Review of: Sabina Lawreniuk & Laurie Parsons, Going Nowhere Fast: Mobile Inequality in the Age of Translocality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020

By Jonathan Rigg

This is the first in a new series of reviews dedicated to Going Nowhere Fast, culminating in a digital roundtable with the authors. Keep an eye on our website and social media for more information on how to attend.

This is a slim book – just 140 pages – but an important one for scholars interested in contemporary processes of social and economic transformation in Cambodia, and Southeast Asia more widely. The focus of Going Nowhere Fast by Sabina Lawreniuk and Laurie Parsons is on ‘mobile inequality’ or, more intriguingly, ‘translocal inequality’. This is “defined in its simplest form as that process whereby wealth discrepancies in one place engender differences in livelihoods elsewhere” (page 8). This moves the measurement and assessment of inequality away from the individual-in-place “towards communities grounded in mutual fields of obligation” and thus across “multiple people in multiple places simultaneously” (page 8).

In its focus on the unsettling spatial and social outcomes of contemporary processes of transformation, the book draws on a number of other recent and related themes in research on Southeast Asia: growing interest in the mobility (and immobility) ‘turn’; multi-sited ethnography as a method to track and gauge change in increasingly mobile societies; the need to reconceptualise households as multi-sited (rather than co-residential) or multi-local; telecoupling and teleconnection as frameworks for connecting processes in distant places; a focus on poverty turbulence and dynamics under conditions of late capitalism; and network approaches to understanding processes of change. While importantly different, all pay heed to the fact that our spatial boxes and conceptual categories no longer do the explanatory work that they used – perhaps – to do. Going Nowhere Fast addresses this challenge, and does so in a manner that gives a face (or faces) to the often disembodied forces shaping the Cambodian landscape of development.

Sabina Lawreniuk & Laurie Parsons, 2020. Going Nowhere Fast: Mobile Inequality in the Age of Translocality, University of Oxford Press

The book is based on a decade of fieldwork and multi-methods research across Cambodian field sites, rural and urban, and each chapter dips into this empirical well in a slightly different manner. Chapter 3 draws on survey-based data with follow-up interviews. Chapter 4 is more ethnographic, describing the ‘everyday’ experience of translocal inequality. Chapter 5 integrates material from three separate studies. While chapters 6 and 7 draw on individual accounts of marginalized groups and their mobility. The survey data are not mined intensively and the emphasis in the book is on narrative accounts of translocal inequality. The qualitative, in other words, is more in evidence than the quantitative.

Drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, the authors see inequality in Cambodia as a ‘total social fact’ (fait social total), cross-cutting society, from the legal to the economic. Not only is it all pervasive, it is also observable – and, third, changeable. Sabina Lawreniuk and Laurie Parsons’ entry point for considering inequality is through the lens of mobility (and, therefore, immobility) or, rather: translocality. (Interestingly, while the terms translocal and translocality crop up 155 times in the book, and inequality 220 times, the phrase translocal inequality – where the two are joined up – is used just 11 times.)

The narrative of mobility that comes through in the book is not the one recounted in mainstream texts and reports emanating from the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, where mobility is viewed as empowering and developmental, emblematic of good change. In Going Nowhere Fast, mobility is distinctly Faustian, challenging the “discourse of labour mobility that is intertwined inexplicably with freedom” where “to marketize is to liberalize and to liberalize means unshackling economic flows from the social constraints that bind them” (page 141).

I found the book novel not just in terms of the empirical material and the arguments that are developed, but also in terms of the tenor of its argumentation. It is a research monograph but reads, in places, almost like an op-ed piece. The book opens with: “If economic growth is the panacea of our age, then inequality is the zeitgeist.” And closes, some 141 pages later, with: “Inequality in the age of translocality is therefore the ghost in the machine; the undergirding logic that co-ordinates and directs the flow of  resources in motion; that most visible of invisible hands.” We see here an attempt – largely successful, I should add – to draw the reader into the authors’ field sites, the empirical material they generate, and the arguments they explore. They are intent on making these places, conditions and debates accessible and understandable, so that we – the reader – are more likely to care, albeit from a distance.

Jonathan Rigg is Chair in Human Geography at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on processes of human transformation in Asia.