6.5 The nature of space - place analysis: a dialectical perspective

6.5 The nature of space “place analysis: a dialectical perspective

The Greek term ˜dialectic, derived from ˜dialogue between equal partners , implies a unity of opposites. In a dialectical relation, each of the opposed ˜poles is incomplete without its own ˜other and disappears when abstractly isolated. Hegel describes the concept of the master to imply the opposite of such a concept in the servant, the one who is mastered. Without the idea of one, we cannot form the idea of the other, although each idea in itself is the contradiction or negation of the other. Similarly, in GSAs the idea of space (and distance) cannot be understood without its opposing category of place (and proximity). This dialectical interplay between place and space over time helps to develop a richer understanding of the process of evolution of the GSA.

An important question concerns what constitutes dialectical reasoning . One view is that it is an ontological stance to represent a view of knowledge, and the second is that it is a convenient epistemological approach to access reality. Harvey (1996) considers this debate as spurious , since it involves both epistemology and ontology. Dialectics are concerned with how we abstract understanding from a phenomenon that we encounter in everyday life. There are also different versions of dialectics, one being from the strong version that is associated with the deterministic sequence of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The alternative is the largely interpretive view that emphasizes the mental. This strong view has many critics because of its essentialist nature and deterministic implications.

Harvey argues that criticisms of the dialectic approach can be avoided by focusing on the mental and representational aspects , where dialectics are not viewed as a form of logic but in an interpretative sense to represent a flow of arguments and practices that we use to interrogate and describe a phenomenon. There is an ontological stance in that the understanding of processes and flows is emphasized over the analysis of elements and things. The epistemological stance inverts the emphasis in that ˜we get to understand processes by looking either at the attributes of what appear to us in the first instance to be self-evident things or at the relations between them (Harvey 1996, p. 49). This epistemological emphasis is again reversed when it comes to formulating abstractions, concepts, and theories about the phenomenon. Harvey argues that this process of inversion transforms the self-evident world of things into a more confusing set of relations and flows that are manifest as things. Harvey gives the example of capital which is conceived as a stock of assets at a particular value (as a set of things) which is constituted in processes of capital production and exchange (flows). A dialectical reasoning rests on understanding how things and processes are constituted in each other.

We adopt the dialectical approach to reasoning in the sense described by Harvey: to represent both an ontological stance and a method. We use this method to access the nature of processes inherent in a GSA. We adapt this process of reasoning to further analyse the nature of the interplay between space and place, and how that relates to the GSA process. This analysis is conducted by focusing on three key dialectical principles of totality , change and contradiction (Rees 1998):

  • Totality insists that the various seemingly separate elements in the world must be related to one another

  • Change suggests that when we bring together these different parts , their meaning is transformed in a qualitative way, this arises not from external forces, but from a universal ˜changefulness located within the phenomenon

  • Contradiction implies a union of two or more internally related processes that simultaneously support and yet undermine one another.

These dynamics are both integral to, and yet destructive of, the processes themselves . The principle of totality guides us to an analytical focus on the linkage between spatial forms and material practices, and the unfolding of the linkage over time. This helps to include the entire network of actors, their social practices and technologies, that influence both the material and symbolic domains. Within this conceptualized totality, the space “place dialectic serves as generative principle on which the evolution of the GSA is analysed. GlobTel initially treated India as a space, and also simultaneously sought to develop understandings of local particularities. MCI attempted to keep autonomy over their place (reflected in their resistance to expatriates ), but at the same time needed to operate in space-like environments to ensure cost effective coordination.

A focus on the material “social linkage helps one to understand the expectations of actors and how these are shaped by a ˜space -kind of understanding. GlobTel believes in the power of telecommunications links to transcend the physical and the cultural distance, and reduce costs and time to market. Being a large MNC with worldwide operations, GlobTel deals with the uncertainty of India as it would with other countries and spaces: by standardizing activities and locations so that their managers can seamlessly work across different settings as if operating within a uniform GlobTel framework. The development environment in the MCI lab replicates the North American setting, including the air-conditioned lab and similar telecommunications links. Through standardization of physical and symbolic environments, GlobTel tries to create a ˜place for their managers, superseding MCI s ˜place -like local particularities.

The principle of change emphasizes internal ˜changefulness and the associated sense of permanent instability. The relationship between MCI and GlobTel was in a constant state of change, not merely an external displacement but a qualitative alteration in the nature of work being done over time. In the initial stages, MCI did lower-level projects in ˜local spaces . While MCI experienced autonomy with independent work, they simultaneously aspired to be ˜closer to GlobTel so they could work on new and exciting technologies. Over time, GlobTel s confidence in MCI grew and work evolved from Level 1 to Level 2. To support that growth, GlobTel created more electronic ˜shared spaces. Simultaneously with increased autonomy for MCI, GlobTel established various controls to enable integration of local work with global operations. The ˜brother lab announcement brought a major change, as GlobTel signalled their desire to transfer ownership.

The place itself, both in India and globally, has changed from 1991 to 1999 and these changes influenced the course of the relationship. The number of MNCs operating out of India in 1999 was significantly greater than in 1991, creating different competitive pressures and a higher level of telecommunications-related domain expertise in the industry. With changes in knowledge levels, the expectations and aspirations of both the organization and the individual programmers were redefined, creating new challenges and opportunities in the relationship. The technological aspirations of the Indians were not initially a consideration, but later on they affected the value of the relationship in the view of the MCI developers. Technology plays a key role in shaping these dynamics, representing both a sense of exclusion “inclusion and autonomy “control, materially and symbolically.

Change is inherent in the process of growth in any relationship. A dialectical analysis leads us to understand the constant qualitative change that is internal rather than external to the relationship between MCI and GlobTel. Initially, cost reduction becomes a major consideration, later on, it is not a primary concern. Initially, the Indians had limited domain knowledge of telecommunications and GSW; with time, as they acquired and developed such understanding, their expectations changed. Knowledge thus became a key driver of expectations and the shaping of further changes.

Contradiction in a dialectical context helps to explain rather than describe change. Space and place simultaneously support and undermine one another. It is only through working at a distance, in space, that the need for proximity, in place, arises. With increased proximity, actors feel autonomy being threatened and express the need for ˜space . Processes over space and place thus cannot be understood without each other, and yet their joint influence generates conflicts among associated structures and processes. There are inherent contradictions between the intentions of GlobTel managers who want to minimize on-site work in North America and the Indians who see the relationship as an opportunity to get closer to the North American marketplace . As these contradictory needs are better understood, some are recognized to be inherently irreconcilable. For example, the Indians aspiration to be involved in new technology work was contradictory to GlobTel s view of India as primarily a ˜space for legacy systems support. GlobTel s fundamental management strategy of standardization is contradictory to MCI s need to maintain their Indian identity while working in a global environment. For the success of the relationship, MCI had to accept standardization to a certain degree, but the level and extent to which they did so was contentious and was constantly negotiated and contested.

The evolution of the relationship helps both to support and undermine the relation- ship. On one hand, as MCI developed expertise in telecommunications, they bid for contracts in other locations such as Japan and Korea. From GlobTel s perspective, this had a negative effect on the relationship. On the other hand, with increased familiarity of business in India, GlobTel gained a sense of ˜place in India, and built up confidence to establish their centre and to bid for Indian and Asian markets more aggressively. While Japan provided different kinds of technological possibilities to MCI, GlobTel could potentially use their Indian centre for doing new technology work on their own instead of outsourcing it to the Indian firms. This, of course, negatively impacted to the relationship when viewed from the MCI perspective.

As people work in various physical and electronic domains, they experience varying and contradictory feelings of inclusion and exclusion. Operating independently in the local domain, the Indians experienced a sense of being ˜hands-off and excluded. Increased proximity in shared spaces was contradictory to the Indians needs to have control over their local place. The initial exciting prospect that GlobTel offered for new development was slowly changed over time and MCI itself resigned to lower-end legacy work. This state of resignation is unlikely to endure because of its own internal contradictions and tensions. MCI management, unhappy with the low-growth situation, are expected to reorient their strategy away from legacy systems in the future.

Taken together, the three dialectical principles of totality, change and contradiction help to develop insights into the micro-level dynamics of how practices over space and place play out. We next address the broader research question of how the analytical lens of the dialectics of space and place can provide insights into the process of the GSA relationship.