by Carolyn Nordstrom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 256pp. Cloth $60.00/£35.00. ISBN: 9780520250956. Paperback. $22.95/£13.50. ISBN: 9780520250963.

Reviewed by Mitzi Dorland, Institute for Law and Society, New York University. Email: mmd322 [at]


Combining the narrative styles and techniques of the travel memoir, the journalistic exposé, and the scholarly ethnography, Carolyn Nordstrom has produced in GLOBAL OUTLAWS: CRIME, MONEY, AND POWER IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD a uniquely inspired and insightful study of the world of extralegal commerce in our global economy, those who have a hand in it, and how. Wildly ambitious in scope and method, GLOBAL OUTLAWS follows the placeless “flow” of extralegal trade across four continents, from the local to the global, revising traditional conceptions of the economy to fit twenty-first century realities, while exploring the question of who the “criminals” really are in this globalized economy when the line between legality and illegality is often blurred and when extralegal profiteering may also bring positive development and enable survival.

Nordstrom is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several powerful ethnographies conducted on the front-lines of war, including, most recently, SHADOWS OF WAR: VIOLENCE, POWER, AND INTERNATIONAL PROFITEERING IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY (2004). The funding for the fieldwork behind GLOBAL OUTLAWS also has a distinguished pedigree. As Nordstrom notes in the Acknowledgments, her three years of global research and ambitious efforts to write “a new kind of ethnography that can convey the roiling complex global realities of the twenty-first century” were funded by fellowships from both the Guggenheim and the MacArthur Foundations. Coinciding with this aim of creating a “new kind of ethnography,” GLOBAL OUTLAWS is neither framed nor presented in a conventional academic form, and the style and format of the final product seem to speak to an aim beyond the traditional academy. As Nordstrom explains in the Preface, the book is “meant to be experiential as well as academic,” an “experiment with creating a genre of creative academic nonfiction.”

With these goals in mind, Nordstrom shares with us in accessible and engaging, and often poetic, prose a personal journey through Africa, Europe, Asia, and the United States, “exploring on foot the pathways of global crime” and the “invisible (illegal) realities and placeless hyper-placed global flows” of our twenty-first century global economy. These “invisible” realities of extralegal trade – the illegal, illicit, informal; undeclared, unregistered, unregulated – are elucidated and brought to life by the diverse group of players she encounters along the way, from the Angolan war [*735] orphan selling Marlboros on the streets of a small town to the chief financial officer of a well-known multinational corporation describing the “vast non-formal” that is “a fact of all business” but knowingly kept invisible. Nordstrom intersperses her description of this journey and far-reaching interviews of actors at all levels of involvement with the intellectual insight and scholarly commentary that give her story a clear academic bent, while not sending it too far into the abstract.

GLOBAL OUTLAWS is part of the UC Press California Series in Public Anthropology, which seeks to “continue[] anthropology’s commitment to being an ethnographic witness, to describing, in human terms, how life is lived beyond the borders of many readers’ experiences,” while “add[ing] a commitment, through ethnography, to reframing the terms of public debate – transforming received, accepted understandings of social issues with new insights, new framings.”

GLOBAL OUTLAWS fits well into this rubric, as Nordstrom’s aim in the book seems both descriptive and revisionist. At the first level, in the vein of Roscoe Pound’s famous distinction between “law in the books” and “law in action,” Nordstrom is pointing to a gap between the classical or “textbook” ways of thinking about economies, measuring only the formal, the legal, the regulated – the business “on the books,” if you will – and the full extent of commerce that actually flows through our globalized economy, both legal and extra-legal, formal and informal – our global economy “in action.” So, in the simplest sense, Nordstrom is advocating an alternative way of thinking about the economy, one that is much more complicated, and perhaps ambiguous, than the traditional or textbook approaches, but which is meant to represent more accurately the realities of the twenty-first century. As Nordstrom aptly posits, “The sum total of all extra-legal activities represents a significant part of the world’s economy and politics” (p.xvi). The illegal, illicit, informal “aren’t the exceptions to the rule of economy. They are the economy” (p.24).

At the next level, Nordstrom is exploring the qualities and intricacies of the world of the extra-legal – “the actual life of the extra-legal: who is doing what, how, and why” (p.xvii) – and questioning the impact of this world on the economy as a whole and the links between its networks, money, and power. But the picture is complicated even further than this, because the flow of trade cannot so easily be categorized or separated dichotomously into the “legal” and the “illegal,” the “formal” and the “informal.” Things are not so black and white. Rather, Nordstrom tells us, one flows into the other, and back again, and it’s not so clear where one ends and the next begins or where the line between the two really falls. Really, Nordstrom argues, despite our at least formal pretensions otherwise, the illegal and informal pervade all. “[E]conomics is a dance of the il/legal: a pas de deux,” she tells us. “But talk to many formal economic and political analysts, and you find that these complex extra-state realities fade into incomprehensibility” (p.206).

Along the way, Nordstrom uses her foray into the world of the extra-legal to complicate our conceptions of the [*736] “criminal” and the “illegal” act, pressing us to question who the “criminals” in our global economy really are, and why. Why are certain illegalities or informalities treated as “criminal,” while others are not? Is there really such a clear line between criminal and non-criminal acts? And how should we think about technically “criminal” activities that also produce something of value? The extra-legal profiteer who simultaneously provides access to essential goods largely unavailable through formal, legal channels? Nordstrom adds even another layer to these issues by bringing in the question of power, exploring its links to finance and the world of the extra-legal.

Despite this quite abstract, “invisible,” and “placeless” subject of study, what Nordstrom actually produces in GLOBAL OUTLAWS is very grounded. This is largely attributable, I think, to two things. First, to Nordstrom’s superb ethnographic fieldwork, covering vast ground and reaching out across the global web of the extra-legal to pull in the knowledge and experiences of a wide range of actors from all walks of life and levels of involvement. And second, to her initial grounding of the subject in the local and the national, before spiraling out to the international and then global levels. Nordstrom aptly describes this approach as an “expanding funnel.”

The expanding funnel is also the book’s main organizing principle: “each chapter is devoted to a site along a continuum from the decidedly local to the vast transnational interrelationships defining the global market” (p.xix). The book’s twenty short chapters are grouped and ordered in four larger sections that follow this funnel design, expanding from “National” to “International” to “Global,” and then concluding with “Home.” The Preface describes this model of progression and the logic behind it and sets out a blueprint for what follows in the rest of the book.

In the first section, “National,” Nordstrom explores how they “do business” in Angola, ethnographically investigating and documenting the on-the-ground reality of estimates from organizations like the United Nations that 90% of Angola’s transactions and exchanges in the late 1990s occurred outside of the formal economy. Using her fieldwork in Angola, Nordstrom describes the country’s booming informal economy, the way it really “works” on the ground, and the various actors who take advantage of or profit from it while simultaneously, in many cases, contributing to the country’s development. Her story here begins with a war orphan selling Marlboros on a dusty street, whom she connects to the shop owner who fronts him the cigarettes; she moves on up the line of economic exchange all the way to the Gov’nor and the military, elucidating the connections between financial power and political power, the issues these raise, and their practical implications. This was my favorite of the book’s four sections, but I do think it would have benefited from at least a short passage of historical or background information on Angola for readers who are not familiar with the country’s recent past. This information would better contextualize the story and set the stage for what unfolds.

Nordstrom moves from the national to the international in the second section of the book, exploring the border posts [*737] “where truckers and global supermarkets meet” and providing the first of two lessons on the dynamics and realities of money-laundering. The “camaraderie and dollars” shared by the truckers, Nordstrom finds, are the key to why unregulated flows “work” in this setting, where goods flow across national borders.

In the book’s third, and longest, section, we move to the global. Noting that more than 90% of world trade is conducted by the international shipping industry, Nordstrom explores the what, why, and how of intercontinental smuggling and the global flow of illegal goods. Visits to both Cape Town’s port and the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the largest port in Europe and one of the largest in the world, provide fascinating material and insight. Some of the interviews in this section are also particularly illuminating, from a ship captain describing ship crews’ customary “skim-offs” from the fuel charges at port, to the Goffman-inspired insights of a Scotland Yard detective on how people keep a sense of integrity while engaging in illegal behavior. But overall, this section just does not cohere as well as the others, or have the same flow. Chapters on the “cultures of criminals” and the “cultures of cops” seem ill-named and out of place, and the second chapter on money laundering seems to spring up unannounced with no transitions or ties to what immediately precedes or follows it. And in the last chapter of the section, as well the first chapter of the fourth (and last) section of the book, Nordstrom turns to a new theme – the illusion of security in a post-9/11 world – that felt, for me, like it had come out of a different book, throwing off the overarching thread or logic I had tried to follow elsewhere. While there are surely ways to tie this theme in (for instance, as demonstrating another implication of our having, but not recognizing, such a vast system of extra-legal commerce), these connections are not made for us, and ending on this theme without fleshing out these connections creates a disconnect, I think, with the first half of the book and fails to satisfactorily tie together the various issues and themes raised throughout.

Overall, I did appreciate Nordstrom’s general approach to structuring the book. Focusing first on a local site and then following the links of trade from the local to the global, rather than jumping headlong into the intercontinental flow, both makes sense conceptually and gives the subject a more grounded and personal feel. Each chapter also begins with a photo – the war orphan selling cigarettes on an African street; truck drivers taking a break at a border post; Nordstrom herself on a trans-Atlantic voyage as “human cargo” – bringing a human face or local landscape to many levels of her story. However, the transitions between chapters are sometimes weak or non-existent, leaving the reader to adjust to abrupt shifts in subject matter and tone, and the many further divisions within the chapters themselves (although the headings are colorful and informative) can sometimes detract from the flow of the story and analysis. I think the book might have benefited from a slightly less staccato presentation, or at least smoother transitions between topics and levels of analysis.

Ultimately, I think Nordstrom was much more successful in raising important issues and posing important questions in [*738] a way that makes them real for the reader – contextualizing what can be, on their own, very abstract ideas with concrete examples and experience, using vivid imagery and a highly engaging narrative – than in ultimately tying together all of the issues she raises and leaving the reader with any firm conclusions or clear answers. But despite any dissatisfaction with the latter, I would still wholeheartedly recommend GLOBAL OUTLAWS for an undergraduate course exploring crime, the global economy, or globalization. I expect that Nordstrom’s eloquent prose and the imagery brought to mind by her words will hold the attention of undergraduates in a way that many traditional academic texts might not. And by illuminating the vast world of the extra-legal and the ways in which it is interwoven with the legal or formal, Nordstrom has made an important contribution toward rethinking and complicating classical views of economies and how to study them, while challenging us to rethink and complicate our reflexive image of “crime” and the “criminal.”


© Copyright 2008 by the author, Mitzi Dorland.