FP7-IDEAS-ERC World Seastems

Globalization, regionalization, urbanization: an analysis of the worldwide maritime network since the early 18th century

Being one of the oldest forms of human interaction, maritime flows are good indicators of economic circulation and a useful tool to "take the pulse of world trade and movement" (Ullman, 1949). We present this sector-specific approach to globalization and urban development at two complementary levels of analysis, global and local.

Dynamics of macro-structures and world regionalization

To date, the few existing empirical studies of global maritime flows remain rather static and focussed on specialized issues such as biological invasions (Kaluza et al., 2010), climatology (Herrera et al., 2003), container network structure, cost efficiency, and individual companies. While the ability of maritime flows to reveal wider economic and territorial structures has been argued by both geographers (Rodrigue et al., 1997) and historians (Lewis and Wigen, 1999), no study could have validated the materiality of such proposals. More likely in this perspective are studies of other global networks such as those shaped by airlines, multinational firms, trade, migration, knowledge, and communication flows (Van Hamme and Patris, 2011). Yet, the specificity of maritime flows is their early existence as long-distance transport and communication vectors. This sole fact justifies their high relevance to revisit the changing spatial pattern of global human interactions.

Early theories about the evolution of the so-called "world system" depict successive phases since the medieval times by which some regions of the world become dominant at the expense of others (Wallerstein, 1979; Braudel, 1985), the first being the "core" and the others the "peripheries". Although subsequent works have debated such ideas notably by studying longer time periods or focusing on new forms of global organizations, such as global commodity chains and production networks, a systematic analysis remains lacking. Notably, research on global production networks remain highly qualitative and "falls short of delivering a rigorous analysis that can give ‘the big picture’ of GPNs on a global scale" (Hess and Yeung, 2006: 1201). Studies of commodity chains and world city networks are more quantitative but often neglect the materiality of flows among locations by looking at advanced producer services (Leslie and Reimer, 1999; Hall and Hesse, 2012). The longstanding existence of maritime flows can thus offer strong evidence about the spatial patterns of trade dominance across the world (Vigarié, 1968; Vance, 1970) as well as on the impacts of cost and time fluctuations on such patterns (e.g. declining friction of distance).

The World Seastems project thus aims at providing a systematic analysis of the path-dependency of hierarchical structures affecting global interactions, by measuring and mapping the unequal integration, concentration, and connectivity of maritime flows across space and time as well as their changing geographic coverage. Main efforts will be put on trying to untangle the respective influence of territorial and network factors. Territorial factors are those outside the maritime and port industry such as market location and trade relations, which are in turn affected by major political and economic evolutions (e.g. rise and fall of empires and nations, industrial revolutions, wars and crises, production shifts). Network factors are more internal and better relate with technological progress (i.e. wind, steam, combustion, containerization, mega-carriers, intermodalism), freight costs and navigation constraints. The combination of those factors confer maritime flows a different role in shaping the world economy and the links among its components according to the context. Their distribution will reflect but also transgress or contradict major spatial structures and dynamics in terms of core-periphery and polycentric configurations. The project will also examine the potential to discuss future evolutions based on the improved knowledge of past and current patterns and the identification of "symptoms" by which maritime flows incorporate but also anticipate upcoming events.