Postmodernism In Geography Research Paper

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The impact of postmodernism on the field of geography has been particularly intense and far-reaching, perhaps more so than in any other social science. Although still controversial, with few geographers specifically identifying themselves as postmodernists, postmodern and related poststructuralist critiques of traditional modes of interpreting and explaining geographical phenomena have influenced scholarly research and teaching in nearly all branches of the discipline. Especially influential has been postmodernism’s role in shaping the development of what has come to be called Critical Human Geography and in the rethinking of such core concepts as space, place, region, and environment. At the same time, this postmodernization of geography has contributed significantly to expanding geography’s impact on other disciplines, both in the social sciences and the humanities. Geographical writings on postmodernism and postmodernity have been an integral part of the recent resurgence of interest in concepts of space and place across a wider spectrum of academic disciplines than ever before in the twentieth century.

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1. The Postmodern Turn In Geography

Postmodernism entered geography as an offshoot and extension of critical responses to the positivist ‘spatial science’ paradigm that began to dominate the discipline in the 1960s. These critical responses took two major forms. A radical or Marxist Geography consolidated in the 1970s as a critique of prevailing modes of explanation in spatial science and as a means of making geography more socially and political relevant. Rather than focusing primarily on statistically measurable surface appearances and searching for empirical regularities based on the frictions of distance and spatial covariation, how one geographical pattern or distribution correlates with another, Marxist geographers analyzed and explained what they called specific geographies as socially constructed outcomes of underlying processes such as class formation and capitalist accumulation. This carried with it a strong emphasis on structural explanation of geographical phenomena and gave rise to a specifically geographical (urban, regional, international, ecological) political economy perspective that would influence the discipline significantly in subsequent years.

The second stream of critical response, developing initially as Humanistic Geography, also concentrated on alternative modes of explanation, but emphasized the role of human agency and subjectivity much more than the effects of powerful structuring forces emanating either from society or the environment (Ley and Samuels 1978). Drawing on phenomenology, existentialism, and hermeneutics as well as traditional forms of cultural geography and landscape analysis, these geographical humanists were less concerned with space and political economy than with place, nature– society relations, and the interpretation of cultural landscapes. Continuing long-established links with anthropology, this reinvigorated form of Cultural Geography would also influence the development of postpositivist critical human geography over the next several decades as an important countercurrent to the Marxist critique.

By the early 1980s, the spatial science paradigm had passed its peak of influence and many new approaches were entering geography, each competing to define the leading edge of postpositivist research. At the same time, significant critiques were developing both within and between Marxist and humanistic geography (and within spatial science as well), adding further to the proliferation of new perspectives. Perhaps the most challenging critiques came from feminist geographers, who saw an exploitative and demeaning masculinism inherent in every branch of what would be labeled modern geography. This patriarchal order was not only expressed in the workplace (e.g., in university privileges, hiring, salaries) but also in the very practice of geography, whether theoretical or empirical, positivist, Marxist, or Humanist. The feminist critique echoed on a broader platform many other concerns over what was perceived as an excessive narrowing of perspectives affecting and constraining the development of (modern) critical human geography. It was in this atmosphere of increasing epistemological fragmentation and escalating internal critique of modern geographical practices that postmodernism first entered the disciplinary discourse.

The deepest divisions within postpositivist geography revolved around traditional philosophical dichotomies or binary oppositions: Subject–Object, Idealism–Materialism, Agency–Structure. Their particular expression, however, took the form of an opposition between approaches that emphasized spatial political economy vs. those that stressed place-based culture. In the late 1970s, there had been some efforts to bring these opposing positions together, most notably in the writings of Derek Gregory. Influenced by the social theorist Anthony Giddens, also then at Cambridge University, Gregory (1978) argued for a critical synthesis of ‘structural’ and ‘reflexive’ approaches to geographical explanation that would go beyond their traditional antagonism to create a new, socially and politically ‘committed’ critical human geography. Gregory was one of the first geographers to recognize the potential relevance of postmodern and closely associated poststructuralist debates to achieving this goal, and for the next two decades would be a leading voice in adding a postmodern, poststructuralist, and, later, postcolonial perspective to geographical research, theory, and teaching (Gregory and Walford 1989, Gregory 1994).

In addition to the influence of Gregory’s work and the growing impact on geography of Giddens’s structuration theory, there were other developments in the early 1980s that attempted to overcome the divisions and fragmentation of postpositivist geography by at least in part introducing some aspects of the postmodern and poststructuralist critiques (Olsson 1980). In retrospect, however, the key turning point in the postmodernization of geography came from outside the discipline, with the publication (in 1984) of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson, a widely recognized Marxist literary critic and cultural studies scholar, had recently become interested in continental European theories of space, place, and architecture, and especially in the work of the French philosopher and urbanist Henri Lefebvre. Then teaching in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Jameson had organized a lecture tour by Lefebvre in the previous year and hosted his stay as visiting professor at Santa Cruz in 1984.

While he saw architecture as the ‘privileged’ language of postmodernism, Jameson was aware of the new developments in critical human geography and gathered a group of geographers, urbanists, and architects, mainly from California, at a conference to celebrate Lefebvre’s creative spatial theories. When the article appeared, presenting a postmodern and explicitly spatial critique that effectively bridged Marxist political economy and critical cultural studies, innovatively interpreting emerging forms of contemporary urban geography, and calling for a new ‘political esthetic’ based on what Jameson termed a ‘cognitive mapping’ of ‘postmodern hyperspace,’ its effect on geography was particularly powerful.

The impact was especially intense among geographers working in California and, in particular, in Los Angeles, from whose geography Jameson drew some of his most imaginative examples and where there already existed one of the largest clusters of critical human geographers in the US. In the ensuing years, the geography and the geographers of Los Angeles would play a leading role in defining post-modernism and extending its impact on the discipline.

2. Postmodernism Seen From Los Angeles

By the mid-1980s, after decades of relative neglect by urban studies scholars, Los Angeles had become the research focus for a group of geographers and urban planners interested in making theoretical and practical sense of the new urbanization processes that were transforming the contemporary city, not just locally but elsewhere as well. The earliest work on this urban restructuring emphasized the radical political economy perspective that was so central in Marxist geography, but there was an openness to alternative perspectives and practices that arose in large part from the close connections that had developed between geography and urban planning at local universities such as UCLA and USC. These connections linked theorizing the political economy of urban restructuring to the practical demands of public policy, urban politics, and local community activism.

Developing from these early studies was a conceptual framework that saw in the restructuring of Los Angeles the emergence of a new era of urban and regional development affecting cities all over the world in the aftermath of the tumultuous urban crises of the 1960s. This new kind of urbanism and urban geography was interpreted as the product of deep changes in the local, regional, and national economy associated with the rise of post-Fordism, increasingly flexible methods of industrial production, and the powerful local effects of globalization and new information technologies (Scott 1988; see also Economic Geography; Industrial Geography; Technology Districts; Economic Restructuring: Geographic Aspects; Information Society, Geography of). Built in to this primarily economic conceptualization of urban restructuring was also a critical postmodern interpretation that saw in the dramatic changes taking place in the century’s last three decades the rise of a distinctively postmodern as well as post-Fordist urbanism.

In 1986, a special issue devoted to recent research on Los Angeles appeared in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, with an editorial introduction by Scott and Soja describing Los Angeles as the most representative, if not paradigmatic, city of the late twentieth century. The journal, with its founding editor Michael Dear and close editorial ties to British geographers such as Derek Gregory and Nigel Thrift, had quickly become the major journal for current debates relating geography to social theory and cultural studies since its origins four years earlier. In this special issue, two articles appeared, one by Dear and the other by Soja, that were the first explicit statements arguing for a postmodern perspective in geography and planning. Drawing on the changing geography of Los Angeles and the innovative urban scholarship of Jameson and Lefebvre, the authors described postmodernism in three related ways: as a method of textual and visual representation, as a contemporary condition of everyday life, and as a comprehensive epistemological critique. In each of these approaches to postmodernism in geography, emphasis was placed on the distinctiveness of the present era, on what is new and different in the contemporary world, an emphasis that in the broadest sense defines a postmodern perspective.

Defined as a method of textual and visual representation, postmodernism aimed at the intentional deconstruction of what were seen as outmoded modernist practices of writing geography, with the intent of opening up creative new alternatives. Rather than accepting the impress of powerful continuities with the past, for example, there would be playful and disruptively sequenced historical references, accentuating the synchronic and the simultaneous rather than a sequential diachronic narrative. The orderliness of visual form and textual narrative was similarly deconstructed through collage, pastiche, interjected verse, and other unruly modes of literary and visual representation. Explanation and interpretation thus became increasingly involved in discourse analysis, with geographies seen as complexly constructed ‘texts’ to be discursively ‘read’ as simultaneously real and imagined, a spatial version of the language games and deconstructive practices of such leading postmodernist philosophers as Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault.

Postmodernism defined as an empirical condition of contemporary life was much easier to accept in geography than what appeared to many to be merely a fashionable and unduly confusing style of writing. That at least part of the world had entered what could be described as a postmodern era and that there were postmodern geographies and a postmodern urbanism worthy of being studied as such posed relatively little challenge to most geographers. The growing role of economic and industrial geographers in making practical and theoretical sense of the restructuring processes affecting the contemporary world reinforced this widening impact, and helped to create a close association between the geographical condition of postmodernity and the impact of post-Fordist economies of flexible production, globalization processes, and the information society. Just how extensive this empirical post-modernization was, whether it was positive or negative or both, and, especially, how it should affect the practice of geography beyond the description of places like Los Angeles remained much more controversial.

The greatest resistance arose, not unexpectedly, over postmodernism as a deep epistemological critique, especially after subsequent writings by Dear (1988) and Soja (1989) pushed this critique into the very core of geography as a discipline. They argued that all forms of explanation in (modern) geography were fundamentally flawed, for, among other reasons, they rested on epistemological assumptions that excluded too many important issues and voices, especially related to gender, race, class, and what postmodern critics call the marginalized ‘Other’; were based on all encompassing or totalizing metanarratives that too confidently proclaimed the possibility of obtaining complete and accurate knowledge about human geographies; and were excessively bound up in oppositional binaries that left little room for alternative forms of knowledge production. Without abandoning modernism and modern geography entirely, Dear and Soja contended that the restructuring of empirical geographies that had been taking place in the last third of the twentieth century had so changed the contemporary world that established methods of analysis and explanation in geography, postpositivist or otherwise, could no longer be so confidently relied upon. New and different approaches, an assertively postmodernist geography rather than simply a descriptive geography of the postmodern condition, needed to be opened up and explored.

3. Postmodernism In Geography: 1989–Present

Two books published in 1989 were particularly influential in shaping the directions that would be taken by postmodernism in geography in the 1990s: Soja’s Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory and Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Both authors were rooted in Marxist geography and political economy, and shared a deep commitment to the creation of a historical materialism that was simultaneously profoundly geographical and spatial. Where they differed most was in the degree to which this construction of a historical and geographical materialism required a critical deconstruction and reconstitution of the ontology and epistemology of Marxist analysis itself.

Harvey adaptively recognized the challenge to radical geographical analysis posed by the postmodern condition but remained confident in the persistent power of historical (and geographical) materialism as a critical methodology for understanding and changing the contemporary world. There were many aspects of the condition of postmodernity that were new and different from the past, but they could best be understood through a more geographical Marxism that viewed postmodernity as just the most recent phase of capitalist development rather than as a disruptive or epochal break with the past.

Soja was more avowedly a postmodernist, insisting that a much deeper restructuring of Marxism was necessary to engage effectively with contemporary geographical realities. He called for a radical rethinking of two fundamental or ontological premises embedded in Marxism, one relating the social and the spatial dimensions of capitalist societies and the other linking time and space, history and geography. Following Lefebvre, Soja argued that there was a more balanced and mutually causal relation between society and space, a sociospatial dialectic that had been submerged in Marxism’s overemphasis on social relations of production and aspatial class analysis. Similarly, he saw a persistent privileging of history over geography, the temporal over the spatial, in a particular form of historicism that severely constrained the development of a balanced and mutually interactive historical and geographical materialism. He called instead for a more balanced and three-sided ontology and epistemology that dynamically related the spatial, social, and historical dimensions of human existence (spatiality, sociality, and historicality), with no one of the three inherently privileged over the others (Soja 1996).

The contrasting positions taken by Harvey and Soja on the implications of postmodernism were virtually ignored in the immediate reaction in geography to the two books. Instead, their publication by two prominent male geographers authoritatively writing about postmodernity provoked a concerted response from feminists to what was perceived as another round of masculinist appropriation of the discipline’s leading edge of research and theory. Both were accused of ‘flexible sexism’ (Massey 1991), of living in ‘Boy’s Town’ hopelessly ‘lost in space,’ of imposing their authoritative power too forcefully, no matter how different their positions on postmodernism. Many of the harshest feminist critics shared an interest in Marxist geography and in the postmodern critiques of modernism, but were suspicious of the particular directions suggested by Harvey and Soja for the future of critical human geography.

The end result of this confrontation and critique was both a deflection and a refraction of the impact of postmodernism. A new generation of geographers, especially in Great Britain, set the confrontation aside to work in many different ways at applying postmodernist and poststructuralist perspectives to geographical analysis and interpretation, avoiding both the narrowed historical materialism of Harvey’s approach to the postmodern condition and the overly enthusiastic celebrations of postmodernism associated with the work of Soja and Dear.

To an unusual degree, some version of the postmodern epistemological critique (often subsumed under the safer sounding label of poststructuralism) was absorbed into an increasingly eclectic critical human geography in the 1990s, but more as a justification for theoretical and methodological pluralism than as an encompassing or integrative philosophy. Continuing debates about explanation in geography were significantly expanded in scope and increasingly focused on such issues as the construction of difference and identity; the relations between space, knowledge, and power; the pervasive problems of representation; and the increasing confusion of the real and the imagined in cyberspace and hyper-reality. Growing attention was given to different scales of geographical analysis, ranging from studies of the human body, the most intimate geography, to the new landscapes being produced by the globalization of capital, labor, culture, and information flows. Nearly every subfield became opened up to a multiplicity of interpretive perspectives, including cartography (see Harley in Barnes and Gregory 1997) and geographical information systems (Pickles 1994), with little concern for establishing an overarching theorization or disciplinary paradigm.

Feminist geographers such as Doreen Massey (1994), Gillian Rose (1993), and Linda McDowell (1993) were particularly influential in shaping the continuing and open-ended postmodernization of geography, cautiously promoting a gender-based postmodern critical epistemology as part of the widening pluralism of interpretive methodologies. Similarly, Kathy Gibson and Julie Graham (writing as Gibson-Graham 1996) called for new directions in Marxist geography based on their reinterpretations of contemporary feminist, postmodernist, and postructuralist theory. The new cultural geography, building on the early work of Cosgrove and Daniels (1988), Duncan (1990), and Barnes and Duncan (1992), moved increasingly closer to critical cultural studies and deconstructive discourse analysis, with perceptive readings of cultural landscapes as texts and ‘signifying practices.’ Cultural and political economy perspectives were partially reconnected through a growing interest in the postcolonial critiques of scholars such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Arjun Appadurai, and Homi Bhabha (Gregory 1994, Soja 1996), while geographical studies of the body, sexuality, the unconscious, and the formation of human subjectivity, drawing on the psychoanalytical theories of Lacan as well as the ideas of Foucault and Lefebvre, created other kinds of bridges between subjective place-based culture and spatial political economy (Pile and Thrift 1995, Pile 1996).

There has also developed a vigorous anti-postmodernism in the 1990s, even among those whose work most geographers would associate with a post-modern perspective. Many Marxist geographers, for example, continuing to follow David Harvey’s lead (see Harvey 1996), have narrowed postmodernism almost entirely to being a politically diverting and divisive aspect of the contemporary condition of global capitalism. Efforts to continue to press a postmodern epistemological critique are therefore seen as politically retrogressive and antagonistic to the radical project of historical and geographical materialism. At the other end of the political spectrum, more conservative geographers frequently reduce postmodern- ism to superficial and often foolish playfulness, blunting any challenge to their established convictions. But very few geographers today are without an opinion on postmodernism or unaware of its impact on the discipline.

As the new century begins, it can be argued that postmodernism and the interpretive approaches associated with it (poststructuralism, postcolonial critiques, post-Marxism, postmodern feminism, methods of deconstruction and discourse analysis) have been absorbed into geography as an integral part of the contemporary discipline (see such recent overviews of modern and postmodern geography as Barnes and Gregory 1997, Benko and Strohmayer 1997, Peet 1998, Massey et al. 1999; see also Jones et al. 1994 and Watson and Gibson 1995). Postmodernism has been blunted and deflected in its boldest claims, continues to be actively resisted by many, but remains part of the consciousness and imagination of most human geographers.

The achieved and continuing impact of postmodernism can be summarized in several ways. First, it has helped to bring geography into closer contact with social theory and philosophy, and nearly every branch of the social sciences and humanities, from film studies and literary criticism to anthropology and economics. This has contributed in turn to what might be called a ‘de-disciplining’ of geography: an opening up of its traditional borders with other fields; a wider diffusion of its core concepts and ways of studying space, place, region, and environment; and the emergence of an extraordinary pluralism within geography with respect to theory, epistemology, and methods of empirical analysis. Intense frictions and disagreements remain, to be sure, but there may be no other time in its existence as a distinct discipline when geography has been so paradigm-free and yet so critically engaged with the major issues and events of our times. While these developments are not entirely due to the impact of postmodernism, it has certainly played a stimulating role.


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