Claval, P.

Claval, Paul (1932–)

Paul Claval, born in Paris in 1932, is one of the most important geographers of his generation, both in terms of the extensive nature of his work and his originality, eclecticism, and international influence. His passion for geography developed during his teenage years in south-western France. While accompanying his father on summer work trips, Claval very quickly became aware of the effects that distance and information have on the circulation of individuals, goods, and ideas within a given territory. This dual intuition has characterized all his reflections ever since, that is, during his university education in Toulouse, his teaching career in Bordeaux and Montpelier, his professorship at the Universite? de Besanc?on from the end of the 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s, his years at the Universite? de Paris IV (extending until the end of the 1990s), in his later role as professor emeritus.

The originality of his work lies in the fact that it systematically explores human activities and space by way of his chosen explanatory postulates: distance and information. These are the two cornerstones of his thought that he sees as major structuring elements of all geographical thought and yet are strangely absent from its formulations. A typical product of the 1960s, Claval is highly critical of the methodological and ideological errings of a geography that he deems overcautious or too comfortable given that it ignores or underestimates certain important problem areas such as justice, power, the weight of ideologies, identity, and values, not to mention the sociohistoric and paradigmatic ruptures arising from the globalization–internationalization–metropolization triptych and the passage from modernity to postmodernity. Claval is a critic whose work is innovative insofar as it suggests a number of alternative ways to more fully develop geography’s cognitive richness and social relevance. This has motivated him not only to constantly explore the history and epistemology of the discipline, but also to open his thought to other disciplines and to foreign geographies, especially geographical currents from the English speaking world, as a means of renewing a geography that would seem to be slow in fully assuming its role as a provider of new frameworks and innovative explanations. In order to reach this objective, Claval criss crossed the fields of economic geography, social geography, political geography, urban geography, and then cultural geography, but he did not practice these disciplines so much as reinvigorate them by offering his own theoretical perspectives, epistemological positions, and reforming concepts as a means of offsetting the shortfalls that he uncovered in them.

Claval, Paul

Claval’s body of work appears to be an ongoing schematic reflection upon homo geographicus, designed in the short term around case studies then adjusted over the medium term by the application of economical, social, political, urban, and cultural approaches that over the long term link, by way of feedback loops, his ongoing probing of the destiny and role of geography.

At the outset of his career, Claval observed that French human geography was unable to be anything other than a science of regional differentiation. His conviction that geography is a profoundly social discipline led to probings of an epistemological nature. Claval was well aware of the doubts assailing the geographers of the era and the difficulties they were experiencing in characterizing their discipline; he therefore suggested a historical and critical reflection on geographical knowledge as a possible solution. His goal, following the examples of Harsthorne, Hettner, and Kant, was to illustrate that geography is not a science subject but rather a science point of view, characterized by a unique way of grasping reality, whose ultimate objective is the reconstruction of the spatial aspects of our reality.

To reach his goal, Claval drew on Isard’s work concerning central place theory, then on Ullman and Garrison on the city and the opposition between centrifugal and centripetal forces, in order to more fully understand how social life is conditioned by space. Claval’s dissatisfaction with the era’s essentially empirical and descriptive economic geography, seen as incapable of discovering regularities and explaining constants, led him to explore the roles of microeconomic equilibriums and macroeconomic mechanisms in the genesis and functioning of territorial wholes. For him, the function of transportation fees and information costs proved to be a key factor determining the farthest extent to which space is structured around poles of variable importance. The innovative nature of his approach to economics was demonstrated in his illustration of how territorial constructs are dependent upon their level of economic development and territorial control, that is, their capacity to adopt strategies of localization and modes of spatial organization that can explain both their growth problems and their successes.

Although useful, both in itself and in the service of reform, this approach, like the initiatives of Bunge and Harvey of the same era, proved to be too mechanical, too obsessed by the material aspect of observable phenomena, and by an urgent desire to model in order to assert its scientific nature. And while these colleagues from the English speaking world quickly realized the limits characterizing the positivism from which spatial economics arises and began to practice a more militant and politicized geography inspired by Marxism, Claval turned toward social concepts close to humanism, as well as toward other disciplines. Above all, Claval wanted to see economic geography stop being a geography of places and resources and become a geography of economic subjects and attitudes; this second conviction therefore prompted him to pursue his objective of renewing human geography in an entirely different way.

Disappointed by the inability of the era’s geography to demonstrate the class structure characterizing each individual place, Claval explored the social dimensions of geography in conjunction with Gould and Harvey. Drawing upon the works of anthropologists and sociologists, he showed how the behaviour patterns of various players are conditioned by their partners and by the institutionalization of their relationships. In keeping with his explanatory postulates, he identified both the effect of distance on the emergence of class consciousness and the systematization of social relations as a means of illustrating the costs linked to the transfer of information. Once again his approach stood out for its probing of the spatial dimension of power reflected in these classes and relations, as well as the freedom of choice of the indi viduals that sustain them. Thus, as a complement to his social approach, Claval proceeded to deconstruct the tensions and forces arising with the insertion of humans into space and the relations they forge therein, thus laying the groundwork for a new political geography.

Tired of a born again French political geography that focused exclusively on the state, borders, and capitals, Claval also developed an original political approach through which to understand the facts of power as processes that model space. In fact, he postulated that any system of institutionalized relations serves to channel the effects of power, and he saw power as an essential element of any explanation of geography. Drawing upon the notion of feedback loops derived from cybernetics and systems theory, Claval identified, within an evolutionary spatial framework, the regulating relations linking civil society, the political sphere, and the administrative organization. He was especially concerned with the role of legitimacy in the functioning of any political system and he concentrated on analyzing area and distance as key factors of the freedom–domination dialectic. In addition, by focusing upon these spatial conditions and various forms of freedom in his analysis of power relations, Claval was an innovator, discussing political geography with an emphasis on the individual scale and without dwelling on territory or resorting to maps.

By mobilizing social, political, and institutional dimensions, Claval suggests an ingenious reading of society as well as of the myths of the social sciences and the ideologies that dominate therein, thus enabling a better understanding of the link between the facts of spatial configuration and those of the organization and structure of various societies. His reflections inevitably led him to realize that our social universe is increasingly typified by cities and by a mode of urban life that extends well beyond these particular concentrations. During the 1980s, this focus on the city enabled him to hone his understanding of the influence of space, especially metropolized space, on sociopolitical action.

Having grown weary of an urban geography that showed little interest in the causes and consequences of transportation and frustrated by a theory of central spaces perceived as incapable of explaining the emergence of central space, Claval turned toward various urban planning manuals as a way of better understanding the role of communications and the costs of commuting in the urban organization of space. In addition, inspired by trips to North America and Germany, he sketched a theory of urban networks and another of urban morphology structured around the fluidity and density of these same modes of communication and transportation. Proposing a conception of the city as the ultimate place of convergence, Claval once again made note of the erosion of urban identity within entities no longer belonging to the city or the country as a result of the spreading out and fracturing of their functions. This explains why his urban approach also focuses on the symbolic dimensions of the city, an approach which, while mainly characterizing certain places, enables him to unify urban, regional, and even national space. All things considered, these two theories and their symbolic extension make up an original urbanology treatise according to which the city is the fundamental form of spatial organization in the contemporary world. In the final analysis, destined as it is to facilitate all types of communication, exchange, and recognition, this triple vocation is triggered by metropolization more than it has ever been triggered before.

Wishing to construct an urban approach that is as comprehensive as possible, and observing the phenomenal growth of very large cities, Claval isolated a new dynamic of spatial polarization that he dubbed metropolization as early as 1986. Fleshing out his study of information circuits and communication networks as reflected in the rapid mutations that affect them, he underlines that, in parallel to the growth of central regions and to counterurbanization, development conserves a hierarchical dimension that is now divided among isolated, fragmented urban poles subject to regional or national constraints. Hence, like Giddens and Wallerstein, Claval seeks to interpret the emergence of this new urban scale that circumvents the hierarchies of central places in a world where metropolises, headquarters of global firms, and leaders of worldwide networks, are in direct communication and benefit from excellent accessibility to the economy as a whole. Claval contends that by applying this theory geographers can better grasp the underlying unity of urban concentrations and then more fully understand the processes that challenge the center/periphery dialectic, including those associated with the reemergence of the local and those that transform urban networks through the consecration of certain places where gestation, design, and control activities are concentrated.

This being said, according to Claval these metamorphoses and restructurings of urban settings and ways of life have greatly increased since the passage from modernity to postmodernity, a transition that began in earnest with the fall of the Berlin Wall and accelerated with the globalization of trade, the international division of work, and the increased mobility of individuals and ideas; this passage sounded the death knell for modern ideologies and typical ways of seeing the world and managing its evolution, as reflected in the political, identity, and environmental problems that have shaken the entire planet since the mid 1990s.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the pro Soviet regimes, followed by the extensive regional reconstruction caused by economic globalization, have sparked a questioning of a certain idea of the state, of growth, and of well being in accordance with the emergence of movements characterized by ethnocultural affirmation (nationalism, fundamentalism, etc.) and by sociolibertarian protest (antiglobalization, minority rights, etc.). These are all phenomena that Claval associates with the limits and errors of a way of thinking about our relations with others and the world, a thought process that may be in its death throes. Pursuing a process of reflection of a more clearly epistemological nature, Claval has come to focus on the social and environmental costs of cognitive, ideological, and political regimes that are incapable of providing satisfying solutions. For example, according to Claval, the passage from the popular culture/elite culture opposition to the mass culture/knowledge and technical culture dichotomy is responsible for the current shake up of identities. In fact, this substitution facilitates the eradication of the vernacular components of contemporary societies. And unable to refer to distinct landscapes, techniques, or customs that they may feel to be their own, our societies are completely adrift. This identity crisis is also caused by the collapse of philosophies of history that have dominated for several centuries and that are based on expectations of a better tomorrow, not rooted in a faith based belief in another world.

The problem for Claval, as for Jameson and Fukuyama, is that the privilege accorded to progress, and therefore to time, is no longer valid. And as we confront this void in our horizon of expectations, reflections on postmodernity go forth and multiply. From this postmodern perspective, it is no longer time but rather space that really matters, with individuals aspiring to live in the here and now within frameworks that are sensitive to their aspirations. Given that it is far from certain that this postmodern thinking, characterized by an extreme volatility in its refusal of all dogmatism, can solve anything at all, Claval takes advantage of the current strong social demand for a reform of our relations with our habitat to propose a geographical alternative. More specifically, he proposes a cultural approach that he believes is equipped to link individuals and societies and to give them a happier and more appropriate destiny.

For a long time, Claval came up against the fact that the relations institutionalized by human groups reflect beliefs that they share. As it happens, Claval has intuitively realized that a fundamental change of perspective is currently taking shape, as reflected in present probings and mutations, and even more in geographic research in the English speaking world concerning sense of place and French research on lived in space. This is why since the 1990s he has made every effort to bring out a cultural approach that, he claims, entirely underlies his previous approaches.

Claval addresses our relationships with the world and with other cultures from the perspective of systems of shared beliefs. In this way, he seeks to improve the geographical analysis of cultural realities, which traditionally studies the sole concrete manifestations of cultural dynamics by exploring more specifically that which is above and beyond and elsewhere (otherness, myths, utopias, etc.), elements which help us to better understand the basis of our ways of occupying space. Thus his cultural approach asks in what way individuals perceive the world, invest their passions, knowledge, and interests in it, and then live in it and represent it. And given that this approach focuses on the meaning that these same individuals give to their existence by way of their culture, and especially the way the latter is found in space and materializes it, Claval’s cultural geography also insists on the territorial dimension of our ways of thinking about our habitat. By talking about territory rather than space, Claval is able to deepen his reflection on contemporary political, identity, and environmental problems by emphasizing that the places and especially the landscapes within which human existences unfold are constructed as much by actions as by the types of discourse applied to them. By adopting the idea that types of discourse not only articulate but also structure what is real and then reveal it, he argues that geography must consider representations and perceptions since the relationships that link individuals with their environment are as much material as symbolic.

This said, such an interest in values, symbols, and the meaning of place, as well as in territory, landscape, and discourse rather than space, no matter how productive and relevant, is not really innovative since many other geographers have already covered such territory, and for an even longer time (Buttimer, Cosgrove, Relph, and Tuan). What is innovative is not perceiving this in terms of the birth of a new form of cultural geography, but rather of another type of nonlinear causality which, by revisiting the epistemological bases of geography by proposing a dynamic, heuristic, and relational vision of our experience of place, could very well renew its geographicity. In fact, by insisting on the cultural dimensions of geography after its economic, social, political, and urban components, Claval, when all is said and done, advocates a broad and ambitious form of geography which, while simultaneously being concerned about material, social, and idea based realities, seems to him more equipped to prepare humans to be citizens of the world who are ethically committed and environmentally responsible. Such being the case, today he encourages his followers and practitioners to negotiate a paradigm shift in order to revive geography’s social relevance and cognitive richness.

As innovative as it may be, Claval’s thought would not be so noteworthy were it not for its extensive dissemination. By the end of 2005, Claval had nearly 550 publications to his name, including 40 books, not to mention their reprintings and translations!

For Claval, publishing is a privilege demonstrating respect for the reader; this explains the voluntary simplicity of his thought and the clarity of his writing, even when he addresses complex issues. Paradoxically, this absence of any obtuse convolution or terminological logorrhea may actually hinder the recognition of his scientific contribution. In addition, since out of a sense of rigor he quotes and makes many reference to other writers, some may believe that he has nothing original to say. Furthermore, this feeling is reinforced by the fact that he seems to be participating in what is today a broad-based movement of which he was, however, a founder. However, if his thought really is so unimportant, why is he so often quoted, published, and invited to share his observations and chair various committees?

Sensitive to the prevailing winds and deeply convinced of the significant contribution that geography can make to a better understanding of the world, Claval serves first and foremost the discipline and not himself. This explains his insatiable curiosity and his very critical attitude toward geography, as well as his opening to other geographical cultures and disciplines, since he is very concerned with being open to anything that could enrich the geographical explanation of the world. Looking elsewhere whenever necessary for inspiration, Claval transmits and interprets the tendencies of the geography of the English speaking world to Francophone nations. One of his strong suits is, moreover, an ability to illustrate that the geography of the latter is far from being homogenous, whether in terms of ideologies or practices. Another strength is his ability to point out that the geography of the English speaking world has pushed its own transformation to such an extent that it sometimes neglects, for example, the restrictions that the environment or distances impose. As such, according to Claval, Anglophone geography has often become too attentive to what is said about the world and not enough to the influence people have on their environment.

Singificantly, over 125 of Claval’s texts have been written in or translated into other languages. This is how he has contributed to raising the profile of French geography outside of France and even inspiring non-Francophone researchers to read Francophone geography. Claval has also attempted to reach these same goals through other means, such as when he created the Espace et Culture (space and culture) laboratory in 1981, the activities and results of which have been made known since 1992 by way of the journal entitled Ge?ographie et Cultures (geography and cultures) of which he was the editor for more than 10 years. Claval is also one of the main architects of the cultural geography and history of geography sections of the International Geographical Union. This far reaching organization, bringing together thousands of geographers with all types of backgrounds, annually organizes a variety of forums for exchange in many parts of the world.

Granted that only time will tell how important Claval really is, he is clearly more than a mere geographical tradesperson. In contrast to Brunet, Fre?mont, Gottman, Raffestin, and other French speaking geographers who are more easily seen as innovators, Claval is one of the main actors involved in the maturing of contemporary geography. In fact, if one broadly considers his uncompromising vision of geography, society, and knowledge, the force of his beliefs and ideas, the foresight inherent in what he has demonstrated, as well as his conceptual and theoretical ideas as regards metropolization mechanisms, the evolution of issues in geography, and the various approaches he has elaborated, etc., it becomes clear that Claval has greatly contributed to opening up geography in terms of ideology and methodology. Breaking with the archaic nature of much geographic endeavor while holding out against doctrinaire abuses, he has been among those who have worked the hardest to point out that geographers trace the contours of space and explore complex territorial and relational matters that no one was aware of before.

Working in the field of geography is for Claval a way of dealing with the challenges that face humanity, exploring the changes in perspective that must take place, and imagining new ways of doing things and talking and thinking about our relationship with the world. This process involves arming oneself with the necessary means to fully participate in a radical reform of the pact that unites individuals with the planet that sustains them. Also involved is an attempt to understand what meaning should be given to life in a world that is becoming increasingly emancipated from its traditional perceptions and referents. In a sense, Claval’s objective is to contribute to this by encouraging people to become aware that the world must be understood geographically and that human beings will only be able to fulfil their potential by accepting and pursuing their geographical condition.