Globalization and Latin American Geography: Linking Scales of Analysis
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Globalization and Latin American Geography:
Linking Scales of Analysis

This special issue of the Journal builds on a longstanding – dare we say essential– aspect of Latin American geography: field work. The six papers herein aim to provide some clarity to the huge conceptual and methodological gap behind economic, political, and cultural globalization. Allied disciplines often approach globalization with broad strokes in attempts to build normative models and theoretical frameworks that explain social change. Yet, as David Keeling (2004) argued in an earlier issue of this Journal, globalization has become a buzzword for structural change. Consequently, how do we approach a concept that has entered common parlance to such an extent that it has come to mean virtually all things to all people?

Geographers have long grappled with "modernization," "development," "underdevelopment," "Europeanization," and a variety of issues that hint at some aspects of rapid transformation fostered by the dual forces of policy and technology (direct contracting with small-scale horticultural producers in Mexico, blogs in Bolivia, remittances in rural areas of Mexico, on-line subcontracting in Argentina, medical tourism along the U.S.-Mexico border, the proliferation of supermarket chains throughout Latin America). An essential component of these new social and economic forms in Latin America has been the rise of neoliberalism and attendant ways in which the state reconfigures its role in social and economic life. However, in contrast to the myopic notion of some inexorable, exogenous, and homogenizing force that operates uniformly at all scales in all places, we concur with scholars such as Radcliffe (2005) and Henderson et al. (2002), who assert that the structural changes wrought by the processes of globalization are mediated by local, place-specific social relations. Consequently, there are profound implications for small-scale agriculture, urban work, social engagement, and regional political alliances based on location and ethnicity.

The essays in this special issue grapple with these and related debates. Four articles focus on Mexico and two on South America. The first contribution by Gabriel Judkins explores the role of the U.S.-Mexico border in facilitating and constraining spatial interaction in the post-NAFTA era. "Persistence of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Expansion of Medical Tourism amid Trade Liberalization" demonstrates that actors on both sides of the border purposely exploit asymmetries in political-economic relations and administrative discontinuities in order to maintain cross-border disparities in the provision of medical services and pharmaceuticals. In spite of NAFTA, local business associations in Los Algodones Mexico, and institutional frameworks on both sides of the border (sanitary regulations, border enforcement, licensing requirements) undermine free trade and serve to reinforce the border as a social and economic barrier. Consequently, Judkins' research reveals that globalization, as manifested by NAFTA, has been a highly differentiated process, unifying certain economic sectors across the border while at the same time failing to [End Page 7] lead to any significant changes in other sectors covered by the agreement. Furthermore, the case study of the medical tourism industry in Los Algodones confirms the continued vitality of the border region and contradicts the proponents of strong globalization, who assert the increasing irrelevance of international borders and the end of geography.

The next contribution by John Harner examines how the expansion of large supermarket chains is changing economic and cultural practices in Guadalajara. In "Globalization of Food Retailing in Guadalajara, Mexico: Changes in Access Equity and Social Engagement", Harner explores how the role of traditional outlets – public markets and weekly street markets (tianguis) – has changed since the 1990s. In recent years, supermarkets have become direct competitors with these traditional venues; although the wide distribution of markets has kept access easy and customers loyal, large supermarket chains can offer lower costs, especially in dry goods, and the traditional retailers have lost sales. Not surprisingly, economic globalization – with its emphasis on economies of scale and minimal warehousing and inventory costs – makes mom-and-pop retailers less price competitive. However, the traditional venues offer an advantage in fresh produce and vernacular tastes that the big-box stores do not readily address. Harner constructs a series of accessibility indices to assess the distribution of modern and traditional food retailing by income levels...