Abadan and the World: Conceptualizing a Relational Scalar Politics

The British Airline in Abadan Airport 1950's Credit: Dmitri Kessel
The British Airline in Abadan Airport 1950’s
Credit: Dmitri Kessel
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

The story of the Abadan bazaar opens a window into the interplay of the localnational-global forces that produced a new configuration of the oil complex in this formative period. Each of these geographic scales is conceptualized as networks of relations, connections, and transfers of goods, ideas, policies, and people across space and scales[61]. Consequently, in order to provide a thick description of the multiple layers of the local story of the bazaar, I will begin by exploring a number of interconnected and formative processes that were taking place at the larger global and national scales, before proceeding back to explore in more detail what transpired at a micro scale in Abadan during the pivotal decade of 1920s. This shifting back and forth between different geographic scales allows us to unpack the relational processes that informed each geographic scale of the story historically, and the manner in which these scales overlapped and mutually shaped each other. Some critical geographers use the term “scalar politics”[62] to capture this relational and formative power play between different geographic scales of analysis.
Scale is an important analytical category in geography that has been highly contested in recent times as the discipline has become more engaged with the insights of critical social theory. Whereas conventional geography tends to view scale as naturally given, self-evident, and unambiguously bounded (the nation, the city, the countryside), critical Marxist geographers in the 1980’s and 1990’s began to challenge fixed notions of scale as pre-existing and external to social processes[63]. Instead, they argued that spatial scales – such as the local, the urban, the national, the regional, the global – are interconnected and actively produced by historical political-economic processes[64]. However, this still left open the question of determinacy and agency: Are there privileged scales that determine the eventual outcome of these interconnected layers? Post-structuralist critiques have raised objections that the Marxian approach to scale tends to privilege macro processes, such as global capitalism, as ultimately determining the micro scales, such as the local, the household, or the individual body. There was also the added question of how the boundaries of each scale are defined, and understanding how these boundaries are produced and partitioned[65]. Most notably, Doreen Massey objected against conceptualizing places as rigidly bounded and defined (what she calls the Heideggerian sense of place, see pp.64-65). Citing the example of Kilbourn, Massey pointed out that this London neighborhood was populated by migrants, artists, refugees, workers, etc. and did not really have a rigid boundary, as its varied population were linked and integrated to the world beyond through complex and quite uneven economic, emotional, legal, and social ties. Just as residents of Kilbourn have multiple identities, the same can be said for the physical place itself. This multiplicity of connections to larger geographic scales demonstrates three important points: First, that defining a place like Kilbourn (or Abadan) does not require drawing of definitive boundaries; second, that the multiplicities of connections and identities is a source of constant conflict, but also of richness of collective life; and third, that the relational flows that shape a place are uneven, and so is the scalar politics that shapes a place. The flow of resources and people to a place does not happen in the same way, for everyone involved. To paraphrase Massey “some people are in charge and initiate the movements and flows, some are more on the receiving end, [others] are effectively imprisoned by it”. Refugees, disposed pastoralists, impoverished migrants moved to Abadan, just as English accountants and Punjabi skilled machinists. But they did so under very different circumstances, and as a result of very uneven distribution of power. In applying these insights to our case study, the issue becomes the manner in which we conceptualize and frame the processes and agencies that shaped Abadan and produced its variegated spaces. Do we frame Abadan as a small locality whose built environment was ultimately produced by the global forces of oil capitalism, British imperial policies, and Iranian state actions? In other words, as just one more example of the same story repeated everywhere?[66] Or do we develop what Doreen Massey has called a progressive global sense of place, based on conceptualizing scale not as a determined by exogenous and abstract meta-processes, but a relational understanding of scale where locality itself is pro-active and a key vehicle for social mobilization, political intervention, and ultimately shaping larger macro scales, such as the nation and the global?[67] And, ultimately, the question of scale is also determined by how boundaries are defined. In the case of Abadan, do we understand the refinery city as a self-contained physical entity? Or as a changing urban space embedded within a complex and relational web of cultural and political economic ties to the larger region and the world?
My approach in this dissertation will be the latter. By mid 1920’s Abadan had become an important component in the global political economic transition to oil as the new primary source of energy replacing coal (and steam power) and the most sought after strategic resource. The change to oil from coal was part of a larger paradigmatic shift where nearly all spheres of collective life — from the forms of governance, to the contours of relations between nature-state-society, popular culture, class and gender relations, and the role of middle class technical experts — were being challenged and revolutionized. In Iran a new nationalist central government was being assembled that questioned long established relations with Britain and was intent to forge a homogeneous nation state out of the fragmented territory and the heterogeneous population. In Abadan itself, the local population, mostly displaced migrants from different social and geographic backgrounds, now working for the oil industry or scraping a living on its margins, had to forge new forms of urban solidarity and militantism to resist their further dispossession, and to stake a claim to the city. The urban struggles to resist evictions to clear the path for the proposed bazaar of Abadan, and the expansion of exclusive Oil Company enclaves at the expense of the local population, affected the governmental practices of the new bureaucracy and the social, labor, and urban policies of APOC itself. Thus, what appears in the first glance as local and a micro scale, is shaped by global events and currents, but also affects these and contributes to their modification. This multi scalar historical and geographic approach allows us to avoid the pitfall of conceptualizing the development of the oil complex as determined by the agency of all powerful macro agents such as APOC or the Iranian state. The bazaar affair and other similar struggles over the built environment in Abadan and other enclaves of the oil industry were the product of larger global forces at work but, in a real sense, they also contributed to shaping the global.


61. Christian DeVito, “New Perspectives on Global Labour History, Introduction,” Workers of the Wold 1, no. 3 (2013): 17.

62. See Danny MacKinnon, “Reconstructing Scale: Towards a New Scalar Politics,” Progress in Human Geography 35, no. 1 (February 1, 2011): 21–36..
63. Eric Swingedouw, “Neither Global nor Local: ‘Glocalization’ and the Politics of Scale,” in Spaces of Globalization, ed. Kevin Cox (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 137–66.

64. See Neil Smith, “Scale,” Dictionary of Human Geography (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); David Harvey, “From Space to Place and Back Again: Reflections on the Condition of Postmodernity,” in
Mapping the Futures, ed. Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, and et.al. (London: Routledge, 1993).

65. See Doreen Massey’s critique of what she considers to be David Harvey’s economic reductionist sense of place. Doreen Massey, “Power-Geometry, and a Progressive Sense of Place,” in Mapping the Futures, ed. Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, and et.al. (London: Routledge, 1993), 59–70; Doreen B. Massey,
For Space (London: Sage, 2005) 130-194.

66. As stated by one of Marx’ more questionable and seemingly teleological statements “the country that is more developed industrially shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future”. Marx,
67. See Philip Cook, “The Contested Terrain of Locality Studies,” in Human Geography; An Essential Anthology, ed. John Agnew and et.al. (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996), 487–488.

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