Al Qaeda, bureaucracy and migration as scalar intersection

Biao Xiang

What do CNN, Al Qaeda and Facebook have in common?

CNN is powerful. What is the basis of its power? The corporation has money, buildings, people, equipment, brand and political connections. But so do many other companies. Local media is likely to report events in the particular place faster and better. The power of CNN lies to a great extent with its operational scale—its capacity of mobilizing resources, coordinating reporters and producing images across the world simultaneously. This enables it to claim global authority.

Video wall of flat tv screens with world mapIn this sense CNN may have portrayed Al Qaeda as the mirror image of its own. Al Qaeda’s prowess did not stem from the money, ideology and weaponry that it possessed, but instead from the circulation of resources, messages and emotions that it coordinated and was embedded in. Similarly, Facebook possesses no power, but is tremendously powerful. As long as there is electricity and as long as the Internet is working, Facebook enables people in different places to inform each other, to form new units of consciousness and actions, and thus to achieve new emergent scales.

What’s common behind them is the “emergent scale”. Emergent scale is the scope of coordination and mobilization that arises from collective actions that in turn generates new capacity for the actors. Migration matters not because bodies move, but because migrants create emergent scales across administrative boundaries, and therefore acquire capacities that cannot be contained by the established system.

Why is the president superior to the mayor?
The modern bureaucracy would be unthinkable if we don’t assume that the president is superior to the province governor, and the province governor is superior to the mayor. But on what basis is such hierarchy justified and even naturalized? Isn’t it also central to the modern society that everyone is supposed to be equal? The president is superior to the mayor, according to the principle of modern bureaucracy, not because the former is smarter or more virtuous than the latter, but because the office of the former covers broader purview than the latter’s. Horizontal coverage defines status in vertical hierarchy.

I call such horizontal scopes that are hierarchically differentiated and connected “taxonomical scales”. This is similar to Dumont’s conceptualization of hierarchy as being “a relation between larger and smaller, or more precisely between that which encompasses and that which is encompassed” (Dumont 1972: 24). Taxonomical scale is the defining principle of modern zoology and botany as well as national bureaucracy. It is also through taxonomical scaling that the superior-subordinate relation is justified without undermining the modern egalitarian ideology.

Futuristic flowchartEmergent scale results from mobility and connections, and taxonomical scale confines mobility and connections. It is by limiting the scale of influence at a subordinate level that the higher level claims its authority. But taxonomical scale also relies on emergent scale. Without horizontal coordination and mobilization, the governor or the mayor cannot get anything done. Thus the intersection.

Migration as intersections
Migration defies particular scales in taxonomical systems as emergent scales know no administrative boundaries. Furthermore migration may create systemic tensions between different taxonomical scales.  Different levels of bureaucracy may react to migration differently. In the case of internal migration, a high level of government whose purview encompasses both the migrant sending and receiving places tends to be more lenient than that of only the receiving place. It does not make much sense for the provincial government to be harsh with intra-provincial mobility. However, the converse may happen in transnational migration. Local government may welcome transnational networks developed by migrants from that locality as this gives the government resources that are otherwise unavailable, while the national government may be rather wary about this.

This fundamentally destabilises the binary between migration flows and state control, and between the nation and the transnational. Transnational mobility and national government are both constituted by, and function through, multiple scales. The scales intersect.  Transnational mobility and national government work through different logics, but they are not discrete domains. They are more like veins and the tree in terms of relations between them than like orange and apple.

Perspectival scale
Finally, there is a question about the perspectival scale. On what scale is a particular observation and abstraction made? What steps are we taking, and skipping, when we move from ethnographic observations to general commentary? What appears to be a clear pattern at one scale may fragment into something else when looked at closer, and what seem randomly scattered may start falling into well-integrated wholes once we take a step back. It is thus productive to “perceive more than one scale at the same time, to move from individual actions to the rite, or from a comparison of several rituals to an exemplification of elements they have in common, or from individual institutions to a configuration” (Strathern, 1991: xv).  Diversity, for instance, is often an aggregate appearance on a particular scale. A city that appears extremely diverse in population statistics can be very homogenous at the neighbourhood level.

A multi-scalar perspective seeks to examine migration by situating it in the intersections between scales of multiple levels and kinds. But this certainly does not imply that the more scales the merrier. The multi-scalar perspective is meant to explain why and how certain problems arise; it is not a descriptive tool trying to exhaust complexities comprehensively. In order to apply the multi-scalar perspective profitably, we must identify specific problematics to be addressed and must focus on particular scales accordingly.


  • Dumont L (1972) Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  • Strathern M (1991) Partial Connections. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Xiang B (2013) Multi-scalar ethnography: An approach for critical engagement with migration and social change. Ethnography. 14 (3): 282–299.