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Social Sci LibreTexts

15.1: The Basics of Critical Geography

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  • Critical geography emerged in the 1970s as a critique of positivism, which is a form of scholarship based upon the idea that the world exists independently of observers. Critical geography is rooted in neo-Marxism and draws upon the ideas of Jürgen Habermas and the Frankfurt school, who expanded upon ideas within classical Marxism by exploring how freedom from inequality could result from peaceful processes rather than revolutionary action. At this time, scholars began examining how dominant political structures and scholarship perpetuated existing political inequalities. 

    The end of the Cold War in 1991 saw new global economic developments, accompanied by changes in global demographics. In the early 1990s, the increasing importance of non-state actors such as non-governmental organisations and multinational corporations accompanied by increasing ethno-nationalism – whereby nations are defined on the basis of ethnicity rather than civil state membership – fostered new ideas about security and the role of the state.

    Critical IR scholarship began focusing on how dominant theories like realism reinforced unequal power relations by favouring the states that dominated international politics. Drawing on the ideas of Ken Booth and Richard Wyn Jones from the Welsh school, they argued that human insecurity was perpetuated by existing political structures (Booth 1991 and 1997). From this, scholars began looking towards critical geography and Lefebvre’s (1991) critical theory of space to examine how assumptions about space perpetuated these existing insecurities and inequalities. Two important scholars associated with this are David Harvey and John Agnew, who highlight how traditional conceptions of space decontextualise processes of state formation and cement traditional polarised conceptions of space between East and West, North and South, developing and developed countries in International Relations thinking (Agnew 1994; Harvey 2001 and 2006).

    Critical geography offers a means of examining international political behaviour, including the relationship between governments and people, between states at regional and global levels, and between international organisations and states. There are a number of key ideas and concepts within critical geography that offer alternative analyses of international relations. One key idea relates to the notion of territorial space. Philosopher Henry Lefebvre (1991) argued that there are three ways to think about space: in absolute, relative and relational terms. From an absolute perspective, space is viewed as fixed and measurable. This fixed idea about territory underpins traditional theories of IR. But, if you assume that territory is fixed, it reinforces assumptions about relationships within and between particular territories.

    For example, think about how the world is represented on a standard political map. A political map represents the world in terms of individual states separated from each other by territorial borders. An absolute view of global space takes this mode of representation as fixed, meaning it would not consider the possibility of alternative ways of mapping the world. This fixed view also ignores how international politics changed throughout history, altering the shape of the global space as new states and international institutions emerged.

    The absolute view of space is not the only option that scholars have for thinking about the international global space. Lefebvre’s concept of relative space challenges the absolute view of space. This concept involves thinking about space in a way that views the international space not ‘as an “empty container” or fixed space, but one filled with objects and interconnecting relationships’ (Meena 2013). Furthermore, a relative view of space views the existence of this space as a result of the relationships between the objects within this space. From this, the ways in which we understand space can be argued to be a product of a particular set of relationships.

    For example, if we consider particular spaces in terms of how they relate to other spaces, we can see that when scholars talk about the ‘Global South’ they are referring to the south in relation to the ‘Global North’. Ideas and representations of the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’, or of ‘East’ and ‘West’ are presented as resulting from the polarised relationships that characterised international politics until the end of the Cold War.

    A relative view of space can be used to demonstrate the existence of multiple views and alternative ways of conceptualising space from the views of particular states and other international actors. For example, when IR scholars classify all states in the southern hemisphere as representing the Global South, this view fails to acknowledge the differences and complex relationships that exist between states. It leads us to assume that all states in the south are equal in terms of their political and economic power, when this is not the case as powerful states in the Global South like Brazil have far more political and economic power than poorer states like Malawi. It assumes that states in the South also see themselves as existing together on an equal basis with all the other states in the South, which is an oversimplification as it ignores the many economic and political rivalries that exist between different states in this region. It also fails to acknowledge how particular states within the Global South are politically and economically linked to states within the Global North through trade agreements.

    A relational view of space suggests that space cannot exist without the perspective of an observer, as objects only exist in terms of their relations with other objects. For example, when we think about a place, we can only think about it in terms of what we know about it. What we know leads us to form opinions which influence the form and shape that the space takes and to the development of arguments that either support or reject pre-existing ideas and political developments. In turn, these opinions influence the political decisions taken by international state actors that shape the global international space. This can be seen, for example, in terms of approving state membership to regional organisations like the European Union. The way that most scholars think about and represent international political space in terms of sovereign states and their territorial borders can therefore be said to be a product of a perspective of space.

    Developments in the literature examine how processes of global change and the growth of alternative political organisations, such as transnational environmental movements and indigenous government institutions, have contributed to shaping the contemporary global space (Harvey 2009). One such development looks at how the rise of indigenous government institutions in the Arctic offer alternative views of space that challenge traditional conceptions of international space and look at how Inuit approaches to governance emphasise collective responsibility for the environment beyond state borders (Zellen 2009). Another recent development examines how the expansion of neoliberal capitalism has resulted in rising socio-economic inequality on a global scale, marginalising the poor within and across nation states, with state-based representation in international political institutions contributing to these growing inequalities (Harvey 2009). In addition, as concerns about human security associated with the risks and impacts of global climate change increasingly come to the fore in IR, critical geography can show us how the mainstream ideas about space embedded in international politics and IR theory may serve to perpetuate human inequality and the marginalisation of those most directly at risk from global environmental change. Alternative ideas about space compel scholars to re-assess the global scale of the risks and impacts of climate change and lend support to arguments that call for representational reform in international politics to reduce inequality and to address the increased risks that climate change poses for traditionally marginalised groups, such as for indigenous people.