Book Review (Coe et al. 2007)

Image of the cover of Economic Geography: A Contemporary Introduction

Economic Geography: A Contemporary Introduction

Neil Coe, Philip Kelly, Henry Yeung.

Blackwell Publishing, Oxford (2007). 426 pages. Paperback (£19.99). ISBN: 978-1-4051-3219-0.

Reviewed by Oli Mould (28 September 2007)

Given the recent (seemingly exponential) progressions in the debates surrounding economic geography, it is becoming increasingly popular, but complex, to formulate a concise and effective narrative which covers all the necessary points, but without glossing over the important details. This book is the latest attempt in trying to do just that for an undergraduate audience. From the outset it sets out it’s modus operandi as an undergraduate teaching tool, designed to clearly explain the fundamental debates in contemporary economic geography and present the different theoretical viewpoints in a congruous manner. Covering the variety and complexity of the multiple themes and sub-themes that constitute the undergraduate field of economic geography to a functional level, requires a very meticulous, succinct and well-versed narrative – something which this book achieves with a great deal of verve.

The structure of the book is straightforward, offering the key conceptualisations in Part I, the dynamism of economic space in Part II, dealing with economic actors in Part III, following up with the socialising of economic life in Part IV. Each chapter within these ‘Parts’ tackles an important area of these concepts with a high level of detail, and a great deal of academic acumen that while being concise and accurate, does not overwhelm the reader with too much jargon and economic geography neologisms. At the outset of every chapter, there is a list of aims which detail how the subsequent narratives will formulate a particular argument, and therefore contribute to that specific field of knowledge within economic geography. Then, usually the chapter delves into a discussion of a relevant (and current) case study, outlining which aspects in particular are of theoretical interest to the aims set out initially. Chapter 5 is a particular good example. The aims simply outline how the chapter will discuss technologies and their relation to space, as well as discussing the theoretical ideas of relational proximity. The narrative then starts with a discussion of the success of ebay (p 119 – 121), and then it begins to infuse it with the broader conceptual ideas regarding the critique of the ‘end of geography’, before launching into a detailed debate about the role of technologies in agglomeration and clustering throughout the rest of the chapter (still using incidental case study material relating to the initial discussion of ebay).

However, more than simply outlining the fundamental theoretical points one by one, the text uses contemporary case studies from the recent news (such as the Niger famine (p 3 – 6) of 2005, or legal case of Stephanie Villalba against Merril Lynch in 2004 (p 348 – 350)). In addition to these, academic case studies borrowed from recent relevant studies (such as the work on Motor Sport Valley in the UK by Pinch and Henry (1999) (p 141 – 142) and Hollywood by Scott (2002) (p 138)) are used, in order to highlight the differing theoretical approaches to studying the economic spatialities of particular industries. Using the lessons learnt and the nuanced theoretical idiosyncrasies from each of these case studies (academic and from the news), it produces largely successful generalised conclusions. Also, in many of the chapters themes, the book manages to outline the different theoretical approaches in a complimentary fashion, navigating the ‘battleground’ (Hubbard and Kitchin, 2007; Johnston, 2007) of theoretical thought in human geography successfully. Some of the particularly recent theoretical debates have been omitted, such as the recent discussion of Badiou’s theory of the event (see Smith and Doel, 2007), but it tackles established fields such as relational geography (p 148), Actor-Network Theory (p 178) and even the ‘project-turn’ (Grabher, 2002) (p 148-9), which are more relevant to an undergraduate audience. In summary, the case studies that are used provide tangible and ‘codified’ instances of the main theoretical debates, while still maintaining the importance of the theories’ main thrust.

Many of the chapters’ subject matters also deal with related areas of human geography such as Chapter 6, Environment/Economy, and Chapter 12, Gendered Economic Geographies. While they obviously focus on the economic geographies of these issues, the relevant and up to date examples, infused with the topical theoretical debates would make these chapters’ useful additions to undergraduate modules on (for example) environment and society, and feminist geographies.

As comprehensive as this volume is however, it does lack specific areas that are increasingly relevant to the field of economic geography, particularly the cultural and creative industries. Perhaps my own field of interests is biasing this section of commentary, however given that in London for example, the creative industries are second in terms of monetary value only to the financial industry, warrants at least some reference or discussion as to their organisational structure, labour nuances and spatialisation. Also, this book also is very much focused on the firm as the unit of calculation, and while Chapter 8 is devoted to the inter- and intra-firm structures, it neglects the role of freelancers in the economic landscape. Having highlighted these absences, it is worth noting that particular instances of cultural industries are used as case studies such as the film industry in Hollywood, the advertising industries’ role in value chains and new media industries. Also, while the role of culture in the internationalisation practices of the firm is discussed at length in Chapter 11, this is not related to the cultural industries, and perhaps a prolonged discussion of the increasing relevance (both economically and politically) of the cultural and creative industries would have provided a more comprehensive narrative of the contemporary knowledge economy.

Notwithstanding these omissions, this volume provides a very strong overview of the contemporary economic debates for an undergraduate audience. The use of key, relevant case studies serves to increase its readability, and keeps the interests levels high, which for an undergraduate book, is crucial. This book is quite clearly not designed for postgraduates or research academics (perhaps in only brushing up on the basics in an interesting and contemporary way), but as the mantra of this volume from the outset is as a core undergraduate text book, the more cutting edge research and theoretical insights are not needed. Any lecturers looking to revamp their core book choice for any economic geography module, to a book that can engage students and force them to think critically and spatially about the economic world around them, would be hard pushed to find a better contribution than this.

References:

Pinch S and Henry N. (1999) ‘Paul Krugman’s geographical economics, industrial clustering and the motor sport industry’. Regional Studies. 33: 815-827.

Scott A. (2002) ‘A new map of Hollywood: the production and distribution of American motion pictures’. Regional Studies. 36: 957-975.

Hubbard P and Kitchin R. (2007) ‘Battleground geographies and conspiracy theories: a response to Johnston (2006)’. Transactions. 32(3): 428-434.

Johnston R. (2007) ‘On duplicitous battleground conspiracies’. Transactions. 32(3): 435-438.

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