Space for Everything (A Commentary)

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

To situate some of the articles in this issue, and some of the issues raised by them, I want to root identity and difference in the substantial geographical literature on space, place, and locality. An appropriate starting point is David Harvey's (1989:22) grid of spatial practices (see Figure 1), which he adapts from Henri Lefebvre's discussion of spatial experience, perception, and imagination. As Harvey makes clear, this triad is, in quite complex ways, related internally and dialectically. Particular representations (for example, of the United States Western frontier) emerge from specific material spatial practices and from certain forms of domination and control of space, yet they can become material forces in their own right, a sort of spatial habitus to appropriate Bourdieu's language (Bourdieu 1977;cf. Moore 1986). These dimensions of the material (flows, patterns, movement),representation a (ls patial signs, codes, and maps), and the imaginary dimensions of space can be, as it were, refined along certain axes of spatiality: access/distanciation, appropriation/use, domination/control, and social production. Without rehearsing a long and somewhat tedious history of spatial analysis (see Entrikin 1991 and Soja 1989 for good reviews), I think it is fair to say that the strongest geographical suit has been in material spatial practices, what Peet and Thrift have called the political economy approach in human geography (1989:3), documenting the uneven development of capitalism, the social production of spaces and regions, the changing spatial divisions of labor, and the means by which spaces (for example, the city) are appropriated (e.g., gentrification), controlled, and regulated. There has been, admittedly, a long-standing (but intellectually rather shallow) concern with environmental perception, cognitive mapping, and the symbolism of particular places and landscapes (see Meinig 1979), but it is in the realm of representation, and correlatively of spatial experience and meaning, that geography has been at its weakest. In this regard, it is rather apposite that the "new wave" of regional and place-based geographies explicitly calls for ethnography (Sayer 1989), and for an engagement with cultural theory, iconography, and textual analysis (Daniels 1989; Jackson 1989). (Watts, 118)

About the Author

Michael J Watts is a Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include: Political economy, political ecology, Africa, South Asia, development, peasant societies, social and cultural theory, U.S. agriculture, Islam and social movements, the energy transition, resource conflicts, the oil industry.

"At the centre of my research and teaching interests is a longstanding engagement with theories of political economy and in particular  energy and agro-food sectors in Africa. My own training at University College, London and at the University of Michigan was firmly grounded in Anthropology, Ecology and Sociology, initially with a focus on the understanding the vulnerability of peasant communities in semi-arid Africa and the dynamics of subsistence and famine crises. My doctoral research was based on long term field research in northern Nigeria and generated a lifelong concern with questions of food security, rural differentiation and the agrarian question. While at Berkeley I have tried to deepen my understanding of the intersections between political economy, culture and power, a set of interests I share with a number of my colleagues in the department from whom I have benefited greatly.   Over the last decade I have devoted most of my time to the energy sector and to the impact of oil in the Gulf of Guinea." 

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