Clearing house for critical research

January 10, 1997

Globalisation - the movement to trans-state relations is being tracked by a new web site, John Davies reports

Peter Taylor is accustomed to crossing borders. He was a member of an international commission on the social sciences that recommended that the boundaries between disciplines such as history, politics, sociology and anthropology might be dissolved or redrawn.

Taylor was the only British academic on the commission, which was funded by the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian foundation and reported last year. In his own discipline of geography it is globalisation - the disappearance of borders, to put it another way - that is one of his main concerns.

So it is perhaps no surprise that he is the driving force behind a new initiative at Loughborough University, where he moved to become professor of geography in 1995 - an initiative whose aim is to collect information "that is not defined by political boundaries" and put it on the World Wide Web.

Under the motto "Beyond state-istics" and a logo representing a map of Antarctica, the only continent without state boundaries, the Global Observatory, as the web site is called, hopes to fill a gap.

"Globalisation is supposedly transcending states, yet information is still collected state by state, even if it ends up in a United Nations annual handbook," says Professor Taylor, who has been helped in setting up the observatory by David Walker, a senior lecturer in his department. If, for instance, one is looking at one of Professor Taylor's particular interests, the connections between "global cities" such as London, Tokyo and New York, there is a lot missing. "We know a lot about relations between Britain and France, for instance, but not about relations between London and Paris. There are airline schedules and train timetables but not much else," he observes.

"Data deficiency" is one of the premises on which the Global Observatory is based, and which it hopes to remedy. The initial premise, spelled out on its introductory home page, is that globalisation is a reality; that "contemporary social change is proceeding at an unprecedented rate and key processes behind it are operating at a global scale and are fundamentally trans-state in nature."

"Much of the literature is about whether it (globalisation) exists," says Professor Taylor. "There is a strong version which effectively says the global is dominating, and it's very fatalistic - there's not much you can do about it except ride the wave, as it were. But there are a whole series of people who are looking at resistances and adaptions. The contest is between Americanisation or consumerisation and the clear resistances to that. I'm not just thinking of France and its policies on entertainment and so on, but all the nationalisms there are - all these people calling out anti-American slogans wearing blue jeans. That's the paradox of it, isn't it?" There is a third premise behind the Loughborough venture: the "organisation lacuna" that Professor Taylor and his colleagues detect. In other words there is a need for somebody or some institution to pull together what is already known about globalisation trends. To quote the relevant Global Observatory page: "There has been no centre acting as a clearing house for the critical research issues that arise from the mismatch between a trans-state world and state-based data . . . Our mission is to provide a service to the worldwide social science community as the centre with information about access to trans-state data."

This clearing-house function seems the most apparent at the current stage in the Global Observatory's development. Call up its pages on economic refugees and you'll find a directory of the relevant web sites - from a Michigan State University migrant labour database to University College London's migration research unit - a bibliography and a list of key texts. Whatever page you're on will have "linked topic" signposts to guide you elsewhere. As David Robinson, the research assistant who was responsible for the nuts and bolts of the project's first six months, puts it: "For any page that anyone might enter through using a web search tool, we've ensured there's always a way to move on."

This wasn't always the case: when some 40-plus users from all over the world accessed the observatory's economic refugees page on one day in July - Professor Robinson still isn't sure why - there weren't the necessary cross-references. "If this page was the first thing they saw," says Professor Robinson, "they'd go 'What is this thing, why am I in here?' There was no obvious link anywhere. So I've made sure every single page now has a link."

Which is where it will also come in handy for students. As an experiment, first-year geography students at Loughborough were introduced to the observatory and encouraged to use it as a resource in the various areas where globalisation is an issue. Now the university has provided funds for a research assistant to develop the observatory as a teaching resource.

Nevertheless, the Global Observatory is still more a building site than a fully formed edifice. Some of its pages are "rather empty", Professor Taylor admits: "The environmental side is less developed than some of the others."

While his ultimate ambition is to have a "web of topics" on globalisation issues from deforestation to multinational media corporations, "raw" data are not what you'll find. After the six months' initial funding provided by Loughborough ran out development slowed. "Peter and I will be updating the pages in the odd half-hour that we have,"Professor Walker says: "Some of the people we've applied to for further funding say we can't really call a data collecting exercise a research project. "So perhaps the next step is to spin a research project off."

The observatory is at

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