- The Network Inside Out
It feels terribly redundant trying to review a book that concludes that the present conditions of globalization and transnationalism have left no further room for analysis to expand (184 ). To whit: "The insights of anthropological studies of globalization often seem oddly anticipated by the subjects of transnational ethnographic enquiry themselves. . . . Anthropological analysis is reduced to restatement, to repetition, to generating reflexive modernity's 'doubles'" (5 ).
This award-winning ethnography attempts to resist the temptations of an anthropology struggling to come to terms with familiar, almost universal phenomena (such as bureaucratic and institutional practices) and subjects that are themselves engaged in analysis that mirrors that of social scientists. "Thick description" then becomes appropriate only in ethnographies of the unfamiliar (an increasingly scarce commodity). For author Annelise Riles, "when phenomena are too well known to be described, what is needed is not greater detail but a selective erasure thereof, as, for example, the abstractions of modern art have brought modernity itself into view" (18 ).
This review endeavors to honor the content of the form and the form of the content at hand by focusing on the most salient aspects of the text rather than attempting to provide an exhaustive account of it.
Riles is an associate professor at Northwestern School of Law and a research fellow with the American Bar Association. Based on fifteen months of fieldwork in Fiji and with Fiji nongovernmental organizations ( NGOs) at international meetings between 1994 and 1995, her book was awarded the Certificate of Merit of the American Society for International Law in 2001. She frames her interdisciplinary interests in the following terms:
"How I might make the ending points of legal knowledge—the puzzles, frustrations, facts, and commitments the theory and practice of law entailed—beginning points for anthropological reflection and vice versa" (xii).
"Yet what is one to make of a subject, such as the international institutional practices considered in this book, that one encounters already analyzed? How might one transform this kind of ending into a beginning point of one's own?" (xiv)
Riles's beginning point is "the Network," a concept that she traces back to J A Barnes's founding of social network analysis in 1954, and one that subsequently influenced the anthropology of Gregory Bateson and the fields of cybernetics and "cyborgology" (62 ). For Riles, "the Network" is "a set of institutions, knowledge practices, and artifacts thereof that internally generate the effects of their own reality by reflecting on themselves. . . . Indeed, for those concerned with the intersection of modernist [End Page 443] epistemologies and liberal political philosophies, the Network offers a poignant case study of institutionalized utopianism, an ambition for political change through communication and information exchange, of universalism after cultural relativism and the 'incredulity toward the metanarrative' ([Jean-François] Lyotard [The Postmodern Condition,] 1984 ). In the Beijing Conference and the networks it spawned, we have an opportunity to explore one highly reflexive elaboration of a modernist epistemology and radical neoliberal political vision, albeit one defined by its refusal of particularity, that is, by its own universalizing claims" (3 ).
In The Network Inside Out, Riles has produced what is perhaps the first-ever ethnography of women's nongovernmental organizations in Fiji, and the first-ever study to use the case of a rural part-European family community in Fiji for comparative purposes. What makes both groups seem familiar is their simultaneous deployment of and enunciation by discourses of modernity. Women's organizations—such as (the now-defunct) PAWORNET (Pacific Women's Regional Information/Communication Network), Women in Politics, National Council of Women, and others in Fiji—have recourse (however superficial) to the tools of social science analysis, take a legalistic approach to language, and pay inordinate attention to issues of design and aesthetics in the organization of information for the purported purpose of its infinite (and ultimately liberating) expansion.
In contrast, Riles finds that members of the Whippy family (descendants of early American settler...