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Reimagining Scale in the 21st Century

Peggy E. Reynolds, PhD

It should go without saying that those interested in pursuing justice would do well to familiarize themselves with ‘Power’ and its many modes of deployment. One of the modes that remains curiously underinvestigated is ‘scale,’ the seemingly benign ratio used to determine the relative size and/or level of operation of an entity. Appearing to be ‘purely quantitative’ in nature, scale is, for this very reason, often used to smuggle into authoritative analyses, regulations, proposals, etc., qualitative judgements which can have profound effects on outcomes, either positive or negative depending on one’s point of view. Yet all too often the effects of scale on decision-making go unnoticed by activists and academics alike. When, for example, an economist pointing to an increase in GDP proclaims globalization a great success, the counter-argument – that the reality for workers at the lower end of the economic scale is not in line with this assessment – is often discounted, even by those who have become impoverished by globalization’s demands. ‘Everybody knows’ after all that bigger is better and that the few might have to suffer that the many might benefit, or so the subliminally hierarchical nonresponse to this sort of proclamation seems to imply.

Of course, critiques of hierarchical projects such as globalization are finally gaining some traction as the inequalities within nation-states begin to threaten the status quo, but left intact and unquestioned, for the most part, is the notion that epistemological concepts like scalar levels – be they global, regional or local – have actual ontological standing. To understand why this is problematic, we must look at the arguments made in recent years by philosophers, lawyers, feminist theorists and, perhaps most importantly, geographers, since they should be most aware of the Trojan horse that is the scalar hierarchy – not only have they done more than others to reify this hierarchy in the cultural imaginary, but geography itself is arguably synonymous with it.

When one thinks of geography, one generally conjures images of maps, usually of some physical terrain. One imagines cartographers benignly compiling empirical information about the lie of the land and translating it into a visual form useable by, first themselves and other invested parties, and then, perhaps, the general public. Looking at the result of these efforts, one is provided a synchronic, god’s eye view of a unified spacetime, one normally only ever experienced, as one moves one’s body through it, as a disarticulated land- or city-scape of specificities. Of course, geographers can now add telescoping layers of data (with the aid of geographic information system – GIS – software, at the appropriate scales) to enhance this illusion and run these through a powerful processor to facilitate the feeling one is gliding smoothly through the levels of a virtual hierarchy. To engage with these spatiotemporal simulacra is to experience in full what Donna Haraway (2002, p. 677-8) derides as the “god trick” – “a conquering gaze from nowhere.” In this utopia: the viewer has become a disembodied punctum; data and debates about its interpretation have been rendered invisible, folded into each other and transmogrified into code; and thus a perfect, seamless knowledge of any given system, in the mode of LaPlace, at last has been achieved.

This is the sort of transcendental illusion that the scalar hierarchy inspires, one that imagines possible the establishment of an Archimedean point by which objective truth might be leveraged and a universal reality vouchsafed. But a number of human geographers, including Sallie Marston, J.P Jones III, and Keith Woodward (2007, p. 422-3) have rejected this hierarchical use of the “cartographic primitive” – scale – deriding the concept as inherently qualitative at root as well as ambiguous, “delimiting of practical agency,” and a classic case of “form determining content.” It naturalizes what should be contested politically resulting in what appear as ‘truisms’ such as: the global is always more important than the local; foreign investors’ interests trump those of state citizens; of course state laws should supersede those of local jurisdictions. In a perfect world, this representation of reality as a nested material hierarchy would be dispensed with entirely; in the terms used by geographer, Neil Smith (1992, p.66) “the hierarchical ordering of scales [is] a certain candidate for abolition in a revolutionized social geography.”

Though we don’t (yet) live in a perfect world, some geographers are doing their best to revolutionize their discipline. In addition to the scholars who have theorized about and called for the abolition of the use of the scalar hierarchy there are others who are impatient for change and have already moved on from theory to praxis. Geographers such as Marie Cieri (2003, p.148), Sarah Elwood and Michele Masucci have attempted to “develop new, potent and accessible ways of telling geographic stories that emanate not so much from authoritative sources…as from the populations themselves that are generally studied, represented and/or acted upon by [larger scaled] authorities.” A few of these scholars, such as Cieri (2003, p.148), have actively engaged in training laypeople in the use of an expanded set of geographer’s tools including such techniques as community, narrative and mental mapping. She explains that the goal of her work is not only to help make visible “the perceptions of those who are usually [only] represented” but also to “transfer some of the power inherent in the generation and communication of geographic information to those who generally lack it.” Rather than cut through what many social scientists see as the clutter of human relations that obscures an underlying, hierarchical command structure, these geographers seem intent on foregrounding and encouraging the unpredictable and often scale-bending, fractal entanglements that vibrant communities at any scale entail.

As we will see, it is not only geographers that are actively working to invert, or at least destabilize the scalar hierarchy. But before moving on to explore how scale is being contested in other disciplines, we will look briefly at how the Russian doll schema came to monopolize the (especially Western) cultural imaginary. If we are to be able to recognize how the power of scale subverts the popular will, it is important that we begin to understand how it is that its machinations have been accepted uncritically until fairly recently. This has been effected, at least in part, by virtue of the way in which scale serves to ground an entity’s experience not only of its own boundaries, but also of such fundamental binaries as inclusion/exclusion; higher/lower; macro/micro; encompassing/encompassed, or some of the basic structural elements of (especially Western) philosophical/theological/scientific debate.

Though the origins of the scalar hierarchy are undoubtedly overdetermined, at least one important factor for its ubiquity in Western thought can be traced to ancient Greece and from there to the pedagogical norms practiced from the early Middle Ages down through the late eighteenth century. All learned men during this latter period were steeped in the concept of the “Scala Naturae.” Based on Aristotle’s ranking of the perfectibility of living creatures’ souls (with humans’ being the most inclusive and thus advanced), Neo-Platonists and later, Scholastics, would make this schema into a strict hierarchical ranking of all life and matter known as the “Great Chain of Being.” This nested system was understood to be ordained by God who, naturally, sat on the top rung of this scala or ladder. Below him, in descending order and with an ever-lessening capacity for agency or perfectibility, were arranged the angels, demons, saints, royalty, noblemen, commoners, animals, vegetables and lastly, minerals.

This uniquely Western system is what came to form the framework of modern science. Though challenged at different times by various scholars e.g., Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, etc., much of our current reality has been configured by this quasi-religious worldview. The larger, more encompassing entity is more complex than those it contains. The global, being more complex, “matters” more than the local. The whole is not greater than, but only equal to, the sum of its parts. Matter is dead. Minerals, plants, animals are without agency (as was said of women, slaves, heathens, non-Westerners, etc. not that long ago); hence these entities are subject to those which exist at, or as ‘higher’ levels such as: nation-states, the WTO, oligarchs, supra-national corporations or the market, more generally.

There is however, growing dissatisfaction with this model. In philosophy sub-fields with very different agendas, such as speculative realists, new materialists and posthumanists, have all accepted the basic premise of a “flat ontology,” or the idea that humans exist at neither the apex nor center of creation (as both are fictional), but rather as the equal of entities at any given scale – as objects among objects. Manuel Delanda (2005, p. 43), a Deleuzian philosopher and originator of the term, explains that:

"[While] an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status."

While some might dismiss this flattening of the ontological hierarchy as having relevance only in the rarified environment of the academy, there is ample evidence to suggest that it has escaped this limited venue and is now effecting (or indicative of) change in the world at large. Recent jurisprudential developments certainly seem to support as much.

In December 2014, Argentinian Judge María Mauricio ruled that an orangutan named Sandra was a “nonhuman legal person” and agreed that the ape had “inherent rights” (BBC, UK, 2014). Last year she used the same logic to grant inherent rights to a chimpanzee named Cecilia (Samuels, 2016). This past March, after 140 years of negotiations between the Maori tribe and the New Zealand government, the latter passed a law recognizing the Whanganui River as a living entity (Roy, 2017). Later that month, the high court of India granted legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamunotri rivers later extending the designation of “living person” to include “the surrounding glaciers, rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, air, meadows, dales, jungles, forests, wetlands, grasslands, springs and waterfalls” – in short – the entire ecosystem of the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers (Shankar, 2017).

Of course, the designation of nonhuman entities as legal persons does not change their ontological status within scientific taxonomies i.e., those typically used to classify biological organisms. Yet, it would be foolish to underestimate the power of the law to generate new cuts in material reality. Adopting theoretical physicist and feminist scholar Karen Barad’s agential realist approach to understanding how “mattering” (both in the sense of becoming materially present and becoming important) is effected (Barad, 2007), we could view the law, as well as the sciences, as apparatuses for cutting together and apart the world’s constitutive elements. In the terms Barad articulates, “the notion of an apparatus is not premised on inherent divisions between the social and the scientific, the human and the nonhuman, nature and culture. Apparatuses are the practices through which these divisions are constituted" (Barad, p.169). The law, cum apparatus, is beginning to recognize and instantiate the personhood of certain animals and ecosystems just as it has done in the past for corporations and kings, monasteries and municipalities. Were this an isolated event, unique to the field of law, we could perhaps treat it as an outlying data point with little relevance for our overall understanding of trends in ontological thought and practice. But when combined with evidence of a similar trend in philosophy and geography, this broadening of the definition of who or what might be considered a “person” has potentially radical implications for how we model the structure of relationships amongst humans and other of the world’s entities both large and small.

More generally, what this broadening of our understanding of: who or what is worthy of rights; the need to produce ontological configurations other than the hierarchical; and the inherently political nature of scale – suggests that cracks are developing, not just in this or that existing power hierarchy, not just in this model of government, or that system of gender relations - but in the power of hierarchy itself. It’s all but impossible to imagine power/being without scalar hierarchy – ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’– but this should be the goal for all those who seek justice.



Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

BBC News, (2014) ‘Court in Argentina grants basic rights to orangutan.’ 21 December.

Cieri, M. (2003) “Between Being and Looking Queer Tourism Promotion and Lesbian Social Space in Greater Philadelphia”, ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2(2), pp. 147-166. Available at: (Accessed: 20 June 2018).

Delanda, M. (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Continuum: London, UK.

Haraway, D. (2002) ‘The Persistence of Vision’, in Mirzoeff, N. (ed.) The Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 677-684.

Marston, S.A., Jones III, J. P., and Woodward, K. (2005) ‘Human geography without scale.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30(4):416-432 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2005.00180.x.

Samuels, G. (2016) ‘Chimpanzees have rights, says Argentine judge as she orders Cecilia be released from zoo’. The Independent, 7 November.

Shivshankar, G. (2017, 5 April) ‘The Personhood of Nature’, Law and Other Things. Available at: (Accessed 20 June, 2018).

Smith, N. (1993) ‘Homeless/global: scaling places’, in Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. (eds.) Mapping the futures: local cultures, global change, London: Routledge, pp. 87–119


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