Social Geography Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Social geography emerged as a significant sub-discipline during the 1960s. Although earlier references to ‘social geography’ can be found, Johnston (1987) notes that it is barely mentioned in reviews of geography published in the 1950s. The development of the new sub-discipline was part of exciting theoretical and methodological change that geography experienced in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, vigorous theoretical debates led to a variety of conflicting approaches to research in social geography. By the early 1980s, the sub-discipline was of major importance within human geography. Indeed, a recent discussion of the area claimed that it became ‘virtually synonymous with the whole field of human geography’ (Johnston et al. 1994, p. 562). Nevertheless, the growing prominence of cultural geography towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s had a major impact on social geography. This was neatly symbolized by the decision of the ‘Social Geography Study Group’ of the Institute of British Geographers (which had been formed in the early 1970s) to change its title to ‘The Social and Cultural Geography Study Group’ in the 1990s.

What is social geography and what do social geographers do? The rapid growth of the sub-discipline and the significant theoretical debates within it have involved shifts in its definition and practice. In 1965, Pahl suggested that it was about ‘the theoretical location of social groups and social characteristics, often within an urban setting’ (p. 82). In 1975, Emrys Jones argued that ‘social geography involves the understanding of the patterns which arise from the use social groups make of space as they see it, and of the processes involved in making and changing such patterns’ (p. 7). The emphasis on social groups evident in Pahl’s earlier definition remains of particular importance, in that what is held to make social geography ‘social’ is its concern not with individuals but with people as members of groups. However, there are some significant changes between the two definitions. First, Jones’ definition introduces the idea that social processes produce spatial patterns and vice versa. This understanding of social geography remained dominant into the 1980s. Second, Jones’ definition includes the phrase ‘the use social groups make of space as they see it’ (author’s emphasis). This signals an increasing interest in people’s subjective experiences in specific places—an interest that has become increasingly prominent in research designs.

The understanding of the scope and aims of social geography implied in Jones’ definition endured until the mid-1980s when it came under increasing attack. These attacks and their implications for the development of social geography make better sense in the context of the account of the type of work that social geographers did from the 1960s to the mid 1980s, presented below.

2. Engaging With Positivism

2.1 Describing The Social Characteristics Of Urban Areas

A major focus of research during the late 1950s and 1960s was the statistical description and analysis of the characteristics of the populations of urban areas. Central to this project was the identification of systematic patterns in the location of different social groups. Analysts examined which groups were likely to be segregated from other groups and whether there was evidence for particular patterns of location for different groups within cities.

At this time, there were also important moves within human geography to apply positivist philosophy and methodology to the pursuit of geographical knowledge. These moves encouraged, on the one hand, attention to clearly specified theoretical statements and predictions and, on the other, the use of quantitative data and statistical techniques that were presented as allowing rigorous, scientific testing of hypotheses. Also associated with the growing commitment to positivism, was a desire for predictive models of the location of human activity and people’s ‘spatial behavior,’ often drawing on neoclassical economics. For geographers interested in social groups and in cities this implied a need to develop predictive theories of the spatial form of cities, including theories of the location of social groups within urban areas.

Geographers looking for theoretical and methodological inspiration turned to the work of urban sociologists. First, they drew upon the work of the Chicago School—including Louis Wirth, Robert Park, and Ernest Burgess—who carried out extensive studies of Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. They used maps of a wide range of statistical information in order to identify ‘natural areas’— residential areas with distinctive physical and cultural characteristics—that the Chicago School sociologists argued developed from unplanned processes of competition and cooperation amongst urban residents. Burgess had developed a general model of urban residential land use as a series of concentric zones focused around the Central Business District.

Second, urban geographers were drawn to the work of Eshref Shevky and Wendell Bell who had studied characteristics of the populations of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Shevky and Bell had argued that the ‘increasing scale’ of society resulting from the increasing complexity of economic organization and the associated growth of urban areas could be linked to three dimensions of urban residential differentiation: ‘social rank’ or ‘economic status’; ‘urbanization’ or ‘family status’; and ‘segregation’ or ‘ethnic status.’ A key feature of their work was the development of ‘social area analysis’ using data on census tracts. They selected variables to represent the three dimensions and then used these to categorize census tracts in terms of ‘high’ or ‘low’ economic, family, or ethnic status. Although the theoretical links between increasing societal scale and the three dimensions of economic, family, and ethnic status were poorly specified and strongly criticized, geographers enthusiastically embraced the use of census data to characterize areas of the city.

During the 1960s, computers that were more powerful allowed geographers to use sophisticated statistical techniques to analyze data on census tracts. Factorial ecology was particularly popular—the use of factor analysis or principal component analysis to identify a few general constructs which underlie a large number of variables. Shevky and Bell’s three status dimensions often emerged from the census data. The analyst could also classify census tracts in terms of the underlying constructs and map the results to see whether any systematic spatial patterns in characteristics of census tracts could be identified. These maps were compared with Burgess’ concentric model of urban form and comparisons between factorial ecologies of different cities also made. Similar techniques were also used to look for relationships between residential differentiation, location, and patterns of crime, deviance, and mental health.

The availability of census data for many cities (mostly, in the ‘developed’ world) and increasing access to computers allowed social geographers to indulge in an orgy of analysis. However, there were some clear limitations to this work. First, the nature of the constructs identified was limited by the available census data: they could be as much a reflection of the data available as of the social ‘reality’ of urban areas. Second, because the data related to areas rather than individuals, false associations between variables may have been made (the ‘ecological fallacy’). Moreover, differences in the sizes and rules for creating census tracts between countries limited the comparability of the results. Third, although the practitioners of these analyses aspired to work within a positivist framework much of the research was inductive description rather than tests of clearly specified hypotheses linked to well identified theoretical propositions. Nevertheless, this body of work provided a considerable body of descriptive information on residential differentiation that has become part of the taken for granted knowledge of geography.

2.2 The Behavioral Challenge

The descriptive analysis of urban residential characteristics was not the only type of work in social geography done during the 1960s and early 1970s. There were those who, despite their hopes for a positivist approach to the development of theory within geography, were dissatisfied with the approaches to studying human behavior that were used widely at that time.

In the 1960s, much research in human geography drew its inspiration from models in economic geography that posited that people possessed perfect information and were rational and optimizing in their behavior. Dissatisfaction with these assumptions prompted some researchers to turn to psychological theory concerned with cognition and decision-making in order to investigate what information people had available to use in spatial decision-making and how they used it. The principal method employed in these studies was the questionnaire survey, frequently incorporating some variety of attitudinal and personality tests drawn from social psychology. The research carried out within this broad framework is known as ‘behavioral geography.’

Work in behavioral geography was concerned with the locational decision-making of firms, individuals’ decisions over where to live, people’s everyday movements, and their information and ideas about space and place. Gould’s work on mental maps was particularly influential (Gould and White 1974). His initial research examined American undergraduates’ views of each US state as a place in which to live after graduation. The results showed that individuals had a strong preference for their home area and that this preference was superimposed upon an image of a national space with marked variations in preferences. The idea of an incomplete, biased and personal vision of the spatial world conjured up by the term ‘mental map’ became part of geographers’ ideas about how people made decisions about both everyday movement and migration. Information about space and place was also recognized as important within studies of residential mobility and of people’s everyday travel behavior. In the former, researchers were influenced by the early work of the sociologist Peter Rossi whose 1955 book Why Families Mo e was subtitled A study in the social psychology of residential mobility. A large number of studies of residential mobility in different cities and countries resulted. In the latter, diary data on travel behavior were used to develop inductive theories about the way people choose and order travel destinations. Travel behavior and migration research explored how people searched for information in space and developed strategies for choosing locations.

Research using the perspectives of behavioral geography—while part of social geography—remains marginal to the field because of its focus on the individual rather than on people as interacting with and partly constituted by their social milieu. However, the impossibility of such an individualist approach is evident in much of the work actually carried out. Researchers often examined contrasts between individuals drawn from different social groups (for example, different income, class, age and, occasionally, gender groups). Others examined the influence of the re- sources available to individuals on their spatial cognition and so ended up investigating differences between social groups. The research is also significant to social geography because criticisms of its individualistic approach were important to the development of alternatives.

3. Competing Approaches

During the early 1970s, many geographers became dissatisfied not only with the philosophical approach of positivism but also with the lack of critical political engagement that they detected in contemporary re- search. These concerns grew out of the radical ideas promoted in America and Europe as part of opposition to the American war in Vietnam, anti-nuclear campaigns (especially in Britain and European countries), civil rights (particularly in America), and the growing ‘rediscovery’ of poverty in the prosperous countries of the West. What was needed, it was felt, was research that could suggest how to change society, not merely how to understand it. Positivism was criticized for suggesting that an objective approach to social science was necessary, feasible, and desirable and that it was possible to find ‘universal laws’ of human society. Diverse competing ‘radical’ approaches were proposed; they all shared the desire to challenge the inequalities and injustices of contemporary society although some sought this through changing our valuation of human beings, some through institutional change and some through revolutionary political action. A sketch of some of the main approaches follows. Although here they are separated into demarcated ‘boxes,’ in reality their boundaries were fuzzy.

3.1 Humanistic Geography

The humanistic geography that emerged in the 1970s was animated by a desire to present an alternative to positivism. It shared the behavioral geographers’ critique of some positivist approaches as dehumanized—insofar as they did not engage with the world as experienced by individuals—but added to this the more fundamental criticism that positivist social scientists made false claims to objectivity—by failing to recognize the subjectivity of both the observed and the observer. Here, humanistic geography made a decisive break with positivism and turned to approaches which require empathy with people’s own perception of the values and meanings which inform their action (Jackson and Smith 1984). Two other important features of humanistic approaches were the insistence that people were active agents shaping their own worlds and a fascination with the links between place and social identity.

Although links have been made between the humanistic geography of the 1970s and a variety of early work in geography, the most immediate influence was the Chicago School. Humanistic geographers turned to the wealth of studies of the ‘cultural life’ of ‘natural areas’ produced by the Chicago School, as well as drawing on the ‘community studies’ tradition in sociology which had itself been partially inspired by the Chicago School. One of the major strands of work focused on understanding the way of life of particular social groups in particular areas of a city (although a few studies of rural areas were also carried out). It used ethnographic methods including participant observation, firsthand observation and interviews as well as documentary information and census materials. Other researchers used ethnographic methods to explore features of crime and deviance in selected neighborhoods, often using factorial ecology to identify suitable areas for study.

Humanistic geographers also engaged with what were for 1970s geographers the new philosophical approaches of phenomenology and existentialism. There were two important consequences. First, a move towards thinking of the individual as constituted through the social interactions in which they take part. These social interactions and the everyday behaviors in which people engage create a taken-for-granted world which the social scientist can attempt to deconstruct. Second, there was an attempt to avoid prior theorization about the values and meanings of those people who are studied and to be open to understanding the world through their eyes. However, this still allows the findings of such studies to be interpreted within a theoretical or practical context and for disagreement about such interpretations to be fierce.

Another focus was on understanding the cultural meanings of, and values attached to particular landscapes and built forms. This work employed the methods of hermeneutics (for example, Meinig 1979). In the 1970s, this work was considered to be on the margins of social geography and soon became seen as part of the revival of cultural geography. As such, its investigation of the multiplicity and instability of meanings, their communication and reformulation began a tradition of work that has had important implications for contemporary social geography.

3.2 Welfare And Weber

David Smith’s Human Geography: A Welfare Approach (1977) addressed what had begun to emerge as a new approach to human geography of particular significance to social geography. This approach focused on ‘who gets what, where, and how’—that is, on issues of social justice and inequality. It therefore involved both arguments about what constitutes social (and often, territorial) justice and attempts to measure empirically various types of social inequality. An early focus was on developing social indicators to measure inequality between social groups living in different areas at a variety of scales ranging from the city to the world. This research built on the expertise developed in earlier descriptive analyses of census data on cities. It also included measurement of people’s spatial access to services (for example health care or education) or proximity to negative factors such as pollution. However, although this answered questions of where inequality or deprivation might be found and who suffered such problems, it did not answer questions of how this inequality arose. Consequently, researchers developed a range of analyses of the operation of particular agencies and agents whose actions seemed significant to the distribution of resources.

A substantial body of work thus developed around state and private institutions’ management of the distribution of resources, drawing on the theories of Max Weber. The concept of ‘managerialism’ was prominent. It was first proposed by Pahl (1975), who suggested that within both the state and private sector there were ‘gatekeepers’ whose decisions were crucial to access to resources and so to people’s quality of life. Within social geography, the ideas of managerialism stimulated a wide range of studies of access to both public and private sector housing. These were counterposed to the earlier studies of housing search and housing choice to suggest that they had paid too little attention to the constraints on people’s choices in the housing market. The theme of choice and constraint reappears within this body of work applied not only to housing but also to resources like health care, education, services for the elderly, parks, and open space and delivery services in rural areas. However, the ideas of Weber also introduced an increasing interest in conflict between and among institutions and groups. Here social geographers drew upon the ideas of the sociologist John Rex (1968) on housing classes, as well as on Weberian ideas about the operation of bureaucracies and professional groups, to explore conflicts over the distribution of resources.

A different approach to access used the ideas of time geography developed by the Swedish geographer Hagerstrand (1975). He suggested that time and space are resources which people must use to realize the ‘projects’ which they wish to carry out. Since traversing space requires time and many activities require the co-presence of individuals or presence at a particular location, not all projects can be realized. People’s ability to carry out particular projects is limited by capacity, coupling, and authority constraints. Despite the enthusiasm of some geographers and a few empirical studies, the potential of these ideas remained regrettably underdeveloped. Most empirical use of Hagerstrand’s ideas focused on the physical limits to access and did not develop the possibilities of a more fully realized social theory of human behavior in space and time.

The majority of welfare-focused research was concerned with cities in ‘developed’ countries; however, attention was also paid to inequalities in the rural areas of such countries and these perspectives have been used in studies of developing countries, Eastern Europe and the former USSR. There were overlaps with other radical approaches. The study of conflict and constraint often employed ethnographic methods to explore the values and patterns of behavior of gatekeepers and the social groups attempting to access resources. Attempts to answer the how element of welfare geographers’ problematic often drew on research using Marxist theory which sought to situate explanation of issues such as housing access within an analysis of the operation of capitalist society.

3.3 Marxist Approaches

The book that best illustrates the thinking that drew geographers to Marxist theory was Harvey’s Social Justice and the City (1973). A key event also was the founding of Antipode: a Radical Journal of Geography in 1969 at Clark University in the USA. Harvey’s book charts and explains a shift in his thinking from liberal to Marxist. At the start of the 1970s, very few geographers knew anything about Marxism, and Marxist analyses of the political economy of cities and regions were rare. By the end of the decade, there had been a major expansion in the use of Marxist approaches sufficient to create a new orthodoxy. This had implications across all geography while in social geography Marxist approaches were embraced with particular enthusiasm.

The analysis of residential differentiation and change had been a central part of social geography since its inception. The new Marxist theory offered ways of understanding these processes through ideas of class struggle and capital accumulation and large-scale patterns of investment, and disinvestment could be interpreted in terms of crises in processes of accumulation. Such analyses were applied to gentrification and suburbanization. Processes of socialization within residential areas could also be theorized as involving the reproduction of particular social subgroups (class fractions). These early formulations were challenged by an important new body of socialist feminist work that developed in the early 1980s. While this incorporated many of the postulates of Marxism it criticized the conceptual and practical neglect of gendered power relations and the failure to identify and explore the links between gender and class relations. Critical empirical research on both gentrification and suburbanization sought to explore the ways in which gender relations were involved in the construction of the spatial structure of the city and the implications of this for women’s oppression in society. In general, this socialist-feminist work was more sensitive than other Marxist approaches to the role of human agency and to humanist claims concerning the partiality of knowledge.

The approach to analyzing access to services was also strongly affected by Marxist analysis. Castells’ work on collective consumption and social movements was highly influential. Castells defines collective consumption as the provision of services that are produced and managed collectively, and distributed through non-market allocation processes. He argued that these were provided through the State apparatus because they were necessary to the reproduction of labor power but would not be provided directly by the capitalist market because of a lower than average profit rate. Castells made a highly contentious definition of the city as ‘a unit of collective consumption corresponding more or less to the daily organization of a section of labour power’ (1976, p. 148). More importantly to research in social geography, he also spelt out how a variety of social movements might arise in response to inadequacies in the provision of collective consumption. Such social movements might fragment class solidarity and reduce the possibility of radical political change or enhance it. Castells’ ideas stimulated extensive conceptual and empirical research in both urban sociology and in social geography.

3.4 Critiques And Cross-Fertilization

By the early 1980s, social geographers had become better versed in social theory and more critical and sophisticated in its application. There were debate and cross-fertilization of ideas amongst researchers working in the three areas identified above and increasing awareness of their shortcomings as well as their strengths. There were strong critiques from humanists and feminists of the neglect of human agency in Marxist approaches in geography and this encouraged geographers’ interest in the sociologist Anthony Giddens’ ‘structuration’ theory (Giddens 1981). This attempted to show how human agency and structures were mutually constitutive within a time-space framework and drew on the earlier ideas of Hagerstrand. These critiques encouraged attempts to develop a more ‘humanistic’ Marxism sensitive to both human agency and contingency. At the same time, those concerned with issues of welfare and social justice were increasingly using some form of political economy approach deriving from Marxism to frame their research. All three approaches, as well as earlier work in social geography, were criticized by feminist geographers for their neglect of gender (Bowlby and McDowell 1987) and a major new body of research by feminist social geographers began to develop. This involved ethnographic empirical study of the everyday life of women and incorporated ideas drawn from welfare geography (in relation to issues of access and inequality), humanistic geography (in relation to women’s experience of and social relations within particular places) and, as indicated above, Marxist geography. Some of this feminist work was linked to another major development within geography—the explosive growth of cultural geography during the late 1980s with its insistence that because meaning is constantly created and changed through shared but contested discourses, both individual and group self-definitions are unstable and contested.

This new cultural geography drew on earlier humanistic social geographical research as well as on feminist and postmodern critiques of modernist theory. In particular, modernist theory was criticized for assuming a white, bourgeois, and masculine subject and for its attempts to discover universal truth. The impact of these critiques, and of the new empirical work done in the 1980s and 1990s in both cultural and economic geography, has been to call into question both earlier definitions of social geography and the coherence of the sub-discipline.

4. What Is ‘The Social’ In Social Geography?

The later 1980s and the 1990s saw a progressive destruction of the main features of Emrys Jones’s 1975 definition of social geography. That definition involved the separation of social process and spatial pattern and a focus on the use of space and creation of spatial patterns by social groups.

4.1 Social Process And Spatial Pattern Or ‘Spatiality’?

The 1980s saw growing dissatisfaction with the idea of social processes as distinct from spatial patterns, on the grounds that, because all social interactions necessarily take place in and through space, spatial pattern cannot be isolated from social process. These attacks derived from Marxist, humanistic, and cultural geographers’ critiques of positivist analyses of abstract space as an empty container of social processes. Instead, Marxists argued that space was produced through capitalist social processes and through processes of class and other groups’ opposition to capitalism. Humanistic and cultural geographers were also using phenomenological theory and empirical research to argue that our understandings of space are produced through our everyday social activities and do not draw on prior concepts of abstract space.

4.2 The Social vs. The Economic

In the early work, people’s participation in the life of social groups made social geography social and distinguished it from approaches that focused on the individual. The existence of social groups and the salience of characteristics such as ethnicity or income were largely taken for granted. Questions about which social groups to study, and why, have had a number of implications for social geography.

First, increasing familiarity with Marxist and Weberian social theory made social geographers more aware of the need to define what were significant social groups in relation to the major constellations of power in society. Since economic relations are clearly of central importance to social power this required social geographers to consider the relations between the social and the economic. Were social relations to be seen as simply derivative of more ‘fundamental’ economic relations? If so, was social geography of less significance than economic geography?

Second, social geography had always concerned itself with issues of social reproduction—with housing, education, health care, and crime. However, as the new feminist work of the 1980s soon established, they had neglected some central aspects of social reproduction—notably those to do with domestic labor and the home. This feminist work also showed through analyses of the links between the gendering of the ‘home’ and the ‘workplace’ how untenable was the division between social reproduction and production. Thus, they claimed that ‘production and reproduction—the conventionally accepted subjects of economic and social geography respectively—cannot analytically be separated’ (Bowlby and McDowell 1987, p. 305). At the same time, researchers in economic geography were arguing for analyzing economies and economic relations as social constructs. During the 1990s, the importance of examining the social relations embedded in economic exchange was re-emphasized by a number of researchers. In particular, feminist research on labor markets showed clearly the interpenetration of the social and the economic (Hanson and Pratt 1995). Thus, the term ‘social’ no longer clearly delimits the subject matter for social geographers.

4.3 Discourses And Social Groups

Meanwhile a resurgence of cultural geography and associated growth of interest in postmodern theory has called into question social geographers’ accustomed ways of thinking. On the one hand, these developments have drawn attention to the power relations inherent in the definition of social groups and to the political problems of representation this poses. They have also stressed the fluidity and contested nature of such definitions. On the other hand, postmodern approaches have questioned the validity of modernist ‘grand theory’ such as that of Marx and Weber that has been part of the stock in trade of social geographers from 1975 to 2000. Cultural geography has thus required social geographers to examine processes of representation and communication more closely and to question the idea that there is a single ‘social reality’ to be uncovered through research.

4.4 What Future For Social Geography?

There are significant vulnerabilities in the current situation of social geography. It now lacks a distinctive focus. In the 1990s, the definition of social geography given in the Dictionary of Human Geography was ‘The study of social relations in space and the spatial structures that underpin those relations’ (Johnson et al. 1994, p. 562). This is so broad that it is difficult to see where social geography ends and other sub-disciplines—for example, economic, political, or cultural geography—start.

It is also arguable that the term has become shorthand for research that concentrates on issues of ‘social relations in space’ only in Western societies. Despite the existence of much research in developing countries which, if carried out in a Western society, would be termed ‘social geography’ there has been too little interaction between those researchers working on developing and developed countries. There are, however, some indications that this is changing with greater appreciation of the implications of the globalization of communication and economic relationships and the significance of diasporic cultures.

For many social geographers the growth of cultural geography presents an opportunity to combine many of the themes of the two sub-disciplines in fruitful investigation of social inequality and difference and to focus on and destabilize definitions of a wider range of ‘social groups’—such as disabled people and gay and lesbian people. Social geographers’ tradition of political engagement and ethnographic research can combine positively with cultural geographers’ sensitivity to discourse and symbolic expression of difference. The rapprochements between social, cultural, and development geographers seem likely to produce valuable research. Nevertheless, the term ‘social geography’ on its own—as opposed to ‘social and cultural geography’ or ‘social and development geography’—seems likely to revert to its earlier obscurity.

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