A subject explodes

Making Political Geography. First edition - Geographically Thinking

May 30, 2003

As geography explodes in terms of its range of subject matter and practices, the need to introduce new ideas to innocent audiences expands accordingly. Outlining the entire discipline is a mammoth task, even when constrained to human or physical geography. Specialised books provide the way forwards.

John Agnew's is part of that strategy. His book is the first in a new series, Human Geography in the Making, whose editor offers "overviews of geographic subdisciplines that are widely taught in colleges and universities at the upper division and graduate levels".

But there is a problem with the orientation of the series - certainly with this book. It supposedly fills the gap between "topically focused textbooks and narrowly defined scholarly studies", providing "analyses of the intellectual currents that have shaped key subdisciplines" as well as "telling insights into the conceptual and empirical issues currently influencing research and teaching". Geographical understanding "requires an appreciation of how and why ideas have evolved, and where they may be going". I agree, but wonder whether the balance is right. Almost a third of Agnew's book covers "Historical canon 1875-1945" and the early years of the "Post-cold-war revival", limiting discussion of contemporary themes.

With that caveat, this is an excellent book. Agnew has full control of the literature, and the historical chapters are well conceived. So, to an even greater extent, are the sections on current concerns and the chapter on "The horizon". The former are structured into a matrix comprising subject areas (geopolitics, the spatiality of states, movements, places and identities, and nationalism) and perspectives (spatial-analytical, political-economic and postmodern); the latter identifies three major themes: geographical scale, politics of the environment and normative political geography. The writing is clear, and the case studies apposite and well depicted. With a further 100 pages on contemporary detail, it could be a world beater.

Thinking Geographically is an introductory text with a specific goal - to convince students that empirical study requires a theoretical foundation: issues relating to how we think geographically must be addressed from the outset. This is done in two main sections. The first, "Theorizing human geographies", has three chapters on the nature of theory, human geography's history and "New theories, new geographies?" - those associated with critical, postmodern and post-structural approaches. These are easy-to-assimilate introductions (despite some errors in the history).

The second section comprises five chapters on "Practising theoretical geographies", dealing with geographies of the body, text, money, governance and globalisation. Again, each is an easily absorbed introduction to the relevant material. But - and herein lies my major concern - the choice of material is narrow (despite the authors' claim that they have not advanced their own opinions on the "most appropriate and valid means through which to think geographically"). All the material in the second half relates to the "new theories/new geographies" identified as at the "heart" of the contemporary discipline. There is nothing on approaches developed pre-1980, several of which remain buoyant, or even their recent growth areas - such as geographical information systems. The authors claim that they are not opposed to these, yet their book's construction implies they consider them inappropriate for an introductory student audience.

Therefore, if you want a textbook to introduce only some elements of human geography, this may be the one for you. But if you aspire to a full overview, you will be disappointed by Thinking Geographically.

Ron Johnston is professor of geography, University of Bristol.


Making Political Geography. First edition

Author - John Agnew
ISBN - 0 340 75954 2 and 75955 0
Publisher - Arnold
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 208

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