When studying globalization, the theory-method nexus has usually favored macro-level approaches. Even those that focus on the micro have emphasized it as an explanandum of the macro. Some scholars have worked to generate large-scale accounts of commodity production or network formation; others, the ethnographic yet “localized” study of how global forces act in one particular locale. A few recent studies have focused on the “production of” culture, knowledge, and subjects—or their contestation—by looking at the role of state and market actors in changing colonial and post-colonial contexts. Less attention has been given in sociology to “friction” (Tsing 2005), the contingency lurking within every link of the large-scale chains, the fact that each step along a commodity chain is an arena of its own, with actors in micro competing and collaborating in real time. So my question for this lecture is simple: what happens when we look at “the global” as something that needs to be maintained by actors worried in the quotidian about its potential breakdown?
My larger research project aims to bring back into the sociology of (global) cultural production insights from the pragmatist-inspired sociology of work (Blumer 1969; Garfinkel 1967; Hughes 1971; Strauss 2001) that have since been developed and turned into common knowledge within the sociology of knowledge and Science and Technology Studies (STS). I’m thinking here of concepts like translation, inscription, invisible labor, immutable mobiles, infrastructure, or boundary objects. Low-level commodity production is not usually thought of as a place where knowledge is produced, but rather studied either through a global value chain approach or an attention to shop floor politics. In this unexpected match between the case and theory, I aim to de-familiarize the work of coordinating tacit and embodied forms of knowing. At the empirical level, I also aim to show all the non-managerial material care (Star 1995) that takes place within the mass production process itself.
Why Should We Care if Anna Is Busy?
Since 2013 I’ve been engaged in research on the development and design of women’s shoes for the U.S. mid-tier market. A key part of the development process involves alternating between online and face-to-face communication. The process of shoe-making begins with a sketch, which the sample room then uses to develop a prototype of the design using lesser or discarded materials. Throughout the process, which features an extensive exchange of images, shoes appear on the screen as tried on by the foot model in the sample room.
In order to guarantee that the designers know how the materials and the design react as shoes are worn, the sample rooms—and the offices U.S. companies have in China too—rely on a “fit girl” to try on the shoes. The fit model is so central to the project of standardization that when Anna, the fit girl of the sample room, is busy with some other brand, Larry—the office manager—lets the designers in New York City know that what they were looking at in the pictures is the foot of another model. In this way, Anna’s absence functions as what Bruno Latour has called a “tiny barrier.”
The “foot” stabilization—always working with the same model, whether face-to-face or online—allows for designers, technicians, and production managers on both sides of the world to be sure of what they are looking at when they receive a sheet with measurements, an image with a prototype, or a sample being tried on. This is a less obvious technical device through which procedures are black-boxed—i.e. made simple, settled (Latour 1987)—from a distance. It is also the kind of work that STS scholars have conceptualized as invisible work (Shapin 1979; Star and Strauss 1999). So what happens if we do an infrastructural inversion and foreground what usually appears in the background? Or to put it more bluntly, if we put women’s feet at the center of the fashion-making infrastructure?
Arlene, the fit model for another U.S. shoe company, puts her right foot on a table in Midtown Manhattan. Next to her sits Clint, a veteran technician in his 70s, who has been working in the industry for over 50 years. For outsiders like me, it is unclear why the industry does not utilize wooden or rubber mannequins or the “last” itself—a mechanical form that has a shape similar to that of a human foot used by shoemakers in manufacture—in order to measure how the shoe is coming out. For “shoe people,” the answer is obvious: it’s about affordances (Gibson 1979; Norman 2013); in other words, the possibilities of use allowed by an object.
In this example, when working with Arlene’s foot, Clint is constantly on the lookout for two different things. The first is that her foot over-pronates, which happens when the weight of her foot rolls inward and she tends to push off almost completely from the big toe and second toe. The second issue that concerns Clint is that her second toe is actually longer than her big toe, which throws the toes sweep away—a problem since molds, paper patterns and lasts are all made with a vision of how toes align. Technicians and fit models develop a work dynamic that turns them into a unit; as much as the model knows the peculiarities of her feet (or foot), the technicians know to make calculations based on how feet conform and depart from the standard measurement.
Experimental information that would be considered “noise” in other metrological contexts—as they relate to the various imperfections of the model in replicating the standard—are actually incorporated as vital data.
Experimental information that would be considered “noise” in other metrological contexts—as they relate to the various imperfections of the model in replicating the standard—are actually incorporated as vital data. The more technicians and models work together, the more designers get used to a particular foot, the more they transform that noise into a signal that guides how they manage the standard. Fit models embody a contradiction: each has a “perfect” foot that follows or is close to twelve different standard measurements, and yet technicians and designers have to learn how to work around the peculiarities of each “perfect” foot.
The measurements for a shoe’s volume are developed with a fit model, adjusted, and then miniaturized as an inscription and sent as precise specifications to a final production facility, where it is fabricated by machine. That last will be then brought back to the technician for corrections and approval. It’s only after the two rounds of fitting and corrections that the last will be mass-produced, as it is a key component of how shoes are put together in the assembly line, where they are used to give volume and shape to the shoe as the “upper”—the parts of the shoe that cover the toes, the top of the foot, the sides of the foot, and the back of the heel—gets glued on.
At this point, the transformation of what was, at first, a foot with its own quirks into a size six (238 or 240 mm), is final. What was a highly contingent process, full of small of procedures, adjustments, and the deployment of knowledge about deviations from the norm, eventually became a number. In adopting a numeric form, it becomes an immutable object inscribed onto paper and transported back to the center, where it may then be combined with other similar objects. Fit models, technicians, and designers work around the variations that would otherwise compromise the object, saving it from becoming a heterogeneity, and turn it instead into an objective standard to be followed by large swaths of the female population.
Feet as Obligatory Passage Points
If, in the previous example, I’ve shown how a world is built around a foot, as we go from the measurements of a right foot to a standardized size six, I now want to show how to bring the world to the foot. For instance, in the case of Clint and Arlene, the approved samples have to be air-shipped between the U.S. and China twice; first when doing fitting, and second when they are confirmed by technicians, designers, and the sale team as those that will be produced as shoes to be sold in the US market. On the first trip, after having worked with the designer’s specifications on correcting the shoe, Clint sends the one “half-pair” (just one of the two shoes) to China, so the last-maker can compare what he is working on with what Clint has approved for fitting.
“After China works on it,” as Clint calls it, his Chinese counterparts send a pair of corrected samples back with the previous fit shoe he had sent. Arlene then tries on the pair again, and, after a few corrections, Clint sends them back to Dongguan as the fit- and design-approved samples, which will be then sent to the factory for production. If everything goes perfectly, Clint finally destroys the first half-pair. He used to sign the shoes and mark them with a red dot, in order to surveil the veracity of the measurements in this global back-and-forth: if the sample that came back was unmarked, he would immediately know it wasn’t the one he had approved—yet another procedure to guarantee control and reproducibility at a distance. Recently, they did a casting that would enable them to replicate Arlene’s feet in China. They received at least 40 sheets with measurements of potential models in Dongguan, but all of them were turned down as none matched Arlene’s exact measurements (or her quirks).
The traffic in designers, technicians, prototypes, and samples is dictated by where the fitting models are located, and by whether the “feet” can be matched and coordinated across multiple locations. In some cases, this means that a U.S. fit model—who works not for fashion but for comfort brands—travels to Dongguan, as the local fit models have feet that are deemed “too delicate” for wider and larger kinds of shoes. In the case of the main design team I’ve followed, the U.S.-based designers not only travel five to eight times a year (once for every collection) to work with their fit model, Anna, but they have also developed a cut-out of her right foot to work with in the New York office in her absence. The most extreme example of this was narrated to me by a former production manager for Clarks, who had to coordinate the five feet the company had in the world, in London and New York—where the designers were—as well as in northeast Brazil, Nicaragua, and Dongguan—where they had their development and production facilities. His work involved measuring the different feet every six months, and casting when one of the women needed to be replaced—or resigned. In fact, one of the major nuisances I’ve observed in fieldwork for those involved in producing reliable standards has been the agony of replacing a foot that was already fully accounted for within the development infrastructure.
This fast travel through a few cases gives us a comprehensive list of the requisite humans, tools, and tacit kinds of knowledge that help us to elucidate the range of activities needed to make standardization techniques work in different, highly localized settings. What all cases share is the centrality of the fitting feet within this particular section of the shoe-producing infrastructure. That feet act as an obligatory “passage point” (Callon 1986) makes evident the paradoxical centrality of a minor and invisible kind of labor, and of a particular kind of expertise: that of technicians and fit models together.
Some Concluding Thoughts
In my lecture, I’ve shown what happens when we study the dynamics of global shoe production through the right feet of the women who work as fit models. In doing so, I hope to have sensitized the reader to this unexpected match between theory and case, as well as to cast some doubts about our taken-for-granted conceptualization of what counts as micro and macro. While the micro can be thought of as one fruitful avenue to explore empirically large aggregates (Collins 1981), what matters here—as Monika Krause (2012) recently signaled—is to muddle the easy distinctions between macro and micro. Eliding these taken-for granted-distinctions is a theoretically fruitful avenue to show: 1) how face to face interactions can have large-scale consequences; 2) how power operates at the micro level; and 3) how interactions are within the realm of improvisation but also mediated and constrained. Moreover, instead of thinking of embodied and disembodied knowledge in opposition, I pursue a project that shows their complementarity and limits, engaging how this knowledge is produced through both mediated and face-to-face interaction.
In opening the black box of the input-output of a commodity chain and focusing on the work of producing the standard for women’s shoes, I’ve shown the everyday agency involved in producing a scale. Doing so suggests that the global can fruitfully be studied as something other than a force, flow, or network. It also demonstrates a different kind of agency at the micro-level than the “resistance” usually emphasized in studies of globalization. In focusing instead on collaboration and repair, and doing this not at the level of elites, financiers (Knorr Cetina and Brueger 2002), or managers, but of craft workers for a low-level mass-produced commodity, could we bluntly say in consequence “global is as global does”? This way of looking at global processes would think of them as practical accomplishments that help people to coordinate their work across different geographical and temporal realms. To study the production of scale would then be to study the series of skills that are necessary to maintain and repair this kind of coordination, skills which are developed over time and re-configured as people slowly inhabit their professional worlds. The sociolo-gical literatures on knowledge creation, global commodities, and materiality rarely intersect. There remains a wealth of possibilities for theoretical production at this juncture.
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