Offshoring, by John Urry

Tim Hall review an exploration of the placing overseas of work, tax, leisure, waste and security

August 21, 2014

Sociologist John Urry has long been engaged in the scrutiny of late-modern capitalism. His work is diverse in focus and includes pioneering discussions of tourism and contemporary culture, car-based and post-car mobilities and the sociologies of climate change. However, underlying this peripatetic gaze is an interest in a series of related themes, including movement, capital, connection, visibility and opacity, and their roles in shaping contemporary social, economic and environmental worlds.

He brings these interests together in Offshoring to consider the extent to which contemporary capitalism relies on the secrecy that offshore worlds offer to render its wasteful, illicit and morally questionable practices invisible. This goes beyond mere convenience. Urry argues that the multiple offshore worlds he explores are fundamental to the reproduction of the neoliberal global economy and the sustenance of an illusion of transparency. The excavation of the architectures that maintain facades of normality is an important task for the historian of the global moment.

Urry’s scope in Offshoring is broad, and takes in the offshoring of work, tax, leisure, energy, waste and security. His compelling central argument is that a range of actors – including wealthy individuals, criminals, corporations and governments – use, in empirically similar ways, the secrecy that lies beyond the horizon to evade fiscal, moral and ecological responsibilities. Equally persuasive are his discussions of the harms these practices generate and their roles in the reproduction of an increasingly unequal, damaged world.

However, Offshoring is a product not of sustained original research but rather a more journalistic process. Scooping up a plethora of secondary material, Urry skilfully synthesises his arguments and maps out the worlds he discusses. If he has visited the places he discusses, these trips leave no traces in his narrative. This book, ironically, offers a rather offshored rendition – a product, rather obviously, of a desk in Lancaster rather than field excursions to Bangladesh, Dubai or Delaware.

There are also problems with Urry’s sources. Wikipedia and the Daily Mail, unacceptable in a first-year essay, crop up regularly. While these weaken the empirical foundations of the arguments in places, they do not undermine them fully. Theory is present but lightly applied; Urry does not reach far down into the bodies of work he invokes. Theoretically rich readings of the offshore remain largely unexplored here.

This offshoring of knowledge production should come as no surprise. It is the product of the economies of academic labour and publishing. Researchers do not have the time to spend months in the field, painstakingly uncovering the micropractices of offshore worlds, and publishers have little interest in books that do not speak to the broadest constituencies. Laurie Taylor, in these pages, recently bemoaned the scarcity of original ethnography in the social sciences. Whatever the qualities of Offshoring, it confirms his view that academic journalism is trumping original research.

There is much to praise here. Offshoring shines a light on yet another of the shadowy realms upon which contemporary capitalist normalities rest. At the same time, it provokes a number of ambivalences. Perhaps it is sufficient that it begins to peel away the layers of secrecy surrounding offshore worlds. If it inspires richer and more engaged narratives, it will be a project justified.

Offshoring

By John Urry
Polity 200pp, £50.00, £14.99 and £9.99
ISBN 9780745664859, 664866 and 684628 (e-book)
Published 4 April 2014

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