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contextual approach

  Forms of inquiry which approach the world as a series of associations and entanglements in time-space, and which seek both to retain and to explicate those interlacings as the central moment of their interpretations and explanations. In so far as contextual approaches depend upon identifying relations of co-existence, connection or \'togetherness\' they might seem to find a common ground in regional geography. But Thrift (1983) has argued that the classical regional monograph provided little more than a detailed inventory of \'physical\' and \'cultural\' elements, proceeding category by category (geology, soils and vegetation through to economic activities, settlements and the like), so that in fact it severed the associations and entanglements that are at the heart of a properly contextual approach and separated them into compartments. In this sense, then, the ordering scheme of the regional monograph was predicated on relations of identity or \'similarity\' — splitting each region into components assigned to different physical and cultural categories — which is characteristic of a compositional approach. More than this: traditional regional geography tacitly operated with an absolute conception of space, in which time and space were treated as external containers or frameworks (\'neutral grids\') within which the world could be divided into its regional \'boxes\'. For those committed to a contextual approach, however, this marks the site of a conceptual and an analytical failure: it makes it impossible to disclose the ways in which time and space are folded into the conduct of life on earth. For Thrift (1999), in contrast, a contextual approach registers time and space as productive elaborations: as \'what we labour to produce as we go along\', constantly and differentially folded into streams of action and activity.

Seen like this, contextual approaches have had several points of entry into the contemporary discipline. In the first phase of their development, two were particularly important:

The first is time-geography. Its creator, the Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand, defined a contextual approach as one that \'encloses\' a \'pocket\' of the world \'as it is found, with its mixed assortment of beings\', and contrasted this with conventional, compositional approaches that remove different classes of beings \'from their habitats and place them in a classification system\' (Hägerstrand, 1984). This distinction had something in common with the distinction between physical and logical classifications proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, but Kantianism treated time and space as external coordinates whereas the central point of Hägerstrand\'s (\'physical\') project was to show how time and space were drawn into actions and activities. How successful he was remains a subject for debate: Hägerstrand conceived of time and space as resources that had to be \'drawn upon\' in the conduct of social life, but his graphical illustrations retained a strong sense of time and space as external frameworks. Even so, Hägerstrand\'s commitment to a sort of time-space ecology — to the recovery of what he once called \'collateral processes\' that \'cannot unfold freely\' but which \'have to accommodate themselves under the pressures and opportunities which follow from their common existence in terrestrial space and time\' (Hägerstrand, 1976) — turned out to be a central motif of contextual approaches more generally.

Hägerstrand\'s ideas intersected with a number of threads spun in modern social theory and social philosophy that all tried to capture a complex dialectic of \'presence\' and \'absence\' at the heart of social life. In developing his structuration theory, for example, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens (1984) sought to show how direct face-to-face interaction with those co-present in time and/or space (\'social integration\') is wired to systems of mediated interaction with those who are absent in time and/or space (\'system integration\') through the continuous \'binding\' of time and space into the conduct of social life. For many geographers this registered an important advance over the typically more localized scenarios of time-geography: even as they were \'folded into\' social life, time and space were simultaneously \'opened out\' to allow for much more extended networks of co-existence and connection (cf. Simonsen, 1991). In contrast to Hägerstrand\'s predilections, however, many human geographers came to doubt whether Giddens\'s rather grandiose and abstract formulations could provide much empirical purchase on the concrete specificities and particularities to which a contextual approach was supposed to be sensitive.

In the second phase of development different contextual approaches have (appropriately) overlapped and intertwined, so that it is now difficult to identify distinctive intellectual topographies. Many human geographers have been drawn to the work of those philosophers who have paid special attention to the spatializations inherent within the production of social life. Michel Foucault\'s elaborations of the historical connections between power, space and subjectivity — his strong belief that it is impossible to make sense of the operation of power or the constitution of subjectivity without seeing how such social productions also entail productions of space — have been of seminal importance. It would be thoroughly misleading to trace all developments back to Foucault — Heidegger\'s phenomenology has been of great importance in thinking about many of these issues too, for example (Schatzki, 1991), though there are significant connections between Heidegger and Foucault — but these writings can be read as a pivot for the development of two streams of inquiry that increasingly seem to braid into one another.

The first thematic roughly corresponds to epistemology. One of Foucault\'s constant concerns was the connective imperative between power and knowledge, which he treated as the historically constituted and intrinsically spatial formation of \'power-knowledge\'. Drawing in some part on these ideas, an interest in the avowedly contextual production and reception of what has come to be called situated knowledge has animated a revived history of geography. From this perspective, the production of geographical knowledge is no longer to be narrated as the achievement of a succession of authority figures or intellectual schools. The production of \'texts\' is now seen as an irredeemably practical activity that literally takes place within and intervenes within specific \'contexts\'. If the critical interpretation of texts thus crucially depends on the recovery of their contexts, however, this is far from straightforward: there has been a vigorous debate about the dangers of reductively \'reading off\' texts from contexts and about the identification of the myriad networks that spiral out from and fold back into texts (see also discourse).

The second thematic roughly corresponds to ontology. Foucault worked with a range of spatial formations, but one of his central figures was that of the network, and in some respects actor-network theory can be seen as a radical extension of his ideas. It radicalizes the sense of \'ecology\' implicit within timegeography by providing what Thrift (1999) calls an \'irreducible ontology\' in which the world is made up of the intersection of myriad encounters between \'actants\' — people and things — and wherein the conventional separations between \'culture\' and \'nature\' are called into question. Such an ontology — which Thrift describes as at once \'sensuous\' by virtue of its fibrous physicality and \'spectral\' by virtue of its entanglements of absence and presence — underwrites an expansive sense of the time-space configurations through which life on earth goes forward.

Taken together, these recent developments seem to have induced a much more modest sense of theory\'s powers. On the one side, theoretical speculation and elucidation is seen as an intrinsic and vital moment in politico-intellectual inquiry — not least because it functions as a way of clarifying the conditions and consequences of inquiry itself — and yet, on the other side, a sensitivity to context means that all theories are limited and partial — they are all marked by the contexts from which they emerged and the circumstances to which they are made to respond — so that it is now widely accepted that the particularities of any situation cannot be read off from the formulations of any Grand Theory (Thrift, 1996). (DG)

References Giddens, A. 1984: The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press. Hägerstrand, T. 1976: Geography and the study of interaction between nature and society. Geoforum 7: 329-34. Hägerstrand, T. 1984: Presences and absences: a look at conceptual choices and bodily necessities. Regional Studies 8: 373-80. Schatzki, T. 1991: Spatial ontology and explanation. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81: 650-70. Simonsen, K. 1991: Towards an understanding of the contextuality of social life. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 9: 417-32. Thrift, N. 1983: On the determination of social action in space and time. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space D 1: 23-57. Thrift, N. 1996: Spatial formations. London: Sage. Thrift, N. 1999: Steps to an ecology of place. In D. Massey, J. Allen, and P. Sarre, eds, Human geography today. Cambridge: Polity Press, 295-322.

Suggested Reading Hägerstrand (1984). Schatzki (1991). Simonsen (1991). Thrift (1999).



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