Toward More Fully Activist Geographies

Since the 1970s, Marxist, feminist, and, more broadly, radical and critical geographers have produced outstanding scholarship and theorizing, substantively researching sociospatially constituted oppressions, inequalities, and injustices. Yet, there has often remained an uneasiness about the relative disconnect between such work and the potential of the discipline to contribute genuine activist interventions aiming to right the wrongs of such oppressions and the like as grounded in particular in peoples, places, and issues. Moreover, as Lynn Staeheli and Don Mitchell note in their 2005 paper, while theoretical developments in the discipline have perhaps drawn geography closer to the heart of the main debates in the social sciences and humanities, they may have simultaneously drawn it further from the social movements, political formations, policymakers, and lay people that many geographers hope to reach. In a similar vein, writing a few years earlier, Noel Castree had worried about the dangers of ‘domesticating critical geography’, such that critical scholarship actually becomes a new trendy currency of the discipline, rewarded in the likes of research quality assessment exercises, but strangely divorced from real contexts of deprivation, struggle, and the need for change. As a result, and dating back at least to Nick Blomley’s 1994 provocation, some geographers have lamented the separation between critical sectors of the discipline and activism going on ‘outside’ the academy. Hence, calls have been heard for geographers of a radical or critical persuasion to become politically engaged outside the academy in social movements, community groups, protests, and other moments where resisting others seek to take control of their own destinies.

One of the clearest articulations has been by Duncan Fuller and Rob Kitchin, in introducing their 2004 edited e volume on Critical Theory/Radical Praxis, who argued that academics have a social responsibility, given their training, access to information, and freedom of expression, to make a difference on the ground through activist research. Drawing upon feminist praxis, they see the role of the academic as primarily that of an enabler or facilitator, acting in collaboration with diverse communities. Radical activist praxis is thus committed to exposing the sociospatial processes that (re)produce inequalities between people and places; challenging and changing those inequalities; and then bridging the divide between theorization and praxis. Fuller and Kitchin bemoan the fact that there is still some scholarly distance between geographers’ activism and their teaching, research, and publishing activities, with radical activist praxis consisting of little else beyond academic writing and pedagogy (not that the possibilities of these activities, critical pedagogy especially, should be neglected). They posit that the structural constraints arising from the desire to maintain the power of the academy in knowledge production, and the desire to shape the education system for the purposes of the neoliberal status quo, inevitably but debilitatingly work to (de)limit the work of radical and critical geographers.

Thus, a variety of activist geographies (not always explicitly named as such) have begun to appear. These have been practiced by various geographers operating from different institutional bases and with varying levels of involvement in different worldly situations of social injustice (in both the Global North and the Global South). Such initiatives include, but are not limited to, ‘people’s geography’, as embodied in the People’s Geography Project organized out of the University of Syracuse, with its effort at making research and geographical concepts relevant to social struggles ‘for’ (and to an extent ‘by’) the people, for example, through the Syracuse Hunger Project; ‘critical development work’, marked by the efforts to construct venues for community or organizational input on development and planning work, positioned by R. Howitt in 1993 as ‘applied people’s geography’; and ‘autonomous geographies’, as outlined by Jenny Pickerill and Paul Chatterton in 2006, not only studying but also actively seeking to contribute to the building of ‘‘spaces where there is a desire to constitute non capitalist, collective forms of politics, identity and citizenship’’.

Particular reference might also be made to ‘participatory geographies’, an emerging body of work centralizing the importance of geographical researchers more or less fully participating in the lifeworlds of research subjects, and/or the participation of those research subjects in the production of geographical research. In this work, questions about the researcher’s entangled responsibilities to these research subjects are always foregrounded (and also discussed further on). Bunge’s advocacy geography had urged this participatory moment, but so too, in a less overtly politicized manner, have various inputs to the discipline emerging from the ethnographic sensibilities of anthropologists and (some) sociologists. Coupled with a diversity of other conceptual, methodological, and ethico political impulses, not least derived from feminist and postcolonial literatures and practices, a trajectory of engagement (on occasion named as participatory geographies) can now be identified, leading to the major book on this theme in 2008 edited by Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain, and Mike Kesby.

The extent to which participatory and activist geographies converge or diverge is an important question, while there are clear overlaps in the geographers involved, and clearly many shared ethics and politicized senses of responsibility, there is arguably a distinction in the extent to which activist geographies commit to an overt and actively engaged politics of social justice (which also commonly if not always marks out the groupings with whom they elect to ‘participate’). In other words, for some participatory geographers, it may be enough just to participate, with the danger of ‘going native’ and so closely empathizing with the peoples and places under study, being that the possibility of a critical perspective is largely eroded. For activist geographers, the challenge is to participate in enabling transformative social change. However, while sharing in others’ everyday worlds, an onus remains to be alert to when social injustices – maybe practices of dominating power – arise within the communities hosting the participant researcher, particularly when such injustices mirror, or import, precisely those wider socio spatial processes of oppression that the activist researcher must remain committed to oppose (whenever and wherever they appear, however uncomfortable that might then render their immediate research relations).