Five Questions with Zsuzsa Gille

This is the first in what will be a series of Q&A’s with our Framing the Global fellows. Each fellow was asked to answer the same five questions about their research and their approach to the global.

We’ll be publishing their responses every other week.

First up: Zsuzsa Gille.

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Gille is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois. Her Framing the Global project is Pigs, Paprika and Predestination: The European Union as Material Civilization.

In addition to pigs and paprika, Gille’s research interests include environmental sociology, contemporary social theory, and sociology of knowledge.

In her Q&A, Gille discusses materiality and how it helps her enter the global

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Zsuzsa Gille: The methodological challenges the CFP posed — how to bring down to an empirically graspable level that which is seemingly elusive, diffuse, indeterminate, multi-scalar, and dynamic.

RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

ZG: Materiality has become for me the best way to demonstrate how the seemingly ever so mobile, elusive, and fluid processes we associate with globalization need to be grounded somewhere, crafted and maintained by someone for particular reasons and with particular tools.

Specifically, there could be no world commerce in food if it weren’t for the myriad of technical specifications that food commodities have to abide by. The ways in which quality, safety, or ethical concerns are devised is a power-laden process that benefits some and harms others.

Thus studying such micro-level and material practices discloses the material foundations of global and transnational economic activities and points to particular points of possible political intervention.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

ZG: A key challenge is just the sheer complexity of the material arrangements the world relies on in making and keeping itself global.

This requires not just a certain scientific expertise (in my case agricultural, economic and biological facts and connections) but also its clear articulation for the audience.

The other difficulty is to “hook up” what is seemingly minute, micro-level and even accidental to supranational actors and processes without falling into old traps of mono-causality.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know it’s global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

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Humorous pepper ad.

ZG: For me it is not so much that I personally know that something is global or not, but whether the people and institutions I study act upon events as if they were global, that is, originating elsewhere, at scales that may be beyond their reach, or a scale that they aspire to impact, and act with effects that are similarly far-reaching.

Many accompany their actions with narratives that are about the globe, a region that transcends the nation state boundary, or about localities in another nation state.In their “global” talk they name some of these entities and not others, and which ones are brought into discourse and which aren’t is a clue to how these actors see their place in some imagined global context.

This means that how my research subjects frame the global and how I tell their stories are both inherently political.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

ZG: Once again I realized how sociology’s conceptual apparatus is bound up with the global historical context of its formation as an academic discipline — the idea that the social is coextensive with the national reflects a particular moment in European history.

What is the state? What is class? What is a nation? What is society, etc.?

Simply employing this theoretical arsenal now in the service of “studying globalization” is insufficient. The concepts themselves have to be redefined and operationalized anew and we need to rethink the relationship between abstract and concrete and micro and macro.

Most sociologists don’t think that an epistemological and methodological reform is necessary. I hope eventually we in the Framing project will prove them wrong.

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