Nandini Gunewardena and Ann Kingsolver (eds)
Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2007

Reviewed by Jennifer DeWan, PhD

Much of the research and writing on “globalization” that has emerged in the last several decades tends to treat the concept as a unitary, large-scale, inevitable historical force. As Bob Jessop (2003) has noted, this treatment can work to obscure rather than reveal important issues in relation to the contemporary moment. As this collection, The Gender of Globalization: Women Navigating Cultural and Economic Marginalization highlights, women are significant contributors to the global labor force (both directly and indirectly), though often in the least secure and lowest paying jobs, resulting in their disproportionate experience of economic, social and political marginalization in relation to the contemporary neoliberal policies and capitalist economic restructuring generally understood as globalization. However, this is often obscured in “gender-neutral” readings of globalization and its effects. Perhaps the concept of globalization could be better understood as an analytical device meant to encompass a wide range of often contradictory and diverse economic and social processes; a device that requires localized particularities and specificities to make real sense of the effects of these processes on people’s everyday lives in different contexts.

This collection provides an important challenge to monolithic and neutralized/naturalized representations of globalization and its effects. Relying mainly on ethnographic and feminist methods of analysis, the essays in this volume examine how local and global constructions of gender – defined by Karen Brodkin in the foreword as “a socially constructed relationship of unequal power in a particular locale” (xiii) – play out in the workings of transnational capital, specifically in how women “participate in, become drawn and incorporated into, are affected by, and negotiate their encounters with contemporary forms of global economic restructuring commonly referred to as globalization” (3). Ethnography is an important tool in these analyses, providing descriptive “thickness” to give a more nuanced understanding of globalization and the myriad ways in which the processes of globalization affect women’s everyday lives. As Gunewardena and Kingsolver note in the introduction, “the richly textured descriptions of the lived realities of women experiencing these forces illustrate how women of diverse ethnic, racial, caste, class and other identities (as well as intersectional social locations) encounter and respond to the forces of globalization in unique and differentiated ways” (7). The ethnographic focus allows for a concentration on the particularities of globalization via the subjective practices of women in various local contexts, ranging from garment workers in Sri Lanka to market vendors in Ghana to agricultural activists in Mexico to migrant domestic and service workers in the United States.

This collection of essays emanates from a two-year project on the theme of gender and globalization organized by scholars affiliated with the Association for Feminist Anthropology (AFA). The project included compiling bibliographies and course syllabi, mentoring students, and organizing sessions at various conferences, including the 2003 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the 2004 meeting of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (ICAES). The volume includes ethnographic essays based on papers given during these sessions, additional ethnographic essays commissioned for this collection, an introductory section that includes an essay on feminist methodologies by Faye Harrison, and a concluding section that includes several analytical essays.

The essays are organized on broadly thematic lines. Part I includes essays relating to production and consumption practices, including Nandini Gunewardena’s work on the disruptive agency of women garment workers in Sri Lanka, Akosua Darkwah’s analysis of Ghanaian elite female traders and their negotiations of the global and local markets, and Mary Moran’s essay on the importance of cloth in producing and interacting with Grebo women’s identities in Southeastern Liberia. The essays in Part II are concerned with how neoliberal economic discourses and structures have exacerbated and intensified pre-existing forms of (often racialized) domination and subordination, including Ulrika Dahl’s essay on constructions of gender and race in her native Jämtland in Northern Sweden, William Conwill’s analysis of domestic violence and its relationship to the impact of neoliberal policies on black communities in the United States, and Barbara Sutton’s essay on the bodily experiences of neoliberal globalization among differently positioned women in Buenos Aires. Part III documents women’s experiences of service work in various contexts, including Rhacel Salazar Parreñas’ piece on issues of place, race and class for migrant Filipina domestic workers in Los Angeles and Rome, Sandy Smith-Nonini’s analysis of the hotel workers strike in San Francisco that resulted in the disruption of the 2004 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, and A. Lynn Bolles’ essay on women tourist workers and the commodification of ‘the Caribbean’ in Jamaica. Part IV focuses more specifically on women’s political agency in relation to globalization, and includes essays by Ann Kingsolver on gender and agricultural activism in various sites around the globe and by Annapurna Pandey on globalization, national identity, and women’s movement activism in India’s poorest state, Orissa. Part V concludes the volume with several essays that draw on the data from the ethnographic chapters to raise some larger issues about gender and globalization, such as agency, power, the state, marginality, structural violence, and the paradoxical nature of globalization. This section includes essays by Mary Anglin and Louise Lamphere, Ann Kingsolver and Nandini Gunewardena.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this collection is its emphasis on women’s agency in relation to globalization. In the introduction, editors Nandini Gunewardena and Ann Kingsolver introduce the concept of “navigation” to “capture the nuanced ways in which women of diverse social locations and identities (ethnic, racial, indigenous, caste, class, religions, and political affiliations formed at the intersection of these identity designations) exercise their personal and collective agency in resisting and challenging the disempowering aspects of globalization they encounter and experience” (11). The contributors to this volume move beyond a simple assumption of agency as empowerment through resistance and highlight the varied ways in which women act in relation to global processes that incorporates resistance, accommodation, ambivalence, and all of the grays in between. For instance, in her essay on garment workers in Sri Lanka, Nandini Gunewardena notes that the dichotomous characterization of women’s responses to globalization as either resistance or accommodation “masks the far more nuanced dynamics of social interactions that occur” (41). She argues that, based on her ethnographic observations, “ambivalence is a far more common response to encounters with power than is wholesale antagonism” (41). This more nuanced approach to reading agency and subjective practice challenges any lingering concerns that feminist anthropologists remain seduced by the “romance of resistance” (Abu-Lughod 1990).

My one minor concern with this volume is that despite the editors’ attempts to include a wide range of differently positioned case studies, the main emphasis of the collection was on the gendered implications of deepening economic and social divides between the global “North” and “South” resulting in less attention to deepening divides within those areas. I would have appreciated a more nuanced approach to these divides, for instance the inclusion of an examination of how differently positioned women are acting in relation to the uneven conditions produced by globalization within the global “center,” areas Ulrika Dahl suggests are “associated with the positive imaginary of transnational integration and globalization” (105).

Overall, the collection is ambitious in its scope and compelling in its specificity. Despite a slight tendency towards repetition and redundancy brought on by the sheer number of introductory and concluding essays, this collection is a valuable addition to the literature on globalization, particularly in the realm of recent work that complicates the concept of globalization through ethnographic “thickness” (Appadurai 1998; Gregory 2007; Kearney 1995; Marcus 1995; Ong 1999), and more specifically the expanding body of work on gender and globalization (Alexander and Mohanty 1997; Merry 2001; Nagar, et al. 2002; Rowbotham and Linkogle 2001). The use of ethnographic data and the focus on constructions of difference to highlight the particularities and paradoxes of globalization make this an extremely useful collection for a wide range of courses. The volume also makes a significant contribution to the ongoing development of critical feminist anthropology and feminist methodologies (DiLeonardo 1991; Skeggs 1994; Stacey 1988; Visweswaran 1997; Walter 1995).

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Jennifer DeWan just completed her PhD in Anthropology at Columbia University in New York City. Her dissertation, entitled “The Practice of Politics: Feminism, Activism and Social Change in Ireland,” explored the intersections between globalization and late capitalism (in the form of European integration and the “Celtic Tiger”) and the changing strategies and subjectivities of feminist political activism in the Republic of Ireland. Her dissertation research was principally concerned with political activism and power, particularly the relationship between the state and civil society, and how that relationship has been reworked in the context of late capitalist modernity. Jennifer is currently engaged in policy, development, and advocacy work for a reproductive rights group in Cork, Ireland. 

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