The social production of container space

A sizable body of popular and academic literature explores how containers have reconstituted the spaces through which they travel. However, the space within containers remains largely unexamined. This article leverages the concepts of “earmarking” and “pressure” to analyze the space within containers as socially produced rather than arithmetically defined. The analysis draws upon an ethnographic study of container freight from China to Africa. Earmarking describes the practice of attaching segments of shipment space to specific sets of social relations, which in turn defines appropriate usage of the space and bestows it with economic value. African traders earmark space in containers shipped from China as a way to manage their capital in volatile economic environments. Logistics agents apply physical pressure to goods as they are loaded in containers in South China. The practice—made possible by the material characteristics of the container—disrupts the relationship between the container’s measurements and the shipment volumes sold, and generates asymmetries across modes of calculating space. Application of pressure renders the relation between containers and goods unstable and shipments vulnerable during customs inspections. Opening the container space for analysis reveals how China’s successful logistics integration with Africa relies heavily on political tolerance for disorder and localized solutions.

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Volume 37 Issue 5

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