Vol. 11 No. 11 (November 2001) pp. 523-524.
THE NETWORK INSIDE OUT by Annelise Riles. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 272 pp. Cloth $49.50.
ISBN: 0-472-11071-3. Paper $24.95. ISBN: 0-472-08832-7.
Reviewed by Jamie Elizabeth Jacobs, Department of Political Science, West Virginia University.
The association of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the international political arena is by now nearly
automatic in the minds of scholars of international relations and social movement theory. Likewise, those interested
in international or transnational law and human rights recognize the expanded role of non-state actors such as
transnational social movement organizations in pressing for change at both the national and international level.
In THE NETWORK INSIDE OUT Annelise Riles applies-and modifies--the methodology of anthropology to the network of
non-state actors that surround United Nations (UN) conferences to examine the building of transnational networks,
the patterns that emerge in organizations, and the differing levels of meaning held in NGO participation in global
Drawing on recent literature in international relations, anthropology, and international law, THE NETWORK INSIDE
OUT attempts a reexamination of the
meaning of participation in NGOs and global human rights meetings. Riles' field research involved fifteen months
of daily participation with non-state actors from Fiji as they prepared to attend the 1995 UN Conference on Women
(the "Beijing Conference"), as well as supplementary archival research. Although the context for this
book and the rich and varied literature Riles draws upon are quite broad, the primary interest of the author is
the re-thinking of the way such research is viewed to acknowledge the mutually constitutive nature of engaging
the subject. Thus despite the ambitious scope of the subject matter, in the end this book emphasizes the
methodological and theoretical value of "turning the network inside out" to break down the traditional
distinction between observer and observed in the study of transnational networks.
This is not to say that there are not intriguing conclusions about the way NGOs use transnational networks to both
constitute themselves and advocate for international law and rights. However, this piece most likely would appeal
to the specialized researcher in the arena of United Nations Conferences and international law or the participation
of non-state actors in human rights networks, particularly those that question the ability of scholars to remain
outside the constitutive process of international regime formation. Although it does not specifically engage the
literature on epistemic communities or regime formation, the book does overlap with the study of norms and their
transmission. In terms of applicability to literature in the area of law and courts, Riles' contribution is centered
in the anthropology of international law. Despite this focus, much of this text would be "lost" on those
not acquainted or interested with an examination of the methodology of anthropology, particularly political scientists
and students at all but the
Page 524 begins here
most advanced level. For example: "I have aimed to suggest that the anxieties that globalization causes anthropologists
might be better channeled into understanding the effectiveness of the forms of the global such as the Network-that
is, the effectiveness of form in generating the effect of effectiveness" (p. 172).
The strength of this book lies in the meticulous attention given to the participation of NGO actors, and how the
evolution of the culture of involvement in the networks surrounding the UN meetings echoes the patterns of culture
in their home society of Fiji. Riles draws extensively on the metaphor of the graphic design of the Fijian mat,
its cultural significance, patterning, and the ability of each piece to transmit information individually and collectively
as layers are piled upon one another. Within
the network NGOs function in much the same way as these mats. They have domestic political tasks, patterns of action
and documentation, and meaning as both an organization and part of a collective transnational movement. Riles'
view of the function of document production and patterning emphasizes the construction of reality through adherence
to standard forms of text, language, and symbolic representation. Although focused specifically on the metaphors
and patterns of Fijian culture, the conclusion Riles draws about pattern reproduction and legitimization are illustrative
for NGO networks of all kinds. That is, by communicating with each other NGOs are not only sharing information
about effectively advocating for laws, policies and increased participation, but also sharing the codes of legitimacy
identification as part of the network.
To those who have followed the evolution of the literature in new social movement theory and more recent work on
constructivism in international relations, Riles offers an interesting conclusion about the meaning of global networks
for participants, domestic politics, and international relations. She shows with great attention to detail how
the participation in and existence of transnational networks becomes self-justifying. By naming the network, and
engaging channels of communication,
actors-including academics-constitute and legitimize the network itself. Recent literature on transnational social
movements has attempted to go beyond the early hopefulness that seemed to place value on social movements for their
existence alone and focus on what kinds of linkages exist and what the networks actually DO. Riles brings this
view full circle by not only examining the concrete linkages and actions of NGO actors within the transnational
women's movement, but by delving into the value of self-justifying meaning that emerges for participants and the
In the end THE NETWORK INSIDE OUT is intriguing in its effort to re-conceptualize networks by including the academic
observer as an internal part of the system and emphasizing the process of network constitution though patterned
interaction. It is also a valuable examination of the inner workings of NGOs preparing for a major global event,
the opportunities and shortcomings they face in seeking concrete results from such an arena, and transmission of
language and symbols among groups seeking to further the rights of women in international law. However the highly
specialized focus and methodological emphasis make this effort an unlikely choice for a general course on international
law or judicial politics.
Copyright 2001 by the author, Jamie Elizabeth Jacobs.