Making Human Geography: New book by Kevin Cox


I have just read Kevin Cox’s new book, Making Human Geography. It tells the story, as he sees it, of how over the last 50 years or so, human geography has become a field of sophisticated theoretical and methodological inquiry. He starts by admitting this is a ‘personal understanding’, and it has a strong ‘interpretative’ line that reflects is own convictions, not least about the continuing saliency not just of Marxism, but of geography’s Marxism, of ‘historical-geographical materialism’ as an explanatory framework. I guess this won’t be to everyone’s tastes (there is plenty to disagree with about Kevin’s account of all sorts of things). But one of the things that I liked about the book was its tone. He worries about the ‘eclecticism’ associated with contemporary human geography, especially in its self-consciously ‘critical’ varieties; but does not complain about fragmentation nor indulge in nostalgia for lost coherence. Above all, the book makes an assertive case for human geographer’s achievements in laying the groundwork for the on-going challenge of spatializing the social sciences. This is a book about the ‘strong ideas’ developed by geographers, not the geographical ideas you can find elsewhere – no Lefebvre here, no ‘methodological nationalism’. These sorts of absences might be something that not everyone will be comfortable with – after all, geography now inhabits a broad field in which various spatial and environmental vocabularies are shared, including political theory, media studies, science and technology studies, as well as ‘Continental Philosophy’. All sorts of theorists get to be classified as ‘spatial thinkers’. Geographers increasingly thrive in this interstitial field, finding it easier to ‘pass’ as just another social scientist or theorist (in turn, in the UK at least, the institutional form of Geography in higher education has been transformed by the capacity of what are now very seldom mere ‘Departments of Geography’ to act as hospitable homes for various fields of inter-disciplinary social science ). Just how to ‘wear’ the distinctive disciplinary understandings of space, or scale, or networks developed since the 1950s outlined in this book has become more and more of a challenge. Not least, the challenge is to avoid a certain sort of ‘take-my-ball-home’ chauvinism that is associated, for example, with arguments about using space ‘metaphorically’ compared to proper ‘material’ understandings. The story in this book revolves around the different concepts of space (the trusty triad of absolute, relative and relational space) that have shaped human geography. This is a much more helpful way of approaching inter-disciplinary conversations (though not without it’s own implicit chauvinisms I suspect).

Scan 130260001This book covers a lot of ground – everything from geographical deconstruction to the expansion method (which is much less interesting than it might sound) – even as it cleaves to its own distinctive narrative line. It’s accessibly written, reflecting its origins no doubt in many years of seminar teaching. In parts, it presumes quite a lot of familiarity with the discipline and its main players. Apart from anything else, it does a really good job of elaborating on how important the ‘quantitative-spatial revolution’ both was and still should be for human geography’s intellectual progress: one of the most interesting themes is the idea of quantification and spatialization as two distinct intellectual movements that converged in the 1950s and 1960s; it also makes the point that the development of quantitative spatial science since then has been more often than not focussed on issues of contextualisation, against the caricature of ‘generalisation’ and ‘law-finding’ often directed against this style of work. Again, I guess the call for some sort of rapprochement across quantitative and qualitative styles might not resonate that much in some ears – not only, but not least, because to a considerable extent the cross-generational formation of human geographers (like me) naturally attuned to the worlds of social theory, Continental Philosophy, or qualitative methodologies is dependent on an institutionalised blindness around quantitative social science (the reverse is true too, of course).

I don’t necessarily agree with how Kevin interprets human geography’s trajectory. For example, I don’t really recognise the presentation of change since the 1980s, in terms of various ‘Posts’ that displace the centrality of Marxism. It’s a standard presentation, no doubt. It easily underestimates just how central Marxism still is in human geography, compared to any other social science field I can think of. I’d tell that story differently (perhaps in terms of a succession of errors compounding themselves… perhaps as the triumph of certain ‘philosophical’ temptations over the modern dilemmas of social theory…; or perhaps, on reflection, more charitably, in the same tone of genuine curiosity that Kevin strikes in his version of the story). But I do think that his account focuses in on the fundamental points of tension around which any disciplinary field develops: issues of method, key concepts, and the question of how best to understand ‘why things happen and why’. Above all, I like the fact that this is unashamed celebration of what human geographers do as geographers, and why this is important for the social sciences more generally.

My Loss Library

RPostI mentioned way back now, before Christmas, a book that I picked up when I was in Bloemfontein, The Loss Library and other unfinished stories, a collection by Ivan Vladislavic about “stories I imagined but could not write or started to write but not finish” – stories from which characters wandered off into other stories, or from which episodes escaped to turn up in other novels. Of course, by writing a book about these ‘failures’ and false starts, Vladislavic has managed at least in part to cash-out the original intuitions behind these characters, episodes, and plot-lines, if only at a tangent to his original intentions.

I have been confronted with my own loss library, of sorts, in the last couple of weeks, as I have been going through piles of paper in boxes and draws as I prepare for an office move. I have been doing quite a good job of throwing lots of paper out – unread photocopied journal articles on topics I once imagined I might need to know about for imagined projects which now, at this juncture in life, I am confidently able to say that I will never get around to even starting. And then there are the remnants of projects started but never finished, of half-written papers, of book proposals not picked-up by publishers, of unsuccessful research grant bids.

– There are my first, unsuccessful bids for ESRC funding (on publishing and global culture, on food and media), and failed bids for research in South Africa (on media and understandings of crime and violence, for example).

– There are uncompleted grant proposals (on notions of European identity in city of culture programmes, the trace of a year-long conversation with Denise Meredyth about governmentality and cultural policy.

Scan 130690012-15– There are unwritten papers, on the ‘sexing’ of communications technologies in First Amendment jurisprudence, an idea developed during a summer spent in the Law School library at Ohio State in 1998; notes and drafts of a paper on the ‘normalization’ of apartheid in academic debates about South African democratization in the mid-1990s, fragments of lunch-time conversations with Kevin Cox that same summer; drafts of a jointly authored paper with Peris Jones on the strange career of BopTV, the television station of the ‘independent’ homeland of Bophuthatswana, which survived until the late 1990s, and which we thought could serve as an interesting entry-point to think about the politics of regionalism after the end of apartheid.

– There are notes of some initial research at the BBC archives at Caversham, in Reading (I didn’t like the idea of travelling too far to an archive), on the role of Lord Reith in the early history of South African broadcasting (Reith travelled to South Africa in 1934, to advise on the setting-up of a broadcasting service which would enhance the development of ‘the Union’ (Reith’s diaries from this trip consist mainly of griping about the quality of the service he experienced on his travels).

None of these projects are completely off the wall, in retrospect: they seem to be examples of me working out ideas about media, South Africa, democracy, cultural policy, Foucault, textual publics, that sort of thing, the sorts of things I did (and sometimes still do) worry about and have worked on through other projects. There does seem to be a strain of my former self trying to find ways of writing in a more sustained way about popular culture, which perhaps I have never quite found the courage to do. Maybe that’s what one should do on a blog?

If piles of paper and files of unfulfilled projects are part of my ‘extended mind’, or the ‘prosthesis’ of my own ‘individuation’ (depending on what theory you favour), then what will happen to me if I throw out these traces of ambition and failure?

Dialogues in Human Geography

Re-blogging a re-blog from Progressive Geographies, the latest issue of Dialogues in Human Geography is currently available on open access. Includes a section on academic blogging and public geographies, and also a debate section revolving around an intervention by Kevin Cox on the relations between critical realism and Marxism in and around geography (Blur or Oasis? The Beatles or The Stones? The Beatles and the Stones?).

Thinking culture


The new issue if Dialogues in Human Geography contains a forum on public geography and social media. The articles are currently open access. The section focuses on geography, but the issues discussed relate to broader discussions around public engagement and communication in research. As is usual with this journal, the forum contains a feature article, some responses and a reply from the authors of the feature article. This particular forum is built around a feature article on ‘Public Geographies through Social Media‘ by Rob Kitchin, Dennis Linehan, Cian O’Callaghan and Philip Lawton. Their article describes their attempts at using a combination of blogging and Twitter to communicate their research. There are six responses, these include my own piece ‘Public Geography and the Politics of Circulation‘ (which is currently open access). I’ve posted about this previously.

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Festschrift for Kevin Cox: Territory, State, and Urban Politics

8thAveJust published I think, a new collection, edited by two Andy’s, Jonas and Wood, entitled Territory, State, and Urban Politics, ‘highlighting and reflecting’ on the work of Kevin Cox – essays by all sorts of people on all sorts of topics, indicating the range of Kevin’s own interests and influence. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

“Following its rise to prominence in the 1990s work on territory, the state and urban politics continues to be a vibrant and dynamic area of academic concern. Focusing heavily on the work of one key influential figure in the development of the field – Kevin R. Cox – this volume draws together a collection of prominent and well established scholars to reflect on the development and state of the field and to establish a research agenda for future work.

The various chapters address methodological, conceptual and philosophical issues, including questions of abstraction and empirical specification. Highlighting and reflecting on the work of Kevin R. Cox, the book assesses his influence and explores his various contributions to important debates on territory, the state, voting in a spatial context, locational conflict, globalization, scale, local economic development, and urban politics. It not only provides a review of Cox’s contributions, but also critically examines the ways in which his ideas have been deployed. Moreover, the book establishes and advances a research agenda for future work on urban politics, the state and territory, drawing insights from influential theorists working at the cutting edge of contemporary spatial research.”