Book Review (Tickell et al. 2007)
Politics and Practise in Economic Geography
Edited by Adam Tickell, Eric Sheppard, Jamie Peck and Trevor Barnes
Sage Publications, London (2007) 320 Pages. ISBN: 978-1412907859 (HC).
Reviewed by Ebru Cigdem Thwaites (27 November 2007)
Politics and Practice is intended as a pedagogical intervention into economic geography. It introduces key methodological debates within the discipline and considers the extent to which these overlap with political concerns. In their preface, the editors identify one of their aims as challenging standard research methods books, which favour certain methods over others, by encouraging methodological reflexivity and diversity. For this will enhance collective learning within the field as well as communication with other social science disciplines. Calling for a distinctive critical relational geography, the contributors recommend guidelines for research in economy geography. The biggest strength of the book is its pedagogic design, which will appeal to new entrants in the field but also leaves space for methodological debates compatible with a pluralized economic geography. As such, methodological reflexivity opposes attempts to “discipline the discipline” (Schoenberger p 37).
The various contributions originate in talks in the early 1980s at the Open University organized by Doreen Massey and Richard Meegan, which were then published in an anthology, Politics and Method (1985). Debates on the inter-relationship between politics, methods and research practises were situated in the historical and geographical context of de-industrialisation and neo-liberal capitalism. This paved the way for a reflexive attitude among economic geographers towards the relationship between political stances and methodological choices. Politics and Practice also emphasizes methodological reflexivity, interrogating it in terms of the: (a) shifting relation between researcher and the subjects of research; (b) the ways in which research practises are bound up with politics; (c) quantitative methods implicate upon qualitative economic geographies; and (d) researchers meet challenges that arise due to shifts between “field sites, places of `analysis`, and spaces of engagement. The four sections of the book correspond to these themes.
In this review, I prefer to focus on cross-cutting themes in order to locate the book in the debates in the discipline. I start with the layout of the book. The ordering of sections on dualist economic geographies and mobilising economic geographies map a clear narrative that reveals methodological shifts in the development of the discipline from its positivist American and Euro-centric past to its recent emphasis on interfaces, interactions and mobilities. This seems to me to be required by the editors’ ambitions to produce a useful textbook: thus first comes a critical discussion of quantitative and qualitative approaches as dichotomous entry points into the field; and second methodological tools are introduced to deconstruct these dualities. For example, in the third section, Kwan focuses on the GIS method as a hybrid economic practise that overcomes the shortcomings of quantitative methods and privileges the particularities of the individual subjects (p 175). Debates in the fourth section push forward to a critical relational geography that engages with spatial turns. Thus Yeung analyses the economy in terms of trans-national networks and Kelly and Olds show the importance of scaling in globalising networks.
This layout (Position and Method, Politicising Method, Quantity and Quality and Mobilising Economic Geographies) also reflects a general critique of spatial fetishism. In this context, critical relational geography both retains the influence of dialectical materialism and goes beyond it to emphasize the limits to grand narratives. This is supported in different ways by the contributors. By revealing the links between methodology and politics, all of the authors also reflect on the connections between their respective political positions and their research agendas. For example, Kelly and Olds stress the importance of rescaling in analysing spatiality in trans-national networks and problematise the researcher’s positionality in trans-national research sites (p 255). Likewise, Glassman argues for a conceptualisation of the Thai state as a hybrid, internationalised entity, promoting national capitalist development rather than as singular and territorially bounded (pp 141-145). Rather than arguing for a de-territorialised globalisation, Glassman argues for a globalising capitalist world. Another example would be Pickles and Smith’s argument about the “plurality of state socialisms” and their global effects in the form and performance of other economies (p 152).
As I read it, methodological reflexivity bears upon the dialogue between political economy and socio-spatiality by revealing complex socio-spatial dimensions in economic geography. In particular, the essays in Section 4 pick up different dimensions of spatiality and explore how diverse methodological positions within economic geography handle these dimensions. Throughout the book, authors challenge the ontological primacy of particular spatial categories, such as territory, place and network, in analysing socio-spatial relations. As such, it is very clear what the authors are attempting to break from but it less clear where they are heading.
Indeed, in explaining the connection between politics and practice, the authors are, almost inevitably, drawn into relating general theoretical, methodological, and political issues to specific case studies that they have previously conducted. This is very useful at one level, enabling the reader to see the implications of specific choices for the practice of research. But it makes it harder to evaluate the choices they have made because their validity is filtered through the specificities of the case study. This produces a potential confusion between the general and the particular. This probably reflects the constraints of the textbook genre and raises an interesting set of questions about how to move beyond the criticisms of standard arguments about socio-spatiality that we find in this text.
An alternative approach would have been to remain at a general, even meta-theoretical, level and explore the broader implications of the authors’ various arguments. This is where the latest contribution of Jessop, Brenner, Jones (2007) to critical relational geography could provide insight in framing the methodological counter-trends in socio-spatial theory. They criticize one-dimensionality in socio-spatial theory and argue for a “strategic relational analysis of socio-spatial processes”. The SRA enables a polymorphic, multi-dimensional analysis that disambiguate spatial categories as (a) a primary structuring principle that recursively reproduces and transforms the site of its field of operation, (b) secondary structuring principles that overdetermine other fields of socio-spatial relations with their respective primary structuring principle, and (c) a structured field shaped by other socio-spatial structuring principles (Jessop, Brenner, Jones 2007: 11). This could provide students and scholars with a valuable entry point into the complexities of socio-spatial theory. This argument is, indeed, very similar to that of Leitner and Sheppard in their latest contribution to socio-spatial theorizing, which emphasizes the co-implication of different dimensions of spatiality (including mobility) and illustrates this with a case study of the Homeless March on Washington, D.C. (Leitner and Sheppard, in press).
Methodological reflexivity is a timely topic on the critical geography agenda. So, too, is Politics and Practise in shaping a dialogue among political economy, feminist, poststructuralist methodologies and socio-spatial theory through methodological reflexivity. The consensus among the various contributors on the need to lay bare methodological questions illustrates the discipline’s wish to build links with other disciplines that draw on socio-spatiality. Politics and Practise, with its extensive use of case studies that bear upon methodological debates, is written to appeal to entrants into the field. As such, it is well-suited for use on general courses but it also involves far more than an introduction and is full of theoretical insights for a more theoretically advanced audience.
Jessop, B., Brenner, N., and Jones, M.R. (2007) Theorising Socio-Spatiality, forthcoming in Environment and Planning D: Society & Space. In press.
Leitner, H. and Sheppard, E. (in press) The Spatialities of Contentious Politics. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.