Managing local practices in global contexts
Managing local practices in global contexts

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3 Institutional rules of practice

3.1 Interconnectedness

In making sense of the stretch from the here-and-now to the wider context, social science has often seized on distinct levels: the micro – dealing with things that happen in organisations, for instance – and the macro or national level. Explanations are often generated at either the micro or the macro level and critical connections between the two are ignored (Flyvbjerg, 2001, p. 138). Arguably, increased talk about globalisation provides a convenient label for things that go on among nations – in a manner that transcends national boundaries – thereby making global a third rung on the micro-macro ladder. However, global interconnectedness typically means that local practice simultaneously overlaps with different aspects of the micro, macro and global. Twenty-four-hour, online, friction-free information flows across cyberspace to help to ensure that local practice is globally connected. Progression from the local is not simply a matter of climbing a series of steps on a ladder though; many organisational and national boundaries that were once taken for granted have become more permeable with increased movement of people and ideas – thereby blurring conventional distinctions between who is associated with which context.

An essential part of ‘interconnectedness’ centres on what people have in common and the processes by which that common ground is used to communicate and generate new knowledge. On the one hand, members of a community of practice are assumed to be meaningfully connected with members whom they know through shared experiences and/or the exchange of information about similar experiences. Yet, on the other hand, members of much larger communities – such as nation states, ethnic groups, mainstream religions or the established professions – cannot hope to know more than a tiny fraction of people who might possess ‘mental models’ that are in some sense similar. In some cases, these similarities might be highly aligned, while in others they may represent no more than a faint trace. A practising scientist who adheres to the scientific method could reasonably imagine that there are many other practising scientists, across the globe, with a broadly similar view of the scientific method. Similarly, people identify with particular nations, cultures, causes, and so on, according to mental constructions that they imagine to be aligned with many people whom they will never meet.

Since it was first published in 1983, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities has emerged as an influential text on nations and nationalism. Anderson is a professor of international studies and specialist on Southeast Asia, who was born in China and educated in the USA and UK. After noting the difficulties of defining a nation, he suggested an approach based on imagined communities:

In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

(Anderson, 1991, p. 6)

Anderson goes on to explain that the nation is imagined as limited because ‘even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind’ (Anderson, 1991, p. 7). Furthermore, the nation is imagined as sovereign because ‘the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm’ (Anderson, 1991, p. 7). While there had been eras in history when it was possible for certain Christians to dream of a wholly Christian world, recognition of the plurality of religions has given rise to dreams of clearly defined geographical territory that can be identified with the sovereign rule of the nation. Thus, sovereign nations have come to be aligned with geographical spaces, although the boundaries of these spaces might be subject to dispute. Lastly, the nation ‘is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’ (Anderson, 1991, p. 7). On occasions, this sense of imagined alliance among people of the same imagined nation can drive people to heroic sacrifices – including the willingness to die – in struggles with nations based on different imaginings.

A nation as an imagined community traces a space whose innermost ways of being can be more or less easily translated globally. Where there are other spaces that bear a strong family resemblance to the community imagined, then translation will be easier and less frictional; for instance, between the Scots and the Irish, or the Welsh and the English – although, of course, propinquity and tangled histories often make estranged bedfellows. Think of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand: although each has quite different histories, political institutions and economic roles in the world economy, they share a common lineage as English-speaking nations. The community that each nation's politicians, leaders and people imagine for itself shares family resemblances. However, in the case of a community whose imagination has long been shielded from the outside world, whose attempts at colonial expansion have been somewhat restricted, and whose language has not founded a global empire, then their imagined community might not translate so well as these others. Put simply, their institutions, in a word, are culturally specific rather than dispersed.

Some groups of nations, as imagined communities, are regarded as linear extensions of other local contexts. For instance, shared Anglo-Saxon traditions might mean that North American films are appreciated in the UK and vice versa. Although, even apparently similar, contexts can differ considerably: as Winston Churchill famously remarked of the Americans and the British, they are two peoples divided by a common language. However, English language messages that flow easily from Sydney to London might struggle to convey the same meaning in Tokyo. The geographical distance is shorter, but the cultural divide is colossal. While it is possible to translate all of the English worlds into Japanese, no message can account for how it is interpreted: misunderstandings and disappointment can flow from interpretations of messages that were sent with the best of intentions.

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