Book Review (Dicken 2007)

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Global Shift: Mapping the Changing Contours of the World Economy

Peter Dicken

Sage: London (2007), 624 pages. Paperback (£29.99) ISBN: 9781412929554. Hardcover (£75) ISBN: 9781412929547.

Reviewed by Karen Lai, University of Nottingham (21 August 2007)

In a publishing world characterised by an ever-growing mountain of texts on globalisation, Global Shift has stayed on top of the list in its various editions. It is not difficult to see why with its fluent and authoritative writing and comprehensive, thorough and balanced treatment of the complex processes, actors and interest groups at work in the global economy. The contours of the world economy, as highlighted by the new subtitle in this edition, have indeed changed enormously over the past twenty years since the publication of the first edition. The European Union has expanded from a loose coalition of 12 countries to a monetary union with increasing membership, and political and economic power; China has taken over from Japan as an economic threat from the perspective of the USA; the Soviet Union is no more and the excitement surrounding the East Asian ‘tiger’ economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) have since been transferred to other emerging economies such as Thailand, Vietnam, Hungary, China and Brazil. Global Shift has kept abreast of these developments by not only providing the most up-to-date empirical data but also the most current debates and conceptual developments on globalisation.

This latest fifth edition continues to impress. It retains the basic structure familiar to readers of previous editions, with expanded material on social movements, governance, the environment and new case studies, all particularly salient and pressing issues of our time. Part One sets out the key features of globalisation/anti-globalisation debates and provides an empirical overview of world economic changes at different geographical scales; Part Two examines in detail the roles played by the key drivers of global economic change, namely new technologies, transnational corporations (TNCs), states and regulatory frameworks, and their complex relationships; Part Three consists of industrial case studies in diverse sectors; and Part Four highlights the unequal impacts of globalisation and political responses to economic, social and environmental problems.

This book aims to be a guide for those who wish to navigate through the often confusing and often conflicting debates about globalisation by separating reality from hyperbole and in adopting a balanced but critical perspective. Its balanced perspective is reflected right from the outset where, in the first chapter, Dicken explains in concise terms the positions of hyper-globalists (who believe in a borderless world where the ‘national’ and ‘borders’ are no longer relevant), the ‘neoliberals’ on the right and the ‘anti-globalisers’ on the left, as well as the views of globalisation-sceptics who argue against the ‘newness’ of globalisation, pointing to a more open and integrated world economy much earlier in time. But he also goes beyond these popular arguments to highlight a multi-scalar approach, focusing on qualitative changes in the world economy and conceptualising major actors (such as firms, states, individuals and social groups) as being embedded in networked relationships. By focusing on connections and flows, this perspective avoids privileging one particular node in analysis and provides a more holistic approach. The fluid nature of networks also takes into account the uneven and shifting power relationships between actors such that the outcomes of globalisation processes can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and are geographically and socially differentiated. This approach produces a more nuanced understanding of globalisation processes and appreciates the possibilities of multiple and unequal outcomes. These points are brought across consistently throughout be it in conceptual terms, case studies or impact assessments.

Another area which benefits from Dicken’s balanced treatment is the complex manner in which technological changes, TNCs and states interact in the global economy and how these relationships develop into one of interdependence. This means there is no one clear determinant or dominant actor that dictates the terms and directions of economic processes. This is clearly demonstrated by the chapters in Part Two which elaborate on the individual roles and significance of these key drivers of economic change but also highlight the ways in which they impact on, as well as are constrained by, one another. Even as TNCs take advantage of technological changes in processes of productions, distribution and consumption to (re)organise their operations in new geographical and organisational forms, they are still territorially embedded in real places, and states are also constantly changing their structures, functions and institutions. The relationship is fluid and dynamic, consisting of both conflict and collaboration. Wider regulatory structures that often span national boundaries are also constantly being redeveloped and refined to address new challenges from technological changes, new global economic trends and changing state imperatives. The networked approach taken in this book thus serves as a toolkit that readers could utilise to analyse and assess economic trends, processes and outcomes in different countries, sectors and industries, and the book goes on to demonstrate this in Part Three where detailed case studies demonstrate how the above actors and processes work out in different ways different forms of economic activity.

A balanced approach does not necessarily mean sitting on the fence and the critical stance of this book is particularly evident in Part Four where Dicken tackles the difficult questions of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalisation. In this section, the scale of analysis shifts from global patterns and processes to regional and localised impacts and responses as Dicken evaluates the positive and negative impacts of TNCs on home and host economies, and how processes described in Part Two have changed trends in employment and income distribution and responses to labour migration. In terms of winning and losing in the global economy, the position of developing countries are particularly variable and Dicken does not hesitate to point out that while some countries, such as those in East Asia, have prospered through globalising processes, other countries continue to suffer from social and economic impacts of income disparity and the environmental degradation.

The last chapter is dedicated to addressing such issues of the unequal geographical and social impact of globalisation. Although there are no quick-fix solutions, readers are prompted to decide for themselves the actions that they should take and act accordingly based on available knowledge and resources. Efforts have been made to regulate global financial activities, TNCs, labour standards and environmental impacts but with varying degrees of success. Although ‘openness’ is often deemed a prerequisite for participation in the global economy, Dicken is critical of the usual prescription of the IMF and World Bank for further opening up of developing economies when they are clearly not able to compete effectively in global markets as the playing field is far from level. Instead, he argues that “a prerequisite for positive and beneficial engagement with the global economy is the development of robust internal structures” (p. 546). In assessing the positions of the neoliberal hyper-globalisers and the anti-globalisers, he points out the common tendency to see futures in the globalisation debates in terms of diametrical opposites, instead of recognising the potential diversity of economies that offer different possibilities. The fair trade networks and LETS (local exchange trading system) are noted as examples of alternative economic systems that seek to create fulfilling and fair communities and show how we might reconceptualise economic goals in terms of ‘economic security‘ rather than just ‘economic wealth‘. However, the bigger picture still demands our attention and institutions such as WTO, World Bank and IMF need to be reformed or replaced by more effective and accountable institutions. The book ends on not only a practical note (in that continued widening of income disparity threatens social and political stability and needs to be resolved), but also poses a moral challenge to readers, arguing that for abject poverty and deprivation to coexist with immense luxury as the outcomes of globalising processes is repugnant and unacceptable and urge readers to consider what they could do about it.

This last section on alternative economies is a welcomed addition to this latest edition and reflects wider trends in economic geography research that, in recent years, has focused on the multiple forms of economic organisation that does not only rely on the neo-liberal principles often associates with global capitalism. However, given its theoretical significance and potential as a practical challenge to neo-liberal globalising discourse and processes, it would benefit from having more than the two pages it currently occupies at the end of the book. An expanded section that elaborates on different types of alternative economies (other than a table summary based on Gibson-Graham (2006), which was little used in the main text) and an explanation of how these often community-based practices connect to the wider economy and their strategies would be particularly welcomed. As pointed out by the subtitle of this edition, Global Shift aims to map the changing contours of the world economy and as alternative economic practices and communities gain greater political and social momentum, it is surely appropriate for a book that has always been at the forefront of debates on global economic change to reflect that.

Dicken rightly points out that most of such alternative economic practices are highly local in nature and there is a need to connect such processes to the ‘bigger picture’. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fair trade networks, which is mentioned in a new case study on the agro-food industries in Part Three. This is a another particularly astute addition to an already impressive list of case studies as it highlights the power of consumers in global production networks more so than the other case studies. Moreover, the agro-food industries has become hotly contested in recent years with significant attention from the media and civil groups raising high levels of ethical, safety and environmental concerns. In explaining the production circuits of food, focusing on the coffee production network, the roles and tactics of supermarket TNCs, the impact of consumer movements and state regulation, Dicken captures the complex interplay between major producers, retailers, states and consumer groups in this fast-growing industry.

It would be nit-picking to think of what might possibly be missing from such a comprehensive and tightly-knitted volume, but if I had to be put on the spot I might say that an additional case study on an extractive industry, for example, the oil industry, could round off the current selection. The case studies cover a wide range of industries that are currently at the forefront of global economic change, but there is a distinctive absence from the primary sector (although some parts of the agro-food industries include this aspect). The extraction, refining, production, distribution and consumption of oil and its by-products span the globe and are governed by complex relationships and highly political interests. An analysis of how technologies, TNCs, state actors and regulatory frameworks interact in the global industry of oil production and consumption could complement the existing case studies in secondary and tertiary sectors.

By helping readers understand the underlying processes driving global economic change, Global Shift provides an invaluable toolkit for researchers, policy makers and practitioners to analyse individual events, economies or industries. Written by a scholar who has shaped our understanding of the networks and processes of globalisation, I am hard-pressed to think of any other book currently on the market that matches its breadth of coverage, depth of analysis and the ease at which the material can be accessed. As promised, all empirical data has been fully updated and a wide rage of data is presented in the form of maps, figures and tables that are clear and effectively used. It captures the often elusive goal of appealing to a wide range of audience in terms of expertise and knowledge and is one of the few books on the market equally accessible to undergraduates as introductory material as well as being useful in postgraduate seminars as an aid to delve into more in depth analysis of specific industries and processes. The pricing of the paperback is also considerate to the shallow pockets of students and represents good value for such a substantive and comprehensive book. This current edition of Global Shift will continue to appeal to social scientists in economic geography, sociology, political economy, international business and management, and anyone interested in understanding the global economy and evaluating its impacts.

References

Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006) Post-Capitalist Politics, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

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