Geography Of Knowledge, Education, And Skills Research Paper

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Knowledge, professional skills, inventiveness, competence, creativity, technological capabilities, and educational achievement have never been evenly distributed in populated space. Apart from everyday routine information and common sense, most forms of knowledge and skills display large spatial disparities. Since knowledge is regarded as a key factor for competitiveness, development and modernization, a geographical perspective is required to analyze and to explain the spatial structures, processes, and disparities involved in the creation, adoption, distribution, and application of knowledge and skills.

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1. Spatial Concentration Of Knowledge And Skills

1.1 Diffusion Of Knowledge And Information

New knowledge (whether in the form of technologies or social values) is created in particular places and contexts and through interaction within space. The speed at which new knowledge and information diffuses over space depends on the type of knowledge, the institution within which the new knowledge is produced, the interest of the producer (inventor) to share his or her knowledge, the previous knowledge necessary to understand the contents of new information, the availability of technology necessary for the production and application of knowledge, and the inclination to accept the knowledge.

The first type of knowledge and information which is most quickly distributed in space is the kind of ‘public news’ which is easily understood by almost everyone, which does not require previous knowledge or expensive technology, and whose free distribution is in the provider’s best interests. This type of information and knowledge is highly mobile, can be spread around the globe in seconds and is easily available by telecommunication.

The second type of knowledge and information is more complex and cannot readily be used even by those who have access to it if these constituencies lack the previous knowledge, experience or training necessary to recognize, understand and evaluate the contents of the information. This type of knowledge can only be transferred from one person to another if the receiver’s training, skills or capability are broadly equivalent to that of the sender. Previous knowledge necessary to understand an information may consist of knowledge of a foreign language or of a specialized scientific discipline. The third type of knowledge and information is kept secret by its producer in order to gain an economic, political, scientific or military advantage.

These three forms of knowledge and information vary in the degree of their spatial concentration and in the speed of their diffusion. Only the first type of information, which is the least important for economic competitiveness and innovation, is (theoretically) ubiquitously available, assuming all places have the technical equipment and all people an equivalent inclination to receive the message. The second type displays a much higher spatial concentration in a few centers or areas, and often circulates only between the upper levels of the urban hierarchy (Hagerstrand 1966, Tornqvist 1968, 1970, Pred 1973). The third type has the highest degree of spatial concentration. The term ‘spatial concentration’ does not imply a tight, everlasting linkage to a certain place but rather a conglomeration of functions that may change its location over time.

1.2 Center And Periphery As Spatial Representation Of Power And Knowledge

Terms such as power, authority, dominance, and control are only applicable in the framework of asymmetric social relations. Asymmetric social relations manifest themselves spatially, both in the horizontal and in the vertical dimension. Due to the importance of spatiality in the construction and representation of difference, social structures and social relations are often described spatially by terms such as center, core, periphery, marginality, outsider, top, bottom, segregation or distance. In spatial representation knowledge and power regularly take an elevated or central position. Dependent positions with low status are at the margin.

A center is a point of reference, orientation, and authority. It is the nodal point (field) of interaction and communication whence the elements of a social or spatial system are ruled, coordinated, and controlled (Strassoldo 1980). It collects and distributes resources, sets the rules, norms, and standards for the members of the system; it controls, legitimates, and accumulates knowledge (Latour 1987); it provides a conspicuous public platform from which ideas emanate; it constructs realities and creates memories and identities. The center is the place where the highest levels of authority, power, decision making and knowledge are located. Most of the work places located at the periphery are lowly skilled and are the site of lowly paid routine activities coordinated and controlled by external decision makers. The antagonism between core and periphery is a spatial representation of an uneven distribution of power and knowledge.

Why do power and knowledge so frequently build coalitions and why do they seek proximity to each other? Both instrumental power (the capacity to make others do our will and the ability to control, regulate and dominate), and association power, i.e. the power to do things by acting in concert or using institutional mediation (Agnew 1999), have to rely on experts, scientists, academics and ‘think tanks’ to achieve and sustain their position. They also need representatives of spiritual knowledge (priests, intellectuals, artists, ideologues) who share their norms and values and legitimate their power. It is in the interest of power to bind knowledge into networks of assent (Agnew 1999). On the other hand, both scientific knowledge (expertise) and spiritual knowledge seek proximity to (political) power for various reasons. First, centrality is the spatial manifestation of authority, importance, and prestige. Authority fascinates most experts and intellectuals, they want to be concerned with the essential in existence, and strive for influence and recognition. Second, network-centrality determines access to valued resources and information unavailable to those at the margin. Third, experts, scientists, and artists in many cases have to prove their usefulness to power in order to secure their privileges and the resources they need for their work. Fourth, proximity to power may also increase the opportunities to influence important decision-makers. Close spatial proximity between power and knowledge seems to be indispensable. Even intellectuals (dissidents) opposing those in power have to operate in centers in order to get access to communication networks and to obtain response in the media. Decision makers, professionals, experts, artists, and intellectuals striving for prestige, influence, and success, sooner or later find their place of work in one of the centers or will create for themselves a new center in their chosen field.

Work places of important decision-makers, highly skilled specialists, and high-technology industries show a strong tendency toward spatial concentration, whereas lowly skilled routine activities in production and administration show a trend towards dispersion and decentralization. The main characteristic of peripheries is that they constantly loose the largest part of their highly educated to the centers.

Knowledge is rooted in people, but it is also embodied in technologies, products, services, management performance and institutions of schooling, education and training. The broad range of research topics is paralleled by the large variety of theoretical approaches that the geography of knowledge, education, and skills has to apply. The following chapter presents one example, namely theoretical approaches explaining the spatial concentration of work places for top-level decision-makers, intellectuals, and highly skilled specialists. Work places present important settings and contexts for a great variety of actions.

2. Theoretical Approaches To Explain The Spatial Concentration Of Knowledge

2.1 Organization Theory

For an organization the production and acquisition of new knowledge and the ability to learn, adapt and reorganize itself are the best means to cope with uncertainty. The acquisition of new knowledge and new information is no guarantee for successful decisions and actions but it increases, at least for a certain time, transparency, predictability, and efficiency while sustaining flexibility and competitiveness and enhancing survival chances in an uncertain environment. According to this approach, it is not the ‘fittest’ that survive but those who constantly acquire new knowledge, skills and information and are therefore able to adapt quickly to new situations and to cope with new challenges. ‘It is evolution through learning that clearly dominates and accounts for the major variations in human social behavior’ (McClintock 1988, p. 60). There is no doubt that incompetence, ignorance, and lack of experience are the main factors leading to the collapse of social systems and the decline of centers. The question of how much incompetence, ignorance or lack of skills a given social system can afford depends primarily on the intensity of competition, on the uncertainty of the environment, and on the available resources of the system.

As centers and peripheries are socially constructed and as space is a product of relations and interactions, both the status and the locations of centers and peripheries change over time. In spatially mobile social systems, such as nomadic tribes or armies in war, centers constantly change their location in space. Most social systems, however, are spatially rooted and change the location of their centers and peripheries only gradually. Large and complex social systems show a hierarchy of centers. The definition of a place as center or periphery and its ranking in the hierarchy vary with the spatial scale; a center at the micro-scale may be defined as periphery on a macro-scale.

Since an organization can only compensate for a certain amount of incompetence for any extended period of time, it acts in its own interest when it fills the key positions of information processing, decision making, planning, coordination, and control with highly skilled, educated, and experienced persons. In particular, those positions and subsystems that are constantly confronted with uncertainty and whose decisions have long-lasting consequences for the entire system require highly developed skills, knowledge, and experience. In social systems, knowledge, skills, and experience are a value-adding source and have the same function as redundancy in technical systems. They reduce uncertainty and enhance survival chances.

In a dynamic and competitive society, the acquisition of knowledge and skills is an ongoing process that is never finished. Much of our knowledge is transitory and looses its value after a certain time. In a competitive society, it is not knowledge itself that counts, but the possession of prior, specialized, unique, better or rare knowledge that justifies the role of experts and advisers, that makes knowledge attractive to those in power. Advisers, counselors, experts, priests, and intellectuals derive their power from their claim to know better or earlier than the majority of people, from their ability to reduce the complexity of knowledge and to make knowledge useful. In a dynamic and competitive society, the skills and knowledge needed for the key functions of a system striving for success (survival) will always be scarce and expensive commodities.

The first crucial question is where to locate scarce knowledge and skills within a social system’s structure of decision making. In bureaucratic systems and in systems confronted with low degrees of uncertainty, decision-making, problem-solving, research, development, and planning will shift to the upper levels of the system’s hierarchy and consequently the lower levels will be characterized by routine activities and work places for those with lower skills. In systems confronted with a dynamic and complex environment and dealing with constantly changing, unpredictable, onetime transactions, decentralization of competence and authority within the system is more effective. For a more detailed discussion of various types of organizations, environments and means of coordination see Mintzberg (1979).

The second question is where to locate scarce knowledge and skills spatially. Routine activities for which there are plans, rules, and regulations call for lower skills and less face-to-face contacts with other organizations. They are predominantly regulated and coordinated by indirect contacts such as letters or telecommunication. Therefore, they can be situated in a great number of smaller cities or even rural areas, as long as the traditional location factors such as transportation and wage costs make it feasible. The harder it is for decisions to be governed by guidelines, plans, regulations or so-called hard information and the greater the uncertainty about the future, the more necessary it is to have frequent and spontaneous face-to-face contacts with knowledgeable and well-informed decision-makers and highly skilled specialists of other organizations. The needs of the highest management levels for face-to-face contacts and valuable networks can only be fulfilled in a few large centers offering a large diversity and density of knowledgeable specialists and prominent decision-makers.

Trustful relations and frequent face-to-face contacts to leading decision makers in government, research, finance, consulting, media or industry offer access to early knowledge about important tendencies and innovations and provide the top positions of an organization with crucial information, thus facilitating their quick response and adaptation to new situations and developments.

2.2 Symbol Orientated Approach

The spatial distribution of work places for the highly and lowly skilled, for the powerful and powerless cannot be fully explained by functional arguments. Distributions are also influenced by the symbolic meaning of places. A place can be a symbol for prestige, reliability, credit-worthiness, and power. Another address only short distance away may suggest danger, poverty, failure or crime. The terms center (core) and periphery have a strong symbolic meaning. A center is associated with social attributes such as power, authority, dominance, prestige, control, and influence. The term periphery symbolizes dependency, marginality, backwardness, lower skills, lower prestige, weakness and subordination.

It is not only the functional and spatial division of labor that creates centers and peripheries. Anthropology, social psychology and the history of religions also offer a large number of ritualistic constructions of centers. In many religions, the center is a sacred place where the gods revealed themselves or where the connection with the gods was initiated. In early civilizations, the magicians, sages, and priests were assembled at the symbolic center of power or represented themselves as the center of the social system. Their claim to have a connection with gods or with the ancestors or to represent god’s will on earth gave them a central position in their social system. Such ritualistic constructions of centers are also to be found in modern societies. In many cases centers claim pre-eminence with regard to knowledge and competence. It is not only the functional significance, but also the symbolic and psychological meaning of the terms center, core, heart, and top that attracts intellectuals and other successful knowledge producers.

2.3 Conflict Theory

Knowledge and information are not uncontested. Places of knowledge production compete with each other, newly fabricated knowledge may disrupt or destroy existing values, memories, and belief systems, and is not appreciated everywhere.

Knowledge can be used as a means to discipline, control, regulate, exclude, and manipulate. Production and distribution of knowledge and information are often associated with censorship, forgery, and propaganda. Many national memories, historical ‘realities’, social statistics, and ‘truths’ are socially constructed according to the interests of dominant groups and contested by other groups. Those in power have always tried to exercise tight control over institutions of knowledge production and information distribution, fortunately with limited success. The shamans, magicians, and priests of earlier centuries tried to ensure their monopoly of holy knowledge. A number of European universities were established not to improve knowledge and culture, but to strengthen the political power of the rulers, to generate an elite cadre or to erect an ‘intellectual fortress’ against unwanted influences.

The representations of the culture, history, and geography of colonies by imperial powers (Said 1978, Gregory 1998) are perfect examples of the assertion that culture (knowledge) underwrites power and power elaborates culture (knowledge). After the introduction of compulsory schooling by the nation state schools, universities, and academies were constantly used by the central authority to enforce the ‘universal’ knowledge of those in power against the ‘particular’ knowledge and narratives of minorities. Since the school was considered an important instrument in the socialization process of the younger generation and of immigrants, its mission included consolidating the nation state by assimilating ethnic minorities, by supporting ideological and political propaganda, by transmitting historical narratives, and by creating national identities. The construction of belief systems, the legitimation of new knowledge, the creation of a regional or national identity, as well as the production, distribution, control, and suppression of information, is guided and controlled by the ‘centers of calculus’ (Latour 1987). The use of knowledge as a means to discipline and control, the fact that the spatial diffusion of knowledge may be accompanied with disjunction, contestation, opposition and debate, and the contest between various forms of knowledge, have contributed to the spatial concentration and separation of knowledge.

3. Early Roots, Research Topics, And Possible Future Directions For The Geography Of Knowledge, Education, And Skills

3.1 Early Roots And History

The difficulties in measuring various types of knowledge across space may have contributed to the fact that empirical studies for a long time focused rather on educational achievement and school systems than on knowledge itself. The study of the relation between knowledge and action, of creative milieus or of the role of indigenous and religious knowledge started much later.

The historical roots of a ‘geography of knowledge, education, and skills’ can be traced back to the first decades of nineteenth century. Some of the negative consequences of the industrial revolution such as poverty, child labor, crime, alcoholism, and a lack of decent housing aroused an interest in moral statistics, first in France and Great Britain, and later in other countries. Many nineteenth century social reformers believed that poverty, crime, and alcoholism were caused by ignorance and a lack of moral education. They therefore studied social and spatial disparities of illiteracy, the provision and quality of schools, the skills and salaries of teachers, the availability of books in households, and the educational attainment of children.

France was the first country comprehensively to study regional differences in illiteracy. The main sources were the examinations of military recruits and marriage registers (Furet and Ozouf 1977, Heffernan 1989). In 1826, Charles Dupin gave a lecture about the interrelation between the population’s educational achievement and economic well-being. In 1827, he published the Carte figurative de l’instruction populaire de la France. This map demonstrated large regional disparities in educational attainment between northern and southern France (reprint in Meusburger 1998, p. 193). The tables added to this map compared the educational attainment, the number of patents for inventions, and the membership in the Academie Francaise with various economic indicators suggesting a correlation between educational achievement and economic performance.

In Britain, a number of Statistical Societies and Friendly Societies emerged in the 1830s and 1840s to study the living conditions and social situation of the poor and to foster social reform. Literacy was again a main concern of these studies. In 1849, J. Fletcher published a map showing ‘Ignorance in England and Wales’ in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London.

Apart from occasional studies of drop out rates and truancy, of busing problems, and of the locations of schools and universities, human geography has neglected spatial disparities in knowledge, education, and research until the mid-1960s. This changed when Robert Geipel (Munich) and other geographers initiated and institutionalized a ‘geography of education’. For detailed treatment of its history and development in various countries see Meusburger (1998).

3.2 Research Topics And Possible Future Directions

The newly emerging ‘geography of knowledge, skills and education’ in its early period of the 1960s and 1970s first focused on spatial diversities of school systems (size, equipment, location criteria, and catchment areas of schools and universities), on spatial patterns of expenditure on education, on the evolution of patterns of school provision, on cultural and economic effects of schools and universities, on spatial effects of educational policies and school planning concepts, on the effects of school closures, and on spatial disparities of educational achievement.

On the spatial macro-scale, indicators of educational achievement are used to describe the spatial dimension of social stratification and the spatial distribution of human resources. The educational achievement of the adult population is measured by indicators such as the proportion of illiterates, the proportion of the adult population who completed a certain level of education (e.g. proportion of university graduates) or by median school years completed. Literacy is often regarded as a precondition for the modernization process. Spatial disparities in the educational attainment and behavior of pupils (students) can be measured by indicators such as the proportion of an age group attending (a certain type of?) school, by transition rates of an age group to various types of secondary schools and universities, by school completion rates, by the scale of dropout and truancy, the suspension rates and many other indicators.

From the 1980s onward geography studied the personnel employed at schools, universities and research institutions. This included spatial disparities of the age-structure, skills, income, gender, social, ethnic, and regional origin, careers, and regional mobility of teachers, scientists, and other knowledge workers.

Influenced by research in economy and sociology, geography started to study the spatial variations in the transition from the school system to the occupational system in the 1980s and 1990s. The main research interests dealt with the correlation between educational achievement, first positioning in the labor market and professional career, and the spatial discrepancies and balancing mechanisms between supply and demand of skilled and unskilled labor. Migration motive patterns and distances of highly and lowly educated, of skilled and unskilled persons, and the interrelationship between career and regional mobility are central issues in this research field. The ‘brain drain’ and the transfer of talent from peripheries to centers strongly contribute to the long-term persistence of spatial disparities at all scales.

The more recent research topics and possible future directions include issues such as: (a) spatial disparities of research input (financial, technical and human resources, infrastructures), and research output (e.g. patent density, innovation density); (b) spatial differences in the quality of schools (measured by achievement tests); (c) the necessity of adjusting curricula to local economic needs or cultural traditions; (d) the role of schools (teachers) for local cultures and local empowerment; (e) the definition and spatial delimitation of creative (innovative) milieus, regional, and international differences of high-tech competitiveness; (f) the effects of telecommunications on the spatial distribution of work places for knowledge workers; (g) the role of indigenous and religious knowledge; (h) the evolvement and long term spatial effects of scientific networks; (i) the relation between human resources, endogenous economic development and economic conduct; (?j) the role of knowledge producers in the construction of historical narratives, national memories, and regional identities; and (k) the use of knowledge or enforced ignorance as a means to discipline and control. This list of research topics is never closed and strongly depends on the region, culture and time period studied. As knowledge is ‘a capacity for social action’ (Stehr 1994), and as it influences the perception, evaluation, decision making and actions of individuals, and the conduct of constituencies, a knowledge-based approach can be applied to a broad range of topics in human geography.


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