Monday, 7 December 2009

the space of economy.

I have come back to bonny Edinburgh for a couple weeks to figure out my plan for the year ahead. I only have a few months left in Sudan and I want to make the most of that time by summing up what I have already learnt and looking at what I need to explore in more depth. Today, I am trying to construct a “mindmap” in order to explain all my ideas and models to my supervisor tomorrow afternoon.


Rather inefficiently, I have spent the whole morning thinking about space. Perhaps this is due to the view outside my friend Paul’s window: Grey horizons speckled with meandering seagulls and endless roofs.


What a word.

In some ways, the word speaks to a certain ambiguity, to a lack of meaning, a lack of identity. To paraphrase Yi Fu-Tuan, space is undefined place. Or perhaps place is defined space. 

To give a concrete example, when you drive between village A and village B, you pass lots of space. If, however, you have a collision somewhere along the way, part of that space suddenly becomes a place in your mind: you will always think of that bend or that tree as the place where “it” happened. It is imbued with certain memories, emotions and meanings.

What I find so interesting in economics is this dichotomy between the economy as a "space" and the firm as a “place”. One has experience and relationships within a firm: we have to finish the order before the holiday next week, my colleagues like to hang out in the evenings in the pub but I have a baby to look after so I can’t come, the office is in a nice location but the factory is too far away and so I try not to make too many visits, and, for the life of me, I can’t understand the secretary on the third floor who seems to arrange all the office files in transliterated Farsi. 

People recognize the social and spatial limitations of their own immediate environment and can see how the iron laws of economics are sometimes constrained by the practicalities and prejudices of everyday life. Even within the discipline of economics, we have a whole branch of organizational theory (which Oliver Williamson just won the Nobel Prize this year) in which the incentives and motivations of competing interests within the firm are analyzed and addressed. However when it comes to the economy as a whole, it is much more difficult to theorize about such issues because the economy cannot be so firmly rooted in place, in reality; it is everywhere in fact.

Yes, the economy is a space. It is ambiguous. It is arena full of abstractions. How long would it take to ‘map’ all the social connections and spatial peculiarities of an economy? Is that even possible? I sometimes wonder whether it is merely the size of the economy that makes  aggregation so convenient or whether there is something deep within our way of thinking that blinds us to consider a more concrete lived experience of the economy.

I have all these ideas about how different social connections within the Sudanese company allow the system to function. How different cogs within the machine allow and restrain other parts to turn, and how these cogs are rooted in quite different ideologies and beliefs about the nature of the country as a whole. There are competing visions of how the economy must be run. I have started to play and experiment with the organizational theory of firms to try and map these connections, but I have yet to find such a theory applied to economies, especially developing economies.

In some ways, a developing economy is seen as an organization in its own right: How do we develop “the economy”? they say over a bowl of fuul in their offices. But in order to speak of the “economy” as a kind of organization, we need to place it somewhere. We need to transform the economy from a space into a place.

How do we turn the economy into a place? That’s what I want to know.

Now I shall get back to that mindmap...

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