Scales

I recently had the pleasure of writing for Kritik, the blog for the Unit for Criticism and Intrepretive Theory (which I am an affiliate of) at the University of Illinois. If the opportunity to contribute to a really vital dialogue on campus was not stimulating enough, it was also an invitation to write about a talk from Professor Zsuzsa Gille, whose work and perspective has been greatly helpful for me in my current efforts, on her new book. She graciously contacted me after the post went live to commend me on the summary, which you can find up on Kritik.

Gille.Poster 2016

What Zsuzsa had to say in terms of the operations of multiple scales – that of the local and the global – at work in her research on Hungary really relates to the work of this space. Her work is quite persuasive on the point that researchers must look at the interoperation of these scales at the level of materiality and practices. In this regard, her work has often reminded me of that of Anna Tsing, particularly in Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.

Tsing advocates that researchers juggle between the universal and the situated in order to understand global forces. [1] Tsing, rather than taking global forces like capitalism as an a priori explanation, instead aligns herself with scholars like Timothy Mitchell and Doreen Massey in positing a research agenda centered on identifying friction – “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” that produce culture. [2] In this framework, encounters between global ideas and local situations produce culture; it is not the supposedly inherent authority of a global force that determines culture faithfully.

This renders the universal as an aspirational category, one which encounters and is changed by the circumstances surrounding the particular. [3] Tsing looks at knowledge as mobilizing beyond the local, recognizing its circulation into global frameworks while equally recognizing that such knowledge can then run into different tensions in different locales. It is this facet of the circulation of knowledge between the global and the local which generates unexpected outcomes worthy of further research. Recognizing the circulation of knowledge in this way also affirms friction as an avenue of possibilities, something that a priori explanations often exclude. [4]

Thus, as I allude to in the post, the “off the ground” perspective of the global scale comes into conflict with the particular contexts and modes of knowledge production inherent at the local scale. There is always a multiplicity of scales at work in a situation, and it operates in ways that a structuralist or deterministic agenda is not likely to notice. Indeed, it is often only through the dynamism of material practices, such as those that Zsuzsa focuses on, that the operations of these scales gets demystified, which is why it is pivotal for social researchers to follow said practices.


  1. Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 267.
  2.  Ibid, 4.
  3.  Ibid, 7.
  4.  Ibid, 18.

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