Skip to main content

The Geographic Scale of Globalization Isn't Global

Nations—and even cities—don't globalize. Globalization spreads block by block.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
A view of the Tepozteco pyramid from Tepoztlán, Mexico. The pyramid is on the right side of the saddle in the cliff. (Photo: Public Domain)

A view of the Tepozteco pyramid from Tepoztlán, Mexico. The pyramid is on the right side of the saddle in the cliff. (Photo: Public Domain)

In the Pentagon's New Map, author Thomas Barnett divides the world into two parts: Functioning Core and Non-Integrating Gap. Barnett maps the geopolitical battlefield of globalization. The Functioning Core is globalized. The Non-Integrating Gap resists the economic diffusion of the Functioning Core. The geographic unit of analysis is the nation-state. An entire country is either in the Functioning Core or part of the Non-Integrating Gap. Most people understand globalization at this scale. Most people are wrong.

The Economist provides more nuance, dividing Mexico into two parts, correctos and tontos:

The ways prosperity and modernity spread—or do not spread—around Mexico have been a subject of debate and study for a century or so. In 1926 Robert Redfield, an anthropologist from the University of Chicago who did much to introduce the study of modernisation into the social sciences, settled himself in Tepoztlán, a charming cobbled town 50km south of Mexico City, for fieldwork. He expressed what he observed in terms of a gap between “los correctos” (the correct), the local elite who were gradually absorbing city ways, and “los tontos” (the fools) who stuck with old traditions.

The gap had a spatial dimension. Near the town’s plaza were the biggest houses and the most competitive artisans; interaction with visitors and tradespeople from outside meant that big-city culture was strongest there. Farther out, the jobs became more traditional; midwives, herbal doctors and firework-makers. At the very edge of town people did not even tell the time; there were no watches, and they were too far away from the plaza to hear the church bell. But though such patterns were part of the story, there was more to it. The tontos were removed from modernity not merely by the walk to the town centre, but by their habits of mind.

Spatial divisions in Mexico’s modernisation are still obvious today. As Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University’s Centre for International Development points out, economic productivity in Nuevo León, a heavily industrialised state close to the American border, is at South Korean levels. In the south of Mexico it is close to that of Honduras. The country’s industrial clusters devoted to the manufacture of cars, planes, electric goods and electrical equipment—categories which between them account for two-thirds of Mexico’s manufacturing exports, and thus for about 18% of GDP—are largely to be found in a band next to its northern border and in the central states below it. These states account for about 70% of the 120m population.

Mexico's los correctos comprises the Functioning Core. The fools (los tontos) live in the Non-Integrating Gap, just to make the normative value of the terminology explicit. Near the United States border lies much of los correctos. Mexico's heat map of economic activity looks a lot like Canada's. It's not so much global as it is bilateral. Mexico isn't globalizing. The country (the "correct" parts of it) are Canuckifying.

Note the geographic scale Robert Redfield used in delineating between correctos ("sacred") and tontos ("profane"). In 1926, he described the urban geography of globalization in 1996. The Functioning Core was the financial district. As you walked away from the World Trade Center (the icon of economic globalization) in New York City, leaving behind the sacred, the experience was more profane (Non-Integrating Gap). A few blocks made a globe of difference.

Looking forward to 2016, Jane Jacobs and William Easterly sharpen our focus on measuring the impacts of globalization:

In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jacobs zooms in still further, looking at “Shinohata”, a pseudonymous Japanese hamlet a hundred miles north-west of Tokyo. (She relies on a rich description of Shinohata by sociologist Ronald Dore.) Shinohata was initially a subsistence economy, supplemented by woodland foraging and a little silk farming. In the 20th century, the villagers gained some time thanks to improved agricultural techniques, and they used it to produce more silk cocoons. After the war, Tokyo’s expansion pulled Shinohata into its economic orbit. The booming Japanese capital became a market for Shinohata’s fresh fruit and wild oak mushrooms; Tokyo’s government paid for bridges and roads; its capitalists built a factory; its labour market lured young men and women from their village existence. The tale is intricate and unpredictable; Japan’s economic miracle, as recorded in the national statistics, was actually the sum of countless unrecorded stories of local development.

Jacobs is not the only person to argue that economic development may be profitably studied through a magnifying glass. A new research paper from three development economists, William Easterly, Laura Freschi and Steven Pennings, offers “A Long History of a Short Block” — a Shinohata-style tale of the economic development of a single 486ft block of Greene Street, between Houston and Prince Street in downtown Manhattan.

Jacobs makes national prosperity a local story, an urban tale. Easterly makes global prosperity a neighborhood story, telling the grand economic history of one block on Manhattan. In the 17th-century, who could have predicted that Greene Street would outperform the sugar plantations of Dutch Guiana?

In the late 20th-century, who could have predicted the boom of Rust Belt Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Looking at the nation-state or a metropolitan statistical area, one misses the trees for the forest. Economic re-structuring happens block by block. Instead of financial districts, research universities underwrite revitalization. The rebound lurks beneath the legacy data communicating the depressing status quo. In Pittsburgh, globalization spreads block by block.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.