The articles of faith of contemporary social and cultural geography

This post comes from a sense of dissatisfaction and a hope for finding different ways of (personally) doing geography. [I’ve been writing it for too long, so I’m just hitting “publish” – I welcome thoughts…]

When struggling for sleep and time to do things due to trying to do all of the things I know I should be doing to advance my career but also wanting to be with my family, I find it disheartening to decide to read newly published journal articles or agree to review articles and settle into reading them only to find they repeat familiar arguments, freighting the same rather narrow set of concepts. This post will likely irk (perhaps seriously) some who feel invested in some of the things I criticise, I can only apologise about that.

What I am identifying can’t be new, I’m sure plenty of others have made similar arguments… but it seems to me that we have a fairly set orthodoxy in how social and cultural geography gets done and what it can say. I am of course complicit. I am not seeking to distance myself from any of this, merely ‘confess’ and look for other ways of working.

The articles of faith we seem to have adopted in the REF-driven, short-termist form of research communication we inhabit and propagate concern both methodology and theory.

Methodologically, in spite of careful commentary reflecting upon the “new orthodoxy” of qualitative methods, we seem to have adopted a faith in the “theory–case study” model.

Generalise through theory – In this model one presents, often rather small scale, ethnographically derived empirical material. But rather than acknowledge the limits of scope and avoid attempting to generalise – following the model, this case study is read as an exemplar of a (sometimes muscular) ontological claim. I suggest this creates an epistemological slip, the modest empirical claims are rendered general by virtue of an appeal to theory. In this way, relatively modest empirical findings about a specific case study can be generalised by appealing to ‘big’ theory. This is of course understandable – we’re supposed to be writing four-star (“world leading”) research and using heavyweight theory is the conventional  ‘shortcut’ (in time and resources) to making such a claim. I’ve written papers like this, many have.

Theoretically, the discourses of social and cultural geography have, dare I say it, become rather dogmatic. There is a collective pressure through journals, email lists, social media and events to adopt the jargon and to conform (‘discursive regime’ anyone?). It seems to me there is a rather narrow range of concepts in use.

In part, I wonder whether this is due to an attempt to systematise the easier aspects of big (mostly French) philosophical systems of thought that gained traction in the late 1990s early 2000s, many of us went about formulating ways of ‘doing’ Deleuze for example (maybe I’m only repeating this mistake with Stiegler – I’m really trying not to!). Some have become a universal mechanism of explanation – regardless of the context of study. I worry that we are in danger of getting caught in a theoretical culdesac – everything becomes an example of those concepts we hold to be the truth. I am not suggesting we should not use the concepts I identify here or that they are in some way ‘wrong’. Some people have done careful and nuanced theoretical work that articulates the value of such theory. However, this doesn’t mean we all have to pile in and parrot the concepts to juice up our publications.

Sometimes concepts can be a sort of “sledgehammer to crack a nut”, sometimes they’re just a blinkered implication of causation that amounts to a dogmatic profession of faith – the empirical material demonstrates the concept, no matter what. Again, there are lots of understandable reasons – REF and employment pressures to get publications out, wanting to ‘fit in’ and being short on time so slipping into the ‘orthodoxy’.

I don’t actually buy the theoretical ‘arms race’ argument that has been posited about (mostly younger) researchers searching out the next ‘big’ theorist. I think we’re actually, mostly, more conservative – we’ve developed an orthodoxy that, in some cases, can verge on dogma: hence my provocation of the ‘articles of faith’.

The core concepts outlined here as the grounds of this ‘articles of faith’ are of course contestable and I’m not seeking to be definitive in any way. I suspect they are also all-too-familiar to the handful of people who will read this blog. My argument here is that perhaps we need to reflect a little more explicitly on how and when we use our theoretical blunderbusses…

  • The constitutional agency of Affect (& Atmosphere) – Given the arguments about the use of this concept, this perhaps one of the more difficult ideas to address. I sympathise with a desire to articulate the nonrepresentational and value some of the work done in that vein. Work around how we might understand intensities of relations and how particular places become constituted as much in unspoken sensations as through signification, and indeed how such spatial experience becomes perturbed, seems like a useful contribution to me. However, in some uses of the concept of affect/atmosphere there is an all-too-easy slip into appealing to amorphous (at times quasi-mystical) pre- / trans- subjective forces of affect/being affected to beef-up an argument. We are, I fear, in danger of creating what a colleague called a kind of ‘Phil Collins geography’, where something is literally “In the Air Tonight”.
  • The invocation of the Anthropocene – How can one argue against anthropogenic climate change? and I’m not trying to, but there appears, to me, to be a danger in invoking an all-encompassing rupture in ‘geological time’, in ecological understandings and in the cautious epistemological reflections upon how, as non-scientists, we understand and use ‘Scientific’ (with a big “S”) knowledge. We are in danger of eliding the careful reflections upon understandings and representations of Earth and world within geographical work. It seems to me this has granted license to engage in some peculiar forms of exercise in phenomenological impossibility, seeking to look ‘after the human’, and can perpetuate (globally) Western/ Northern perspectives that elide other ways of coming to terms with climate change. There has, of course, been some great work [e.g.] examining such problems.
  • The hegemony of Neoliberalism – or: the taken-for-granted force of the lumped together bogeymen of left-leaning thinkers along the lines of the ‘evils of capitalism’,  mostly denoting the combined phenomena of deregulation, privatisation and globalisation. An over-arching concept that affords one the opportunity to point to a thing we can be normatively against. There, of course, exists plenty of critique of the use of the idea in geography and suggestions for other terms or ways of engaging with the phenomena apparently denoted/ connoted by the term but it has a life of its own.
  • Witnessing the Non-human – on the one hand a useful means of articulating that the geographies we seek to explore have more than just us, “human” actors/actants/agents, in them. On the other hand, we are in danger of affirming precisely the sorts of (naive) humanism/human-centric ideas we are attempting to escape (via Latour et al.) For example, when is what gets called ‘non-human’ perhaps actually human? Technology is a case for me here and it all depends on the other theoretical assumptions you make about what a ‘technology’ is… Likewise, if we’re seeking to de-naturalise ‘nature’, to demonstrate that we are not and cannot be separate from what we identify as ‘nature’ then creating label for what may be ‘other’ to the human seems a weird way of going about it. Of course, again, there is some really excellent work that takes on board such understandings and I’m fortunate to work with several of the people doing/writing it. Nevertheless, the wider discursive use of ‘non-human’ risks doing the reverse of what one might think one if doing with it.
  • The supremacy of Subjectivity – The basis for understandings of human experience, in relation to which difference, identity, spatiality and many other concepts are conceived in much of geography. Of course, some fantastic work has been done on the idea of a subject, subject positions and subjectivity. I guess the reason I raise the concept here is because there seems an increasingly common slip between the ways we discuss subjective experience and the ways in which we are individualised in different domains (legal, political, technological etc.) to render an equivalence. An example here is an idea of a “digital subjectivity”[1]. On the one-hand we might see this in relation to the various ways one performs different identities through different apps, conforms to or breaks rules/conventions and so on. On the other hand we might see it as the ways we get surveilled, defined, addressed and perhaps conditioned by our data. Weirdly, given the popularity of ‘affect’ theory, we can get caught up in peculiar contradictions between the ‘excessive’ agency of the intersubjective and the repressive agency of subjection/subjectivation. In slipping between the two, we risk falling foul of longstanding arguments around reductive understandings of ‘subjection’ and eliding precisely the epistemological purchase the concept can, potentially, afford, i.e. multiplicity, intersubjectivity and so on.

Alternatives..?  I do not have easy answers, goodness knows I wish I did… However, I can offer some suggestions that I find myself contemplating as ways forward for rethinking how I go about understanding the kinds of knowledge claims I might seek to make in my future writing.

Firstly, maybe we can move beyond what I’ve called the “theory-case study” model? Perhaps it’s ok to return to a grounded theory approach, or to be rigorously empirical and refrain from particular forms of generalisation because that’s not what our ‘data’ grant. Perhaps we can innovate a little more (and perhaps I’m not reading enough to see that this is already happening?!)

Secondly, maybe it’s ok to do theory on it’s own, and we should find the confidence to do geographical theory too. Perhaps the editorial boards of our journals might already be receptive to this. Perhaps also we can collectively decide this is something we can value, so long as appropriate standards are applied.

Thirdly, maybe we should resist the artificial timetables of REF and so on dictating our push to produce work we may not feel entirely comfortable with. Maybe, with growing teaching and admin loads, maybe with increased precarity of work we, as a community of scholars, should say let’s cut ourselves some slack – especially those who are early career and forced into unsustainable habits of work: massive teaching loads for 9-months then a contract ends, all while attempting to get the next one and keep publications ticking over. I have no doubt that the ‘quickness’ with concepts and methods relates to the habits of work to which we are currently conforming. I cannot see how this is sustainable. It certainly isn’t for those of us with families. I admire those who succeed, in spite of all of this, but we cannot all do that and maybe we need to hold out a helping hand to others and say: it’s ok, you don’t need to copy us, you don’t have to do things our way – find your own ways of working, develop your own theory.

These are half-formed thoughts, at the end of term, frazzled by lack of sleep and trying to do too many things. I genuinely do not want to deride other people’s work here, I am merely identifying a dissatisfaction with how I understand my own working practices. I would welcome any thoughts…

Notes

  1. Or of course ‘algorithmic’ power/subjectivity/subjection – ‘algorithm’ might be included in a longer version of this list
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