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

By W. Nathan Green

This is the second review in our new series dedicated to Going Nowhere Fast. Watch this space for more information on the upcoming digital roundtable with the authors.

Drawing on a decade of mixed-methods research in rural, urban, and peri-urban Cambodia, Going Nowhere Fast explains why inequality persists at a time when so many people are on the move in search of a better life. While a few migrant households are able to benefit from this new mobility, many others have seen their fortunes remain the same or decline further. Those who do not benefit from increased mobility generally come from poorer backgrounds: they either do not have the social networks in the city to find a good job or they have to remit the bulk of their wages back home to support their families. The authors call this “translocal inequality,” referring to how “wealth discrepancies in one place engender differences in livelihoods elsewhere” (p. 8). Translocal inequality is also structured by the stories that people tell. In other words, inequality is “intertwined and enmeshed in social relations in the form of norms, expectations, and morals.” Remitting money home would not be possible, for example, without “dutiful daughters” on the factory floor (p. 3). Migrant household wealth rises and falls due to the narratives that are told about their journeys, social status, and rural background.

Translocal inequality differs from standard accounts of inequality in Cambodia, reviewed in the second chapter. Typically, inequality measures a static distribution of wealth within a population made up of discrete, atomistic units in spatially-fixed locations. These measures of inequality, however, fail to capture the mobility of household members and their dispersion across multiple sites. As such, geographical categories of inequality, such as the urban rich and rural poor, elide the dense webs of translocal relations that now bind the two spaces together. In the remainder of the book, the authors analyze various dimensions of these translocal relations.

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

Chapter three utilizes network analysis to chart migrant social connections in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Whereas wealthier migrants are able to save money and build social networks in the city, poorer migrants, who remit money home to support their families, tend to be more socially isolated. The former use their social networks to find better jobs and increase their wealth while the latter are left out of such pathways. In chapter four, the authors turn to household gender and generational relations. They demonstrate how translocal mobility has at times empowered women in family decision-making. At other times, women have an increased burden to both work and take care of children. Likewise, older family members are increasingly mobile as they move to support working family members. In each case, mobile familial relations are accompanied by changing narratives of responsibility and value, sometimes reinforcing translocal inequality patterns.

Chapter five introduces ecology into the authors’ analysis of translocal inequality. They find that Cambodian farming households must contend with changing ecological conditions, such as soil infertility, diminished fisheries, and industrial pollution. Families already on the margins are least able to cope with these forms of ecological degradation. In contrast, wealthier families, many of whom can supplement farming with remittance income, are able to purchase more land and spread out the risks of farming. This in turn promotes land concentration and hence wealth inequalities. Chapter six compares the migration patterns of beggars and regular workers in order to highlight the structural role of narrative in maintaining inequality. For example, able-bodied, young people who cannot find jobs are unable to beg because of social stigma. In contrast, the disabled and elderly are considered legitimate beggars, even as they may maintain ties to their rural villages where they often farm their own land.

In chapter seven, the authors shift from the household to the national scale to investigate the relation between mobility and exclusionary ethno-nationalism. Urban labor movements, made up of mobile workers from rural areas, have benefited from translocal relations that connect the garment industry to other sectors of the economy. However, some of these labor movements also allied with the country’s former opposition party, which has campaigned on anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. On the one hand, mobility has empowered Cambodian workers by building cross-sectoral movements. On the other hand, ethno-nationalism has increased discrimination against ethnically Vietnamese Cambodians.

The final chapter ties together the book’s main arguments by framing inequality in terms of a “total social fact,” inspired by Durkheim (p. 129). The authors use this concept to conclude that inequality has to be studied from multiple perspectives, both geographically and methodologically. Only in this way can we capture the economic, ecological, and narrative structures that shape translocal households’ livelihoods.

Going Nowhere Fast makes a significant contribution to scholarship about Cambodia’s development and international development studies more generally. However, the book could have been strengthened by engaging more consistently with the literature reviewed in chapter two, which addresses the Cambodian state and the country’s articulation into a neoliberal global political economy. Once acknowledged, these political and economic explanations for inequality fade into the background of the book’s later analysis. Readers are thus left with some unanswered questions. For instance, how has rural out-migration been driven by limited welfare due to the state’s neoliberal austerity policies and party patronage networks? How have labor movements been constrained by their subordinate position within competitive capitalist production networks? To what extent is  inequality exacerbated by debt-financed commodity production—a process that critical agrarian studies has long argued contributes to rural differentiation? Of course, a book cannot answer all of a reader’s questions. However, I believe that a more sustained analysis of Cambodia’s multi-scalar political economy would have helped situate translocal mobility patterns into broader transformations associated with capitalism (a word conspicuously absent in the book).

This critique aside, the book provides an empirically-rich analysis of household microeconomics that will be invaluable for development practitioners and scholars. Indeed, qualitative details about social networks, household decision-making, and narratives of translocal relations are often missing in critical research about Cambodia’s development. As the authors show, our understanding of inequality today is incomplete without such a perspective.

W. Nathan Green is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. His research uses ethnographic methods to study how emerging capitalist social relations transform people’s relationship to their environments in Southeast Asia.