PhD candidate  in Sociocultural Anthropology, Sam Shuman, sat down to chat with linguistic anthropologist, Dr. Michael Lempert, about the release of his new co-edited book, Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life (University of California, 2016). The following is an excerpt of that interview.




Sam Shuman: What first drew you to think about questions of scale in your work?

Michael Lempert: Well, I think part of it has to do with the fact that I specialize in face-to-face interaction. You know face-to-face interaction is one of these objects of knowledge that is just understood to be intrinsically micro, small scale. Some people revel in that. They think that there’s a certain kind of richness revealed in doing fine-grained analysis and prioritizing things like transcripts. For all those that kind of revel in the micro and argue that you can see things there you can’t otherwise see, there’s just as many people, if not more, who stress the myopics of it: that you can’t see the forest through the trees, you miss a thousand “macro-social dramas.” And I find these well-rehearsed kinds of criticisms really turning on again—their scalar understandings of this object. And so it’s been a frustration with the kind of see-saw of responses to this object—reveling in and demanding attention to the “situated,” “local,” “micro,” or else complaining about what you can’t see and what you can’t do. And also, for many, there’s even a politics to it—that ignore the macro and your work is complicit with all sorts of processes that are not evident in the immediacy of the here and now or the face-to-face. A lot of people who do work on interaction, at least in Anthropology, have been struggling to demonstrate that you can spy the macro through the micro or they’re trying to demonstrate a macro-micro dialectic. But, all of this stuff, it struck me several years ago—still turns on the idea of an interaction being small. So I’ve been interested in scale especially because of the way it underwrites so much of scholarship. It gives us intuitions about what objects of knowledge are and what they’re not and what we can see and what we can’t. And these are very stubborn things. A lot of folk will try to say, “oh, the macro-micro distinctions are kind of old and we’ve discarded them, and we’ve moved on.” Or “the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ are entangled in a thousand different ways.”  But it’s amazing how stubborn these distinctions are and how they continue to inform what we do. So I think that scale organizes scholarship itself—in ways that demand our attention. That’s part of the reason I became interested in it.

Linguistic anthropologists especially have felt a lot of pressure as a relatively small subfield to demonstrate their ability to speak to macro-social issues. So there’s a lot of reasons why this issue has a kind of urgency to it.


S: I guess I’m thinking more methodologically. Does the work signal a desire to engage more seriously with methodology in Anthropology itself? Because at least it seems among sociocultural anthropologists that we’re constantly seeking methodological legitimacy in the eyes of other social scientists, and it would seem that something like scale would allow us to at least play in that sandbox or allow us to at least engage with other social scientists.

M: Right. Well, Linguistic Anthropology has historically often been in the position of supplying methods for the larger subfield of sociocultural anthropology--or that’s been one of its wares: Linguistic anthropology has been offering rigorous ways to study language and, insofar as language mediates social relations of all sorts, this has meant methods. But to the extent that we’re trying to suggest that scale is made, not discovered by the duly alert, it does actually trouble so much of the social sciences, which, in many respects, builds upon scaled units in one way or another. So I don’t think that it necessarily puts Sociocultural anthropology in a position for more rigor. Actually, if anything, it can demonstrate the ways in which scalar imaginaries are at work in a lot of the social sciences, in ways that those sciences don’t fully appreciate. So we’re actually kind of advocating an ethnography of scale in some respect. We’re trying to look at how not just our own analytic distinctions involve scale in some respect, but we want to look at how it is that scalar distinctions are made in the world—how they become platforms upon which people do all sorts of things. And so we are trying to mobilize existing ways of doing Sociocultural Anthropology as well as a semiotically oriented kind of Linguistic Anthropology, to try to understand the processes whereby scale comes into being, is stabilized, is made consequential.

It’s definitely in part a methodological intervention though. You’re right in another sense, which is that scale organizes methods in various ways. You can see this play out in methods sections all the time, such as when people say they want to get to some “larger scale” understanding of context.  We’re encouraging more reflexivity on the part of us as social scientists. I guess in some sense it is making methodology more rigorous.  In some sense, if we do ethnographies of scale we can complicate and arrive at scalar distinctions that hew more closely to what people are actually doing and what institutional projects are actually up to. I mean, we do have ways of getting at the world arguably with more care and fidelity than those who come in with pre-fab scalar distinctions.  I don’t think that’s about making a sharper methodology per se, it’s just being reflexively mindful about the role scale plays in setting up our studies to the extent that we can look at how people make scale rather than just discover it.  I think this can make our empirical work better.


S: I was actually surprised that the turn toward multi-sited ethnography and multi-sited fieldwork didn’t really feature as prominently in the theoretical scaffolding in the Introduction. I was wondering if you could speak to that. It struck me that this type of turn would have forced anthropologists to reckon with questions of scale in maybe radically new ways or maybe not.

M: The turn to multi-sited coincided, too, with an interest in globalization and all sorts of attempts to stretch the sort of scope of the peoples that we typically study into more complex configurations. To be sure, that involves an effort to shift scale, but that’s still not shifting scale into an object of knowledge. You know what I mean?


S: Right.

M: I think those efforts to include multi-sited studies, which, once upon a time and still today, was once high on the agenda of organizations like the Social Science Research Council, was indeed that, “Hey, we’re too myopic. Our populations are too bounded, too modular. Things are more connected.” And this is going on at the same time that you have an interest in global flows, etcetera etcetera. But that’s not studying scale as it exists in the world and how it’s made. I mean it’s still just kind of fixing our methods to account for what we imagine to be a more faithful reality. But what we’re trying to do in this book is actually—you know that people are just as invested in scale as we are. I mean that’s a common kind of move, but scale is getting made all the time. Painstakingly. And it’s being made consequential. And that ought to be an object of empirical knowledge, too. So I don’t actually see that earlier plea for multi-sited research as being reflexive. It’s mindful, to be sure. It’s trying to push through modular, very circumscribed understandings of groups and understanding the limitations of that. I think that looking at connections across sites and tracking flows, it’s still kind of—


S: assuming a priori certain forms and categories of scale—

M: I’m just not sure it’s as committed to the work of scale as it’s being done by participants and institutions in the world. In terms of that sensitivity, I think there’s variability out there in the literature. But if it’s any measure at all, it’s surprising how stubborn these types of distinctions like local and global still are—which suggests to me that whatever this earlier work did, of multi-sited research and globalization and the like, it never really did unsettle our fundamental understandings of what we’re doing. And some of our deepest intuitions are about what our objects of knowledge are, what their boundaries are. It’s not just our book that says this, but Bruno Latour (and others) offer a whole series of dizzying meditations that are designed to show you that interaction, for example, doesn’t have an intrinsic scale. You can do this type of meditation with a whole lot of objects of knowledge. I think being unreflective about that kind of scalar work that’s gone into organizing forms of knowledge that make up what we do is a problem.


S: I was struck by the unruly boundaries that you describe in the space of ritualized debate in your chapter on Tibetan monks in India. I was actually curious how it echoes or traffics with older critiques of culture as bounded, uniform, Eric Wolf and the kind of “billiard ball model of society,” and I was wondering if you’re making a similar kind of move there, which is, in other words, that the boundaries of ritual, like culture, are not bounded, uniform, inherent in the world, but are constantly made and remade by social actors?

M: Well, I don’t want to revel in the processual. It’s undeniable that action is scaled. But that’s a consequence of painstaking, socio-spatial practice. In the monastic practice, they have engaged in enormous amounts of labor to create that whole kind of infrastructure such that you experience debate’s modularity, you experience its spatial boundaries. It appears to you as-if. As-if [laughs] precisely as if it were this kind of bounded ritual object, but that’s as a result of an amazing amount of work. You see what I mean? I’m interested in that work mainly because Tibetans are messing with that. I mean this is not a tale, especially here—this is not some type of subtle history. Instead, the very status of this debate, its very kind of extent, what it has scope over, who it includes, at least at the time of my research, was being messed with and contested. So if you’re interested in telling the story of people trying to extend the scale of practice, in this case, turn it into a diasporic pedagogy, then that requires attention to the kind of boundaries that are getting messed with and exactly how. We experience routinely, even in face-to-face interactions, we experience them as if they were micro, but that’s a consequence, not just of histories of science, it’s a consequence of semiotic practices that invite us to experience the way in we handle our bodies as small scaled. We’re in a vis-à-vis configuration in which we’re looking at each other, our interactions are often bookendings with greetings and leave-takings. There’s all sorts of things that perimeterize interaction and give it its kind of boundaries. So if you came already thinking, “Well, I know that interaction is small, I know it’s got boundaries,” then you’re going to miss contexts in which that scale is itself is an object on which people are working—Tibetans trying to stretch the practice, to scale it up, something that every category of refugee should be doing in order to save their religious patrimony, you know what I mean?

And as I said, this is what happened with notions like “nation” and “culture.” We talk, of course, of the ways of cultural production and attend to the ways in which culture is being produced and stabilized. It’s a similar kind of move in our book. You know, instead of arguing that culture is not inherently modular or processual, it’s much better to look at sites of production and understand the ways in which culture itself is reflexively grasped and made palpable.  You know? It’s a similar sensibility here. We’ve done this with other kinds of objects of knowledge. It’s just we feel that there’s a need to do it for scale because it’s been a stubborn one. And because it’s been a notion that organizes a lot of our objects of knowledge. It actually helps structure disciplines in some respects. Think of the way micro-macro is reiterated in so many different fields--from economics to history, right?


S: Far beyond the scope of Anthropology.

M: Yea, scale has really been a cardinal kind of organizing principle in many ways. And so we really do need to be mindful of this because it’s doing a hell of a lot more than affecting the way we see the world. It’s actually organizing us [laughs]. We’re scaling ourselves. That’s why I think although the book doesn’t turn its attention mostly to the academy itself, it’s something I’m doing now with my current book project, which is how interaction got scaled in mid-century America. But that’s definitely something I’m very interested in. It’s an implication of the volume, of turning that gaze back upon us.


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