Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Luise Porst

Luise Porst

Luise Porst is a research associate and PhD candidate at Bonn University. She did her master’s programme in spatial planning with a special focus on developing countries and she also holds a degree in human geography. As a member of the TransRe junior research team, her academic work is particularly focused on internal migration in Thailand and its effects on resilience to environmental risks in sending areas.

Jan 19th 2015 by Luise Porst

Understandings of scale from a translocal viewpoint

Scale – seems like a simple enough term, but it has myriad meanings for a wide range of disciplines in academia, let alone in colloquial language. Obviously, distinctions vary substantially.

When studying the environment-migration nexus for instance, different ideas of scale collide: in the context of resilience to risks arising from changes in the natural environment, scales are meant to differentiate (social-)environmental systems in terms of size and scope which generates a hierarchy of subsystems. Embedding scale in such systemic thinking, however, differs from addressing scale against the backdrop of human migration. Whereas from an ecosystem perspective transcending scales is considered a potential cause of disturbance, different scales being included in migrants’ movements and networks don’t necessarily mean something negative. Notwithstanding such interdisciplinary deviations, clarification is needed on productive ways of using notions of scale.

Since we’re conducting research at the intersection of the environment and migration, scale becomes a contentious starting point. Therefore, we seek to identify the meaning of scale to be productively used specifically with regard to translocality.

In this wider context, improving our understanding of people’s embeddedness and places’ positioning in an age in which mobility appears as an ordinary everyday life activity for the vast majority of people in every corner of the world entails some questions: Do mobility patterns in a globalized world challenge the concept of geographical scales, particularly when it comes to delineating nation-states or, further, global regions? Given today’s high frequency in movements of people, goods, and information through physical and virtual spaces, what type of structure and which boundaries do places and spaces have? Or how porous have boundaries become and for whom? Can territorial borders, spatial boundaries, and the scope of societal organization be used interchangeably with scale?

What does scale contribute to concepts of translocality?

As one meaning of scale is obviously non-existent, the question I pose does not necessarily read ‘What is scale?’ but rather ‘how does scale relate to translocality?’ or ‘what value is added by combining scale and translocality?’

In my research on internal migration in Thailand, I will focus on relations and interactions between migrants and non-migrants, including, for instance, migrants’ communication with their family and friends at home or mutual support, which besides remittances, also encompasses child rearing by migrants’ parents at places of origin, among other things. Studying such social interactions that generate links between different places automatically leads to questions of where and how such translocal social practices are embedded, and  what type of socio-spatial formation such social interactions produce and reproduce. Structuring these interactions and their spatial effects is often done by utilizing scales, which, in a geographical sense, range from the body to the global. The question remains whether a translocale consists of scales.  By using the term scale in the context of translocal space, do we simply ask for its extent, its boundaries, and whether it encompasses different levels or has different temporal and spatial dimensions?

In concrete terms, light needs to be shed on how the multiple places and contexts a migrant is simultaneously situated in, manifest in one another at a distance (in order for linkages to come into being) and which boundaries, for instance, constrain or catalyze translocal mobility. Scale might offer one approach to answer such questions – which, indeed, urges us to sort out the many understandings of scale itself.

The many meanings of scale

In human geography, scale is mostly referred to as size, extent, range, scope, and as resolution or relation of processes and structures; the latter at least in the term’s cartographic sense. At the same, time scale serves as a means to order spaces, territories, and boundaries and thereby analyze their emergence and interaction. By being equated with level, scale denotes a hierarchy of nested spaces or territories providing a structure or even a world order. It can also be understood as the scope of power of state or economic authorities that are imagined to be affiliated with different (constructed) levels. Common socio-spatial levels include categories such as body, household, neighborhood, city, region, nation, continent, and world; or big and small geographical scales, micro- and macro social scales, among others. Such graduated units on the one hand determine which realities are considered for analysis, and on the other hand, are determined at the same time by definitions of scale. Hence, scale is treated as both a materiality as well as a tool for analysis.

Translocality

While understandings of scale range from a spatial-material sense to epistemological-analytical ones, notwithstanding its temporal dimension, the focus here is on identifying the meaning of scale in the context of translocality. One single concept of translocality does not exist either. In general, translocality emphasizes links between places and space that is created in between such places, e.g. source and destination places of migrants. Translocality, moreover, focuses on the process by which those linkages are produced and maintained. Therefore, social interaction (agency) which constitutes that process is my research’s object of analysis.

Framing translocal spatial structures

Understanding translocal modes of living requires taking into account the numerous nuances of people’s movements and everyday realities while being both on the move and situated at multiple places. Such multifaceted social practices obviously lead to a likewise high variety of spatial structures and theoretical approaches to their analysis. In as far as these practices play out on different societal levels (individual actor, community, institutions) they and, therefore translocal space, might be understood to have a scalar dimension – which also explains why translocal social practices are referred to as multi-scalar, given scale is seen as level.

Therefore, scale should not be excluded from concepts of translocality because it enables us to determine how far to stretch beyond physical boundaries of places in order to take account of social practices and processes that are not bound to only one place. Since social interaction is conceived of as connecting places and levels, it also seems suitable to frame translocal social practices, and hence translocal space, as a networked structure or an assemblage, for instance. Substituting one conceptualization for the other or completely dismissing scale from socio-spatial conceptualizations – as has recently been debated among geographers – is not what is needed. Without being set in stone, hierarchies and boundaries still exist and social practices always have a certain context. Such real-life features should be accounted for in whichever approach to social space. Looking into that debate more in-depth, as a forthcoming TransRe working paper does, helps us to better understand how scale relates to translocality and what this implies for our research framework.