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The Inconspicuous Spaces of Globalization

Armelle Choplin and Olivier Pliez


This special issue addresses the inconspicuous geography of globalization, constructed through invisible transnational connections. To bring these spaces out of the shadows, it is essential to shift our gaze from the center towards the spatial as well as the social margins. This rescaling also needs to be rethought in order to grasp the complex interactions between the local and the global. Finally, the various studies in this special issue reveal three types of interstitial spaces on which this inconspicuous globalization is based: routes, secondary cities, and market places. Thus, a broad and vast research fields opens up before us, whose main lines we sketch out below.

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  • 1 This introduction has benefitted from several discussions in multiple contexts with fellow research (...)

1The phenomenon of globalization is omnipresent and obvious, well-documented, mapped, and quantified when it comes to economic exchanges between states, large multinational companies, flow of passengers and freight traffic, airport hubs and maritime corridors, and ‘global cities’ that concentrate business and capital (Sassen 1991). More inconspicuous and elusive is the globalization of peripheral areas and small players who are involved in this phenomenon on the margins. Some enlightening research over the past twenty years has helped to better understand what has been termed “globalization from below” (Portes 1997, Tarrius 2002), that is to say, globalization driven by transnational movements of people and often characterized by informal relations. Our aim is to extend this body of research in order to understand the latest developments in this process. We also seek to complement research by no longer focusing solely on the actors but also to have a more precise understanding of the spatiality of the global. More specifically, our approach seeks to grasp how certain areas, once considered peripheral, have now become fully part of globalization. These spaces, in which complex economic, social and spatial dynamics are embedded, are strategic for understanding globalization and its new global and significant impacts on the margins of the world.

2Usually, these places are distant from heavily trafficked roads, far from global cities and main marketplaces, and not visited by major companies and investors. However in such places, a large number of transnational exchanges takes place that are usually very informal and often poorly quantified. Moreover, interesting and unusual forms of globalization emerge in these peripheral spaces, new urban forms are growing, and a multitude of actors, both professional and casual, local and international, and more or less visible, interact.

3At the intersection of several social sciences, primarily geography and the social anthropology of economics, the various articles in this issue promote an interdisciplinary approach for making sense of this other, more inconspicuous geography of globalization. This geography takes shape in marginal and secondary spaces; yet the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants live in such places. In this issue, the map of this ‘other’ globalization is drawn by examining geopolitical reconfigurations, the type of traded goods, the growing role of economic actors such as entrepreneur-migrants and diasporas, and the changing hierarchy among cities. This inconspicuous globalization is structured along rural centers, small towns, and paths that are not easy to access even for the stakeholders who operate in these regions. The links go beyond the North-South divide and reflect the growth of trade between the BRICSA, including China, and regions of the world hitherto marginalized in world trade.

4Therefore, this special issue aims to bring to light this global shadow archipelago, constructed through invisible transnational connections. To bring these spaces out of the shadows, it is essential to shift our gaze from the center towards the spatial as well as the social margins. This rescaling also needs to be rethought in order to grasp the complex interactions between the local and the global. Finally, the various studies in this special issue reveal three types of interstitial spaces on which this inconspicuous globalization is based: routes, secondary cities, and market places. Thus, a broad and vast research fields opens up before us, whose main lines we sketch out below.

Towards Inconspicuous Spaces of Globalization

5This special issue seeks to change perspective from the centers to the margins, from the actors to the spaces, and from ‘globalization from below’ to inconspicuous globalization. To do so, we must shift our focus towards unknown or ignored spaces that are often “off the map,” to use Robinson’s (2002) phrase for cities of the Global South. Thus, inspired by subaltern studies, which argue for an intellectual perspective ‘from below’ notably through micro-history, and postcolonial studies, which encourage us to move beyond the traditional divisions of North and South, particularly in urban studies and geography (Robinson 2002, 2006, McFarlane 2006, Roy 2009), this special issue aims to ‘decenter’ our conception of globalization in order to highlight other, less publicized forms. Thus, this approach attempts to de-Westernize our perspective, going beyond the frame of solely Western theories and examples (Appadurai 1996) and following the ‘Southern turn’ (Rao 2006, Connel 2007, Comaroff 2011) to underline the importance of what is happening in the Global South.

6This ‘provincialization’ of perspective has become essential because the traditional divisions between North/South, developed/developing countries, rich/Third World countries are no longer effective for accurately grasping the complexity of the contemporary world, as inconspicuous globalization reflects. In two decades, the routes of transnational exchange have undergone profound changes. Once confined to regional frameworks, often North-South interfaces, these routes are now connected to each other and have become fully global. The result has been a multiplication of the areas for observation, which are largely invisible (Kelly 2011). In these zones, under the direct or indirect effect of global production networks, actors operate transnationally and the spaces that structure these actors’ practices have been transformed. These questions have been addressed by geographical approaches that refute the findings of the ‘flat earthers’ of whom the most publicized is Friedman (2005), and stress the importance of anchors and disparities in the spaces of globalization (Christopherson et al. 2008), and by the ‘globalization from below’ approach, which focuses on the actors involved and has been primarily adopted by social anthropologists.

7The distinction between two processes of globalization came into being around the 2000s. The phrase ‘globalization from below’ was popularized by Portes (1997). According to Portes (1997), “what common people have done in response to the process of globalization is to create communities that sit astride political borders and that, in a very real sense, are ‘neither here nor there’ but in both places simultaneously. The economic activities that sustain these communities are grounded precisely on the differentials of advantage created by state boundaries. In this respect, they are no different from the large global corporations, except that these enterprises emerge at the grassroots level and [their] activities are often informal.”

8Thus, transnational communities formed by decades of substantial migrations between Central America and the Caribbean have served as a basis for economic activities which can only find their place in the interstices of a world economy driven by states and multinationals. Portes’ programmatic studies echo research conducted on the Mediterranean context at same period. In France, it was Tarrius (2002) who used the term ‘mondialisation par le bas’ to frame his work on new economic activities by Maghreb transnational communities. He considers them to be “real networks of nomad entrepreneurs” who “drive an underground economy on a global scale.” He believes these actors renew cosmoplitanisms “in places where the state... does not expect: in areas that are beyond it and that it does not know how to manage” (our translation). For Portes (1997) as for Tarrius (2002), transnational communities are the bearers of this ‘other’ globalization: Latin Americans for the former, North Africans for the latter, towards the northern regions to which they emigrate, either the United States or Western Europe. From these areas, they have woven dense networks of flows with their home states or regions into a bundle of human, material, economic and symbolic exchanges that are multifaceted and based on their mastery of both spaces. While between North and South, migrants have been investigated as central actors in these dynamics, in Latin America the relationship to public space played out between migrants and states has been analyzed, (Mathews et al. 2012), whereas in the Arab world, the focus has been more on a shift in the main trading hubs (Mermier and Peraldi 2010, Belguidoum and Pliez 2015a).

9During the 2000s, the globalization of supply routes and market places, in which transnational migrant entrepreneurs from multiple geographical horizons meet, increased. Around the Mediterranean Sea, researchers have examined the expansion of transnational space in the east (Péraldi 2001), and highlighted how Istanbul (Turkey) and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) had become globalized market places. Dubai is particularly emblematic of this process (Marchal 2001) in which the trade routes of the Mediterranean, Middle East, East Africa, and Eastern Europe converge and intersect.

10The determinants of this inconspicuous globalization are clearly not only economic. Gradually, as transnational trade routes have become longer, they have diversified and intersected with geopolitical and religious questions. They must therefore be reconsidered at multiple scales and in light of different events that have redesigned or revealed the outlines of a context promoting trade on a global scale over the past fifteen years: the opening of global markets after the collapse of the USSR, the generalization of free trade, and the importance of counterfeiting, in addition to political events. September 11, 2001 had a strong impact, resulting in China and India becoming the usual destinations for goods for Muslim traders who had increasing problems travelling legally to Europe, where they had traditionally traded. The scale of the economic crisis in 2008, the slowdown in economic outlets for products in the North, the role of trade diasporas, and the growing search for new consumer markets have amplified South/South movements among the Global South countries. More recently, the Arab Spring and border issues in China, Europe, and the United States, which open sporadically and more often close or reorient the trade routes of migrant-entrepreneurs, are all factors that influence the terms of trade cyclically or structurally.

11On this global map of transnational exchanges, China occupies an increasingly important place, which is attested by the number of papers in this issue that mention China (Tastevin 2015b, Racaud 2015) or focus on that country (Belguidoum and Pliez 2015b). This is not surprising, as actors and observers of globalization today talk of the revival of the Silk Road, the growing power of Chinafrica, and the increasing influence of BRICSA within the global economy. Whether in the blogosphere or in articles, many people have given their impressions of travel to Asia. Some, like Simpfendorfer (2009), highlight the changing geopolitical context of post-September 11 to understand how a growing Arab world is turning away from the West to rediscover China, while others, more prosaic, offer the keys for successful business with China (Stuttard 2000). International institutions like the World Bank see a new economic frontier in the Silk Road between Africa, China and India (Broadman 2007). Every day, intercontinental trade between Africa, Latin America and Asia becomes increasingly evident (Hugon et al. 2011).

12Moreover, rhetoric about the economic decline of the West makes even more sense faced with the new center, China, from where global trade routes depart, mostly overseas but sometimes overland, headed for markets with influence worldwide (Sun and Perry 2008). China’s rise, and with it, the densification of the global transnational trade network, is a turning point in the way to make sense of these dynamics. One must no longer see these dynamics within the framework of Northern countries bound in continually renewed relationships of dependence with Southern countries, but to understand how these inconspicuous globalizations lead us towards understanding the global scale. Such an approach enables us to sketch out an economic world that challenges the traditional “world-system” theory (Wallerstein 1974) and creates a new map of centers and peripheries. Drawing on subaltern and postcolonial studies, and the decentering of perspective on various parts of the world it implies, fosters a better understanding of this inconspicuous globalization, in which new asymmetries and relations of domination between spaces and actors are emerging and traditional scaling is being questioned.

“Remotely Global”: Rescaling Inconspicuous Globalization

13“Remotely global”: that is how anthropologist Piot (1999) described a village in Togo in reference to its transformations through constant exchanges between the local and the global from the days of the slave trade until the present. Like Piot, the various authors in this issue raise the question of the interconnections between the local and the global. From a methodological point of view, most of these articles take a localized and well-defined space as their starting point – the markets in Yiwu, China (Belguidoum and Pliez 2015b), a spare parts workshop in Pune, India (Tastevin 2015a), weekly markets in the East African countryside (Racaud and Mainet 2015), the clothing industry districts in Istanbul (Hagemann 2015) – and then study that local place within a broader whole. Thus, the embeddedness between global and local and the connections to other globalized spaces are examined, which give these inconspicuous spaces of globalization a “global sense of place” (Massey 1991, 2005).

14Therefore, it is more necessary than ever to rethink the importance of rescaling. The dialectic local-global is no longer sufficient for understanding the power of current transformations, inasmuch as these changes question the state while also revealing forms of empowerment, circumventing, and multiple negotiations. As Caliskan (2010) stated, Like so many fertile grounds, this one is also somewhat muddy”. For Appadurai (2013: 67-68), in order “to escape the conundrum of the local and the global that many scholars are facing”, we should consider that “the global is not merely the accidental site of the fusion or confusion of circulating global elements” but “the site of mutual transformations of circulating forms” and that the local is “not just an inverted canvas on which the global was written”. If we limit ourselves only to these two scales, the risk is great indeed of a “romantic glorification of cunning and the intelligence of the little people, and the virtues of resourcefulness” (Péraldi 2007) that play on scales and borders. Ribeiro (2009), for example, calls it “non-hegemonic globalization not because its agents intend to destroy global capitalism or to install some kind of radical alternative to the prevailing order. They are non-hegemonic because their activities defy the economic establishment everywhere on the local, regional, national, international and transnational levels.” This is true even though, as Ribeiro suggests (2009: 234), nation states’ “normative and repressive roles are heavily bypassed on the economic sphere.” The importance of politics is obvious, whether it be coveted, circumvented or challenged, and can only encourage us to refine our approach to the rationales of governance that emerge in each context at various levels of action. The state in particular remains a major actor, inciting or hindering the development of transnational exchanges, but the numbers of actors involved is even greater and social, political and economic issues are also interwoven at various scales. To better grasp these different facets, trade routes offer an excellent vantage point.

The Uncharted Geography of Transnational Routes

15While this inconspicuous globalization is based on global trade routes that are the infrastructural vectors of that globalization, they are also spaces for trade, for meeting people, and for life’s activities. The interweaving of social and territorial networks that brings these routes to life makes it difficult to understand them, as they are by definition dynamic spaces for “global assemblages” (Ong and Collier 2005) within changing territorial trade configurations. Importers, wholesalers, and brokers follow these routes everyday and, by opening up new destinations, by repeating and intensifying traffic, and by forms of organization emerging based on trust and reputation, the links between spaces are strengthened and these spaces are thus placed within trade routes that have become global.

16These routes, whether they refer to local, national, or global scales, are conceptual frameworks on which to build. In their most elementary form, these routes refer to a now classic economic concept of “the global commodity chain” (Gereffi and Korzeniewicz 1994) which, from the supply of raw materials through production, distribution and consumption, links all stages from production to final sale through network connections. This approach focuses on the territoriality and the scales of these dynamics, while highlighting the spatial continuities of phenomena that connect remote areas together. However, these studies have overlooked the way in which these interconnected locations have been affected. Geographers have contributed to this approach by suggesting that the predominance of multinational companies (MNCs) as the major operators in such chains (Dicken et al. 2001) be balanced with the need to better take into account all of the actors mobilized in these networks (Dicken 2004, Coe et al. 2004), using the concept of a Global Production Network (GPNs). However, despite their quality, these studies are not always applicable when it comes to dealing with the “world’s other economy” (Mathews et al. 2012). The methodological rigor that they require makes it difficult to apply the findings to spaces where the formal and the informal overlap and where the Base of Pyramid (BOP) market goes beyond the geographic boundaries of the emerging South.

17The route then becomes a more ‘soft’ concept, but this also makes it more usable for geographers, sociologists or anthropologists who strive to understand the networked aspect of trade. With this stated goal, the work of an ethnographic survey is then to capture the unstable and the inconspicuous, as some authors in this issue have done. They thus focus on a portion of the chain or the entire chain by choosing ordinary objects as flip-flop sandals (Knowles 2014), T-shirts (Rivoli 2005), a range of commodities (Hulme 2015), or jeans from wholesale markets to local markets (Pliez 2012). Such research enables us to grasp precise issues such as “global commodity chains as an integral strand of urban research” (Hagemann 2015) the interactions among several locations with well-defined functions (extraction sites, cultivation, manufacture, trade) in order to understand what is a global market (Çalişkan 2010), to deconstruct clichés such as the North versus the South, to highlight alternative approaches to recycling economies (Furniss 2015) or the pathways of innovation that traverse areas of the Global South (Tastevin 2015a, b). We can also ‘test’ these routes by travelling them, to “inquire into the reality of circulation, with its supposed fluidity and its frequent standstills (and so doing) see that increasing controls, linked to security and migratory European issues, hinder these ordinary movements and exchanges” (Choplin and Lombard 2014).

18The multiple paths that lead to a network approach to trade routes enable us to compare findings from studies on the networks of economic sociology as well as economic geography (Grabher 2006) and to create interdisciplinary methodological tools in response to calls for multi-sited (Marcus 1995) or comparing objects (Detienne 2000). Yet these excellent studies failed to do the distinction between “the dimensions of rapid development in places that are made visible using a GPN framework, and those that may remain hidden” (Kelly 2011). Under this condition, it is then possible to understand the ways in which networks of people trace out paths which, by creating new destinations, by the emergence of forms of organization based on trust and reputation, and by establishing unexpected regulations combining public and private action, strengthen the links between the places involved and locate these places within global trade routes. All along these routes and at the end of them, small towns emerge.

The Inconspicuous Cities beyond Global Cities

19To adopt a fresh perspective on these marginal urban spaces and the inconspicuous globalization that brings them to life, it is essential to put aside a Western, urban way of thinking centered only on major Western cities (Choplin, 2012). Sassen’s (1991) research on global cities has in fact perpetuated a Western bias that has long excluded southern cities which were not considered to be strategic locations in the global economy (Shatkin 1998). Yet far from New York, Tokyo and London, this inconspicuous globalization, with its routes, actors and trade, is based on a whole string of cities of varying sizes and are largely unknown.

20In this new geography of international trade, the “worlding cities” (Roy and Ong 2011), such as Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai, in what we have termed the “-ai-ending Megacities club,” have become essential spaces. Several articles here refer to these new spaces of international trade, visited by elites, traders and migrants from all over the world, and to the intense connections woven between these cities (see Belguidoum and Pliez 2015b about Yiwu, and Tastevin 2015b about Dubai and Mumbai). As postmodern symbols and models of success in certain emerging countries, these cities connect various transit routes and the small and large actors of globalization pass through them.

21The international hubs, warehouses, business areas and trading centers that Shanghai, Dubai and Mumbai have become, however, should not overshadow all the other secondary cities, with less familiar names and yet on which transnational networks and routes are based. In other words, while it is true that cities “in the Global South have been moving steadily from the margins to the center of the global community of urban scholars” (Samara et al. 2013: 1), it should be noted that this shift has been restricted to only a few megacities, ‘globalizing’ and/or ‘worlding’ metropolises. A new gap seems to have appeared between fashionable metropolises such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Lagos and other, mostly secondary and small cities overlooked in urban research (Satterhwaite and Tacoli 2003, Bell and Jayne 2006, Hilgers 2012). While it is often stated that over half the world’s population is now urban, it is rarely noted that the “cities of the invisible majority” (Hilgers forthcoming) have less than 500,000 inhabitants.

22These cities, both dominated by other cities and understudied in research, are nevertheless primordial. As anchoring points of routes, places of production, sales and product consumption, it is precisely these inconspicuous towns that enable this invisible globalization to become structured and to function. This is clear from Racaud and Mainet’s (2015) article, which sheds light on such ordinary, secondary cities that present major heuristic advantages for studying dynamics that are more diluted elsewhere. In these towns, it is easier to decipher the city in its globality and the globalizing process. In secondary cities in India (de Bercegol 2014) as in Africa, the small size of these cities makes it easier to capture the ongoing transformations that are intensified and particularly noticeable in such a limited zone, and which are vested both symbolically and materially (Choplin 2009, Hilgers 2009). These “worlding cities from below” process through “circuits of migration, resource evacuation, and commodity exchange” (Simone 2001: 17) entail important changes in identity and in space (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Road sign in Nouadhibou, Mauritania

Figure 1. Road sign in Nouadhibou, Mauritania

Source: © Armelle Choplin, 2009.

23The examples of secondary cities studied in this issue show that well-known global cities, seen as inevitable globalizing cities, only exist because they are equally connected to other towns that are more marginal but which are nevertheless completely involved in the globalizing process and linked with global capital flows. Considering things from the perspective of inconspicuous cities allows us to ‘rescale’ certain elusive phenomena, particularly globalization, which cannot be considered merely as an obscure force produced by external influences. These cities may well be perceived as less competitive than others in terms of economics, and as less visible in the media or in academic research, but they are globalized all the same.

Wholesale Markets and Clusters: Interstitial Spaces of Inconspicuous Globalization

24Besides these secondary cities, other spatial forms located in the interstices have become quite characteristic of this inconspicuous globalization, such as market places and neighborhoods for trader-migrants. A wholesale market where products “made in China” are traded, stored or sold is one such example. Another instance are places where knowledge and know-how are designed, traded, recycled or outsourced.

25The marketplaces where this kind of globalization unfolds often combine several functions: consumption, transactions, transit, and warehousing. Whatever their size, these marketplaces are usually oriented towards wholesale or retail. Transnational transactions between importers, wholesalers and retailers predominate, but transporting goods to transshipment areas, related to circumventing a border for example, is the main business locally. The influence of these marketplaces, which sometimes corresponds to their catchment area, may be only local, as in the case of weekly rural markets but, more generally, these spaces are influential at various levels: local, regional and national.

26These marketplaces, usually created by local inhabitants, today tend to occupy a growing place in urban areas. This dynamic has undeniable advantages in terms of speed, flexibility, and responsiveness, allowing the actors and marketplaces involved to adapt to the needs of economic markets. This dynamic connects these areas to the economy of cities, reinforces the centrality of those cities, and contributes to their promotion (quality of the city’s construction, and employment and economic outlets). Yet this dynamic also raises problems of organization and of quality, sometimes limiting the capacity of this sector to comply with the regulations in force. This tension between an economy ‘from below’ and institutional development reveals both the benefits and limitations of this inconspicuous globalization, particularly in view of the potential for social innovation and entrepreneurship.

27Intra-urban markets are the most visible and their connections seem easier to grasp in order to understand how a global scale works in the everyday. The example of Sao Paulo, a global city, and 25 de Março Street, one of the centers of popular trade that has been part of the city’s urban history since the 1940s, is quite telling (Telles 2012, Rabossi 2012). First connected at the Tri-border area by sacoleiros (bag carriers), these marketplaces had originally been brought to life by Arab and Chinese diasporas. In the 2000s, small traders began to take part in this market, who had become very visible locally as operators in wholesale trade of products made in China, which now passed directly through the port of Santos. Since 2010, these neighborhoods have been the target of a vast urban redevelopment project known as the Purchasing Corridor, whose name speaks volumes about the reorganization of the rationales of governance for these market places.

28This example also highlights the fact that, since the mid-2000s, from the United States to Russia, from Mexico to India, from Brazil to Algeria and West Africa, the rise in marketplaces for Chinese products at unbeatable prices has been essential on the global stage, especially since the People’s Republic of China’s admittance to the WTO in 2001 (Figure 2). Yiwu, the largest wholesale market in the world in small commodities, studied by Belguidoum and Pliez (2015b), is visited by hundreds of thousands of wholesale traders from around the world. The goods they buy are then resold to hundreds of millions of consumers, mostly in the Global South. These traders are major actors but are barely visible in the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) market. This market has long been considered unprofitable, but today is promising thanks to its demographic (4 billion people earning less than US$3,000 per year), economic importance (US$5 trillion per year) and flexibility.

Figure 2. Chinese store in Praia, Azores Islands, Portugal

Figure 2. Chinese store in Praia, Azores Islands, Portugal

Source: © Olivier Pliez, 2012.

29Yiwu, Sao Paulo and Dubai are now places of innovation in commercial urban planning. They are true laboratories where multiple kinds of rationales overlap, which are often opposed to each other: those ‘from above’ of the many institutional, public and private actors and ‘from below’ of transnational entrepreneurs. A function as a warehouse has long been visible almost exclusively in cities that are crossroads, such as the emblematic Dubai in the UAE and the Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, or Tripoli between North Africa and the Sahel. This function as a warehouse-city usually only lasts for a certain time because it is built on a context favorable to trade which may later be challenged. Yet the market models that developed in those cities have now spread around the world, both in the North and in the South, in the wake of the densification of trade flows. In Europe, this warehouse-city function is found in strategic locations, often in urban interstices. The Centre International de Commerce de Gros France-Asie (CIFA) at Aubervilliers near Paris, which has over 250 primarily Asian wholesalers in clothing, shoes and accessories, the Prato market on the outskirts of the city of Florence in Italy and the Fuenlabrada market in the suburbs of Madrid all are examples of this new generation of large urban markets that are no longer confined to peripheral economies.

30On a smaller scale, these markets that create urban spaces are more difficult to identify but they also organize the space. In Algeria, for example, the Dubai souks have reached a particularly significant phase of structuration, and their influence reaches throughout North Africa. About 30 km from Sétif, at the intersection of two routes, a key wholesale market came into being in the heart of a social housing district in El Eulma, for retailers from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia and also for Algerian communities in Europe (Bergel and Kerdoud 2010). The market is organized by type of goods (knick-knacks, hi-fi, household appliances, furniture), the majority of which come from China. Around this area, buildings are under construction. Other recently finished buildings remain empty, seen as long-term investments and property speculation. In connection with this inconspicuous globalization and its influences, new forms of architecture have also appeared in private housing. Homes shaped like Chinese pagodas have thus appeared in the urban landscape of eastern Algeria where the import markets are concentrated. They are now a symbol of success for those Algerian merchants who have “done China” (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Residential building with a Chinese-style roof, El Eulma, Algeria

Figure 3. Residential building with a Chinese-style roof, El Eulma, Algeria

Source: © Olivier Pliez, 2011.

31While it is tempting to speak of cities, often the space markers of passing wholesalers are limited to a neighborhood or even a few streets. The Algerian souk in Dubai echoes the El Maedah quarter in Yiwu (Belguidoum and Pliez 2015b), which is a textbook case of spaces emerging at the crossroads of an industrial district and a cosmopolitan urban neighborhood. These quarters are also similar to ‘Chocolate City’ in Canton (Guangzhou) where between 20,000 and 50,000 Africans work (Haugen 2011) or to the Chunking Mansions in Hong Kong that serve as vertical mini-cities with multiple resources (Mathews et al. 2012, Bertoncello et al. 2009). A parallel can just as easily be made with Deira in Dubai which, far from business centers and residential and tourist districts, is the space for “poor-to-poor” transactions (Tarrius 2015). In contrast to the glass towers of the city’s skyline, the small buildings in that quarter house shops, money changers, freight forwarders, and restaurants on the ground floor, while the floors above are devoted to offices and housing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Chinese wholesaler store in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Figure 4. Chinese wholesaler store in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Source: © Olivier Pliez, 2014.

32At an even smaller scale, specialized production clusters in spare rickshaw parts (Tastevin 2015b) as well as fairs, markets, and shopping areas, as shown by the examples of Cameroon and East Africa (Racaud and Mainet 2015, Racaud 2015), supply many points of sale of varying degrees of informality, both inside and outside the main market places. In Istanbul, Hagemann (2015) reveals how the clothing industry production stage is spatially selective. She analyses how actual manufacturing of clothing is gradually pushed out of Istanbul’s central districts by planning efforts, rising real estate and labour costs, while the Turkish industry continues to upgrade and starts outsourcing to other regions and countries. Thus, the plurality of forms and functions of local markets is impressive and trying to identify them throughout the entire planet is a nearly impossible challenge (Mortenbock and Mooshammer 2015). They can encompass salons for private sales set up by individuals as well as warehouses in rural markets, and shopping malls as well as wholesale trade centers.

33Whether they are confidential, or world famous for a group of specific traders, or located in the interstices of large cities, these markets are nonetheless nodes of global networks that structure space with an intensity that never ceases to amaze, from wholesale to retail markets, in cities and in the countryside, and from the peripheries to the centers or the reverse. Constantly shifting and inventive, these inconspicuous globalizations are only that way for a certain time, as well as the spaces in which they are bound. It is precisely this moment of beginnings, of events that facilitate their growth or make them collapse, that this special issue invites readers to discover. Moreover, this issue seeks to open up new avenues for thinking, methods, and approaches to the field in order to understand how these transnational movements form the cities of today.

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1 This introduction has benefitted from several discussions in multiple contexts with fellow researchers, whom we would like to thank here: Sophie Bava, Saïd Belguidoum, Brigitte Bertoncello, Sylvie Bredeloup, Riccardo Ciavolella, Michel Grossetti, Jérôme Lombard, Olivier Ninot, Angelina Peralva, and Yann-Philippe Tastevin. The authors thank Cynthia J. Johnson for translating their manuscript and the Laboratoire Analyses Comparées des Pouvoirs for funding the translation.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Road sign in Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Credits Source: © Armelle Choplin, 2009.
File image/jpeg, 3.0M
Title Figure 2. Chinese store in Praia, Azores Islands, Portugal
Credits Source: © Olivier Pliez, 2012.
File image/jpeg, 760k
Title Figure 3. Residential building with a Chinese-style roof, El Eulma, Algeria
Credits Source: © Olivier Pliez, 2011.
File image/jpeg, 780k
Title Figure 4. Chinese wholesaler store in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Credits Source: © Olivier Pliez, 2014.
File image/jpeg, 771k
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Electronic reference

Armelle Choplin and Olivier Pliez, The Inconspicuous Spaces of GlobalizationArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 12 | 2015, Online since 21 March 2016, connection on 05 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Armelle Choplin

Armelle Choplin is an Assistant Professor in Geography at the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and the Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris. Email:

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Olivier Pliez

Olivier Pliez is Research Director at the Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Solidarités Sociétés Territoires, University of Toulouse, CNRS, EHESS, ENFA, UT2J, France. Email:

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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