Welcome to WashU: Q&A with Tim Bartley

Timothy Bartley's specializations include global political economy and governance, environment and sustainability standards, and work and labor standards. He joined the sociology department this fall as a professor. As part of our ongoing series highlighting new faculty, we asked Bartley about his forthcoming book, his transition to St. Louis, and what's next.

Timothy Bartley joined the sociology faculty in fall 2017. 

Your book Rules without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy will be released in February through Oxford University Press. What are some of the main issues you address in the book?

My book asks what happens when companies adopt standards for sustainability or fairness in their global supply chains. Over the past 2-3 decades, corporations like Nike, Apple, Ikea, The Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and many others have adopted a huge array of rules for their suppliers. These include rules that ensure decent working conditions in apparel or electronics factories and rules that promote sustainability in timber, paper, and furniture production, among many others. Companies do this to respond to bad publicity or pressure from activists and more generally to try to build a reputation for social and environmental responsibility. The result is a vast new system of private authority, in which companies, NGOs, and “multi-stakeholder” initiatives are working to set and enforce rules for the global economy. We typically think of governments as the main arbiter of rules and rights, but this is increasingly being taken on by the private sector. My book asks what the consequences are, using a comparison of fair labor and sustainable forestry standards to look beyond a single sector.

Rules without Rights focuses in part on China and Indonesia. How did you go about learning about local and global business practices in these places?

In essence, I interviewed a number of people working with companies, NGOs, and auditing organizations. I also read as much as I could of the existing research on land and labor in Indonesia and China and gained access to some other datasets. Then I worked to pull it all together into studies of how global standards are put into practice, how this is shaped by the domestic context, and what difference it might make.

I got started studying Indonesia and China in part because they’re important and fascinating places. They’re important places for the production of clothes, shoes, timber, and furniture—and fascinating places to examine the politics of land and labor. I also wanted to compare Indonesia’s relatively young democracy with China’s resilient authoritarian government—since scholars were starting to ask how global standards might work differently in different domestic contexts. I had been studying various standard-setting initiatives, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, Social Accountability International, and the Fair Labor Association, but what I really wanted to see was what the consequences of these standards were. So, using the contacts I had developed in my earlier research, as well as tips from other scholars, I started to get in touch with practitioners in the field in each location. I ultimately spent a semester in Guangzhou and made a number of shorter visits to Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bogor, and various other Indonesian cities. There are of course some things that won’t be revealed in interviews, but most practitioners were very candid about the complexities and shortcomings of their work.

When doing research for the book, did any of your findings surprise you?

The biggest surprise is that it seems to be easier to get certified to a high set of multi-stakeholder standards—such as those of the Forest Stewardship Council—in authoritarian China than in democratic Indonesia. This is perverse—and I think troubling if you want global standards to support domestic reforms. A democratic country like Indonesia would appear to be more amenable to standards that call for things like respecting the rights of forest-dwelling communities and workers seeking independent unions. Indeed, there are active social movements promoting these types of things in Indonesia in a way that would be unthinkable in China.

When a company seeks certification in Indonesia, there is often a long, contentious, and sometimes arduous process of addressing injustices—rarely resolving them, but making certification difficult. In China, so many conflicts are buried underneath the surface—since the government restricts social movements—that auditors can all too easily miss important problems. They end up certifying operations as sustainable and fair even when there have been serious land grabs and repression of workers’ rights. This is just one of many problems with corporate responsibility and private regulation that I describe in the book, but it’s a surprising one that I haven’t seen described elsewhere.

Both Rules without Rights and your previous book, Looking Beyond the Label, focus on global industries. When did you first become interested in world-wide businesses?

When I was in graduate school in the late 1990s, debates about globalization were raging. There were of course the protests at the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999, and there was a vibrant student anti-sweatshop movement that I was involved in. Not coincidentally, this was also the period when companies started adopting more standards for their global supply chains, covering issues of fairness, sustainability, and human rights. It was easy to get interested in global industries, especially since I was also reading exciting research in economic sociology, political sociology, and social movement studies. Looking Behind the Label focused on debates about “conscientious consumerism” and examined global standards for a range of products—including food, clothing, paper, and electronics. My co-authors and I wrote it in part to introduce students to these industries and their varied contexts. Rules without Rights looks more closely at fair labor and sustainable forestry in Indonesia and China, and it develops a new theory of transnational governance that I hope will be useful for scholars and practitioners.

What are some of the reasons you decided to join the sociology faculty at Washington University?

I’m thrilled that WashU has a sociology department again, and I’m excited to help it grow. It’s rare to have a chance to work together with amazing colleagues to rebuild a department. In addition, having worked at large public universities in the past—Ohio State and Indiana—it’s nice to be in a smaller, more personalized place, where it’s easier to get to know people across departments and schools. And of course I’m excited to work with WashU’s outstanding students.

What do you think of St. Louis so far?

St. Louis is a fascinating place for a sociologist. It’s obviously a highly unequal and strongly divided urban area, and I hope that my department’s emphasis on social and economic inequality can help make sense of those divides and help shape the future of the area. Having grown up in Central Illinois—as a Cardinals fan—it’s also great to be back closer to home. My wife and I are slowly getting a chance to explore more of the city—and are especially enjoying taking our 18-month old son to see the penguins at the zoo.

What kinds of questions or projects are you excited to tackle next?

I’m working on a new project on the politics and ethics of “big data.” It’s amazing how many little traces of our lives are being collected, stored, and analyzed by media, marketing, and technology companies. I’m part of an interdisciplinary team that’s starting to look at how companies are addressing the ethical implications of big data analytics, and I’m increasingly interested in what scholars are calling “algorithmic governance.” I’m also planning to follow-up on my research in Indonesia to look more closely at a transnational timber legality regime that I think has a great deal of promise for governing global industries—in a way that may be more effective than purely private, voluntary rules.

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