Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Virtual Webs…, Downey

In Virtual Webs, Physical Technologies, and Hidden Workers: The Spaces of Labor in Information Internetworks, Downey attempts to demystify “cyberspace” in two primary manners: to provide a historical context for the World Wide Web by comparing it to the century-old internetwork of telegraph, telephone and postal mail, and to make a plea for ethnographic and geographic accounts of the hidden labor force in the technology industry.

For his first task, Downey examines the “digital information internetwork” (aka the Internet, which combines telephone, computer, and radio/tv) in relation to the “analog information internetwork” (which combines the three communication media mentioned previously). Both of these internetworks are based on decentralized networks that operate heterogeneously with a shared protocol, and both rely on institutional managers, internetwork customers, and production laborers to operate. And in terms of human geography and the production of space and time, “both used new socially constructed technologies to create new socially constructed spatialities” (217).

Downey is especially interested in what he terms laborers of boundary work, those “who maintain the links, transform the content, and police the boundaries between those networks” (225). Looking at both of these internetworks, Downey questions whether the “complexity of boundary work [has] increased along with the complexity of the material technology?” (226) In his view, the best way too answer this question is by engaging with ethnography that is grounded in history and geography. In particular, he calls for ethnographic research on help desk workers who are situated precariously as “simultaneously hidden and revealed, often physically located in a remote site…yet virtually the first point of contact between company and consumer” (231).

In closing, Downey concedes that he cares little whether the reader buys his argument about the two internetworks, but hopes this framework has led the reader to “reconceptualiz[e] old technological phenomenon in a new way” (234) and to recognize the physical presence of human laborers that create and maintain the world of cyberspace. Maybe Cisco is right; maybe it is the human network.

Optional reading summary, Marvin

If Communication and Empire is heavy on the details but a bit dry, then one of the optional readings for this week, Carolyn Marvin’s (1988) “Annihilating Space, Time, and Difference: Experiments in Cultural Homogenization” is loquacious in a more colorful way, giving a rich account of the relationship between late nineteenth century technologies and the cross-cultural contact they facilitated, as well as general innovations in uses of “new media.”

Marvin weaves together accounts of the emerging technologies such as the telephone, and wireless radio from popular scientific journals, newspapers, and even fiction of the late nineteenth century. In this way, it is a nice account of some of the popular reaction to new electrical technologies (something we don’t get a sense of from an industry-based approach like Winseck and Pike’s).

Much of the chapter is devoted to the idea that instantaneous electronic communication was accompanied by a kind of “cognitive imperialism” (p. 193) wherein Anglo-Saxon innovators placed themselves at center of the moral universe, able to reach out to the Other, in a universally comprehensible language. Marvin devotes much time to the idea that cross-cultural communication lead some to hold visions of an earth with a homogeneous population.

Marvin also discusses specific technologies such as the phonograph, which allowed for preservation and brought to light the issue of control of culture. For example, with the phonograph, there were fears a recording might not be a preservation of the most desirable version of history.

The author gives interesting cases of the telephone used as a “theatrophone,” a way of transmitting live entertainment such as opera, theater, and sporting events via wireless telegraphy. Wireless telegraphy also allowed a system of electronic news, a prime example the reporting of presidential election returns over telephone lines which became an increasingly coordinated system over time.

An interesting point Marvin makes is that occasional home broadcasts for entertainment and news had not yet arrived at the idea of mass media “programming” as we think of it today. She does present an exceptional case of a Hungarian radio station which starting in 1883 featured daily programming and news for an elite audience, but that model when imitated in the U.S. ultimately failed. Overall, Marvin’s is an interesting account of effects of and forecasts for technology as the “mass audience” was just starting to become a possibility.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Communication and Empire, Part II

I find this book getting more dense as I progress through it, and my ability to distinguish company from company and robber baron from robber baron is clearly slipping. That said, some thoughts . . .

Chapter 6 tells us that the cost of cable transmission eventually became too much to bear. Spurred, in part at least, by the Canadians and the news agencies, the cable companies eventually agreed to a reduced-rate system for off-peak hours. (Think "free nights and weekends," all you cell phone junkies.") But what looked like a good deal eventually showed itself to be another coup for the cable companies. Even the reduced rates were quite high, and the requirement for normal language prevented the use of code to reduce the per-message cost. Meanwhile, the Cable-as-Empire game played out differently in two different arenas. In South America, where Americans worried that European monopolies were helping to foster negative views of the good ol' US of A, the Western Telegraph Company began to emerge as the dominate player. At the same time in Asia, Japan was throwing off (at least some of) the imperialist yoke by laying its own cable to Russia, Korea, Taiwan and China. (It is probably not coincidence that Japan already had taken possession of Korea and Taiwan, was about to wreck most of the Russian Pacific navy, and was just a couple decades from full-scale invasion of China.)

Chapter 7 beings to free us from the constraints of wires, discussing the advent of radio (wireless) technology. I found particularly interesting the "law of suppression of radical potential" (p. 235) and the argument that France and England were so heavily invested in cable companies that they were slow to embrace wireless, while relatively unencumbered Germany and the US were more free to experiment with the new medium. (One could think of this theory in relation to many modern technologies.) In fact, the US soon embarked on a mission to wirelessly link the entire country. The wireless link from Hawai'i to San Francisco was able to offer the press a rate 1/8th of the cable rate, and soon there was a clamor for Atlantic wireless. The onset of World War I further increased the demand for wireless communication - unlike cables, wires could not be severed to prevent the enemy from communicating. As the imperial powers on each side began to use wireless to disseminate propaganda, the censoring of news reports began to force a realignment of the agreements between news agencies, resulting in a bigger role for The Associated Press in serving and covering Latin America (previously served by European agencies). At home, the Navy was busy beating down American Marconi (and stealing their assets) while working to support an American-owned wirelss company.

Chapter 8 chronicles the arrival of the U.S. as the central player in international communications (and banking and business and everything else) after WWI. US policymakers were eager to use wireless to solidify and expand American influence at a time when US foreign policy was essentially imperial. The World Communication Conference of 1919 was meant to bring nations together in strategizing for this new era; instead, old concerns (cable monopolies, nationalist interests, etc.) resulted in a conference as ineffectual as the League of Nations (the politics of which also helped criple the conference).

I'm going to have to leave it there for now (hopefully I'll get to Chapters 9 and 10 later). It's all starting to blend together.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Critical Cartography?

I'm not sure about critical, but I thought y'all might enjoy this map of Lusaka, Zambia, where all roads lead North (and up!) into some sort of non-urban abyss.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Communications & Empire first half Summary

Communications and Empire traces the global spread of telegraph technology. International issues arose immediately in the 1830s as Western Europe found a sudden need for international law governing privacy, state secrets, business practice, etc. The US also had the means to develop its own telegraph system and by the 1860s cable, after a few unsuccessful tries, had crossed the Atlantic. With that success and the fortuitous conglomeration of cable manufacturing in England, the British Empire – aided by Europe – expanded telegraph to India and within Egypt. By 1870, the nationalization of the British telegraph system was complete and the major world powers had reached general agreements on international law, permitting a rapid global expansion of the communication network. Despite minor setbacks, China, Japan, Latin and South America, and the Caribbean were fully linked to a global telegraph network by the end of the decade, at which point the European powers divided their influence within Africa and proceeded to expand the network there as well.

Throughout, there is much discussion of how the influx of European and American communications systems affected the rest of the world. European expertise in operating the telegraph and in enforcing social stability meant dominance of Persia and colonization of Egypt. China and the Ottoman Empire made valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts at reforms to integrate the new technology (and its accompanying ties to European and American economies, politics and power) while maintaining strong national sovereignty. Japan, with a later connection to global communications and a stronger political structure, was more successful. Africa entered the global network with the rise of colonial empires’ national security needs, and Latin and South America and the Caribbean with the rise of European and American economic interest.

With a great many company names evidencing a phenomenal amount of research, Winseck and Pike demonstrate that, wherever the telegraph system emerged, it was immediately brought under oligopoly; then cartel; and, in the end, effective monopoly control with John Pender running the show and state-run systems helping out. This led, by the early 1900s, to reformation proposals that included cheaper rates, more nationalistic control of each state’s lines and more competition for the reigning cartels.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Another summary of Beniger and his Crisis of Control

What happens when two trains are running down the same track towards each other? Well, in the 1840's one train would pull over at a predetermined point and wait for the other train to pass. But what happens when one train is late? This may sound like a middle school math problem, but it was a problem unsolved for train companies at that time. The conductor, who needed to decide whether to run his train made that decision alone, without support from communications, hierarchy, or explicit rules. The highest speed of transport, at the time between 15 and 30 mph, was beyond the control of train companies as they were then organized, and trains would run into each other, causing death and injuries. The public protested. The train companies responded by hiring more people, but when that didn't work, they responded with control: increasing centralization, using the telegraph to communicate location, standardizing time, establishing bureaucracy with information regularly moving up and down the hierarchy, and other corporate mechanisms familiar to us today.

Within a few years, the train companies expanded the methods they had developed to control danger and adopted them to control the efficiency of their ever increasing size. The unprecedented speed of things moving across large distances kicked off a crisis of control down the line of production, changing how factories were designed, how products were distributed, and how people consumed. This included maintaining flow in all these areas so that the price to produce each individual item decreased. More control was needed to maintain that flow, and more complex mechanisms arose, such as commodity exchanges, futures contracts, and advertising campaigns. Other mechanisms simplified the process, such as using waybills to collect information and huge wholesaling operations to cut out middlemen. Many of the large brands we recognize today became successful using these innovations: Gold Medal Flour, Post, Quaker, Borden, Carnation, Heinz, Campbells, American Tobacco, Woolworth's, Macy's, Marshall Fields, and others.

The chapter begins with a quote from Durkheim, "The most vital trait of the spontaneous organization of the industrial order is that its goal, and its exclusive goal, is to increase the control of man over things" (219). I would extend to this quote to say it also increased the control of people over other people. As the society became more systematized, Beniger argues, people became more "programmable." Similarly, and intriguingly, Beniger notes that abstract thinkers like engineers and mathematicians pioneered this change because practical knowledge does not help in a crisis (237).

Beniger's phrasing of this time period as revolution of control as well as framing it as a series of crises is, I think, effective, because it gives the myriad innovations a constant location for identification of human agency as their cause.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reflections on 9/17 and readings for 9/24

A few thoughts:

- I met some friends for breakfast Saturday in D.C., and they drove me to the airport afterward. As Joe was getting out the GPS device, he said both that he didn't entirely trust the thing, and that he didn't entirely trust himself anymore. "I'm afraid I'm losing my ability to read a map," he said, and I recalled our discussion last week about map literacy.

- I can't say whether I am smarter than an 8th grader, but I can say that I would pass his/her geography test.

- Although I read a newspaper daily, I haven't done a comprehensive look for maps yet. However, I have made one observation: It seems maps in the travel section are more likely to be on inside (black-and-white) pages, while the weather map is more likely to be on a section-back (color) page. Why? It might be that the weather maps convey more types of information (temperature bands, types of precipitation, etc. vs. mostly roads, cities, bodies of water, location of landmarks, etc.). I suspect, though, that is has more to do with money - the weather map usually is provided by a commercial provider (AccuWeather, The Weather Channel) that wants a) to get its name out, and b) to make its product look good.

- Regarding Communication and Empire:

1) As an American, I'm curious whether the U.S. was as involved in these early telecom monopolies as other countries (particularly the U.K.) seemed to be. There appears to be some evidence that the U.S. opposed such monopolies, but the reading so far has focussed more on the European powers.

2) As a former AP reporter/editor, I'm curious how deeply AP was involved in the "rings" (is that what they were called) of influence established by the early news agencies. (FYI, the AP has been involved in far more high-profile antitrust cases than high-profile First Amendment or open records cases, so it wouldn't surprise me to learn that AP was dividing up the world into quasi-monopolies in the 19th Century.)

3) Is anyone out there particularly familiar with the "moderinzation"? I ask in much the same way Brian was asking about "development." I do know that "modernization" can be used as a term of art, referring to a particular movement in international development circles. It also can have a more-generic meaning. I simply don't know if the references to "modernization" in this book refer to the former or the latter. I suspect the latter, because I seem to recall that the heyday of the "modernization" movement was the late-1940s and the 1950s. However, I can't say for sure. (Where's Hemet Shah when I need him? Damned sabaticals!)

4) This scheme to divide up Africa among the colonial powers for the purpose of improving the "dark continent" reminds me of the period during which the United States divided up Indian reservations and doled them out to various churches (separation of church and state my ass!), also in an attempt to further civilization. Some of the more savvy Indian chiefs, including Keokuk of the Saukis (think Sauk Prairie or Old Sauk Road), figured out that they could get most anything they wanted from the church by threatening to convert to another church. (You want to make the Presbyerian elders turn white? Tell them you think your entire tribe would be happier if they were Catholic, like the neighboring Ioways. Or Baptists, like the Ottawas down the road. It's amazing how quickly the church will give in.)

The Industrial Revolution and the Crisis of Control

The Industrial Revolution and the Crisis of Control, written by James Beniger is a fascinating tour de force that examines the crises surrounding the explosion of extraction, production, distribution and consumption in America during the 19th century. The crisis of control began initially in rail transportation involving:

• Inability to control vast rail systems—safety issues!
• Inability to track shipments of goods
• Inability to integrate movements of goods and cash among manufacturers and retailers

Western Rail adopted the following processes to make the rail system safer and more efficient:

• Synchronized watches controlled train movements
• Regulation of data collection
• Creation of three regional offices with solid lines of authority and command
• Formalization of information processing and decision rules
• Standardization of communication feedback

As the rail industry became larger and more complex the crisis of efficiency began. Daniel McCallum of the Erie Railroad was credited for creating one of the earliest organizational charts. The organizational processes developed by the railroads provided other industrialists with useful information on how to organize and build their organizations for peak efficiency.

The steel producers became the innovators during the crisis of production. Steel producer, Andrew Carnegie developed a voucher system for the collection and processing of data. The data collected served as the basis for detailed cost statements; the goal being to keep costs down and profits up.

In an attempt to manage the crisis of material flow through factories, the introduction of a “shop order system of accounts” was begun. Shop orders had identifying numbers and indicated the sequence of departments and the parts and processes that would occur at each department. On the same slips foremen would indicate the machinery, workers, time, material and wages used for each order.

Getting crops to the factory in a timely fashion, when transportation speed and processing had increased exponentially, became the next crisis. The solution involved specialized commodity brokers who purchased crops directly from farmers and sold them directly to processors.

A crisis of bureaucratic control and vertical integration led large wholesale houses to adopt innovations in a bureaucratic structure, which created a hierarchy of salaried managers. Their goal was to keep the stock turning, cash flowing and to allow credit for only the shortest terms possible.

The final crisis was that of consumption. Industry was working night and day to produce goods. Disposing of goods suddenly grew in importance. Producers now had the job of teaching consumers to use more of a product than they had used and to discriminate between sellers. Enter marketing!

Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass US

I remember reading this article (Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass US) before the semester started, but the historical analysis provided by Winseck and Pike encouraged me to reread (and rethink) it. It fits nicely with a few of the themes developed in the book.

While the detail of the the book is part of its charm, I feel that summaries of the major arguments could be sprinkled in a bit more. They provide an overview in the intro, but then dig right into the nitty gritty of dates, names and corporate mergers (more characters than a Dicken's novel!). The major theme outlined in the intro (growth of global communication infrastructures should be de-emphasized when explaining late 1800's / early 1900s Imperialism) has not coalesced for me yet, but I am only about a third of the way in.

Nonetheless, as the the back cover suggests, I do find the book "compellingly relevant to our times."

Along these lines, one thing that makes the book accessible is that it is easy to draw parallels between the raise of the telegraph and the raise of the Internet ( i.e., many of the same debates, questions, and concerns show up). Some key themes/issues relevant to both scenarios include: government attempts to secure access for surveillance purposes; concerns over equitable access for consumers (e.g., high costs); debates over privatization vs. state ownership/government subsidies; claims of price gauging; concerns over teh quality and security of transmissions; competition within and between countries; negotiations surrounding international agreements/laws; censorship (e.g., debates about government control of news during times of war), shifts in media production, dissemination, and consumption (and the consequences of these changes), etc.

Are you smarter than an 8th grader?

To followup on our discussion about teaching (and assessing) students related to cartography. Below are some sample questions pulled from a national database of test questions.

Question 1
Question 2
Question 3

If you want to see more questions you can visit the database yourself. Just select Geography as the subject area.

While standardized tests don't represent the depth (or the best) of what is happening in U.S. classrooms, they at least represent some of the skills and knowledge the state considers essential. They also provide a starting point for asking questions like: What cartography-related skills and knowledge should students have when they leave school? How do you go about teaching these things? Do standardized tests do a good job of assessing students' skills and knowledge? What other forms of assessment might work better (specific to geography/cartography)? For example, perhaps students should spend more time engaging in the practice(s) of mapmaking the way Denis Wood does. See the This American Life show on mapmaking mentioned below (Great episode, thanks for sharing) or follow these links for more on Denis Wood.

The Power of Maps (Denis Wood)
Boylan Heights Neighborhood Maps by Denis Wood

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I apologize, I think I tend to ask a lot more questions than add much useful, but....I'm curious about the use of the word "development" in geography.  It's kind of a loaded word that gets used a lot in different fields (children developing into adults, developed/developing/underdeveloped countries, etc.).  Mass communication has it's own troubled history with "development communication" that thought media should be used in Third World (just to throw out another problematic term) countries to make them modern like Western countries. One of the problems with this venture was that the same theorists who has previously said "Western audiences are too smart to be influenced by media" were the same ones saying "certainly those other people will be affected by media."

Anyway, just curious, what exactly does "development" refer to in human geography.  Is it just urban development and the building of infrastructure?  Then how does the human part fit in (by the accumulation of people in urban centers)? 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Communication and Empire

I don't remember who's got the first half of our next book. But since I've got the second half, I'd like to propose the split:

First half will consist of Chapters 1-6 (pp. 1-177), for discussion this coming Wednesday, Sept. 24. Second half will consist of Chapters 7-10 (pp. 178-345), for discussion Oct. 1.

Does that sound fair? First-halfers, let me know if you want to divide things up another way. (I've got to travel this week, so I'm taking the book with me in the hopes that I can get my reading done on planes and in airports.)

Your chance to help design a tourist map...

Here is your chance to put theory into action… ;)

The city of Madison opened a storefront - which is between the Main Library and the Silver Dollar (nice place to play shuffle board) - to share info (and solicit public comments/ideas) regarding future developments in the *downtown* area. I even got to meet a real-life city planner when I went in! One interesting thing (that relates to our class discussion) is that they have a blank tourist map and invite visitors to suggest items/locations they would like to see added to the next generation tourist map. It will be interesting to see how (or if) this feedback is translated into the Madison Tourist Map 2.0.


On my way out I took a look at the city map stationed across the street and noted that the lake was represented using a lovely blue color. Again, based on our discussion, perhaps they should use a green color in the next addition for a more accurate representation.

We have not touched on geographical sports identities and rivalries between cities yet, so here is a spark…– the CUBS WIN “a stunner” in the 12th against the Brewers! Yes, I was watching the ballgame while writing this : )

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Map Game!

I'm not sure how relevant this is to how we use maps on a regular basis but it is an entertaining game and does make you think about how much you have been paying attention to the maps around you.


"This American Life" on maps

This American Life, Episode 110: Mapping, can be heard by going to this site http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=110 and clicking on "Full Episode."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Deconstructing the Map -- J.B. Harley

Harley analyzes maps, and the cartographic principles involved in their creation, through a post-modern lens. His views expose the influence that knowledge and power have over the map making process and the resulting impact on the map reader. Harley examines the discourse of cartography, map rhetoric and the resulting form of power-knowledge by relying on the ideas and techniques of Derrida and Foucault.

The technical and cultural production methods used by Western cartographers have been honed over time to provide a spatial inventory according to standards of ‘objectivity’, ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’. The resulting implication is that Western maps are void of any non-scientific information while showing the most accurate representation of the landscape. Harley deconstructs these paradigms by revealing practices such as centering specific territories based on the society that generated the map and also the hierarchical placement of map elements. Harley explores the hidden meaning within maps by arguing that the categories of literature and art more accurately define a map’s cultural utility. By the looking at the inherently rhetorical process of map creation, Harley urges the reader to recognize the distinction between the social purpose and content of the map.

Harley examines the cyclical relationship of power exerted on cartography and the power exercised with cartography. He shares Foucault’s belief that knowledge is central in the pursuit of power and therefore cartography is another mechanism that can be used for political gain. Thus, the neutrality of maps, according to Harley, should forever be questioned with regards to their authoritarian characteristics.

Harvey's On the History and Present Condition of Geography

Harvey advocates “a peoples’ geography” in contrast to his understanding of an existing geography that been “…presented in such a way as to prey upon fears and feed hostility.” He asserts that all production of geographic knowledge, including his own, is contextual, and after a brief survey of the development of the geography discipline, makes a case for his approach as the best way to serve current social needs.

Harvey traces geographic knowledge types chronologically and gives a reason for each phase of development: cartographic mapping to serve imperialism; bio-resource mapping to serve the world market; human resource mapping to serve wage-labor capitalism. He continues with more recent developments of geopolitical and land-use surveys, as well as focused academic studies which present a particular political nuance (such as race or feminist studies). All of these, he suggests, are undertaken in a capitalist context.

This history results, Harvey says, in an academic discipline struggling between too-broad meta-narratives, plagued by a dualist structure (human/physical geography, quantitative/qualitative methodology); and too-focused studies, easily absorbed outside the discipline (into economics, geology, psychology). Harvey argues that in order to be cohesive, geography needs to reveal both global social transformation and unique events using “a common language to voice common concern.” The cohesive element of geography must be its effort to constantly address all aspects of social justice.

Harvey’s manifesto declares a-political geography pointless; geography must be “…an intellectual discipline that can play a vital, creative, and progressive role in shaping the social transformations that beset us.

Key Texts in Human Geography (chp 20 - 26)

D. Gregory – Geographical Imaginations

Gregory attempts to clarify critical theory in geography and engages in a trans-disciplinary project to understand the production of bodies, places, and spaces. Like many of the authors of post-1970s human geography, he rejects grand theory and grounds modernist narrative within specific contexts. The three parts of GI address how:

  • space and representation have been thought and acted upon

  • the connections between space and representation, politics, and poetics (particularly in relation to the contemporary role of the city

  • the "uncomfortable space" between historical materialism and postmodernism

GI takes on Gramsci's challenge of the "conjunctural analysis" of investigating the complex and historically specific terrain of a world that is contextual and relational.

D. Sibley – Geography of Exclusions

Sibley offers a study of socio-spatial boundaries and asks, What are the exclusions and repressions inherent in processes of becoming individuals? Sibley's work opens up questions within geography of how subjectivity and power are formed relationally with the construction of boundaries and varying spatial scales. His work shares overlap with Communications in both an interest in how media shapes socialization, as well as the use of A. Giddens' scholarship. Eventually moving beyond Giddens' structuration attempts to transcend the structure/agency debate, Sibley demonstrates the potential of psychoanalytical theory in human geography.

G. Tuathail – Critical GeoPolitics

Throughout the early 20th century, the academic domain of geopolitics was fundamentally interested in statecraft. This approach utilized the positivist-inspired spatial sciences to abstract world power, using the nation-state as the basic unit of analysis. Tuathail challenged this traditional model, instead inquiring into how geopolitics is practiced by agents at discrete sites of knowledge production. He asked how descriptions and representations of the world (geo-graphy or Earth-writing) are inherently political. Space and the writing of space then becomes synonymous with the exercise of power.

T. Barnes – Logics of Dislocation

Barnes' scholarship, emerging within the postmodern 'cultural turn' of the 1990s, mounts a savvy attack upon modern Enlightenment's universalism, foundationalism, and essentialism. Enlightenment thought is characterized by the assumption that:

  1. progress is achieved through rationality

  2. humans are autonomous beings with fixed identities

  3. the world has inherent order that is discoverable though value-free inquiry

  4. universal truths correspond with reality and are knowable by humans

Barnes acknowledges three approaches (post-developmentalism, feminism, and post-colonialism) that challenge the ontological 'isms' of modernity and attempts to pave a similar alternative path for economic geography. Barnes makes the following propositions for economic geography:

  • processes are best seen in spatial and temporal specificity (versus as universals)

  • economic study must include a wide range of social practices

  • ethnographic and qualitative approaches are valid ways of knowing (i.e. are constructivist and not foundationalist)

  • scholars should employ reflexivity in research

S. Whatmore – Hybrid Geographies

Whatmore's work is consistent with the other authors in that her project is one of 'rethinking' traditional categories and boundaries. Her focus in this book is the relations between humans and the natural world. She upsets the conventional dualism of nature/society to offer the view of the world as constituted through hybridity and hybrid relations. Her writing is nuanced, as is her playful methodological shift to the "risky and imaginative." She posits a world that is always in becoming, partial, and provisional. Nature and society are co-constituted through relational space.

Amin and Thrift – Cities

Continuing with the theme of “let us re-define everything one more time,” Amin and Thrift rethink urban geography to focus on the everyday practices. They challenge the assumptions underlying our notions of what ‘Big’ elements make up a city, posing the alternative of the “ongoing incompleteness, the fuzzy-ness, the strange, often unpredictable elements that make up a city.” They employ new metaphors to cast cities within an alternative urban ontology that recognizes human and non-human actants in the life of cities. They pose three themes of the network, machines, and sites of power as a ways to understand how cities emerge though complex patterns of multiple, conflicting orderings.

D. Massey – For Space

Massey offers an alternative, non-Euclidean ‘imagination’ of space. She posits space as the product of interrelations, a ‘sphere of possibility’ of multiplicy and heterogeneity, always becoming and never closed or fixed.

Rock on.

Neil Smith, The Production of Space

Some thoughts on Neil Smith and Marxist geography.

When I first read Marx, in my pre-geographical career, the concept of space was not necessarily something that figured in my analysis or general thoughts. As time progressed though, the idea of interrogating geographical space, in my own abstracted sense, seemed to me a particularly Marxian enterprise, articulating an embedded critique that really hinged on location and context. I had read no Key texts in human geography at this point, and thus was totally ignorant of the quantitative revolution or the history of geography in empire-creation, but instead found something of Marx’s material critique in a thorough analysis of space (or place, or location, or context, or whatever I referred to it at the time). Ultimately, I began to think of critical geographies as having something to do with Marx’s oft-paraphrased notion of productive subjects existing in a world not of their own choosing. Materiality and production began to feel distinctly geographic to me, because after all, something is being produced somewhere. How better to engage with the material, human level then through where people work and live? I then didn’t really think about Marx for a few years.

While frustratingly structural and dense, Marxist geographers re-piqued my interest in this critique, and arguments put forth by them are ultimately fascinating to me. David Harvey’s theorizing of the built landscape of capital and the infrastructure of capital accumulation presents an almost exhilarating look at the intersection of history and economics, and other Marxist geographers tread the line between being engaging and frustrating in their mechanical thought processes. Smith is a great example, of someone who, ultimate argument aside, wrestles with the nuances of Marxist dialectics and contradictions in order to produce a look at the conflicting nature of capitalist space.

His argument, dense and difficult, seems to base itself on the idea that “By its actions, this society no longer accepts space as a container, but produces it; we do not live, act and work ‘in’ space so much as by living, acting and working we produce space” (85). Smith laboriously details the historical abstraction of space, from Einsteinian and Newtonian abstracted math, and actual historical movements like nation-state creation and the emergence of abstracted labor. What is interesting to me is the base of his argument, the idea of space as produced by us through a complex interweaving of production, exchange, and global economics. I first encountered the idea of place/space as a structuring agent in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, in which post-war Detroit’s massive segregation is seen as a response to racism and the condition for its furthering. Smith is arguing for something deeper in which the binaries of space and society are dissolved through an understanding that there is no such thing as place without society, just as there is no such thing as nature without our own articulation of it as a concept. It is an engaging and interesting argument, and while I found this article fairly hard to get through, there is nonetheless a conception of space that is interesting and challenging.

From a disciplinary point of view, it can also be interesting to look at Smith in the historical progression of the discipline, as he even situates himself as the result of the Humanist (Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward Relph) and radical political (Harvey) critiques. His critique presumably then comes up against the post-structuralists like Barnes and O Tuathail. UW, for instance, has no Marxist geographers, so I’m curious if the tide has turned against thinkers like Smith and Harvey. I’m also curious about the connection between (mass) communication and the production of space, but that is its own discussion.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Key Texts (Ch. 14-19), Summary

Overall, the second half of Key Texts in Human Geography evidences the progress of the field “along charted territory.” There are chapters on postmodern geography, poststructural geography, and themes such as feminist criticism and expanding the purview of the field.

Dicken’s work in economic geography and Global Shift sought to explain international industrial change at the regional level by focusing on global economic forces, such as transnational corporations. His analysis included the role of the nation-state in economic change and the impact of evolving technologies—ideas that contributed to the discourse of globalization.

Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity was a critical analysis of economic and cultural conditions flowing out of modernity, but specific to the last quarter of the twentieth century. Here difference, positionality, and situateness rule, according to Woodword and Jones. They are symptoms of post-Fordist and flexible forms of accumulation for Harvey. These and accompanying forces such as time-space compression dictate postmodern culture.

Soja asserts the importance of space—not just time—in analysis of the social. His Postmodern Geographies was a call for a critical human geography that centered on what he termed the socio-spatial dialectic. Here, space, time, and being are central to a new spatial ontology, and spatiality is socially produced.

Storper and Walker’s Capitalist Imperative took out the assumptions of neoclassical economic theory to examine the geography of industrialization. They asserted that capitalist growth is unstable, produces differentiation in particular localities, and that the production process is central to understanding the geography of economic development.

Livingstone’s history of geography, rooted in the history of science, argued that geographical knowledge was partial, subjective, socially constructed, and dependent upon context.

Gillian Rose argued that women are excluded as producers of geographical knowledge. Feminism and Geography described geography as “masculinist.” It challenged dualistic thinking and treated the landscape and issues of seeing and knowing as important geographical topics.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A few thoughts . . .

First, the upside to getting caught in that deluge that hit Chicago this weekend is that I got to see this article - http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-biggerplans-0914sep14,0,7460890,full.story - which probably would have escaped my attention otherwise. I found myself reading this article very differently with my (still limited) exposure to human geography - especially after our class discussion last week about how so much of this field grew up around the study of Chicago - than I would have before.

Second, why I (sometimes) hate academia (I know, I know - that doesn't stop me from wanting to make a career in it), and how I was reminded of that by Key Texts. In this case, I don't know whether to blame the authors of the books being reviewed, or the people reviewing them, or the people summarizing it all in Key Texts. All I know is that I like to think of myself as reasonably well-read and well-educated, but completely baffled by the following from p. 131: "Deutsche began her critique by accusing Harvey of relying on a masculinist and ocularcentric epistemology that unreflexively professes confidence in the ability to clearly grasp causal connections free of complications that might be introduced by the viewer's social positionality. This 'totalizing' view, she maintained, underlies Harvey's deployment of a rigid Marxist analytic aimed at taming an unruly postmodernism filled with difference and possibility. It also explains his failure to recognize any limits in his perspective, as well as his lack of acknowledgement of both feminist work on postmodernism (not in any way an easy combination: see Nicholson, 1990) and feminist representational theory, particularly as it circulated within the domain of art." Seriously? Ocularcentric? It's not even in the Oxford English Dictionary! (My dad is an optometrist, and he says Deutsche might have meant "oculocentric" - I think he said it has to do with the field of vision that is directly in front of the eye.) In another chapter of Key Texts, a book was described as "part of a wider corpus of path-breaking work . . . ." Most of us outside the Vatican would call it a body of work, but then we're not up for tenure yet.

I will stop complaining for a moment, because there also are things I really liked about this book. While reading Phil Hubbard's chapter (21) on Geographies of Exclusion and the introduction about the "Woolloomooloo Girl," I couldn't help thinking about the recent controversy surrounding Vogue's photo shoot in India, which juxtaposes terribly impoverished people with luxury goods from the fashion industry http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/business/worldbusiness/01vogue.html.

There actually were a lot of things I liked about this chapter, including the discussion of "examples of the 'imperfect' people who, through history, have been depicted as troublesom Others who need to be located 'elsewhere.'" I suspect many who read that might think of Indian reservations as one such example; I actually think of Indian Country quite differently. First, the majority of treaty tribes are on reservations by mutual consent - we chose to stake off territory that would set us apart. (Of course, that's a simple reading of history. The power relationships weren't always equal, and I suspect most tribes actually believed they would be left alone on their reservations and not bothered by Americans. My point, though, is that while America might have wanted to locate us "elsewhere," many of us wanted to be away from Americans, too.) However, the second has to do with the reverse, at least as it concerns American Indian policy. In the 1950s, in what was known as the "Relocation" era, the federal government encouraged Indians to move off of reservations and into cities, resulting in large urban Indian populations not only in the cities closest to Indian Country (Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City), but in places one might not expect (Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas). Like many poor migrants who find themselves in new urban environments, many of those Indians found themselves concentrated in certain parts of the city. Even so, Relocation might be an interesting counterpoint to those who see American Indian geography as a geography of exclusion.

That's all for now.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On Wirth, "Urbanism as a Way of Life"

I’m not sure I realized, when I started reading this, that the article was from 1938. In any case, it is interesting to see how this conception of the “urban” has (and hasn’t) changed in the past 70 years.
Wirth begins with a warning not to pay too much attention to population, density or form of government when trying to determine what constitutes an “urban” environment. Although each of these is a factor, Wirth cautions that none by itself is sufficient to describe the many ways in which urban environments differ from their rural counterparts. People living in a small town near an urban center, for example, might exhibit more similarities to their urban neighbors than to small-town folks from farther away. (As an aside, I note that the Census Bureau at the time categorized a community of 2,500 or more to be “urban” – and that I learned while editing a law journal article this summer that the Census Bureau still uses that same number to distinguish urban from rural.)
In a nutshell, Wirth says that the state of being urban is not just these disjointed things, but “that cumulative accentuation of the characteristics distinctive of the mode of life which is associated with the growth of cities” – the disassociation from land and place that comes with a society where fewer people own land and more pay rent; the economic specialization that results from an economy in which one no longer does everything for oneself, but does a single thing over and over and over again; the demographic heterogeneity that is so rarely found in rural places.
Wirth also addresses the ways in which the characteristically “urban” lifestyle affects communication. At the individual level, a larger population means people have less connection with their immediate surroundings, such as the people in their neighborhood. Unable to communicate one-on-one, “it becomes necessary to communicate through indirect mediums and to articulate individual interests by a process of delegation.” Individuals have a harder time knowing their place in the grand scheme of the city, which makes it harder for them to analyze complex issues.
Although some of Wirth’s language is clearly outdated (one sign of heterogeneity in his cities was the presence of more “Negroes”), and his statistics seem almost quaint (a world population of 1.8 billion, with about 70 percent living in urban environments), his description of the landscape and of how to think about it still resonates.

FINALLY.... my summary of the first seven chapters!

Hello all: I struggled with the length of this summary and honestly....novelists always struggle with length. I took a machete and chopped and hacked it down, so hopefully I didn't go too much over the 250 word limit. This summary covers the first seven chapters and probably does not do them justice, but.....I have Toby's [my dog] seal of approval, plus he's begging to go out, so have at 'er

Torsten Hagerstrand’s 1957 book, Diffusion as Spatial Process was characterized as a pioneering work, but it was written in Swedish and wasn’t translated into English for 14 years, which for English speaking scholars, placed him squarely after the likes of William Bunge’s book published in 1962, and Peter Haggett’s in 1965.

It’s hard to say if Hagerstrand’s work was pivotal to either of Bunge’s or Haggett’s work, but what was apparent is that geography in the 1960s was experiencing raging debates about how to, as Bunge put it , ”… establish its credentials as a science.” David Harvey’s book titled Explanation in Geography continued the focus on theory, model, hypothesis and law, which was becoming common in geography research as researchers worked to produce knowledge that was cumulative.

Peter Haggett’s 1965 book titled Locational Analysis in Human Geography deals with models and origins of hypotheses in human geography as well as statistical methods. Haggett wrote that, “…the quality of geography for this century will be evaluated less on its techniques and details and more on its logical reasoning.” In Kevin Cox’s 1973 book titled Conflict, Power and the Politics in the City, we see a continued focus on empiricism through three important goals: the advancement of rigorous accounts that would explain urban problems, the publication of policy implications of urban analysis and the discussion of the necessary governmental actions required to address these problems.

Toward the mid 1970s, Edward Relph’s book, titled Place and Placelessness arrived on the scene along with Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, titled Space and Place. In their review of Relph’s book, David Seamon and Jacob Sowers state his most original contribution was his description of insideness and outsideness. Relph also preserved the concept of space and place as being one, while Tuan in Space and Place, creates a division between space and time. Tuan writes,” place can be understood as a pause in time as well as space.” Creswell writes that, “Geographies of space, 30 years on from Tuan’s book, share his concern for meaning, belonging and experience...”