a book review: Friction

Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection is a book that addresses concerns about the negative impact of the universal trend of globalization, specifically in the case of the historical development of capitalist model in Kalimantan, West Indonesia, since the 1980s. Tsing seeks to provide a “patchwork ethnographic fieldwork” (Tsing, 2005: x) which frame her research on the different yet combined forces within global networks. Tsing chooses ethnography writing despite the challenges to put together narratives of conflicting issues. Through ethnographic fieldwork, she presents us a picture of different interest groups’ reactions and influences on issues with regard to a localized version of global connections.

Tsing argues that the local transition in the most obvious form of landscape deterioration is a cultural result of overdevelopment induced by capitalist encroachment. The effects of overindulgence in resource and labor exploitation from the Indonesian soil are not intended to benefit the life of the local communities who used to live and own their land, but rather the insatiable global calling for profits (Tsing, 2). This culture of joint profit making is produced by uneven global interactions, or “friction”, which captures the tension between opposed forces (Tsing, 4). The Indonesian landscape has been transformed under resource exploitation facilitated by joint powers both foreign and national/local. Historical process of the transformation informs us of the experiences of local people, who were the main victims and contributors to the natural and social change (Tsing, xi).

Friction indicates firstly the meaning of unevenness of encounters and further of social mobilization induced by it (Tsing, 2005: 4). In the unbalanced array of social forces that sustain profit making in the form of friction, the global standard, or one that is mandated by the Western corporate power has the most decisive control over the generative process and cultural production of geographically dispersed capitalism. The globalized mobilization of resources manifest in the form of “salvage accumulation”, referred to by Tsing as the conversion of non-capitalist generative forces into capitalist wealth under historical conditions that made capitalist expansion possible (Tsing, 2015). This process of highly manipulative and exploitative in harvesting off of the victimized and devalued historically colonized people. As a result, globalization has become the monopoly of the international cooperation initiated by the West. Historical conditions allowed for capitalist expansion. Colonial forces and controlled subjects worked together involvement in a power game and negotiation.

How did different forces come under the negotiation of differences and social mobilization?  Tsing maintains that technopolitics (21), a special system of expertise, techniques, and power, has been a major factor pushing the capitalism expansion into corners of Indonesian society previously ruled under Western colonial powers, whose residue of hegemony and management is still being perpetuated. The second post-Independence government in the 1990s prioritized economic development as the most important marker of modernity. Subsistence agriculture and forest conservation were transformed into sited for foreign trading in the rhetoric of privatization, which mobilized the massive population into sustained poverty and deficient education as submissive components for capitalism.

Why did the civilians make concessions in the friction controlled by the regime of continual state violence, corruption, and injustice? The analysis of economic practices in the anthropological perspective brings us into the cultural side of evaluation when making decisions of economic concerns (Chibnik, 2001: 36). Similar to the evaluation of choice-making by farmers in the case of early tillage using in Iowa (Chibnik, 63), the accumulative application of rat poison (Tsing, 45) was also an issue of manipulated widespread decision. Western powers have further inserted their technology and mode of production into Indonesia in the name of Green Revolution. The realization that imported pesticides and herbicides are effective and powerful in boosting highly commercialized crop yields, local landowners and farmers began to take preference in the expenses of chemicals and equipment over human labor. This irreversible change not only fostered the economy of scales devaluing the role and price of local labor, but also uprooted the people out of the custodianship of their own land into a submissive generative force for capitalism. It created the proliferation of developmental frontier and ecological imbalance.

Friction produced a remarked social and environmental change out of the conflict between environment conservation and resource extraction. In 1997, the government took back ancestral land of farmers in the Muslim-concentrated, development hotspot of Kalimantan, and redistributed it to commercial yielding of rice (Tsing, 23), accompanied with which was massive resettlement projects of rural population, especially those from Java to the farming frontiers of rice paddies and city construction sites. Originally intended to migrate to Kalimantan with promises of bringing goodwill to living conditions, the Javanese were exploited as a cheap and malleable source of labor for local and national levels of enterprises in conjunction with government. This system of exploitation was prolonged because of their lack of resources and power to fight back. Moreover, their experiences taught them how to cunningly fit in and developed into a scam which constantly perpetuated the participation of the lower tier of society. In joint efforts, governments, enterprises, and laborers all worked toward the New Order prioritizing development with a blind eye to activist outcries for sustainability and social justice.

The darkness of capitalism is disguised by the “economy of appearances” which maintains the grey area of legal management so the ones in power could extract more from the system (Tsing, 58). The New Order under Suharto in the 1970s was a politically-tainted fake promise that took advantage of and sabotaged civil hope and interests, and justified the historical entrenchment of exploitative actions by foreign industries and local politicians. The local geologist expertise was embroiled into the fatal scandal of Bre-X gold mining corporation, which manipulatively publicized the ambitious discovery of resources, rippling off to other mining ventures, managed to draw huge amounts of investment (Tsing, 56). Capitalist industrial efforts that straddle between the legal and illegal, and concern public and private spheres, such as excessive logging and mining ventures battle among government, corporations, and laborers, have made current and future accumulation of wealth unpredictable and flexible (Tsing, 75).

While I am not going to cover the entire book, Friction is a very complex and cohesive work of ethnography that captures the tensions and negotiations among different powers in the capitalist development of Indonesia.  The pieces of information and narratives sewn together are different from conventional mathematical methods aimed at quantifying economic notions and patterns of social components. Tsing’s fieldwork analysis of the particular historical period of capitalism in Indonesia is significant to understanding humanity in its current development.


Works Cited

Chibnik, M. (2011). Anthropology, Economics, and Choice. Dalas : University of Texas Press .

Tsing, A. (2015, March 30). Salvage Accumulation, or the Structural Effects of Capitalist Generativity. Gnerating Capitalism (/fieldsites/650-generating-capitalism).

Tsing, A. L. (2005). Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.



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