Space - the lost frontier

Human Geography Today
June 4, 1999

In her seminal work on industrial restructuring in Britain, Doreen Massey introduced the "layers of investment" metaphor: the changing geography of employment reflects disinvestment from some areas, reinvestment in others, and new investment in "new industrial regions". That metaphor can be adapted to changes in academic disciplines, with intellectual resources being removed from some areas, sustained in others, and substantially redirected towards new fields. Much attention inevitably focuses on the new. But occasionally there is the sense that an entire discipline is changing: this is the clear message of Human Geography Today .

The manifesto's core argument is that spaces, places and natures (there is relatively little about this third element) are being continually remade as part of the remaking of identities and are deeply involved in the power relationships central to contemporary life. But these spaces and places are rarely those traditionally associated with geographers: there are no maps in the book, just Herman Melville's telling quote: "It is not down on any map; true places never are." Nor is some of the subject matter traditionally associated with geography. The "directly experienced world of empirically measurable and mappable phenomena" that makes up what Ed Soja calls "Firstspace", and on which many geographers focus their intellectual energies, is deemed unworthy of consideration.

What impression do the authors leave in their explorations of "Questions of identity, of the nature of power, of the constitution of knowledge and its legitimation"? New subject matters need new vocabularies: most practising human geographers will probably cope with the words - but not the long and contorted sentences into which they are sometimes compressed. More importantly, what of the approaches and theoretical positions that may throw light where previous attempts have failed? The jury is still out. Does, as David Sibley argues, psychoanalytic theory aid appreciations of why Gypsies have been characterised as "residues" by European societies? Does the theoretical apparatus that Michael Watts brings to bear significantly enhance our appreciation of the Ogoni people's situation?

Human Geography Today addresses only part of human geography today. Readers seeking an overview will obtain a very partial view and will no doubt be left wondering what is geographical, within the editors' own identified triad, in discussions about whether Filipino maids tell employers about their boyfriends. Those prepared to be challenged by "the difficulty of making sense of the world in ways other than those given to us" will find much to ponder on.

The wider discipline will continue to attract intellectual resources and provide alternative "takes" on the "space-place-nature" triad. According to Soja, "Firstspace is seen as providing the geographers' primary empirical text" whereas "Secondspace... concentrates on and explores more cognitive, conceptual and symbolic worlds". Thirdspace approaches that dichotomy by "(breaking) them open to new and different possibilities" through the creation of new "lived spaces". According to him, few geographers work in either Firstspace or Secondspace, but "rather somewhere in between, conceiving of 'pure' materialism/objectivity and idealism/subjectivity as opposite poles of a continuum of approaches". So, the next challenge is to address the "missing link" between (the ignored) First and Secondspace, the interactions between the "new industrial spaces" and "continuing industrial regions" of contemporary geographical work out of which a new "geographical Thirdspace" might emerge - or does their lack of recognition for geography as spatial science imply a case for disinvestment, for abandoning that long-established region?

Ron Johnston is professor of geography, University of Bristol.

Human Geography Today

Editor - Doreen Massey, John Allen and Philip Sarre
ISBN - 0 7456 2188 0 and 2189 9
Publisher - Polity
Price - £49.50 and £14.99
Pages - 340

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