You are on page 1of 7

GE02312 1 THEORY, SPACE & SOCIETY Student Number: 600007658 Critically evaluate the significance contemporary critical and activist


The aim of this essay is to explore contemporary critical and activist geographies and to evaluate the significance of them. This essay will first explore the emergence of critical geographies from their birth in radical geography. Secondly, it will discuss the rise of Leftist geographies and critical geographies‟ place in the academy. Thirdly, it will explore the critiques of its growth and discuss its relevance both within the academy and outside. Finally, it will explore activist geographies, their space in the academy and their contemporary relevance.

Before this essay can explore the ideas surrounding critical geographies it is a necessity to be able to understand the meaning of the word „critical‟ and what it means to be „critical‟. Whilst it is thought that all scholarship entails critical thinking (Blomley 2006:1), this is not we are referring to in this instance. Instead, to be critical in research is to challenge what is considered „natural‟ and scrutinize them, and endeavor to change them. Critical geographical enquiry satisfies this embraces Marx‟s call not only to interpret the world, but to change it (Gregory et al., 2009:123). For one to be able to comprehend what critical geographies are, it is important to understand its origins, which lay rooted in Leftist radical geographies. Radical geography emerged out of the politically sterile and people-less quantitative geography of the 1970s and a desire to enact fundamental changes to the organisation and structures of society (Peet 1977 in Fuller & Kitchin 2004:1). The launch of radical geography was as much a response to changes in society as it was a criticism of prevailing assumptions in academic geography, and radical geographers instead sought to place questions of geography within social and political contexts (Gibbons 2001:4). Radical geographies‟ initial foundations focused primarily on Marxist perspectives and by the late 1970s had come to govern radical approaches to geography. This notion of pivoting on class-based concerns became less and less palatable and led to development of new critical geographies, including those of feminist and postcolonial geographies. Castree (2000) describes how „critical geography‟ has overtaken „radical geography‟ as the privileged descriptor of Left geographical enquiry (Castree, 2000:956). Whilst, this illustrates that merely the signifier has been swapped, we must also understand how the signified Leftist discourse has evolved. From these foundations in Marxist theory, over the last thirty years the geographical Left is today probably more vibrant and varied than ever before (Castree, 2000:2). However, whilst


Professors are under pressure to produce research that wins grants. and tailor their radicalism in order to secure a 2 . These developments have led to the argument. that by the turn of the twenty. 2006:87). Primarily. Marxist. 2006:91). and the academicisation of critical geography that this essay will now explore. organizations. Scholars have embraced the Left from many realms of geography. grants). Whilst before critical geography felt itself to be unusual and beleaguered.first century. Moreover. However. 2002:62 in Blomley. disabled. and how they are currently enjoying unprecedented institutional acceptance (Gibbons 2001:2).. Following this there has been the establishment of further conferences. feminist. a comprehensive “professionalisation and academicisation” of leftist geography was complete (Castree. These areas have global importance and prove critical geography can provide exciting. Critical geography has flourished over the past thirty years and as Blomley (2007) states that critical geography has „made it‟ and become entrenched within the academy. there are some critiques of this growth. and queer geographies. its significance can be seen in the multitude of universities running modules in critical geographies. green. Examples of this work can be seen in critical geographers‟ work on areas such as poverty. and scholarly journals (and already established journals such as Antipode). as well as Exeter running a post-graduate degree course entitled „ Critical Human Geographies‟. 2000: 956). prizes. postmodern. To understand this theory further we must first examine how the foundations of the academy are affecting the kind of scholarship academics of the Left can produce. its definition is rarely nailed down (Blomley 2006:90). giving critical geographies institutional weight and legitimation. 2000: 956). consumption and uneven development.the evolution is evident. it has been said by Hubbard that critical geography is committed to „expose the socio-spatial processes that (re)produce inequalities between people and places‟ (Hubbard et al. analytically incisive and politically engaged scholarship Blomley (2006:89). This essay has demonstrated the growth of critical geographies. 2001 in Blomley. it has now become hard to avoid (Byles. poststructural. Castree (2000:956) describes critical geography as a homologous umbrella term for that plethora of antiracist. the way in which the university system has become heavily focused on a product/customer service to students due to the neoliberal regime has affected academics‟ ability to challenge and be critical. postcolonial. Its relevance is arguably reflected in the academic developments in the form of the Inaugural International Conference of Critical Geographers (IICCG) in Vancouver in August 1997” (Castree. and this has caused once radical researchers to now crave the symbols of bourgeois prestige (the Chairs. This reveals a continued interest and concern for critical perspectives in geography (Gibbons 2001:2). the academy.

For critical geographical theory 3 . Also. Furthermore. Neil Smith (2005) highlighted the struggles of being critical under a neoliberal regime that leads to radical ideas getting mulched back into the mainstream. This could be partially put down to its broadness. Amin & Thrift (2005) believe however that this Marxist position cannot be maintained as a necessarily privileged location any longer‟ (Amin & Thrift. leading to diluted ideas. Waterstone. which have been triumphed by the neoliberal regime. Ideas such as diversity and multiculturalism have been reduced to merely fodder for politicians‟ speeches. 2007:54). but also to change it (Fay. this notion seems slightly untrue when we consider the contemporary issues in society surrounding the global financial crisis. This has lead to a comprised. with some academics trying to avoid the label of critical due to what such a label now entails (Gibbons 2001:9). Even the term “critical” has been questioned among geographers. The greatest danger observed by Blomley was that this approach was often concluded „by a pious appeal to… alternatives. it can be contended that “weaker and safer” critical geography is the price being paid for this institutional acceptability (Gibbons 2001:9). In addition to this. or the public spheres. it could be argued that it has become too easy to be radical and in some cases almost to follow a „paint by numbers formula‟ Blomley 2006:88. 2002 in Blomley 2006:88).. This idea will be explored later on when discussing activism and the academy. 2002: 588 in Blomley. This illustrates whether critical scholarship even has a place outside the academy. one of emerging concerns is. so battered and bruised that it is but a pale shadow of its former self‟. 2001. and emptied of all radical potential. Additionally. over analysis and a neglect of Marx‟s clarion call to not only interpret the world.” then it becomes “nothing” (UribeOrtega 1998:266 in Gibbons 2001:8).. politics. Castree (2000:958) notes that the expansion of the academic Left has grown inversely to the non-academic Left. Indeed.GE02312 3 THEORY. it could be said that critical geography has become too focused on identity-politics rather than basic Marxist critiques of capitalism. „cocktail left‟. 
 without specifying these in detail‟. 1987: 4 in Blomley 2006: 88). as critical scholarship has become normalised and institutionalised. 2005:221). has it lost its political edge (Hague. many scholars share Cloke‟s frustration with „our apparent inability to retain a critical political edge in human geography‟ (Cloke. SPACE & SOCIETY successful career (Blomley 2007:1. However. Critical geography can also be seen to have lost its political edge due to its bifurcation of the Left. if everything can be called “critical. As the prefix of „critical‟ has become seemingly more popular. Leftist thinking in business. leaving. This demonstrates the paradoxical nature of whether one can be truly critical within the academy and may endorse the theory that critical geographies have become a victim of its own successes. Whilst the prominence of critical geographers within the academy has made the plight of change more visible. this is an instance of how critical geography must strive to rise against the affects of institutionalisation and continue to be radical and fight for change.

its strengths and its faults. Activist geographies were born out of radical geographies in the 1960s and Marxist geographers‟ desire to help solve social problems) (add dictionary reference). This differs from critical geography. It 4 . and examine their space within the academy. in a way. 2004:529 quoted in Blomley. Amin & Thrift (2005) argue that efforts to move away from Euro-ethnocentrism have been „painful‟ but we one result has been clear: „no longer acceptable to think the world from the West and its underlying Whiteness‟. 2005:891). Early radical geographers called for the establishment of a people‟s geography. and they sought to challenge particularly the patriarchal relations. and Fuller and Kitchin (2004:5) have termed this type of engagement „critical praxis‟. 2007:290).and praxis to remain significant it is therefore their task to struggle against the „power of capitalism‟s ideological combine-harvester which flattens all before it‟ (Smith. and their contemporary relevance in society. with academics‟ work neglecting their „private activism‟ for a multitude of reasons. Amin and Thrift (2005) support this idea and argue that in order to be critical we must show „constant and unremitting critical reflexivity to our own practices‟. Furthering this concept of a privileged vantage point.intentioned radical Anglophonic scholars are. For critical geography to be significant it has been stated that it is necessary to understand that the research process itself is loaded with power relations between both the researcher and researched (Fuller & Kitchin. Critical geography has been argued to be divorced from such a role. and has gone some way to critique its journey. challenging „the natural‟ and they go on to remark that „to claim to have the one and only answer… is to become part of the problem‟. Therefore it can be said that critical and activist geographers should be reflexive in their work. in which research was focused on politically charged questions and engaged with people they studied. it is possible to examine the way in which critical geography situated nature of the knowledge it produces on a more global scale. 2004). I am now going to evaluate activist geographies. This embraces the essence of the critical enquiry. independent academic selves‟. Vaiou says „even the most reflexive and well. to create an academic praxis that is emancipatory and empowering for the participants in the research (Fuller & Kitchin. 2004 ). privileged by such power geometries constructed through language. This reflection on critical praxis was examined first by feminists in the 1980s and 1990s. Blomley (2007) challenges the hegemony of Anglophonic Academy and the exclusions that this produces. Why it is significant for us to question ones‟ position when operating in a critical manner? Blomley (2007:287) advocates that one needs to pay more attention to the „academic self‟ and that the Left should stop trying so hard to mask ones‟ situated knowledge to appear as „autonomous. institutional settings and spaces of communication and academic exchange‟ (Vaiou. This essay has explored the growth of the critical geography.

Castree justifies this thought by stating that to make a „difference outside the academy… they need to more fully acknowledge (and remake) the institutional settings from which they come‟. ‘to not take advantage of my position of security … to orient my research towards progressive. A geographer’s broad scope of knowledge and academic strength should empower them to be involved outside the academy. if look at geographers‟ involvement outside the academy “via engagements with policy and policy makers. moreover they are obliged to because of this. Whilst this essay has demonstrated the pressures for activism beyond the academy. 2004:7). whose greatest impact came from spending hours in libraries. SPACE & SOCIETY can be noted that there is a fear amongst some academics that activist studies arguably work to diminish the role and power of the academy. the pressures of the neoliberal regime on universities have sought to breed „safe‟ research (Boudieu. with the example of Marx. In relation to activism in the academy. that many academics strive to maintain the pedagogical authority of education. Surely academics should take heed of this and examine the university as a valid site for activism. This idea can also be applied to activism. 2004:2). radical transformation would be a bloody waste’. with geographers seen to be ‘the best equipped intellectually to interpret social goals in terms of planning outcomes’” (Blowers 1974 quoted in 36 in Fuller & Kitchin. (Mitchell 2004:26) says. 2008: 287). it should make us of this position. as previously discussed in this essay.GE02312 5 THEORY. Secondly. Furthermore. with the aim „to instruct and agitate. One important consideration is why should geographers involve themselves in activism. 2000: 960 quoted in Blomley 2008:288) that geographers typically feel the need to reach out from. This exemplifies not only what critical geography can do at its best. and not just to “give voice” to the oppressed people of the world‟ (Mitchell 2004: 24). internal activism previously has been neglected. This was reasoned by Bourdieu. This has been heralded by Castree‟s call for „activism within the higher education system‟ (Castree. Firstly. and has become disengaged. highlighting that critical geography is failing to make the impact outside the academy that its forefathers desired. and writing challenging works. 1988 cited in Fuller and Kitchin. but also how activism is more than just leaving the walls of the academy. On the other hand it must be noted that this not true in all cases. and that in a reaction to this perceived retreat into the ivory tower from the mid 1990s other geographers have begun to explore more activist led research (Fuller and Kitchin. Mitchell 2004 has re-exposed the usefulness of said activism He describes the effectiveness of radical scholarship. 2004:12). It is also significant to note that the Left has worked hard to achieve institutional acceptance and in spite of the downfalls discussed. Mitchell 5 . critical geography has largely been confined to „traditional forms of scholarship and publication‟ (Blomley.

whilst the past has been far from perfect. whilst it may have been true a decade ago. I will now conclude. we have seen the uprising of the Occupy movement. as well as conferences and journals. I have also illustrated how critical geographies have lost their way slightly. critical geographers‟ work has arguably never had more significance. critical and activist geographies could be approaching a new wave of significance. and illustrates the argument that public activists should be fully recognised as critical geographers as Chatterton described (Chatterton. This engagement can be witnessed by David Harvey‟s involvement in the movement. in what Smith sees as a society more open for change. 2000:959). and engage alongside. an international protest directed against economic and social inequality. However.concludes that sometimes the best way to make a difference outside the academy is by committing to good. radical research within in the academy. Over the last few months. Having discussed some of the key debates and concepts in critical and activist geographies. is precisely the future again seems open‟. However this statement. he declares that it is „people on the streets. However. but notes that „I do think it is important to see 2011 as this crucial moment where things change. Activism outside the academy is an area that in recent years has been criticized largely due to its decoupling the „real world‟ Castree (2000). but as accumulation of fragmented movements over the last few years. is not so potent now as are experiencing a very exciting time in activist geographies. Geographers must cease this opportunity to 6 . This exemplifies the significance in activism today and also critical praxis can be produced outside the university. This illustrates critical geographers‟ need to leave the ivory tower of the academy. the significance of Left-wing politics and ideas has been oppressed by the dominance of neoliberal ideas. and participate alongside people. Certainly it has been the case that the academy has been one of the few places where the Left has survived with relative freedom (Castree. This essay has explored the growth of critical geographies. rather than simply studying them. Neil Smith at the 18th Annual Critical Geography conference described the Occupy movement as not new uprising activism. In his address to the protestors. which has led to institutional acceptance that is visible in the plethora of universities teaching about them. Furthermore. Consequently. This a prime site for critical geographers to engage with the world outside the academy. focusing too much on analysis of identity politics and not enough on action for change. 2004 cited in Blomley 2008). and what‟s changed in particular in the broadest sense. and explored both positives and negatives for their acceptance. on the squares that really matter in the end because that‟s the only political force we‟ve got‟ (Harvey 2011). Moreover this brings in the question of who is an activist. Furthermore.

K. (2005) What‟s Left? Neo-Critical Geography. Youtube video. Progress in Human Geography 32(2): 285-293> Mitchell. N.
 Or. and the university: whither `critical geography'? . < http://www. and D. Youtube video. Wiley-Blackwell. G. Praxis. Vernon and Victoria. Antipode 37:220–238 Castree. and Watts. (2006) Uncritical critical geography? .. N. Progress in Human Geography 31(1): 52-65 Blomley. (2008) The Spaces of Critical Geography . (2004) Radical Scholarship: A Polemic on Making a Difference outside the Academy in Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Making a Difference Beyond the Academy. History of Intellectual Culture. References Amin.> 7 .J. Johnston. D. N.GE02312 7 N. 1-20 Gibbons. W. Praxis. Vernon and Victoria. Environment and Planning A 32: 955-970 Blomley. 1(1): 1-16 Gregory. activism.
 The Flat Pluralist World of Business Class. (2001) „Critical of What?': Past and Current Issues in Critical Human Geography. and fulfill Marx‟s ambition for change. N. 21-31 Smith. (2005) What‟s left? Just the future. Antipode 37:887-99 Neil Smith at the 18th Annual Critical Geography Conference .on "Occupy Wall Street" (2011). N. (2007) Critical geography: anger and hope . Chichester David Harvey at Occupy London (2011). viewed 10th Decemeber 2011. Progress in Human Geography 30(1): 8794 Blomley. R. R.. and Kitchin. (2005) The Dictionary of Human Geography. 10th Decemeber 2011 <http://www. M. Pratt. (2004) Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Academic Geography Beyond the Academy? in Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Making a Difference Beyond the Academy. SPACE & SOCIETY engage outside the academy. (2000) Professionalisation..