Between Global and Local: Marginality and Marginal Regions in the Context of Globalization and Deregulation by Walter Leimgruber. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004. xv + 321pp. US$89.95, £45.00. ISBN 0-7546-3155-9.
Walter Leimgruber's book on marginality has grown out of the work of the International Geographical Union's Commission on Evolving Issues in Geographical Marginality, as well as seminars at the Department of Geography at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he has been working for many years. It is a bold and very personal attempt to grasp the nature of marginality at different scales and in various times and spaces, exploring how this ties in with the wider trends of globalization and deregulation. It is a call for marginality to be taken seriously both as a notion and as a theme for research, bearing in mind that its multifaceted nature precludes one simple definition (p 37). Marginality is not, he writes, simply the result of these trends, but rather they “have simply reinforced what is as old as human history” (p 18). This state of affairs requires addressing the topic seriously, to avoid “the exploitation of a marginal situation by the powerful, and this on all levels” (p 282). In an academic world increasingly aware of the hegemonic position of Anglo-American scholarship, the publication in English of a book providing insight into an alternative regional geography is commendable and contributes to challenging another perverse form of marginality.
Leimgruber tackles his ambitious program as though painting a mural scene by scene, portrait by portrait, binding sections and chapters together to achieve his aim of providing a complete overview of current research, systematically and from all angles. This includes mentioning a number of different policy tools for reducing disparities between regions, as well as a clear review of regional policies for mountain areas in Switzerland and beyond (pp 46 and 244–250). Marginality as a notion therefore emerges mainly in its various effects on disparities between regions, countries, and continents, and, despite an attempt at nuance, some of these distinctions appear rather coarse, for instance within the global North–South divide figure (p 17) that reappears in several chapters.
Leimgruber quotes from a wide body of literature in at least 4 languages, including the works of such diverse authors as Ulrich Beck, Doreen Massey, Jean Piaget, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Raffestin and Ian Simmons, to quote but a few, as well as numerous reports and grey literature published by UNESCO, UNDP, WTO and nongovernmental organizations. Having laid out his conceptual framework, among others, distinguishing marginality from periphery, he addresses economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects of marginalization in a series of chapters. He concludes the book by tentatively exploring policy responses and tools for change, listening to the many voices of the marginalized themselves calling for increased participation mainly within nongovernmental organizations. He also stresses the state's role of managing regulation to decrease disparities at various scales.
This book is written from a very personal standpoint, driven by a sincere and laudable desire for social change. Leimgruber clearly states his position and personal background, including his ethical inspiration rooted in Christianity, and often uses illustrations and examples to make his point. “It is cynical,” he writes, “to pretend that marginality has always been part of history and will have to continue like that into the future. To think in this way means to deprive people of all hope to step out of a hopeless situation. It is imperative to fight marginality even if we know that we cannot eradicate it” (p 18).
Opposing complacency with verve, Leimgruber takes his readers on a dizzying tour of examples ranging from angels and spirituality (p 66) to limits to growth (p 66), from legal instruments in the Alps (p 93) to the color of cows (p 115), from the Roma (p 162) to human development in Africa (p 167), or from the general design of biosphere reserves (p 213) to farming practices in Switzerland (p 221). His aim of demonstrating how many themes can be connected to the concept of marginality is at times obscured by the sheer array of examples that are often presented in quick succession and with little transition, and inevitably, are reduced to little more than invocations. It is in the longer sections, for instance in the lengthier chapter on regional disparities within Switzerland (p 93–116) that Leimgruber demonstrates the full grasp of his subject, offering a regional description in the grand tradition of the genre. Exploring how it is not environmental factors that create marginality, but rather “the way human agents operate under certain circumstances” (p 95), he suggests that because “marginality is a normative phenomenon, defined from a particular perspective (…) it is perceived a negative attribute that has to be repaired” (p 116). This, he writes, leads to fixes where the only alternative offered is a highly material, secular and individualistic set of values linked to trade deregulation and the propagation of a single cultural standard. Leimgruber agrees with the increasing demand for better alternatives by what he dubs “the younger generation” (p 259), and calls for a more sensitive approach that takes into account local cultures and values: any solution must somehow make use of the power of the marginalized themselves.
The result of this tour-de-force, however, is at times problematic. Transforming regional description into an agenda for change is hardly straightforward, and is fraught with both theoretical and political difficulties, such as the risk of propagating a romanticism of difference rooted in reified categories, as he does in Chapter 6 when discussing ethnic difference, culture and society. He thus unwittingly further marginalizes the people he seeks to empower by considering them ‘from the outside,’ conjuring up an Us and Them framework, although he commendably does recognize the danger of this in his conclusion: “Do marginal regions (more precisely: their inhabitants) have the same idea of marginal as the outsiders who define it?” (p 280). This question is indeed crucial and far from trivial. Furthermore, the choice to illustrate the book throughout with an array of empirical examples leads to a dilution of the main ideas. This is perhaps where the origin of the book does it disservice. While it might be an inspiring manifesto for further research aimed at students in a classroom struggling to construct their own research proposals on more focused topics, it somewhat fails to convince as a coherent theoretical book. Indeed it is not entirely clear who the expected audience is. The author's obvious ability to grasp the subtleties of marginality in individual cases—in the Swiss Alps, particularly—is his great strength. Nonetheless, the reader is left with a feeling of frustration that a book that promises so much and is so obviously and keenly sincere gets lost in a desire to say it all. That said, it does offer a stimulating contribution, if only by providing a proposal that will inevitably provoke debate.