Barnes, T.

Trevor Barnes (Figure 1) was born in London, England in 1956. Having grown up in Cornwall, he studied economics and geography at University College London between 1975 and 1978. Barnes completed MA and PhD degrees in geography at the University of Minnesota and since 1983 has taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He was promoted to full professor in 1994. Barnes has been awarded a wide range of professional distinctions including the American Association of Geographers’ Presidential Award for Professional Achievement in 2006. Barnes’ work extends across theories of economic value; analytical political economy; and flexibility and industrial restructuring. Later he has explored the ‘theoretical histories’ of Anglo-American economic geography. Drawing upon insights from science studies, Barnes has critically interrogated the changing position of economic geography through the twentieth and into the twenty first century.

Although perhaps giving the appearance of a relatively divergent set of themes, there are strong threads of continuity running through Barnes’ research and writing interests. He has long been captivated by the work of the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, for example. In Barnes’ view, Sraffa’s terse expositions on value in The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (via a set of simultaneous production equations) usefully speak to both rigorous abstract theorists and scholars who are more interested in the contextual and the concrete. Barnes views antiessentialist accounts such as Sraffa’s as a useful means of critiquing both classical Marxist accounts of the labor theory of value (which essentialize the role and nature of labor power) as well as neoclassical utility theory.

Photo of Trevor Barnes.

Together with Eric Sheppard (University of Minnesota, US), Barnes sought to ground political economy in space and place by developing analytical approaches. Engaging with, but also building a substantial critique of analytical Marxism, such approaches employ statistical testing, mathematical reasoning, and logic to understand the production and functioning of socioeconomic geographies. Although Barnes and Sheppard’s work employs formal mathematical language, it does not deal solely with the role of space and place in the abstract. Rather, they would suggest that analytical approaches can be useful in assessing and understanding concrete and contextual worlds.

Barnes’ engagement with debates surrounding flexible production has drawn upon research on the forestry industry in British Columbia conducted with Roger Hayter (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada). While many accounts of flexibility through the 1980s and 1990s centered upon developments in ‘new industrial spaces’, Barnes and Hayter extended conceptualizations of flexibility through a consideration of in situ restructuring within a marginal resource economy. Barnes also has drawn upon and reworked the Canadian economic historian Harold Innis’ ‘staples model’. The staples model emphasizes the key role of staples production for export within Canadian economic development, which gives rise to relations of dependency and marginality within the international economy. Throughout his writing in this area, Barnes’ explicit concern has been to confront the profound devastation of lives and communities wrought by the decline of the British Columbian forest products sector. Most recently, Barnes and Hayter have reiterated that ‘local models’ such as Innis’ – which explicitly reject unilinear causal logics, universalist assumptions, and formal reasoning – are vital to understanding the complex socioeconomic geographies of resource peripheries.

From the late 1990s onwards, Barnes became interested in tracing the social and political connections that produced the spatial scientific narratives which came to dominate geography – and particularly economic geography – during the 1950s and 1960s. He has suggested that one of the most important aspects of the so called quantitative revolution was not in fact its use of new methodologies, but rather the impact it had upon dominant theoretical sensibilities. In fact, Barnes argued that geography had been a quantitative discipline since the nineteenth-century. While the practices of geography might have changed in the mid twentieth century (including computerization, the use of complex statistical methods, and new ‘scientific’ vocabularies), the most significant impact of the quantitative revolution for Barnes lays in its explicit championing of foundational understandings of the world in which the ‘truthfulness of representation’ was guaranteed.

In researching connections between and among spatial scientists in North America, Barnes reflected upon the socially embedded nature of geography’s quantitative revolution. Crucially, transformations in geographical thinking emerged as ‘local affairs’ within particular institutional sites. Locational analysis, for example, became dominant precisely through the continuing use and transmission of ideas via teaching and research in particular places. Informed by ‘philosophy of science’ literatures, Barnes argues that there is no universal principle which shapes the development of scientific knowledge, but rather our understandings of the world are intricately connected to the local context in which geographical ideas develop. His interest in the nature of geographical knowledge production derives from a desire to be conscious of the social power and interests that shape such knowledge. Importantly, geography researchers’ involvement in the academy quickly becomes inextricably bound up with networks of power and arrangements of competing interests.

One of the key contributions provided by Barnes’ examination of the histories of economic geography is his provision of a more nuanced story of the discipline than narrations of strict succession and progression of knowledge generally imply. The notion of a quantitative ‘revolution’ in geography obviously suggests a move beyond preexisting theoretical perspectives – and certainly post spatial science approaches such as Marxism, feminism, locality studies, and accounts of flexible production represent attempts to challenge previous ways of thinking. Nonetheless, Barnes suggests that economic geography through the 1970s and 1980s did not in fact move far beyond an Enlightenment view which sought certainties and foundations. Despite seeking to distance themselves from both the language and the practice of spatial science, he argues that most analysts ultimately were unable to escape the legacy of the seventeenth century.

Barnes has exhorted researchers to strive for a more edgy engagement with economic geography. Rather than pursuing a singular order, he has suggested that – like favorite punk bands Sham 69 and the Sex Pistols – economic geographers should engage in messy, energetic, and multiple approaches. Commentators should seek to disrupt, rework, and even work ‘against’ existing styles of thought. Discrete conceptual categories such as capital, labor, culture, economy, or ‘the consumer’ similarly should be interrogated. Barnes’ work has contributed substantially to the reconfiguration of economic geographical approaches in ways which seek new theoretical understandings of space and place but which also allow for experimentation and the search for new possibilities.