The Power of Areas: Reflections from Political Geography

Like these Kyrgyz Traders, area specialists face entanglements and should occasionally take stock of their wares.

Like the Kyrgyz traders in the photo above, area specialists face entanglements and should occasionally take stock of their wares. Where is the balance between theory production and deep knowledge of specific places? How far do the imperialist legacies of knowledge production on areas reach? On what basis can lines of abstract thought be developed from grounded research?

In a recent contribution to Political Geography, building on a workshop at Oxford entitled “Geographies of ‘Area’: politics, places and disciplines”, ten geographers address these and other questions underpinning the rethinking of area studies. As each of the co-authors tells his or her story, a productive and engaging cacophony emerges.

One theme that frequently surfaces in the article “Interventions in the political geographies of area” is ambivalence toward a preoccupation with area-based expertise. As pointed out in the introduction by Richard C. Powell and Ian Klinke (University of Oxford), areal knowledges have often been instrumentalized for geopolitical ends. Even the mere act of delineating areas for many smacks of colonialism. And yet, area specializations also have ardent defenders, who describe theory production without deep knowledge of specific and contrasting places as contrived.

Tariq Jazeel (University College London) is one author who leans toward the latter position, articulating the need for area studies to continue forming a major pillar of geography. Jazeel notes an almost overzealous production of theory in his field and argues that the abstract idea of ‘place’ has become more appealing to political geographers than “the vagaries of actually existing places”. His explanation for this imbalance is lucid.  Only theoretical knowledge, he observes, “accrues value” in the academy. He refers to theories as a kind of currency, bought and sold for their ability to be referenced. The antidote to this trend he offers is an emphasis on slow research, which means cultivating persistence to linger in unclear places and taking the time for the burdens of both translation and “untranslatability”.

Although deep knowledge of specific places helps democratize research, there is a risk that empirical data gathering, too, can become a vapid commodity, or, worse, an authoritarian force. For Patricia Daley (University of Oxford) and Ng’wanza Kamata (University of Dar es Salaam), the question to ask is not how to balance theory and grounded research, but rather how knowledge production in general, especially scholarship on Africa, can be freed of colonial yokes. The authors illustrate how U.S. and European sponsored programs at African universities continue to favor curricula in data collection methods that enable the spread of neoliberal policy or support intelligence gathering efforts. On this basis, Daley and Kamata remind us that an ongoing foreign-driven demand for positivist knowledge can prevent theoretical reflections from being born or taken seriously.

A third strand of inquiry addressed in the article relates to the transition from empirical data gathering to abstraction and categorization. How can observed phenomena be taken up into categories of meaning with widespread validity?

That every object of inquiry can be illuminated through a vast number of lenses becomes clear in the contribution of Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford). Her area of focus, Tibet, has been defined according to McConnell, “in geographical terms as the globe’s largest plateau and the ‘roof of the world’; in political terms as the territory coming under the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government; and in ethnic and cultural terms as a wider realm that includes regions across the Indian, Nepali and Bhutanese Himalayas.” McConnell also points out the political nature of defining world regions, in that Tibet has been situated at the margins of areas framed by both East Asian Studies and South Asian Studies. It is precisely a focus on marginality, McConnell recommends, that can help overcome the blind spots created by mainstream discourses.

Richard Phillips (University of Sheffield) proposes instead what he calls serial area studies for overcoming epistemic hegemonies. If one pursues in-depth knowledge of multiple places with a “critical spirit” and a “relational and unbounded approach”, according to Phillips, area studies can “generate new routes within and between human geographies.” These new routes in turn form “combinations and juxtapositions”, he writes, which can inspire a rethinking of categories and designations. This might sound overly complex, and representing geographically situated human interaction is no small task, but Phillips also reminds us in conclusion that the most important element in the whole endeavor is actually rather simple: curiosity.

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If you are curious what the rest of the authors have to say and from where they draw their inspiration, see the original article:

Powell, Richard C., et al. (2016): “Interventions in the political geographies of ‘area’”. In: Political Geography.