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critical human geography

  A diverse and rapidly changing set of ideas and practices within human geography linked by a shared commitment to emancipatory politics within and beyond the discipline, to the promotion of progressive social change and to the development of a broad range of critical theories and their application in geographical research and political practice. Those who use the term to describe their activity usually do so self-consciously and deliberately to signal their adoption of one or more of these positions. In more detail, critical human geography involves:

Opposition to unequal and oppressive power relations. Critical human geographers emphasize the roles played by social relations of domination and resistance in the production and reproduction of place, space, and landscape, and the reciprocal impact of place, space and landscape on the production, reproduction and legitimation of relations of domination and resistance. Among others, unequal relations of class, race, ethnicity, gender (see gender and geography), disability (see disability and geography), sexuality (see sexuality and geography), and age have all been the focus of empirical and theoretical investigation and critique by geographers, as have the related practices of accumulation, colonialism, racism and patriarchy.

Development and application of critical theories. Critical human geography in the late 1990s is marked by conceptual pluralism and an openness to a wide range of critical theoretical approaches, including anarchism, environmentalism, feminism, Marxism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis as well as critical theory in the strict sense. In each case geographical scholarship has interrogated and developed the relationships between critical theory and spatiality. The enormous diversity within and between these different traditions has ensured that critical human geography is both a highly dynamic and a highly contested terrain. There is no consensus among critical human geographers about the respective merits of different approaches, whether two or more of them can be fruitfully combined, and if so how this should be done. While most critical human geographers resist attempts to prescribe a single theoretical orthodoxy, some seek to develop, extend and work within just one or two theoretical traditions, while others draw on a range of different approaches.

Commitment to social justice and transformative politics. Critical human geographers typically espouse political commitments within and beyond the academy that emphasize resistance to the unequal power relations mentioned above and seek to contribute to political struggles and social movements that aim to promote social justice and to transform the social structures and practices that reproduce domination (cf. justice, geography and).

Critical human geography is related to and in large part overlaps a more established tradition of radical geography. Though there is no sharp distinction to be drawn between the two, critical geography appears at present to be more diffuse, less institutionalized, more theoretically eclectic and, some would argue, less focused politically.

Four key issues have generated much debate within critical human geography and are likely to be crucial to its further development.

The relationship between theory and practice. While emphasizing that theoretically informed political practice is a vital goal, critical human geographers have often been cautious about translating theoretical insights into political engagement. This seems to be due in part because of doubts among some critical human geographers about the possibility of reading off immediate political strategies from critical theories and in part because the scope for radical political action appears to have been eroded by the dominance of neo-conservative and neo-liberal politics during the 1980s and early 1990s. However, while there is much scepticism about the possibility of building a unitary political project around critical human geography, individuals and groups do participate in a wide range of grassroots political movements, community organizations and practices of resistance (e.g. Routledge, 1997).

Politics inside and outside the academy. Critical human geography recognizes that the western academy and academic life are not as egalitarian as they sometimes purport to be, but are themselves shot through with unequal power relations. For example, many feminist geographers have stressed the extent to which women have been marginalized within the academic institutions of geography. The merger of the Institute of British Geographers with the Royal Geographical Society in 1995 was opposed by many critical human geographers who objected to the continuing effects of the RGS\'s imperialist legacy (cf. geographical societies). The financial patronage of the RGS by the Shell oil company was a further source of conflict arising from both Shell\'s status as a multinational corporation (and thus deeply implicated in process of capital accumulation) and its role in environmental conflicts and struggles over human rights in less developed countries (notably Nigeria). Although most critical human geographers share this commitment to political action within the academic world, there is clearly some danger that it may lead to the neglect of issues of social justice beyond the academy. On the other hand, critical human geography also involves a critique of the view that the academy is an ivory tower divorced from the \'real world\'.

positionality/reflexivity. Most critical human geography is self-consciously reflexive. That is, it turns critical theory on itself in a process of self-critique, raising a series of uncomfortable questions for critical human geography itself. For example, to what extent, if at all, can academic geographers speak \'on behalf of\' marginalized social groups? Does the development of highly sophisticated theory sometimes impede, rather than enable, the pluralist networks of communication on which radical democratic political activity depends? Is it the case that \'the self-reflexivity and respect for difference we have learned to cultivate [themselves] threaten to be debilitating\'? (Katz et al., 1998, p. 258).

Internationalism. Notwithstanding its sincere commitments to inclusion, post-colonialism and anti-racism, critical human geography has to date been largely (though by no means exclusively) an Anglo-American affair. There is, though, a wide recognition of the vital necessity of involving a much broader range of participants. Critical human geography is now marked by an emerging, if still hesitant, internationalism. The Inaugural International Conference of Critical Geographers (IICCG) held in August 1997 in Vancouver, Canada, attracted participation from thirty countries (Katz et al., 1998, p. 257). Widespread use is made of electronic communications media, particularly the Internet, to enable wider international involvement (though it is recognized that access to such facilities is also highly unequal). One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the further development of critical human geography will be to see how such wider involvement changes theory and practice, and the relationship between them. (JP)

References Katz, C. et al. 1998: Lost and found in the posts: addressing critical human geography. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16: 257-78. Routledge, P. 1997: The imagineering of resistance: Pollock Free State and the practice of postmodern politics. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 22: 359-76.

Suggested Reading Katz et al. (1998); Critical Geography electronic mailing list:



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