Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Key Texts (Ch. 8-13)

I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to read about the growing pains of another field. Turns out, the aging process we’ve read about so far in Key Texts in Human Geography follow a path familiar to many disciplines: the early years of trying to define itself and its terms (Bunge), seeking legitimacy through the Scientific Method (Haggett, Harvey 1969), searching for more complex theoretical foundations (Relph, Tuan), the rediscovery of Marxism in the 1980s (Harvey 1982, Smith, Massey) followed by the inevitable backlash (Corbridge), and addressing the insufficient consideration of feminist perspectives in the literature and gender inequalities in the field (Women and Geography Study Group). Judging by the titles of next week’s readings (with words like “postmodern,” “exclusion” and “hybrid”), the field continues to progress along charted territory.

As Chris will focus on chapters 1-7, here a few words on 8-13 (admittedly it is difficult to summarize 6 summaries of major books in close to 250 words). The 4 Marxist readings in this collection try to get the field to confront the impact of power and economic disparity in geographic inquiry while critiquing the social scientific approach to contemporary research as perpetuating the status quo. First, Harvey extends Marx’s argument by arguing that excess capital is often tied up in new construction projects which defer a crisis over time (‘temporal fixes’) and in building new environments in less developed areas which spreads capital geographically (‘spatial fixes’). For Harvey, both of these are poor strategies for deferring economic crisis and “will no longer provide a safety valve for the system as a whole” (68). Smith then rejects the dualist concept of nature and argues that nature (as well as space) is ‘socially produced’. Further, he argues that understanding uneven development requires awareness of the “inherently contradictory tensions between geographical differentiation and equalization” (76). Massey aims to bridge the gap between ideographic—“the description of place” (89)—and the nomothetic—“the study of process” (89). She also argues that space is produced at the intersections of social and economic relations. Cosgrove provides our fourth Marxist reading by reconceptualizing ‘landscape’ as a ‘way of seeing’ the social order expressed in art. For him, landscapes should be read as texts, “closely examined to reveal not just the meanings that has been consciously put there by an artist, landowner or landscape designer” (102).

Geography and Gender was written by nine female geographers who wanted to call the field to task for ignoring questions of gender in their work and to note the scarcity of female geographers in academia. In the end, the authors argue “the goal of feminist geography is to change gender relations and that we can attain this goal if we fundamentally change our theoretical and empirical approaches to research” (93). Finally, Corbrdige criticized the leading Marxist geographers for practicing theoretical navel-gazing and failing to address empirical issues of development. For Corbridge, “[t]he privileging and over-emphasis on economistic explanation reinforced essentialist and dogmatic conclusions, which were far removed from ground reality” (111).

I apologize for the simplistic and perhaps essentializing reading of these texts, but I look forward to discussing them with you in greater detail on Wednesday.


Davita Veselenak said...

I think Brian did a great job of summarizing the phases and “growing pains” of the human geography—and for me too, it is fun to read about theoretical and methodological debates in various disciplines. From the first half of Key Texts, one thing that I found interesting was the debate between law-seeking versus descriptive perspectives on science. Chapter 2 does a pretty good job of describing these nomothetic and ideographic positions, respectively, though by the time we get to chapter 4 we learn, “quantitative work remains a strong stand within the discipline . . . . But much of that work has increasingly distanced itself from its positivist foundations—particularly with the regard for the search for law-like statements” (p. 30). Notable is the fact that Massey’s attempt to bridge the nomothetic—ideographic divide in Spatial Divisions of Labor was a source of criticism. This law-seeking versus description issue seems to align with our favorite (or least favorite) mass comm debate, quantitative versus qualitative approaches to research.

As described in chapter 8, Harvey’s The Limits to Capital too demonstrates another interesting issue—the “internalist” approach to change, with its focus on debate within a discipline, and the “externalist” approach, which situates research in wider social contexts. Motivation and research agenda seem to be a contentious isssue, though some, I’m sure, do not even consider it up for debate.

Jeremy White said...

I found it interesting that Geography and Gender was written explicitly for an undergraduate audience. I suppose this could have been a risky endeavor, opening the door for ‘higher’ academic criticism. However, access to this work at the undergraduate level may have ignited the interest of future geographers, who could have pursued other disciplines had they not been made aware of emerging gender studies within geography.