GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

The Politics of Scale


The concept of scale as used in human geography is a bit different than that used on a map. The scale of a map is the ratio of a distance on the map to the corresponding distance on the ground. For example, one inch on a map is equal to one mile on the ground. The concept of scale in human geography is somewhat less straightforward.

Within human geography, we think of scale as a “form of hierarchy” that is not separate or discrete but interconnected. You can see this hierarchy when we discuss the local, the national, or the global economy. They may seem discrete because we can bound them politically. The State College municipality has political boundaries. The United States has its borders. And, well, the globe seemingly includes everywhere. While we can see their bounded territory on a map, the reality is much less spatially fragmented. In fact, movement of economic flows, of people or animals (migration), disease or natural disaster, and so forth, spreads across, and negotiates around, scale.

As mentioned in Introduction to Geopolitics (Flint, 2016), localized acts of personal defiance or protest (individual scale) can be motivated by national campaigns geared towards influencing national legislative processes (national scale). There is sometimes a fluidity of movement across scale, while at other times we may observe a jumping of scale (local ► global, may bypass national scales). Flint highlights the contested nature of scales—pointing out that “we need to move further away from the idea of a clear and distinct hierarchy of scales” because scales are interconnected and multiple scales may be implicated in any particular event or action. Flint uses the example of a suicide bombing of certain hotels in Kabul, Afghanistan. In particular, hotels that may host international or Western governmental and aid organization workers may become a local target as a geopolitical statement against the foreign presence in the country. As such, a local act (bombing of a hotel in Kabul) is intimately connected to the global scale (as embedded in the geopolitical struggle for state sovereignty within the context of a US-led global anti-terrorism effort).