Strong wish to follow the same map

Journal of Economic Geography
April 25, 2003

The appearance of a new journal is always exciting and the launch of the Journal of Economic Geography comes at a particularly interesting moment in the developing dialogue between economic geographers and scholars in other social-science disciplines. Economic geography is a relatively open domain of intellectual inquiry, building links over the past three decades with, inter alia , parts of anthropology, (heterodox) economics and sociology in seeking more nuanced and sophisticated understandings of economies and their geographies.

The resultant diversity of methodological and theoretical perspectives within economic geography has produced an intellectually rich and stimulating terrain, characterised by a plurality of perspectives - sometimes complementary, sometimes competitive, occasionally at cross-purposes, but nearly always interesting - as to how to perform the subject. In contrast, mainstream (orthodox) economics occupies a closed and unchanging terrain, emphasising methodological individualism as the order of the day and a much more restricted approach to theory that values formal, deductive mathematical approaches. Furthermore, it is blind to the spatiality of economies.

Recently, however, some economists - notably Paul Krugman - have begun to seek ways of dealing with space within the framework of what has come to be known as the New Economic Geography or NEG. This has set the scene for an engagement between NEG geographical economists and economic geographers as to how most appropriately to conceptualise and analyse geographies of economies.

The reactions of economic geographers to the emergence of the NEG varied widely. Some were openly hostile, seeing it, at best, as a more formalised return to the concerns of earlier eras of economic geography. As such, it was not only not a "new" but a retrograde step. Accepting the NEG on its own terms privileges one conception of the economy and economics as the approach, denying - or at least downgrading - the validity of other conceptions.

Others, however, were more sympathetic, seeing the NEG as a chance to engage with mainstream economists in ways that had been impossible previously. Those involved with the journal fall in this latter group, intent on creating space for productive cross-disciplinary dialogue. As its editors, Richard Arnott, an economist, and Neil Wrigley, a geographer, emphasise: "The aim of the Journal of Economic Geography is to provide a forum of communication between 'economic geographers' and 'geographical economists'."

The early issues certainly contain a number of interesting articles - for example, those by Linda McDowell, Jamie Peck and Erica Schoenberger. They provide ample evidence of the variety of approaches deployed by economic geographers and also of the continuing differing disciplinary approaches of economic geographers and geographical economists. How many economic geographers would, I wonder, subscribe to the geographical economists'

claim that "the sovereignty of the consumer is inescapable"? Perhaps unsurprisingly for a new journal, many of the contributions are from associate editors or members of the editorial board.

While the aim of creating a space for cross-disciplinary dialogue is admirable, is there scope for much more than talking across the boundaries, as opposed to dissolving them and creating a new (post)disciplinary approach? Beyond a formal concern with space, there seems little common epistemological ground, little shared conceptual space between many economic geographers and geographical economists.

Many economic geographers oppose the NEG because it privileges formal theory, deductively created and expressed in mathematical languages. However, I agree with one of the editorial board members, Eric Sheppard, that the fundamental schism does not revolve around the use of mathematical languages. The critical issue is the rather limited, some might say emaciated, conceptualisation of social processes in the NEG that allows these to be represented by particular formal mathematical languages.

For geographical economists, the focus of explanation is the aggregated effects of individual decisions. For many economic geographers this methodological individualism is inadequate. They recognise the explanatory power of more macro structures and collective agency while not denying the potential force of individual actions. Therefore, they argue for a more catholic perspective, recognising that different conceptions of theory and theoretical languages may be required for different explanatory purposes.

The nub of the problem is, as Sheppard observes: "How economists think about geography and how geographers think about it are quite different, even when the same language of argument is deployed." Given the profound ontological and epistemological differences between the two camps, the scope for constructive cross-disciplinary dialogue is severely limited.

Certainly both sides can recognise the merits of each other's work, as different (not necessarily better or worse) approaches to understanding the geographies of economies.

Perhaps this is as much as can reasonably be expected. Indeed, it would seem that the editors have come to the same conclusion. Reflecting on the first two years, editors Arnott and Wrigley conclude that "the gulf between the two groups remains wide". Contributions from geographical economists "tend to reflect the world view of neoclassical economists", while those from economic geographers "are more eclectic in approach, more willing to entertain alternative conceptualisations that provide new insight, but less willing to sacrifice empirical realism for abstract universalism".

But these are early days, and it would be unwise to rush to a judgement.

The cross-disciplinary debate may develop in such a way that the gulf will be crossed constructively, maybe even closed. However, the prospects do not look promising, as the origins of the gulf lie deeply embedded in different conceptions as to what constitutes appropriate evidence, methodology and theory. Finally, a question: is there a danger that seeking to promote this particular cross-disciplinary dialogue might stifle potential dialogues between economic geography and disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies and sociology with which it shares much more common ground?

Ray Hudson is professor of geography, University of Durham.

Journal of Economic Geography

Editor - Diego Puga and Neil Wrigley
ISBN - ISSN 1468 02 (Online ISSN 1468 10)
Publisher - Oxford University Press, four times a year
Price - Institutions £165.00 Individuals £37.00

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