Last Updated on October 2, 2023 by Karl Thompson
The Flip Flop Trail is a relatively recent (2014) anthropological study by Professor Caroline Knowles, in which she explores the day to day lives of the people involved with the manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal of the humble ‘flip-flop’.
Professor Knowles has been following the flip-flop trail since at least 2006 (so that’s over ten years now!), and chose to study it because it’s the world’s most popular shoe: ‘everyone owns a pair of flip-flops’. I’d like to be smug and say I don’t at this point, but actually I do.
This has to be one of the best multi-layered resources available for introducing the basic idea of a ‘global commodity chain’ (1) a key aspect of economic globalisation, while simultaneously showing how deeply-complex such commodity chains are once we start trying to incorporated the study of the people actually involved with the process.
The web site (The Flip Flop Trail – I suggest you check it out!) offers a kind of ‘overview of insights’ into the many stages of the trail… from the manufacture of oil (‘globalisation is oil!’), to ‘plastic city’ in China where the flip flops are made, and then on to Ethiopia, the country with the largest demand for cheap footwear, where consumption and disposal are explored.
The web site doesn’t even touch on the UK, but as Professor Knowles, says, this is just one of many trails, and it’s pretty much inevitable that many of our flip flops have travelled parts of this same trail.
This is a useful resource to demonstrate the complexity of economic globalization, and to demonstrate the transformationalist view of globalization, as it shows the many and dynamic ways in which flip-flops are interwoven with local cultures.
However, students may like to consider whether this kind of analysis is really that useful…. it might be better to be more critical? To highlight the extent of inequality along certain parts of the trail, or maybe focus on developing a green-critique of the whole process, for example?
NB – I haven’t read the book, it’s only just stopped being prohibitively expensive, so it might be more critical than I’m expecting.
(1) I’m fairly sure, given her transformationalist leanings that Knowles uses the term ‘trail’ rather than ‘chain’ to denote her view that globalisation is precarious.
This material is relevant to the globalisation and global development module, an option within A-level sociology.
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