Twelve years ago, Robin Cohen, Steve Vertovec and I penned the editorial for a new journal, Global Networks: a Journal of Transnational Affairs (2001). Here, in part, is what we wrote:

Global networks are a hallmark of the evolving world of the early 21st century and in recognition of this fact we are launching an ambitious new journal … We see global networks as constituted by dynamic and flexible types of connection between individuals, groups or organizations that criss-cross the world. The structure of such global networks conditions the interactions, strategies and identities of their members. These networks have begun to burst across territorial borders, further rupturing the degree of cultural and economic integrity once prized by nations, regions, and places. The cumulative impact of these interconnections has meant that societies, along with their cities and regions, have tended to spread outwards so as to merge and become coextensive with other societies. This has vast implications for the way we understand the world and how it is governed.

At the same time, the once clear-cut separation between the domestic sphere of national life and the external or international sphere shows unmistakeable signs of breaking down. Transnational processes present profound challenges and opportunities to states, corporations, cities, and territorially based actors of all kinds. People and firms, places and communities, can be switched in and out of the global circuit board. For those who are beneficiaries of global corporatism or have cosmopolitan preferences, this erosion of the world we have known is to be welcomed. But there is a dark side of globalization and transnationalism beyond the desire for universal humanism and behind the corporate rhetoric. A critical journal should never lose sight of the costs of globalization. But at the same time we acknowledge the many openings and opportunities for human agents to shape or re-direct events and processes.…

… The rise of global networks has both drawn upon and fostered innovative ideals of human solidarity that now often shape world political agendas, particularly surrounding the environment, peace, the status of women, corporate responsibility, human rights, minorities, and indigenous peoples. Some of these actors resist globalization; others find alternatives within its compass. It is likely that new transnational actors will play an ever more important role in shaping the first decades of the twenty-first century.

The choice of our journal title, Global Networks, reflects the movement away from general macroscopic views on globalization towards an intense study of networks and networking as the lineaments of the new world … Though differing and even clashing in many respects, these fields share a sense of networks as human accomplishments, social forms that may be enduring or brittle, according to circumstances. To achieve connections across distance involves the risk-laden mobilization of labour, trust, kinship, and the full repertoire of social and cultural resources…

…Globalization has a long and complex historical geography. In many cases, new networks are layered upon and interwoven with older ones. These networks have been greatly accelerated during the period of increasingly unrestricted free trade experienced during the last two decades. However, whatever the rhythms of global economic change, global networks have begun to assume an autonomous life. They are increasingly organized at a planetary scale, fundamentally transforming the long-established cognitive maps and social conduct of citizens throughout the world.… Is it too ambitious to claim that, just as the twentieth century was an age of international affairs, so the twenty first century heralds an era of transnational affairs?

Looking backwards from the perspective of 2013, at least three thoughts occur by way of self-critique. Network thinking is often supported by diagrams, whose lines and links convey a greater sense of rigidity and permanence than is warranted. One thing obviously understated is the sense of networks rupturing, communication systems collapsing or supply chains snapping. Written during a spectacularly expansionist phase of neoliberal capitalism, there is no hint of the economic turmoil to come. The consequences of the global recession include much more than the selective ’switching off’ of ‘people and firms, places and communities’. There are also systemic tremors and failings, not engineering by those actors resisting globalization, but bred internally.

Second, the word ‘care’ is also conspicuously absent. A great number of the journal’s most accomplished articles concern global care chains, the transnationalization of care relations and the implications of care practices in state, market and family. Some of the most acute insights into the journal’s core themes have been inspired by feminism and post-colonialism. This research has helped place the practices that sustain and nurture bodies of all kinds at the heart of our critical understanding of early 21st-century life. In so doing, it heightens the sense of what we termed, in perhaps overly economistic language, ‘the costs of globalization’.

We wrote then of how networks were ‘human accomplishments, social forms that may be enduring or brittle’. Perhaps this description of social relations is too physical. Networking is never simply a binary matter, strong or weak, on or off. The pulses and modulations of flows animating networks are to some degree better captured by an alternative metaphor or idea of assemblage. The looser sense of things hanging together while retaining some recognisable form is an equally good description of many of the phenomena in which we were, and remain, interested – whether it be global social movements, long-distance family relations or transnational communities.

Global Networks arose from the collision between Castells’s theories of the network society and the new work on transnational communities by anthropologists and sociologists. In my view, its core ideas remain highly generative, but that does not mean to say that nothing needs adding. The fragility of networks (even corporate ones), the significance of care, and the sense of flows as modulating are just three such extensions.

References

Roger, A., Cohen, R. and Vertovec, S. (2001) ‘Editorial Statement’, Global Networks, 1(1) iii-vi.

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