Geography of Western Europe Research Paper

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1.    The Changing Discipline Of Human Geography

This section presents  a brief history  of geographical thought in order to situate the approaches that human geographers   have  developed   in  studying   Western Europe   (for  a  fuller  history,   see  Johnston  1991). During the nineteenth  century, geography  in Western Europe sought to describe and explain the spatial distributions of the natural world and of people and their activities. However,  association  between strong strands  of environmental determinism  that  sought to explain human characteristics in terms of natural environmental conditions, exemplified by the work of Ellen Semple, and the politically discredited  doctrine of  Lebensraum  in  Nazi  Germany, produced   a  shift from  explanatory concerns  to  regional  description. While    there    were    variations    between    national ‘schools,’ with the French  under the influence of Paul Vidal de la Blache most powerfully  exemplifying the regional descriptive approach, there was also a degree of commonality of approach to geographical  scholarship across Western Europe.

Then,  in the 1960s, influenced  by earlier  developments in North America summarized as the ‘quantitative’ and ‘conceptual’ revolutions,  human  geography in  Western   Europe   began   to   be   redefined.   The emphasis switched to spatial science and explanation of generalized spatial patterns, drawing on ideas from neoclassical economics, and from qualitative  regional description  to quantitative—especially statistical— analysis of spatial  patterns. Initially  ‘revolution’ was concentrated in a few Departments in the  UK  and Sweden.  From   there,  it  diffused  to  other  parts  of Western Europe.  These changes were contested, however. Much  Western  European geography  retained  a strong interest in the uniqueness of places, a focus that later  re-emerged,  albeit  in a  modified  way.  It  soon became  clear  that  spatial  science  had  major  limitations.  Initially,  behavioral  geographers  in Western Europe,  as in North America,  responded  to these by seeking more realistic assumptions about  the knowledge and motives that underlay peoples’ spatial behaviors  (Pred  1967). This did little to remedy  the explanatory weaknesses, however. Consequently, human  geographers  sought  stronger  explanations grounded in more  powerful  abstractions of the processes that  generated  spatial  patterns. As  a  result, Marxian and neo-Marxian political economy soon became the focal point  of ‘critical’ geography  within Western   Europe   (Carney   et  al.  1980)  and   more generally (Harvey  1982). However,  there  were again strong  counter-pressures, with humanistic  geography (Ley and Samuels 1978) emphasizing  human  agency, meaning, intentionality, and individual life-worlds, rather  than the unfolding structural logic of capital in explaining spatial variations  in human  activity.

Around the  late  1970s, however,  some  important changes  emerged  in  the  social  sciences, with  implications  for theory  and  practice  in human  geography and the ways in which Europe was studied. As a result, human   geography   in  Western   Europe   became   a pluralist discipline, encompassing  many epistemological positions and substantive focuses, with strong links to  cognate  social  sciences. Most  importantly, there was   an   elaboration  of   seminal   ideas   about    the centrality  of  space  to  social  and  economic  life and growing recognition  of the significance of spatiality in many of the social sciences. This generated a constructive   dialogue   within   Western   Europe   across national   and   disciplinary   boundaries.  It   involved social scientists  seeking to  infuse their  theories  with spatial  sensitivity,  and  geographers  (such as Massey 1984) exploring  relations  between social process and spatial form. ‘The difference space makes’ to the constitution of societies, and the ways in which economic, social, and political processes operate within the structural limits that define capitalist economies, became cross-disciplinary  research frontiers.

There  was growing  recognition  that  relationships between social processes and spatial forms are reciprocal,  contingent, and  indeterminate. This  led to exploration of the ways in which such relationships actually  do evolve and the spatiotemporally variable forms that they take, directing attention to the institutions through  which  societies  and  their  geographies  are constituted and  reproduced. The prime focus of concern became middle-level theories and concepts as human geography  underwent  an ‘institutional turn.’ Linked to this, post-structural approaches resulted in greater sensitivity to the limitations of, and absences  from,  metanarratives. This  was associated with a broader ‘cultural turn’ in human geography and the   social  sciences,  and   heightened   awareness   of cultural   variation   in  the  ways  in  which  capitalist societies are constituted and of the variable meanings that people, places, and events can assume because of this (Hudson  2001).

Paralleling  developments  of the 1980s in terms  of sociospatial  relationships, in the 1990s the social sciences  in  Western   Europe   increasingly   acknowledged  the  significance  of  connections   between  the social and  natural worlds  in understanding  societies and  their geographies.  As such, another  ‘traditional’ geographical   concern   was  given  a  new  twist  and became central to broader social science debates. One consequence  of this  was growing  interest  in Actor– Network theories, which seek to bridge the divide between  social and  natural worlds  and  explore  how human subjects and nonhuman objects become contingently  linked  in  networks  in  particular time  space contexts (Thrift 1996).

These growing concerns with relationships between society, space, and nature  coalesced in debates about processes of globalization, links between  ‘the global and  the  local’ and  their  impacts  on  and  in Europe (Amin and Thrift  1994). This led to recognition  that changes at ‘global’ and ‘local’ levels are reciprocal and complex rather  than  simply one-way  and  one-directional.   While  processes   of  globalization  influence ‘local’ change in Europe,  those processes are affected by ‘local’ place-specific  effects in Europe  (from  the formation of the European Union  to local social movements protesting  about  environmental pollution or  cultural  destruction). Some see ‘globalization’  as homogenizing,  eliminating  differences between places under the relentless pressures of capital accumulation and technological  advances in transport, information technology,  and  telecommunications as the world of places dissolves into a world of flows (Castells 1996). In contrast, human  geographers  in Europe  have conceptualized  it as a complex interplay  of processes that both link and help define varying spatial scales in a complex mosaic. Globalization is seen as the latest phase of combined and uneven development,  enhancing the distinctiveness of places and their importance in the contemporary world.

2.    Changing Emphases In The Geographical Study Of Western Europe

2.1    The Changing Geopolitical Map Of Europe And The Meaning Of ‘Western Europe’

The  dramatic   changes  in  the  geopolitical   map  of Europe   in  the  postwar   period   have  attracted  the attention of  geographers   (such  as  Williams  1998). These changes include:

(a) the division of Europe  between East and  West following the partition of Berlin and the lowering of the imaginary  but  highly influential  ‘iron curtain’  in 1948;

(b) the  creation  of the  European Coal  and  Steel Community in 1951 and then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 by the Benelux countries, France,  Germany, and Italy;

(c) the formation of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) in 1961 by nations that either did not want or were not allowed to join the EEC (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland,  Norway,  Switzerland,  the UK);

(d ) the subsequent revision of the boundary between the EEC and EFTA,  and the admission of non-EFTA states to the EEC; and

(e) the collapse of state socialism in the east in 1989, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and a new phase of expansion  of  the  European Union  (EU),  as  it  had become  in  the  process  of  deepening  economic  integration, in the 1990s.

By 1995 the EU had  expanded  to 15 member  states. Currently, there are several other applicant  nations in Central,  Eastern,  and  Southern  Europe  (Cyprus,  the Czech Republic, Estonia,  Hungary,  Poland,  Slovenia, and    Turkey).    Other    nations    (Bulgaria,    Latvia, Lithuania, Malta,  Romania) may become applicants for accession in the foreseeable future (Hudson  2000).

Three  cleavage  planes  have  been  decisive in  this ongoing partitioning of geopolitical space, in creating boundaries  between  different  groupings   of  nation- states and in the allocation of nations to groups. First, there  was a deep division  for  four  decades  between nations  embracing  capitalism  and  those  embracing state socialism. Second, within the former group, there was a split between those committed to parliamentary democracy  and  those  (temporarily) characterized by dictatorship  (Greece,  Portugal,  and  Spain).  Third, there  is continuing  competition between  models  of national   capitalisms   and  varying  relationships  be-tween   national    economies    and    (welfare)   states (Hudson   and  Williams  1999). There  has  also  been competition between national  states and interests and supranational interests  represented  in  the  emergent EU. The evolving postwar geopolitical map of Europe has  thus  been  the  product of highly  contested  processes.

2.2    New Multiscalar Geographies Of Governance And Regulation: Restructuring The National State

The  changing  architecture of governance  and  regulation within Europe  has been a related focal point of study. In postwar  Western Europe,  there were strong pressures to check the spread of communism,  prevent future wars between its major states, and create a more effective political voice in the international arena. This led  to  the  construction of  supranational European institutions,  beginning  a  process  of  redefining  the architecture of governance  and regulation  in Europe.

Within  the EU,  there has been an upward  drift of power,   a  ‘hollowing  out’  as  part   of  processes  of national   state  restructuring  (Jessop  1997).  The  increased regulatory  competencies of the EU have been interpreted in  one  of  three  ways.  First,   for  some, shifting  state  regulation  ‘up’ a spatial  scale signifies evidence  of  an  emergent   superstate.   Second,  it  is argued  that  political  changes in the 1980s and  1990s produced  a complex hybrid form of decision-making processes in the EU, combining intergovernmentalism and cooperative federalism. Third, others view the EU as one element within a more complex multilevel and multidimensional system of governance. Whatever the interpretation, however, the EU is seen as weakened by a deep democratic  deficit (Painter  1999).

While the EU  can be seen as the most  elaborated example of an emergent multilevel system of governance and regulation, there are strong continuities  with the past,  especially in the  continuing  significance  of national   states.  Some  new  forms  of  economic  and financial   globalization  (‘stateless  monies,’  for   example) do take matters beyond the effective control of many  national   states.  However,  the  view  that   the significance of the national  state  is being eroded  via ‘hollowing   out’   has   been   challenged   on   various grounds.  In many respects, national  states in the EU retain considerable powers (Anderson 1995), and these states are perhaps the paradigmatic case for ‘hollowing out’ theorists.

3.    Europeanization, Globalization And The Impacts Of These Processes Within Europe

The   development   of  the   EU   as  a   homogenized economic space, together  with the extension  of capitalism into Central  and Eastern  Europe,  created  new spaces in which companies  can  reorganize  their  activities. This has become another  focus of geographic research  in  and  on  Europe   (Hudson   1999a).  The prospect  of the Single European Market  generated  a surge  in intra-EU foreign  direct  investment  and  enhanced cross-border acquisitions within the EU. These often led to rationalization, plant closure, and job loss. Investment  by Western European companies  in CEE also  increased  somewhat,  although heavily  spatially concentrated  at   national    and   subnational   scales, further  widening spatial inequalities.

Europe-wide strategies have frequently been part of broader corporate globalization strategies.  Creating bigger European companies via acquisition  or merger has often been necessary to enable the enhanced spatial scale of corporate organization. There has also been an increase in strategic alliances between these bigger companies, especially in manufacturing industries characterized by high entry costs, continuing  importance of economies of scale and scope, rapidly changing technologies,  and substantial operating risks (Dicken and  Oberg  1996). Processes  of  acquisition,  merger, and strategic alliance have also reshaped  parts of the service sector, ranging from banking  and financial services to retailing,  in response  to competitive  pressures   and    possibilities   created    by   technological changes and deregulation (Hudson  1999a).

In  the  1990s,  transnationals based  in  the  USA, Canada, and south east Asia increasingly entered strategic  alliances  with  European companies.  There was also a surge in acquisition activity by non-EU transnationals in Europe,  along with increased direct inward investment in anticipation of completion of the Single  Market.  Inward   Foreign   Direct  Investment (FDI)  to the EU has been concentrated in banks and financial  services and  in existing major  metropolitan centers. Simultaneously, technological  advances in computing  and  telecommunications, deregulation of previously  nationally  protected  markets  in services, and resultant pressures  on companies  to cut costs to remain  competitive,  led to decentralization of backoffice  functions  to  peripheral   locations.  There  was some further inward investment in manufacturing, but with  a  rather   different   geography.   Investment   in activities such as European headquarters offices and research  and development  (R&D)  has been in major cities in economically strong core regions, but has been limited in extent. Most has been in routine production activities in consumer good sectors such as automobiles, electronics, and ‘white goods.’ It has involved both  acquisition  of existing companies  and  factories and inward investment in new ‘greenfield’ manufacturing plants, the latter typically in peripheral locations   in   both   Eastern   and   Western   Europe (Hudson  1999a).

3.1    The Rise Of The Regional Economy And The Rediscovery Of The Urban Economy In Europe

Some researchers in Western Europe have increasingly identified  the  region  as  the  crucial  territorial and institutional framework  for economic success, linked in part to debates about national  state ‘hollowing out’ and regional devolution. There have been two strands to this work.  First,  stimulated  by Bagnasco’s  (1977) seminal  study,  there  has  been  great  interest  in  industrial districts, regionally concentrated monoindustrial  production systems, producing  a range  of labor-intensive   consumer   goods  (such  as  clothing, shoes, or ceramics). They are organized  via relatively egalitarian  horizontal networks  of small firms, built around trust and linked into complex social divisions of labor. These districts are also characterized by cooperative capital–labor relations, and by supportive institutional  structures   in  the  local  state  and  civil society. The net result is flexible production systems, able to  respond  swiftly to  changing  tastes  and  consumer  demands.  Since the  1970s, there  have been a number   of  studies  of  similar  industrial   districts  in various  parts  of Europe  (for example, see Maskell et al. 1998) while some scholars have conceptualized  key ‘command  and  control’  nodes  within  global  cities, such as the City of London, as a particular form  of industrial  district (Amin and Thrift  1994).

The second strand  focuses upon  a different type of territorially clustered  network  structure,   with  close links between companies  and the institutions of state and  civil society,  but  based  upon  hierarchical   and asymmetrical  power relations between the constituent firms. These are production systems driven by major firms,  with  others  linked  to  them  in  tiered  supply chains, with Baden-Wurttemberg perhaps the ‘classic’ European example  (Herrigel  1996).  A  more  recent variant  of this regional  economic  structure  is linked with  inward  investment,  especially from  Japan  and south east Asia, as assembly plants attract component suppliers  to locate nearby.  This has led to contested claims   about   a  ‘new’  type   of  higher   quality   of investment  in ‘embedded’  branch  plants,  more  integrated  into  the  surrounding regional  economy  than traditional ‘global outpost’ branch  plants and so with greater regional developmental potential. Such new factories are also seen by some as bringing new, enriching, and more satisfying multiskilled jobs but by others  as  offering  intensified,  multitasked jobs  that further  disempower workers (Hudson  1999a).

Emphasis  on  the  importance of regional  cultures and  institutions in an associational economy  underpinning regional economic success has led researchers to highlight the significance of concepts such as regionally specific social capital, trust, untraded interdependencies, tacit knowledge, learning, and appropriate  institutional structures.   Important studies  in this regard include Amin and Thrift (1994) and Storper (1995), although others are more skeptical about  this ‘regional cultural and institutional turn’ (Gertler 1997, Hudson   1999b).  Nonetheless,  such  ideas  have  also been increasingly influential  in urban  studies as geographers  have  developed  new perspectives  on  cities (for example, see Amin and Thrift  2001).

4.    Structural Economic Change, Service Sector Growth, And Feminization Of Labor Markets

Service sector  growth  as  part  of  a  changing  social division of labor  has been the most significant structural  change  in  the  European economy  and  led  to claims  about   the  emergence  of  postindustrial and post-Fordist  economies.   There  have  also  been  important changes  within  the  service sector.  Initially, service  sector   expansion   was  closely  linked   with growing state involvement over much of Europe. More recently, the dominant pattern has been shrinkage  of the  public  sector  and  expansion   of  private   sector services. The most significant feature of the latter has been growth  of private  sector  business and  financial services, often linked to financial product innovations and deregulation of financial markets  (Tickell 1999).

The increasing importance of the service sector has also been associated  with three important changes in European labor markets.  First,  further  ‘feminization’ of the labor  market  has led to some growth  of well-paid,  full-time  secure  professional   employment   for women  but  more  generally  growth  has  been  in less desirable   jobs.   Second,   women   form   a   disproportionately large  part  of  the  ‘flexible workforce,’ produced  by the growth of new forms of employment contract   and  part-time   and  casual  work  (Perrons 1998). Third, service sector growth, especially in business  and  financial  services,  has  led  to  renewed focus on urban  environments as key nodes  of economic dynamism  (for example, see Keil and  Ronnenberger 2000). This has led to increasing interest in the characteristics   of  urban  environments seen  as  conducive  to  high  order  service sector  growth  and  the attraction of dynamic new services and cultural industries  within an emergent  ‘knowledge economy.’ Echoing earlier work on successful regions, this again emphasizes the significance of ‘soft’ infrastructure and informal  social relationships as well as the necessary ‘hard infrastructure’ of transport, telecommunications,  and  informatics  networks  (for example,  see Amin and Thrift  2001).

5.    New Geographies Of Identities

European identity  and  the  criteria  used  to  denote ‘Europeans’  have emerged as a focus of interest.  EU member  states  have  clearly  become  de facto  multi- ethnic  and  multicultural societies,  raising  questions about   cultural   and  ethnic  variation   and  issues  of (multiple)  identities  at  national, regional,  and  local scales within  the  EU  and  about  the  character   and location  of the  boundaries of the  EU  (Amin  2001). Boundary definition  is closely  tied  to  processes  of ‘othering’ and the criteria by which ‘Europeanness’  is to be judged.  As the EU  expands,  particularly east- wards into areas that border on or are part of Asia as commonly   understood,  these  issues  become  more pressing.

One conception of a singular European identity would see it constructed through a process analogous to that  involved in creating  national  identities.  However, the project  is now to transcend those identities. Previously the ‘imagined community’ was national;  in the new imagination it is to be European (or perhaps more accurately  EU). For  many people, there is now undoubtedly greater  awareness of other  cultures  and lifestyles elsewhere in  Europe.  Such  shared  activity and communication spaces do not necessarily translate into a shared European consciousness,  however. The EU’s cultural  and educational policy initiatives  have sought to encourage  the formation of a common consciousness  and  shared  identity  beyond  existing local and  national  affinities.  This view of European identity and ‘Europeanness’  sits comfortably with the preferences of many members of political elites within Europe. However, it lacks a firm grounding in popular consciousness (Smith 1995).

There are pressures  from national  states and  their citizens to resist further  erosion  of national  identity and sovereignty. The Danish rejection of the Euro and the  electoral  success of extreme  right-wing  political parties   in   countries   such   Austria,   Belgium,   and France,  for example, suggests the resurgence of more insidious  and  xenophobic  nationalisms and  racisms (White 1999). Furthermore, there are strong pressures from ‘suppressed nations’  seeking their own national states,  so that  territory  corresponds with identity,  as events in the Caucasus  and the Balkans  in the 1990s made  painfully  clear.  At  the  same  time,  however, localist and regionalist movements challenge national states  and  seek  greater  autonomy from  the  center, asserting their particular cultural  and territorial identities  over  the  national. Often  this  builds  upon past   histories   of  national   states   suppressing   subnational   variation   and   culture   in  the   process   of building  national  identities  (see, for  example, Fernandez Rodrıguez  1985). Such tendencies are expressed  widely  over  Western  Europe   (Anderson 1995). These regionalist and substate  nationalist tendencies often emerged in a complex relationship to processes of globalization, Europeanization, and  the emergence of the EU. Often they were seen as a way of resisting global forces via forging alliances between the regional  and  supranational EU  levels, bypassing  the national  state.  Thus  complex  geographies  of hybrid identities were forged, with allegiance to territories  at different  scales, which became a focus of interest  for human geographers  and social scientists (Amin 2001).

6.    Geographies Of Social Inequality

One  consequence  of processes  of political  and  economic restructuring is that Europe has become a more sharply divided place, characterized by deepened sociospatial divisions. Processes of economic restructuring have  etched  the  contours   of  inequality more deeply into the European landscape,  at several spatial  scales: between countries,  between cities, and between regions within countries; and within cities and regions (Bennett et al. 2000). There are growing divisions between the long-term unemployed— structurally excluded from the labor market—and the employed, but also within the employed workforce (in terms of wages and terms, conditions, and security of employment).  There has been growing recognition  of gender divisions (Perrons  1998) while issues of ethnic and  racial  divisions have often  been exacerbated  by EU  expansion  and  by immigration  and  fears of ‘the other,’ especially those of different skin color (White 1999). There has also been a growing recognition  that spatial divisions intertwine in complex ways with those of  class,  ethnicity,  and  gender  (Hadjimichalis   and Sadler 1995).

7.    Social Exclusion, Inclusion And ‘Third Sector’ Local Economic Initiatives

Growing  unemployment, poverty,  and  inequality  in the EU have led to growing concern—academic and political—with  new ways of  creating  work  and  delivering services to disadvantaged communities.  The focus of this attention has been on the social economy and ‘third sector’ economic initiatives, typically constructed  at  local  level and  designed  to  tackle  social exclusion. While social exclusion encompasses  a variety of dimensions beyond lack of waged employment, in  practice  attention has  increasingly  been  focused upon  tackling  problems  of unemployment, especially long-term   and  amongst   the  young,  as  these  have become stubbornly persistent in Western Europe. The emphasis is upon creating new forms of socially useful work as an alternative  to both private sector and state employment  that will provide meaningful jobs for the unemployed and/or provide services that are no longer provided by state or markets to deprived communities (Lipietz 1995). There are concerns, however, that this may simply provide cut-price alternatives to public sector welfare services while reproducing inequalities from  mainstream  economy  and  society  within  the ‘third sector’ (Amin et al. 1999).

7.1    Sustainable Societies And Places

Sustainability in  various  guises—of  natural  environments, economies and societies, cities and regions— has become a further  research  focus within Western Europe,  not  least  because  it has  become  a pressing practical and political issue. Initially the emphasis was upon investigating ways of enhancing natural environmental sustainability but it was increasingly recognized that this must be situated in the context of transition to  methods  of  production and  transportation  and lifestyles and consumption patterns  with a lighter  ecological  footprint. This  encompassed  both technological  innovation to generate materially  more efficient methods  of production and  movement  and institutional and  regulatory  changes  to  increase  the efficiency of resource use and reduce waste. Environmental and social justice were increasingly seen to be intimately  linked.  Such  issues are  likely to  become more  important on  geographical  and  social  science research agendas in Western Europe in the twenty-first century, at a variety of spatial scales from the global to the regional and urban  (Hudson  2001).

8.    Conclusion

There  were  significant   changes  in  the  practice   of human  geography  in Western  Europe  in the second half  of  the  twentieth  century,  in  how  geographers studied  Europe  and  in what  they studied  as Europe itself changed.  Furthermore, growing  interest  in the social sciences with relationships between society, space, and nature—geography’s established mainstream concerns—led to exciting developments  across national  and  disciplinary  boundaries in the study  of Europe.  These in turn had wider ramifications within geography  and parts of the social sciences within and beyond Europe.


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