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social geography

  The study of social relations and the spatial structures that underpin those relations, social geography has been transformed over the last 20 years by its encounter with social theory and the so-called \'cultural turn\' across the human sciences (Philo, 1991; Chaney, 1994). Even before these developments, some observers suggested that social geography was suffering from an \'identity crisis\' (Cater and Jones, 1989, p. viii). The product of 1960s radicalism, social geography expanded dramatically in the 1970s until it was virtually synonymous with the whole field of human geography (cf. radical geography). Since then, especially in the UK, social geography has tended to be subsumed by the rapid development of cultural geography blurring its boundaries as a separate sub-discipline. As a result, some critics have detected an evacuation of \'the social\' in social geography, leading to an over-emphasis on meaning, Identity, representation and ideology to the neglect of structured inequalities based on socially significant differences of gender, class, race, sexuality, (dis)ability etc. (Gregson, 1995).

Writing in the mid-1960s, Ray Pahl defined social geography as concerned with \'the theoretical location of social groups and social characteristics, often within an urban setting\' (1965, p. 82). His emphasis on location theory was typical of the contemporary dominance of spatial science, as was his distinctly urban emphasis. In fact, social geography\'s intellectual roots extend much deeper and are more complex. The nineteenth-century French tradition of la géographie humaine, for example, is an important precursor of recent developments in social geography, particularly in its more humanistic aspects (e.g. Ley, 1983). With its emphasis on the complex relationship between landscapes (pays) and way of life (genre de vie), the \'French school\' represented a sharp break from predominant forms of environmental determinism, reasserting the significance of human agency against the claims of an all-constraining physical environment. Similarly, there are important precedents for social geography\'s radical orientation in the anarchist tradition associated with the work of Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) and Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) (see anarchism). There are also continuities with the urban ecologists of the \'Chicago school\' and with the development of the German \'landscape indicators\' tradition. Indeed, though it is often regarded as an Anglo-American tradition, a more international perspective on social geography is to be welcomed (Eyles, 1986).

That social geography\'s intellectual agenda has rarely been divorced from its wider political context is suggested by Gilbert and Steel\'s (1945) confident assertion at the end of the Second World War of social geography\'s continuing place in colonial studies. These connections persist, though now in more critical form, via social geography\'s current engagement with post-colonialism (Jacobs, 1996). Despite passing references to the sociological aspects of geography during the 1950s, social geography\'s period of most rapid growth did not take place for another ten years, associated with the turbulent events of the 1960s. Informed by current developments in Marxism and French sociology (Castells, 1977), a more politicized social geography developed, emphasizing spatially differentiated social inequalities and leading to both liberal and radical approaches to questions of social justice (Harvey, 1973) (see also welfare geography).

The 1970s also saw the development of an explicitly humanistic geography (Ley and Samuels, 1978) with a renewed emphasis on human subjectivity, including an emphasis on understanding \'the patterns which arise from the use social groups make of space as they see it, and … the processes involved in making and changing such patterns\' (Jones, 1975, p. 7). Despite the growth of Weberian, Marxist and humanistic approaches (Jackson and Smith, 1984), social geography maintained a strongly empirical tradition, particularly regarding the mapping and measuring of patterns of residential segregation. Geographers then began to develop a more critical concern with the social construction of \'race\' and the politics of racism (Jackson, 1987) and with other forms of difference including the geographies of gender (WGSG, 1984), sexuality (Bell and Valentine, 1995) and disability (Imrie, 1996). The emergence of an explicitly feminist geography (Rose, 1993; WGSG, 1997) has also been particularly evident within social geography.

Today, social geography covers a wide range of empirical work, informed by a variety of theoretical perspectives (Hamnett, 1996). It encompasses studies of crime and poverty, health and health care, as well as the variety of social movements that are struggling for social and political change. Though they are still concerned to analyse the spatial incidence of social problems, social geographers have become increasingly interested in understanding the importance of space in the constitution of social life and in examining the spatial structures that underpin social relations (Gregory and Urry, 1985). A reassertion of the importance of space in social theory is also characteristic of geographical studies of modernism and postmodernism (Harvey, 1989; Soja, 1989).

Following the cultural turn, social geography\'s agenda has moved closer to cultural geography, via studies of the iconography of landscape and the cultural politics of space and place. Current research in social geography is also beginning to acknowledge the cultural significance of our embodiment and corporeality, and (via research on genetic engineering and the refashioning of nature) to emphasize the social construction of our most taken-for-granted categories. Within social geography (as elsewhere), conventional distinctions between the \'economic\' and the \'cultural\', between \'nature\' and \'society\', are being increasingly undermined as disciplinary boundaries across the social sciences are themselves transcended. (PAJ)

References Bell, D. and Valentine, G., eds, 1995: Mapping desire: geographies of sexualities. London: Routledge. Castells, M. 1977: The urban question. London: Edward Arnold. Cater, J. and Jones, T. 1989: Social geography: an introduction to contemporary issues. London: Edward Arnold. Chaney, D. 1994: The cultural turn. London: Routledge. Eyles, J.D., ed., 1986: Social geography: an international perspective. London: Croom Helm. Gilbert, E.W. and Steel, R.W. 1945: Social geography and its place in colonial studies. Geographical Journal 106: 118-31. Gregory, D. and Urry, J., eds, 1985: Social relations and spatial structures. London: Macmillan. Gregson, N. 1995: And now it\'s all consumption? Progress in Human Geography 19: 135-41. Hamnett, C., ed., 1996: Social geography: a reader. London: Arnold. Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. Oxford: Blackwell. Harvey, D. 1989: The condition of postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Imrie, R. 1996: Disableism and the city. London: Paul Chapman. Jackson, P., ed., 1987: Race and racism. London: Allen and Unwin. Jackson, P. and Smith, S.J. 1984: Exploring social geography. London: George Allen and Unwin. Jacobs, J.M. 1996: Edge of empire: postcolonialism and the city. London: Routledge. Jones, E., ed., 1975: Readings in social geography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ley, D. 1983: A social geography of the city. New York: Harper and Row. Ley, D. and Samuels, M.S., eds, 1978: Humanistic geography. London: Croom Helm. Pahl, R.E. 1965: Trends in social geography. In R.J. Chorley and P. Haggett, eds, Frontiers in geographical teaching. London: Methuen, 81-100. Philo, C., ed., 1991: New words, new worlds. IBG Social and Cultural Geography Study Group. Rose, G. 1993: Feminism and geography. Cambridge: Polity Press. Soja, E.W. 1989: Postmodern geographies. London: Verso. WGSG (Women and Geography Study Group) 1984: Geography and gender. London: Hutchinson. WGSG (Women and Geography Study Group) 1997: Feminist geographies. London: Longman.

Suggested Reading Cater and Jones (1989). Gregson, N. 1992: Beyond boundaries: the shifting sands of social geography. Progress in Human Geography 16: 387-92. Sibley, D. 1995: Geographies of exclusion. London: Routledge.



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