Following the path of an object commonly used
and socially implanted in modern culture, Caroline Knowles presents in her book
Flip-flop: a journey through the paths of
globalization an ethnographic analysis based on the Flip-Flop journey
(Knowles, 2014). By investigating the Flip Flops from their creation until
their elimination, she reveals that there is a whole world behind these pairs
of sandals. In fact, as she recounts the journey of these ‘ordinary’ objects in
the 21st century, she demonstrates that these shoes can also be seen as a
‘critical mass and mass appeal across social spectrums and continents’ (Knowles
Therefore, through the study of these Flip-Flops
which “sales rise with world population” (Knowles, 2015: 1), this
author tends to explain that these shoes and all that is associated with them
can to be a source of reflection on important topics such as globalization,
repair or political ecology. More so, Knowles challenges the notion of
globalization that does not focus solely on the restrictive principles
developed by theorists like John Urry (Urry 2010) and Manuel Castells (Urry
2010; Castells 1996). Thus, Knowles
shows in his book that globalization goes beyond the preconceived and static
idea that is made of it: it incorporates phenomena, objects, people and other
components that undo and reshape the principles and limits of this notion.
This review essay will try to illuminate the
more or less implicit key points that have been raised by Knowles, such as
material culture, the value of objects, or the link between the materials used
and what they reveal about the reality of globalization.
and summary of the book:
her book, Caroline Knowles followed the ‘journey’ of a pair of flip-flops
through a very broad “road of globalization” (Knowles 2014: 13).
Based on a six-year study in five different countries, it presents an original
and concise approach to an object that we all take for granted: flip-flops.
Indeed, by taking these as an object of study, Knowles shows that these sandals
are objects that are socially invisible for some and indispensable for others.
Flip-flops, by their omnipresence in society, are therefore a subject that is
more complex to deal with than it appears: in fact, they incorporate a
multitude of actors and issues in their production. Caroline Knowles, who is a
professor of sociology at Goldsmiths University, will then use a spatial and
biographical method to study the circulation of flip-flops and people across
multiple cities and countries. This will not be the first time this method of
analysis has been used by her: in her previous writings Knowles uses this methodological
tool to analyse the circulation of objects or social actors across countries.
Such was the case in Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes and Journeys where
Knowles will follow the migration
other hand, Knowles uses, through her book, a multi-sided ethnographic research
between different degrees of macro and micro analysis, and by superimposing the
economic, social and political dimensions to the daily lives of the actors and
the travels incurred by the Flip -Flop.
the first pages, the author begins by introducing the relationship between the
manufacture of flip-flops, plastic and the consequences that this has on their
price. The Flips-flops owe their expansion in the daily life of Humans thanks
to the plastic, which is a very popular and cheap material. However, Knowles
tells two things about flip-flops: these sandals, which are originally created
through oil have no recycling value. On the other hand, if these shoes look
simple in appearance, the background that there is last their production,
transport and disposal is actually very complicated. These shoes made of
plastic, actually include a multitude of issues and actors that are associated
with their implementation.
Chapter 2, Knowles really begins the ‘flip-flop trail’ by introducing a
geopolitical and social analysis of where the plastic comes from. It is based
in Kuwait, which is a major producer and exporter of Oil in the Middle East
(Knowles, 2014: 21). However, Knowles shows us the fragility of the country by
presenting us the social and security difficulties associated with it. If oil
shapes Kuwait and its inhabitants because it “makes its impressive GDP
(gross domestic product); However, oil is not a renewable natural resource for
the sake of knowledge. “(Knowles, 2014: 21). The social structure developed
around this hydrocarbon (jobs, standard living) is therefore not stable and
eternal. Knowles continues his story by telling the stories of Kuwaitis and
migrants who live with oil and shape globalization through their migratory
flows. In Chapter 3, the author follows the oil and globalization road by
traveling to the city of Daesan in South Korea. She then observes the
importance of oil in the realization and development of giant companies such as
Samsung or Total. Yet Knowles reveals that these companies remain discreet
about their management of this hydrocarbon and are difficult to access. Knowles
shows that Korea operates on a system that is based on the oil that supplies
the country. On the other hand, it follows a more ‘social’ approach by
observing the lives of plant workers who make plastic from petrochemicals. It
then exposes the effects of globalization on the Korean social system and
contrasts these effects with the challenges present in this society (for
example, the hierarchy of people, the division of the sexes, or the rural-urban
migration of Koreans).
book continues the plastic journey by going to Fuzhou in southeastern China. In
Chapters 4, 5 and 6, Knowles follows the plastic expedition in China and
analyzes the production system of these sandals which is established in the
cities near Fuzhou. Through his observations, the author exposes us two facts: “Chinese
?ip-?op manufacture is the story of China » because billions
of Flip-flops are made in Fuzhou thanks to the plastic balls from Korea
(Knowles 2015; 5). This kind of production has therefore built China’s economy.
In addition, she demonstrates that « Flip-?op manufacture lives
alongside this world on the same zeitgeist, the same idea that things can be
made as a way of making a life. Factory workers make ?ip-?ops as they
manufacture their own lives ».
(Knowles, 2015: 5). Based on this
statement, Knowles studies the daily lives of people involved in the
manufacturing process of these sandals made of plastic. His observations cover
a range of individuals with distinct social statuses, ranging from workers in
factories who are rural migrants, to “interlocutors” accessing world
markets in Fuzhou City. By more accurately analysing the lives of people,
Knowles notes that these people as well as the industrial villages that are
erected around them are “fabricated in plastic and by plastic”. Yet,
she ends up showing that while plastic has helped China grow and flip-flop
production has enriched many people, these two sources of enrichment are mobile.
The production of Flip-Flops is now in the process of migrating to Vietnam, to
Sudan, to Egypt, to Ethiopia and other parts of the African continent.
Improvements in working conditions and wages in China will drive this low-value
object into other lives and into other locations. Thus, Knowles shows us that
the production that ensures the low cost of flip-flops is moving towards new,
cheaper countries: this economic process that is encouraged by globalization is
therefore a factor of instability for many people who depend of this
Chapter 7, Knowles leaves China to go to Ethiopia. This country, which has a
low GDP and a population of 84 million, is an important market for the Chinese
(Knowles, 2014; 118). The author then tells how these shoes return to Ethiopia
by paths that are more or less official. There are two routes that carry the
Flips-Flops: official routes, which include the payment of import duties and
taxes; and the hidden roads that smuggle Ethiopia’s sandals to Somaliland.