The meaning of the widely used word "scale" involves more than size, distance, or other standard metrics that we might commonly associate with the term: it is also a matter of perspective, according to a new book that looks at the way people use ideas about scale to orient themselves to their social worlds and undertake various projects.
"There is no neutral way of describing scale," said E. Summerson Carr, an associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and co-editor of Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life, (University of California Press).
The book, released in August, is co-edited by Michael Lempert, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, and examines how people imagine, manage, and sometimes rework the scale of social phenomena. It suggests that scaling has real world consequences, including consequences for social work practice.
The volume emerged from talks among colleagues over the past years about the role that the concept of scale plays across disciplines and professions, including social work.
Joining Carr and Lempert in contributing to the book are scholars from around the country, including UChicago faculty members Susan Gal, the Mae & Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor in Anthropology; Constantine Nakassis, assistant professor in Anthropology; and Michael Silverstein, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, of Linguistics, and of Psychology and in the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities.
The group examines a wide range of topics, including how scale plays out in political campaigns, the future of indigenous language, and census taking practices in Africa.
Carr, who joined the SSA faculty in 2004 after receiving a PhD in Anthropology and Social Work from Michigan, is especially interested in the scaling of social problems. With a former SSA student and alumna Brooke Fisher AM, '13, Carr co-authored a chapter in the book that looks at how natural disasters are scaled.
Scaling a natural disaster
The chapter focuses on a 200-ton dock that was unmoored by the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 only to wash ashore in Oregon over a year later. The abundant media on the dock demonstrates that, as various parties with different agendas—from government officials to environmentalists—used concertedly scalar language to make sense of the dock, it became a potent sign of threats too big to prevent, too big to centrally manage, and too big to individually ignore.
Still, different parties, with their attendant interests and projects, had unique ways of scaling the dock. Ecologists and marine biologists scaled the dock in relation to the "millions" of foreign marine species that it might have introduced to Oregon's shoreline, thereby advocating the need for environmental protections.
Others scaled the dock in relation the magnitude of destruction wreaked by the tsunami in Japan, suggesting a need for ongoing transnational charity. Still other scalers used the dock to project the American lives that could be lost along the Cascadian fault line in the future, suggesting the need for publicly or privately financed "tsunami preparation efforts."
In the end, this and other chapters in Scale suggest that the way that social problems are scaled has profound effects on how interventions are imagined, promoted, and undertaken.
Scalar categories fail to capture on-the-ground social work
Carr's first book, Scripting Addiction: The Politics of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety (Princeton University Press, 2011) looked at how clinical interactions (commonly understood to be "micro" in scale) are infused with politics (commonly understood to be "macro" in scale), in part because the distribution of resources commonly hinges on how clinical social workers conceptualize clients' problems.
For these reasons, scale matters in social work curricula and Carr contends that questioning the assumed scales of social life is necessary to prepare social work students to enter the field. "American social work education has been conceptually and institutionally organized in terms of scale, as if there are neat divisions between micro, meso and macro practice, though we know this is not the case in practice," Carr says.
"I talk with students who are struggling to make the choice about whether to choose SSA's 'clinical' or 'admininstration (policy)' track, and remind them that they can expect that their actual work in the field will require them to think across these scalar divisions, and even undo them."
As she and Lempert write in the introduction to their book, "To study scale....is to examine how the ideals of social life stand in tension with ideas of what is practically achievable."