Reviewed by Vicki Dabrowski
Abstract: This is a review of Flip-flop: A Journey through globalisation’s Backroads in which Caroline Knowles follows the global trail of flip-flops from its extraction to disposal. Taking a ground level view of the lives and places of globalisation’s back roads, Knowles provides new insights that challenge contemporary accounts of globalisation.
Keywords: globalisation, inequality, ethnography, ground-level view, flip-flops, backroads, journey, trails.
Review of Caroline Knowles, Flip-flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads (Pluto Press, 2014), 217 pages, £18.99 (in paperback)
Reviewed by Vicki Dabrowski
Beginning in the oil wells of Kuwait and ending at a landfill site in Ethiopia, Caroline Knowles’ latest book Flip-flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads is a collaboration with artist Michael Tan, based on 6 years of ethnographic research following the biography of a pair of flip-flops, from their extraction to their disposal. Her reason for doing this? Flip-flops are a pair of shoes with ‘critical mass and mass appeal across social spectrums and continents’ (p. 2) and so this ordinary, everyday commodity can be used to provide new ways of thinking about globalisation.
Knowles’ approach moves away from earlier top-down theories of globalisation, which are seen as too limiting in their outlook. Globalisation for Knowles is less neat than familiar theorists such as John Urry (2001, 2010) and Manuel Castells (1996) would suggest. For these theorists, who focus on the economic and structural aspects of the phenomena, globalisation is thought through in an overarching way, so that people and objects are understood to ‘flow’ easily from one place to the next. For Knowles, the idea of ‘flow’ is too simplistic as it conveys an unreal ease with which people move from place to place and erases the ‘social textures of travelling in calling movement flow’ (p.7). Influenced by the work of Arjun Appadurai (2005), Daniel Miller (2008) and Igor Kopytoff (1986), through her use of multi-sited ethnography Knowles challenges dominant theories of globalisation by taking a ground level view of the lives and places of what she calls ‘globalisation’s backroads’. Using the idea of ‘journey’ instead of ‘flow’, Knowles shows how dominant notions of globalisation unravel when confronted with the routes that the movement of flip-flops creates, and the lives and landscapes they connect. The backroad trail, therefore, offers a version of globalisation which is highly mobile and fragile, in which people and objects do not flow but instead ‘bump awkwardly along the pathways they create, backtrack, grate, move off in new directions, propelled by different intersecting logics’ (p.7). This is not to say that backroads are more authentic or more useful than main roads in understanding contemporary processes of globalisation, but that backroads reveal different angles, adding to what we currently know about the characteristics of globalisation.
The reader is invited on the flip-flop trail, and Knowles traces this journey carefully, detailing the considerable ground that one pair of flip-flops covers from its production to its transportation, use and disposal. Knowles passes through five countries, powerfully demonstrating across the book the relationship between the macro and the micro level, placing economic, social and political histories against everyday lives and journeys. Chapter 2 begins in the oil wells of Kuwait, from which plastics originate, detailing the lives of both migrants and Kuwaitis working on the oil rig. In chapter 3, the trail then moves to Daesan, South Korea, to a petrochemical plant where petrochemicals are turned into plastic. In this chapter, the social divisions in employment, especially between men and women in the chemical plant, are exposed. The plastic is then shipped to Fuzhou in South East China: chapters 4, 5 and 6 not only detail the process of flip-flop production in the villages surrounding Fuzhou, but also describe the lives of those involved in the process, from the migrant workers employed in the factories to the ‘interlocures’ accessing global markets in the town of Fuzhou. Chapter 7 then follows the flip-flops from China to Ethiopia, showing how the shoes enter the country through both official and unofficial routes. Some flip-flops are transported via official routes in which taxes and import duties are paid, others take a different journey and are smuggled across the boarder of Ethiopia from Somaliland. In chapter 8, which documents the lives of those who sell the shoes, the trails converge again, ending up at kiosks in the giant outdoor market – the ‘mercato’ of Abbis Ababa, in Ethiopia. Passing from the hands of market traders onto the feet of those who wear them, chapter 9 follows an elderly woman navigating the streets of Addis Ababa in a pair of flip-flops. In both these chapters, the investments in urban infrastructure in Africa from China are visible, exposing the complexities of such a gloablised relationship. In chapter 10, the trail ends in a landfill site at the edge of Addis Ababa, where the flip-flops are disposed of. It is in the final chapter of this book, ‘Globalisation Revisited’, that Knowles brings together her ethnographic work and academic theory, offering her insights on the contemporary nature of globalisation.
It is in the many different stories revealed along the trail that we can see comparisons between locations, and between people making a similar journey in different places. One comparative example offered in the book is the movement of rural to urban migrants in China and Ethiopian workers who have left to work in the Middle East. Despite movements between different geographical locations, occupying different positions in the globalised economy, these people’s working lives expose similar patterns of circular migration, in which they move back and forth, between villages, cities, and across borders to improve the lives of themselves and their families. In attending to such journeys, Knowles’ writing is beautifully descriptive; the book takes the reader on a vivid journey to explore the personal narratives and biographies of different people in different circumstances. Moreover, the connection between these individual experiences and political economy offers a rare contribution to academic enquiry.
The journey of the flip-flop reveals a number of issues relevant to social and cultural theory: social class and mobility; the multiple trans-local social relationships of export; illegality; transport and expanding markets; migration; environmental issues and changing gender relations. One of the most revealing characteristics of the flip-flop journey is the logic of rural-to-urban migration at different points on the trail, such as China, Korea and Ethiopia. What became especially interesting for me, and what Knowles pulls out expertly, is how the trail uncovered the transnational migration between Ethiopia and Kuwait, where women navigate their way to other countries and regions, leaving their children in the pursuit of earning money to secure the future of the next generation (see Chapters 5 and 9).
There is much to be impressed by in this book. What is perhaps most notable is how the trail shows the unsteadiness and fragility of globalisation. As Knowles writes in the final chapter of the book: ‘globalisation is not what we think it is…it is an unstable, shifting, contingent mass of ad hoc-ery, with pockets of opportunity within the over-whelming landscapes of precarity’ (p. 193). Following the trail of the flip flop aptly demonstrates just this. The book challenges the idea that globalisation is robust and solid by tracing the materiality of globalisation and showing how precarity is lived and produced along different parts of the trail. Although Knowles points out that ‘fragilities take different forms and intensities in people’s lives’ (p.191), the trail reveals how globalisation’s precarious character affects lives within both the formal main roads (in the oil and petrochemical industry for example) and informal backroads (cross border smugglers and the evading of import duties in Berbera, Somalia and Djibouti, Ethiopia). It is in these social textures of globalisation that we can see how main roads closely intersect with backroads, how ‘legalities’ are connected to ‘illegalities’. For example, sometimes the trail splits, as in the case of importing flip-flops across borders, where some enter the country illegally, avoiding customs duties, and others pass along the main roads through customs – but both trails end up in the same place in Ethiopia’s market stalls. Such crosscutting trails constitute contemporary globalisation, and it is in these intersections that we can capture the way in which power relations and inequalities are being constantly produced and reproduced at both global and local level.
There were, however, some instances where it would have been helpful to elaborate more fully on the wider reasons for the precarity of both formal and informal markets and industries. For instance, in Chapter 2 ‘Oil – Maps Beneath the Sand’, Knowles discusses Kuwait’s uncertain future, resulting from absent rulers and a political elite who have no feasible plans for the country once the oil runs out and the rising tensions with their bordering countries, Iran and Iraq. Discussion of Kuwait’s fragile situation would benefit from being situated within a context of historical (neo)colonial politics, which would further explain the existence of the backroads and inequalities of globalisation and the tensions of the macro-politics of the moment.
This being said, Flip-flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads is a unique book, which is written in a way that opens up debates to both academic and non-academic audiences. The significance of this book and the scholarship it presents cannot be overstated for thinking through contemporary debates in the current context of globalisation. Knowles’ rich ethnographic work beautifully combines small detailed empirical encounters with macro-level overviews, and in so doing expose global inequalities at so many different levels. The trail opens doors for further investigation and theoretical development. This thoughtful, thoroughly innovative, analysis raises a number of central issues that studies on globalisation cannot ignore and produces new thinking on what globalisation is – and how it works. The reader does not therefore escape lightly in this book, but is directly challenged in re-thinking the ways in which they too, possibly, understand and act in the ‘world on the move’.
Knowles’ idea of and attention to the journey allows for both a fragmented and connected way of doing research in the current moment. This book will be of value to those interested in migration, engaged in related research across sociology, anthropology, visual sociology, geography, politics and history, looking for an excellent reference point for contemporary debates on issues of globalisation. Or simply for those interested to understand the trail their flip-flops may have taken prior to ending up on their own feet.
Appadurai, A (ed.) (2005) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Castells, M (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, Malden, M.A: Blackwell.
Kopytoff, I (1986) ‘The Cultural Biography of things: Commoditization as Process’, in Appadurai, A (ed.) (2005) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, D (2008) The Comfort of Things, London: Polity.
Urry, J. 2010  ‘Mobile Sociology’, The British Journal of Sociology – The BJS: Shaping Sociology Over 60 Years: 347–66. [Originally published in 2000 British Journal of Sociology 51(1): 185–203.]
Vicki Dabrowski is currently undertaking an ESRC funded PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has a BA (Hons) from the University of Nottingham and an MA from Goldsmiths College. Her PhD research centers on understanding the impact austerity is having on young women in different regions and social classes and how this in turn plays a role in their engagements/disengagements with feminism.
Readers may also be interested in the following selected articles from the TCS Archive:
Leon Tan‘s ‘Intellectual Property Law and the Globalization of Indigenous Cultural Expressions: Māori Tattoo and the Whitmill versus Warner Bros. Case’ (TCS 30.3, May 2013):
Mike Michael & Marsha Rosengarten‘s ‘HIV, Globalization and Topology: Of Prepositions and Propositions’ (TCS 29.4-5, Jul-Sep 2012):
Articles on Globalisation in the Special Issue on Problematizing Global Knowledge (TCS 23.2-3, May 2006):
Jan Nederveen Pieterse‘s ‘Globalization North and South: Representations of Uneven Development and the Interaction of Modernities’ (TCS 17.1, Feb 2000):
Mike Crang‘s ‘Globalization as Conceived, Perceived and Lived Spaces’ (16.1, Feb 1999):
Ash Amin‘s ‘Placing Globalization’ (TCS 14.2, May 1997):
Roland Robertson‘s ‘Globality, Globalization and Transdisciplinarity’ (13.4, Nov 1996):
The Special Issue on Global Culture (TCS 7.2, June 1990):