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RURAL STUDIES won alievier com /lcatlrurstud ELSEVIER our of Rural Studies 22 (2006) 253-266 Distance as a hybrid actor in rural economies Nathan Young Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, The Unlersy of Brtish Columbia, 303 NW Marine Dr, Vancouser, BC, Canada V8T 121 Abstract “This paper argues thatthe notion of distance ought to be re-conceptualized and promoted to the theoretical foreground of sociological analyses of rural economic action. Using research in rural British Columbia, Canada, T argue that current changes in rural political ceonomy (for instance, the restructuring of industrial resource production, the promotion of local economic diversification, and advances in communications and transportation infrastructures) mean that the “performance” of connections between local and extre-local ‘economic spaces are increasingly significant to economic relationships and exchange in rural settings. In re-conceptualizing the rote of distance in @ Post-Fordist rural economy, I borrow two key insights from actor-network theory: the notion of hybridity, and the strong, influence that “hybridized” networks have on (rural) actors. Rather than being a static fact, I argue that distance i itself a hybrid actor that behaves" differently according to the particular configuration of its natural, technological, and social dimensions. Thinking about distance in this manner makes @ novel contribution to understanding rural development, as it asserts that the capacity 10 organize and configure distance (as opposed to simply acting ‘at a distance’) isa key source of power and variance in rural economies. (© 2005 Elsevier Lid, All rights reserved. 1, Introduction ‘This paper argues that the role of rural distances (as distinct from rural spaces) in rural economies is under- theorized, and that the increasing complexity and diversi- fication of rural economies invites a rethinking of how distance relates to rural economic action. To be clear, I do not advocate a return 10 assumptions about geographic determinism or the ‘tyranny’ of distance over local economic conditions. Quite the opposite, I argue for the incorporation of distance into understandings of current processes of Post-Fordism and economic diversification in rural settings. This means first acknowledging that distance (Gefined as the territorial separation of actors) is a material reality that is separate from, albeit related co, questions of space. Over the past several decades, the notion of distance has been assaulted on several fronts. Among human and social geographers, distance has long been a primary target in the struggle against geographical determinism and absolute definitions of space (ef. Harvey, 1969; Murdoch, 1998). Similarly, theorists of late modernity, postmoder- nity, and globalization have written profusely on the amnibilation of space (., territorial separation) by time Erma dives: nathan young@ubea (0743-0167/8. sce front matter 2005 Elsevier Lid. Al rights reserved oi 10-1016 jars 200811.007 (e.g., Harvey, 1989; Giddens, 1990; Castells, 1996; Cairn cross, 1997). I argue that distance ought to be brought back into the project of theorizing economic relationships. Importantly, however, this argument also rejects facile conceptualizations of distance as an absolute or static “fact” of physical geography. This paper outlines an alternative understanding of distance as an actor in relationships and exchanges between local and extra-local economic spaces. In elevating distance to the status of actor in rural economies, I rely on two theoretical traditions. First, a requlationist political economy sheds significant light on changes in the spatial economies of rural regions, particularly under conditions of economic diversification. Second, the ‘relationist’ perspective of actor-network theory lends insight into the strategies and capacities of particular rural actors to ‘reach across space’. Therefore, while political economy and actor-network theory are often considered to be contradictory (having different understandings of, for instance, the structuring of social relationships and the exercise of power), I am in ‘agreement with recent assertions that more moderate versions of these perspectives can be applied to sociological problems in complementary ways (of. Castree, 2002; Kirsch and Mitchell, 2004). As will be made clear in later discussions, I understand changes in rural political 2st economy, specifically industrial restructuring, economic diversification, and infrastructure development, to be intensifying the role of distance in rural economic action. To understand how rural distances can be conceptua- lized as ‘actors’ in economic relationships, I borrow two key insights from actor-network theory. The first is the notion of hybridity, which argues that the separation of the social world from the material world (from ‘objects’) that ‘underpins much academic thinking in the social sciences is an artificial assumption, and that in the real world of practices and processes these are in fact co-constitutive (Latour, 1993). In applying this to considerations of distance, I posit that distance ought not be considered merely as the geographic tract that separates locales, but rather as an active combination of natural, technological and social elements (cf. Callon, 1991). Therefore, T conceptualize rural distances along three dimensions: their natural or physical attributes, the technological infrastruc- tures that penetrate and/or manipulate rural spaces, and the social relationships among persons embedded in loca! ‘and extra-local networks. The second insight borrowed from actor-network theory is that actions within and across this hybridized environment rely upon the ‘ordering’ of these elements (natural, technological, social) into net- ‘works or configurations, which vary in stability, accessi- bility, and durability through time, 1 will argue that in Post-Fordist rural economies, which are increasingly complex and diverse, two things occur. First, the ‘realism’ of distance is multiplied, in that the potential configura- tions of natural, technological, and social elements are exponentially expanded. Second, the discrepancy in powers to actively configure distances—to establish patterns within the interplay of these clements—becomes a significant problem of contemporary rural development. ‘This paper will use research in rural British Columbia (BC), Canada, to argue that different “performances of distance” (Law and Hetherington, 1999) are particularly significant for understanding new rural economic activities and spaces that have been created by industrial restructur- ing and economic diversification. Consideration of rural distances as hybrid actors in rural economies opens significant new ground for theorizing rural development ‘and economic activity. 2. Background: space versus distance in rural theory ‘The past decade and more has seen great advances in theory and analysis of rural spaces. Two theoretical ‘movements have been particularly significant. First, rural studies has recently been energized by exposure to the broader “cultural turn” in the social sciences (Cloke, 1997). Heightened attention to culture has prompted reconsidera~ tion of rural spaces. Simply put, itis no longer adequate to consider rural territories solely as sites of production or ‘lass relations. Rather, rural spaces are deeply complex and. subject to plural and overlapping political and economic claims, particularly with respect to Jand use, landscapes, 1X. Young / Journal of Rural Studies 22 (2006) 253-266 symbols, and activities (Marsden, 1999). Thus rural spaces are being "mapped and re-mapped” along the lines of both Tocal and societal struggles over political rights and ‘economic access (Hayter, 2003) ‘The second theoretical movement of great significance to thinking about rural space involves the (ongoing) matura- tion of network theory. Network theory draws attention to ‘space by emphasizing relationships at and across local and cextra-local scales, At the local level, much attention is given to relationships of learning, innovation, and social capital (Murdoch, 2000, p. 412). This reinforces the fact that ‘place ‘matters’ with respect to rural development. At the same time, network theory encourages attention to connections ‘among local and extra-local economic actors and systems. ‘The connections that link rural spaces and commodity chains, specialty markets, and actor-networks (such as GMO or organic food certification), are understood to be vital to local development and prosperity (cf. Marsden et al., 2000; van der Ploeg et al., 2000). Both of these theoretical movements imply that the relationship between rural economies and spaces are dynamic, where arrangements of space (of territories/ landscapes, and networks/scales) strongly affect arrange- ments of economy, and vice versa. According to van der Ploeg et al. (2000, p. 392), economic action increasingly depends on forging “synergies” within local spaces and across extra-regional network spaces. ‘However, present attention to space in rural economies has not included explicit attention to distance. Distance as a concept has been largely subsumed under the notion of space. For instance, a pillar of network-based theories of rural development is the observation that network connec- tions are capable of bridging vast distances. This is what prompts (Murdoch, 2000, p. 412) to argue: [As sets of relations that can straddle diverse spaces, networks hold the promise of a more complex apprecia- tion of “development” than has traditionally been evident in state-centred versus market-led or endogen- ‘ous versus exogenous models But space and distance are not corollaries. Rather, 1 suggest that they ought to be considered together but distinctly in analyses of rural economies. For our purposes, distance refers to the territorial separation of rural localities from other actors involved in the production and/or consumption of rural values. I will argue in later sections that as rural economic spaces become more complex and diverse, the ways in which “territorial separations’ are constituted are increasingly significant for rural economic action. Distance as a ‘fact’ has always been in the background of rural studies, with spatial isolation underpinning long- standing discussions of rural distinctiveness (ef. Marsden et al,, 1990) and divisions of labour and production (e.g. Marchak, 1983). This paper argues that distance ought to be moved into the theoretical foreground in sociological analyses of rural economic action, The starting point for 1. Young Journal of Rural tues 22 (2008) 253-266 this discussion is Law and Hetherington’s (1999) assertion that distances are “performed into being” through the mobilization and coordination of multiple actors within and across particular spaces. Law and Hetherington use the historical example of Portuguese trading routes to India to illustrate, arguing that the distance between Lisbon and Calcutta simply did not exist prior to the establishment of @ routine trading network based on Portuguese naval technology and colonial ambitions. For all intents and purposes, the two locations had existed in “separate worlds” Distance demands communication and interaction. Its very possibility depends on communication and inter~ action. It depends on joining things up within—and thereby making—a single space. ... Links to other locations [depend on] the work of keeping up the materially heterogeneous links which maintain the mobilities between places, and define their distances (1999, p. 6) The assertion that distances are performed implies that their ‘realism’ (ie., their existence as material facts or “things? that affect relationships and practices) is defined by the actors and actions involved in forging and sustaining connections across space. In Law and Hetherington’s formulation, this performance involved the mobilization of techniques of ship-building and navigation, as well as the political and military capacity to establish imperialist; colonial systems to anchor trade relationships. These systems brought the two localities into a relationship that otherwise did not and could not exist. For our purposes, this specific example is somewhat limited, as it refers to the joining of localities through highly Structured “performances” that were controlled in large measure by the Portuguese state, Nevertheless, the notion that distances are established and maintained through performances or by “joining things up" into networks is crucial. [ will argue that in a contemporary, complex economy, performances of distance are plural and highly variable, This means that connections between distant locales are enacted, not within a “single space” as argued by Law and Hetherington, but in plural ways that discriminate among the capacities of actors to organize the social and technological resources required to ‘reach across space’. 43, The ‘performance of distance’ in rural British Columbia, Canada ‘The performance of distances plays a key role in all economies, This is particularly true in the Canadian case. The celebrated economic historian Harold Innis famously argued that Canadian prosperity has historically been rooted in the strong links between ‘domestic’ staples production and the demands of far away markets (cf. Innis, 1930, 1956), Using the language of Law and Hetherington, Canada’s export-oriented economy has al- 2s ‘ways been tremendously reliant upon “the materially heterogeneous links that maintain the mobilities between places”. However, my argument that distance ought to be promoted to the theoretical foreground of sociological analyses of rural economy assumes a degree of disconti nuity with past colonial and Fordist experiences. It assumes that performances of distance are increasingly ‘more important to rural economy in comparison with past arrangements. This is primarily a political economic argument—that rural industrial restructuring, the diversi fication of rural economies, and the expansion of commu- nication and transportation infrastructures in rural regions, are creating @ more complex economic situation in which the possibilities and discrepancies in performances of distance are more variable than in previous eras. 1 will illustrate using the case of British Columbi Canada, which is home to one of the most complex and capital-intensive rural economies in the world. The economy of Canada’s westernmost provinee has histori- cally relied on extraction and export of natural resources, particularly from forestry, fisheries and mining (Roy, 1989: Barman, 1996). However, the 1980s to present have been & difficult time for most resource sectors. Environmental degradation has rendered supply more volatile, while at the same time export markets have become more competitive (Marchak, 1991; Pearse, 2001). In response, traditional resource industries have attempted to restructure opera- tions and employment arrangements to enhance capacities for flexible production (Hayter and Barnes, 1997). ‘The governments of British Columbia and Canada have responded to the diminishing employment capacity of the resource sector by promoting diversification in the rural economy through development programs that encourage local entrepreneurship (Young and Matthews, 2005). These programs selectively empower local actors and/or commn- nity groups to develop new businesses and infrastructure, most notably in areas such as tourism and value-added manufacture. To be sure, both the receding Fordist cra of mass, standardized resource production and the emerging Post- Fordist rural economy involve intricate performances of distance, However, there has been a dramatic shift in the political economic structure of these performances across this transition. Under Fordism, the relationships between producers and consumers of rural values were overwhel- ‘mingly controlled and mediated by corporate structures. ‘The “materially heterogeneous links which maintained the mobilities between places” under Fordism were very sophisticated and ‘global’ in reach, but were established and controlled centrally. Resource corporations continue to play a major role in the rural economy of British Columbia, and they continue to influence and structure mobilities between producers and consumers of rural values. Indeed, current interna- tional research on global commodity chains and flexible production clearly inditates that corporate control over