Book Review (Bagchi-Sen and Lawton-Smith 2006)

Economic Geography, Past, Present and Future

Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen and Helen Lawton Smith (Eds).

London & New York, Routledge, 2006, 260 pp, £75 Hardback, ISBN 9780415367844.

Review No. 1

Reviewed by James R Faulconbridge, Department of Geography, Lancaster University (14 May 2007)

Ever since the interventions of first Jamie Peck (1999) and Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2001) many Economic Geographers have been asking themselves questions about their identity, policy relevance and practice within the context of an inter- or post-disciplinary landscape. This book offers a new and interesting intervention into these debates by bringing an all-star cast of Economic Geographers together to provide chartings of the history, current concerns and future directions of the field. In their introduction, Bagchi-Sen and Lawton Smith suggest that the collection has three aims: to consider the current state of knowledge in Economic Geography and contemporary theoretical and methodological debates; to explore ongoing discussions about the existence, need for and role of interdisciplinary, policy relevant work in economic geography; and to consider the future trajectories of the sub-discipline. Here, instead of trying to summarise all of the material covered in the 20 chapters and 250 or so pages that follow the editors’ introduction, I review the way four themes run throughout the book are developed by the contributors.

The need for Economic Geographers to be more aware of the historical precedents for current research is a theme that dominates the first section of the book (entitled Roots and Legacy) as well as a number of later chapters. As in Human Geography more widely, in recent years Economic Geography has undergone a number of ‘turns’ with, amongst others the cultural (Amin and Thrift, 2001), policy (Peck, 1999) and relational turns (Boggs and Rantisi, 2003) said to be redefining the field. We are reminded, however, by several contributors (Dicken; Sheppard; Hudson; Watts) that this has often been at the expense of forms of incremental learning with supposedly outdated and unfashionable concepts being thrown away in favour of contemporary fetishes. The danger here according to contributors is that scholars run the risk of repeating past mistakes and reinventing the wheel in research. Moreover such faddish-like behaviour is said to prevent a coherent identity developing for the sub-discipline. This relates to a second major theme that appears again and again throughout in the book.

Calls for inter-disciplinary research (inclusive or not of economics) have, according to a number of chapters in the book, left many wondering if it is possible to identify the gelling agent that unites all within Economic Geography. Throughout the book a range of perspectives emerge in relation to this question. Some call implicitly and explicitly for agreement about a shared agenda, even if they cannot agree upon what that agenda might be (Dicken; Sheppard; Hudson; Yeung; Glasmeier). Others prefer what they see as the current plurality and the flexibility of Economic Geography (McDowell; Markusen). It is worth noting here that a number of chapters do begin to converge around the need for Economic Geographers to engage with environmental issues – whether this be through discussions with ‘development’ geographers or otherwise – something that is particularly timely in light of pressing contemporary challenges such a global warming. It would be wrong to make judgements here about which camp offers the most useful perspective. Making such a judgement-call is, however, something that the third major theme in the book suggests might be important for the future of Economic Geography.

A lack of policy relevance, or ‘Grey Geography’ as Peck (1999) chose to call it, is not an issue solely troubling Economic Geographers. However, throughout the book we see a number of, perhaps slightly nostalgic, reflections upon past periods when Economic Geographers contributed significantly to debates such as deindustrialisation and uneven development (e.g. Asheim; Glasmeier). As Dicken (2004) has argued elsewhere, geographers have recently missed the policy boat on globalisation, the topic of the second section of this book, and a sense of frustration at this is vocalised throughout the contributions here. Some (e.g. Beyers; Lovering; Malecki) suggest we should not be surprised by this as a lack of empirical research and especially quantitative analysis has, in the eyes of policy makers, devalued the input of Economic Geographers. Others are more critical of such a perspective and think plurality and the adoption of qualitative approaches has strengthened research (McDowell; Markusen; Beyers) and that finding a way to communicate our findings is the key challenge. Whichever position you take, that lack of a clear ‘centre ground’ for Economic Geography seems to be implicitly linked to this problematic, a suggestion the fourth and final theme of the book reinforces.

The methodological toolkit of economic geographers is now as diverse and as contested as any of the topics described above. For some, this lack of a shared methodological toolkit (à la economics) is associated with earlier discussions of Economic Geography’s failure to have an impression on policy discussions (Glasmeier). This begins to draw us back to the conundrum of the future direction of the discipline. Perhaps unsurprisingly and many might say thankfully, the book fails to provide a clear vision of the future of Economic Geography. Throughout the book there are repeated musings about the benefits and dangers of imposing or seeking agreement on a core research agenda. Hence some contributors provide a clear discussion of what they see as the future of Economic Geography (Sheppard; Hudson; Scott; Markusen; Angel; Watts) and others provide a coherent agenda for speciality research in their sub-field (Clark; Daniels; Kenney and Dossani; Yeung; Martin; Green). Between them though the contributors provide no clear message appears about how to reconcile their differing perspectives. Some will argue this is important and the main strength of the book. I feel, however, that despite the valiant efforts of the editors, the reader is left with the feeling that there is a lack of synergism and that the whole is no more than the sum of the parts. Some chapters talk past one-another, critique each-others perspective and as a result exist in isolation rather than unity. Others are so focussed upon one aspect of economic geography that the bigger picture and significance of their points for the debate at hand is hard to see. The reader might, therefore, be left wondering why there isn’t a concluding chapter written by the editors that pulls these diverse stories together and helps make sense of the plethora of rich, insightful yet at times unfocussed contributions. As it stands the book might have been better called Economic Geography: past and present debates. The reader is also left wondering about the geography of the contributors to the book. With the exception of the chapter by Henry Yeung from Singapore, all of the writers are based in North American or Europe. The fact that the book emerged from sessions at an Association of American Geographers Annual Conference is undoubtedly one cause of this, and the book’s contributors undoubtedly reflect the problematic geography of participants at such events. Nevertheless, as Peter Dicken argues in his foreword, perhaps one of Economic Geography’s weaknesses is its failure to engage with events, practices and scholarship outside of the Anglo-American world. A more balanced line up might have been helpful when trying to consider the future of Economic Geography.

Despite these two minor criticisms, this is a powerful and valuable contribution to current debates in Economic Geography. For anyone wishing to quickly get up to speed on the current challenges facing the sub-discipline or to understand the multiple positionalitites of leading scholars in the field, this book is an essential read. For those actively researching and teaching Economic Geography Susan Hanson’s comments in her contribution about the need to consider all of these debates in the context of how we educate, influence and inspire the next generation of scholars in the field is a timely reminder of the need for continued discussions about these topics in the current period of concern about disciplinary renewal. The book reenergises and provides a useful contribution to these debates and, therefore, deserves to be read widely.

References

Amin, A and Thrift, N. (2001) What kind of economic theory for what kind of economic geography? Antipode 32 pp 4-9

Boggs, J S and Rantisi, N. (2003) The ‘relational turn’ in economic geography. Journal of economic geography 3 pp 109-116

Dicken, P. (2004) Geographers and ‘globalization’: (yet) another missed boat? Transactions of the Instittue of British Geographers NS 29 (5), pp 5-26.

Peck, J. (1999) Grey Geography? Transactions of the Instittue of British Geographers NS 24 (2), pp 131-135.

Review No. 2

Reviewed by Adrian Smith, Institute of Geography and Earth Science, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (02 July 2007)

The aim of this project is nothing if not ambitious. Framed in the temporal fashion the title suggests, the editors have attempted to draw together all the multiple, diverse strands of theory and practice that make up economic geography between the covers of a single book. The inspiration for this project was a series of sessions at the 2004 Philadelphia conference of the Association of American Geographers entitled ‘Economic Geography: Then, now and the future.’ Happily, they have succeeded in such an ambitious aim.

The book is split into three sections. In the first section, articles by Eric Sheppard, Suzanne Hanson, Linda McDowell, Ray Hudson and Allen Scott offer a wide ranging set of perspectives on the nature of economic geography, its purpose, its history and potential avenues for its future. These five chapters alone lay the foundations of the book as celebrating a decidedly polytheist approach to economic geography, taking its current diversity and links with other disciplines as a boon rather than limitation, a theme carried forward in many of the following chapters.

The second section of the book offers perspectives on the current state of economic geography, especially as it pertains to globalisation. These chapters illuminate such lenses as finance (at all scales), political economy, services and environmentalism. While all of these chapters make interesting contributions I would highlight Richard Walker’s chapter discussing the development of his own career, or ‘the education of an economic geographer’ as a uniquely insightful view of the discipline.

The third section of the book deals with the regional scale specifically. It is in these chapters that the book steers into the realm of economic geography’s engagement with policy makers, or indeed lack of such engagement. Amy Glasmeier’s chapter deals with this specifically, in her call for economic geographers to do more to actively engage with policy circles, but policy is a recurrent theme in the other chapters also.

If I might now offer two more negative comments on this book, then first throughout this book there is a debate about economic geography’s troublesome relationship with the economics discipline. There are many perspectives offered in various chapters, especially in the opening section of the book, but it seems to me that this debate becomes something of a sub-current in the latter sections of the book. I think it might have been beneficial to retain a distinct focus on this debate in the latter two thirds of the book, as it is something that occupies the mind of nearly every economic geographer.

My second slightly negative point regards methodology. Although there is a very interesting chapter from William Beyers on approaching methodology in economic geography, methodology seems to be somewhat missing. I would argue that any book that acknowledges the spectacular theoretical development of economic geography into its currently diverse form must therefore address the comparatively little development there has been on methodology in economic geography. The editors characterise capitalism as constantly changing, yet do not seek to incorporate any discussion of the tools one might use to research such a mobile phenomena. However, those are just two small comments on what otherwise is an excellent and timely guide to the past, present and future of economic geography.

At £75 the book is towards the expensive side, but I think this book will not only be of use from a research perspective but also for teaching economic geography and potentially as a reference work for undergraduates, so it does offer reasonable value for money. Having said that, I am doubtful of whether this book has anything to offer a non-academic audience, but that is pure conjecture. At present, a number of exegeses on economic geography have, or will shortly be published, and as a result I suspect that this book will hold its own given the calibre of authors contributing to the volume.

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