Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

Everywhere (Almost) is 48 Hours Away

The BBC reported this morning (Singapore time) on research by mapping transportation interconnections in the world. Almost all of the earth is accessible within 48 hours (less than 10% of the Earth is not).

We all know this. In the social sciences, this is taken as an important “social fact” with important consequences. In fact this map of connectedness, demonstrates that this is not simply a social fact (in the Durkheimian sense). This particular mapping of that social fact and social reality is worth considering in some detail.

I’m very frustrated, because I am unable to find the BBC report that I heard! (Spent a good hour or more searching the BBC WorldService website for it… if anyone can find it, please let me know!)

The interviewer said something like, “If you can get anywhere on Earth within 48 hours, it’s very hard to say that you are an explorer.” Reflecting – in a different register – the theory that ‘we don’t need anthropologists’ because there are no more ‘primitive’ (remote) peoples. Of course anthropologists know this is nonsense; that anthropology is not “the study of primitive people.” But that is how our discipline is still percieved (and many of us still feed that myth in various ways).

There is really too much on could say about this map and the “small earth” syndrome it demonstrates. So a few points:

1. These maps have incredible potential in the context of teaching/demonstrating this social fact. Beyond that, they have great potential for us as researchers (in anthropology, geography and related disciplines) to imagine our research agendas and projects.

2. One respect in which I am interested in the map and its implications regards my own research on cultural theory. It may be very useful in thinking about culture and cultural diversity. I have made the point before (somewhere in writing… forget where at the moment!) that cultural diversity, at least in the (very limited) way we generally concieve of it, is primarily a product of geographic isolation (just as ‘racial’ difference is; but culture changes at a much more rapid rate… thus, far more diverse than our genetic make-up). What does all this mean for cultural diversity? I believe it forces us to rethink both what we mean by culture in general and cultural diversity (cf. Wesch on YouTube). 

3. This map (the data and methodology behind it) could be used to produce a “remoteness index”. It would be a empirically grounded way to think about all these vague notions of ‘global flows’ and such we are all keen to talk about. I imagine a project to construct such an index such as the following: For any point on the map, one could produce a set of other points (maybe n = 10?), then measure the average proximity from those 10 points. This would produce a “global proximity index” (or remoteness index; whichever one wants to call it). How would this be useful? It would demonstrate the global, networked interconnections of humanity. It would also provide substantial findings to consider in how we think about what places are truely “remote” and central/peripheral in the world today. (It reflects a recent discussion at a seminar here, where a colleague was talking about “working from the periphery” here in Singapore… I – only half-jokingly – said, “you should try living in Kansas, where I grew up… relatively speaking, Singapore is not a peripheral site!” The point being: working with this map in a form of a “global proximity index” would provide at least one method for actually addressing the question: Which is more “peripheral” in our global society, Singapore or Kansas? (Yes, of course, there is much more to it than mere transportation networks; still such an index might push us to consider more seriously what we mean by center/periphery relationships.)

4. The methodology of the map itself raises major questions. In fact, what the researchers have done is to measure “time to nearest population center of more than 50,000” (hmmm… Manhattan, Kansas almost counts as one of those!). The time measures are based on several factors of ground/surface transportation: roadwaysrail connections, shipping laneswaterways, and topography. They exclude air transportation from their mapping! (Assuming that when you reach an urban center of 50,000 population, one can then easily fly to anywhere? Haha, not from Manhattan! Though one can fly to Kansas City from there.) Nevertheless, the map they have constructed is very impressive and valuable. “They” are apparently the EU’s Joint Research Centre; but I can’t find any of this on their website at the moment!

At the very least, this research is interesting enough, it gave me reason to blog again. 🙂

P.S. – In case anyone missed it; I was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas. Which is, of course, the center of the universe.

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April 22, 2009 - Posted by | Research, Teaching

2 Comments »

  1. […] Global Connectness… From the Source So, within 48 hours or so of my previous post on small world syndrome, I get a message from Andy Nelson who is one of the main authors of this work. Thanks Andy! This is […]

    Pingback by Mapping Global Connectness… From the Source « Socect’s Weblog | April 24, 2009 | Reply

  2. I enjoyed your blog today, as well as a few samples of your student’s work. I used WetPaint for a school project last term with a group in which we had to design some form of asynchronous learning delivery system to “propose” to any faculty at our university. It was the best group work experience any of us had ever had. I was inspired by another professor’s work from Singapore, which seems to be at a leading edge of Wiki-ing.

    My observation, after reading this particular post of yours, and after having visited Singapore during the last Reading Week, was that Singapore in particular seems to be 48 hours from everywhere! Our visit was an interesting cultural experience, and I definitely felt like an explorer.

    Comment by Miranda Anderson | June 17, 2011 | Reply


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