Just how local is the local?

28 Feb

I’ve had a very informative few days at a workshop sponsored by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The workshop focused on local indicators and perceptions and provided more evidence of the ‘local turn’ in relation to peace support operations. ‘The local’ is the in thing in the peace support community, with a number of policy documents (from UNDP to the World Bank and G7+) stressing the importance of engaging with local communities. Of course, it isn’t always clear to what extent the discussion of the local is meaningful or just rhetoric. But among DPKO people, they are certain that engaging with local communities is a crucial part of their work.
The interest in ‘the local’ raises a fundamental question: what is ‘the local? Among some there is a tendency to think – somewhat romantically – of the local being rural and well-stocked with indigenous knowledge and quaint customary practice. In this thinking it is an idyllic backwater that, if left alone, will be harmless and self-sustaining. Then there is another view of ‘the local’: as backward, exclusive, non-productive and even threatening.
The truth is, of course, highly context-dependent and will change from locality to locality. But it is worth trying to broaden our understanding of this concept ‘the local’. Certainly we should still retain geographical dimensions of ‘the local’: the village, the neighbourhood, the valley, the street. Individuals, groups and institutions will have different social geographies that see, define, interact with, and avoid ‘the local’ in different ways. The local dimension can be highly selective, in that individuals and groups may choose (if choice is available) to tap into one aspect of local life, but avoid others. For example, they may worship locally, but work and socialize somewhere else. Crucially, we need to urbanise the local. While we are tempted to think of grass hut villages and remote valleys, we should be alert to the fact that one of the most significant trends of our era is rapid urbanization. This has been driven by war displacement, but also work-related migration. The trend is massive and means that we need to build urban theory into how we conceptualise the local.
At the same time, we need to partially deterritorialise the local – to be prepared to separate it from a physical place, and to think of it as a series of networks and associations. These networks can be highly localized, but they can also be connected to trading or diaspora networks. In other words, we need to reconceptualise ‘the local’ to take into account that it is not always geographically local anymore. While we like to think that globalization is a modern phenomenon, people have migrated and traded forever, establishing networks, and lending and borrowing social and material capital.
So it is worth asking: just how local is the local? And how can it retain usefulness as a category if we stretch it too far.
Of course, ‘the local’ can also mean the local pub but that’s another story.

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