Urban Social Geography
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Urban Social Geography

An Introduction

Paul Knox, Steven Pinch

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eBook - ePub

Urban Social Geography

An Introduction

Paul Knox, Steven Pinch

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About This Book

The 6th edition of this highly respected text builds upon the successful structure, engaging writing style and clear presentation of previous editions. Examining urban social geography from a theoretical and historical perspective, it also explores how it has developed into the modern day. Taking account of recent critical work, whilst simultaneously presenting well established approaches to the subject, it ensures students are well-informed about all the issues. The result is a topical book that is clear and accessible for students

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2014
ISBN
9781317903253
Edition
6
Chapter 1
Social geography and the sociospatial dialectic
Key questions addressed in this chapter
Why are geographers interested in city structures?
What are the distinctive contributions that geographers can make to understanding these structures?
In what ways do city structures reflect economic, demographic, cultural and political changes?
Why do city populations get sifted out according to race and social class to produce distinctive neighbourhoods? What are the processes responsible for this sifting? Are there any other characteristics by which individuals and households become physically segregated within the city? How does a person’s area of residence affect his or her behaviour? How do people choose where to live, and what are the constraints on their choices? What groups, if any, are able to manipulate the ‘geography’ of the city, and to whose advantage? These are some of the key questions that we will be examining in this book. As many writers now acknowledge, the answer to most of these questions is ultimately to be found in the wider context of social, economic and political organization. It follows that a proper understanding of any city requires a very broad approach. In the city, everything is connected to everything else; cause and effect are often difficult to sort out. Within geography as a whole, there are several different approaches to understanding cities. Four main approaches have been identifiable in the recent literature.
1.1 Different approaches within human geography
The quantitative approach
First there is the quantitative approach, which attempts to provide descriptions of the spatial organization of cities using statistical data represented in the form of maps, graphs, tables and mathematical equations. Much of the inspiration for this approach has come from neoclassical economics and functionalist sociology. These approaches aim to be ‘scientific’, providing objective descriptions of cities in such a way that the values and attitudes of the observer do not influence the analysis. This attempt to separate the observer from the observed is often termed the Cartesian approach (after the philosopher Descartes). However, many have questioned whether such neutrality is possible, since the values of the researcher will inevitably be reflected in the data that are chosen and the theoretical frameworks, words and metaphors which are used to represent this data.
The behavioural approach
Second is the so-called behavioural approach, which initially emerged as a reaction to the unrealistic normative assumptions (i.e. theories concerning what ought to be, rather than what actually exists) of neoclassical-functional description. The emphasis here is on the study of people’s activities and decision-making processes (where to live, for example) within their perceived worlds. Many of the explanatory concepts are derived from social psychology although phenomenology, with its emphasis on the ways in which people experience the world around them, has also exerted a considerable influence on behavioural research. Geographers have for a long time been interested in the relationships between urban settings and certain aspects of people’s behaviour. This sort of approach can easily fall into a deterministic frame of thinking, where ‘space’ is a cause. In fact, the relationships between environments and behaviour are reciprocal: ‘a neighbourhood takes its character from the values and life-styles of its residents; however, reciprocally, its personality is also a context that acts to reinforce and narrow a range of human responses’ (Ley, 1983, p. 23). The emphasis of most research in this area, though, has been on the way in which the ‘personality’ of urban settings influences individual and group behaviour and, in particular, the way in which ‘deviant’ behaviour is related to urban settings.
The structuralist approach
Third, there is the approach generally known as structuralism. Unlike the quantitative and behavioural approaches, structuralists are very suspicious of everyday appearances and people’s subjective reactions to, and interpretations of, the world. Instead, they argue that to understand society one needs to probe beneath the obvious external world to apprehend the underlying mechanisms at work. Since these mechanisms cannot be observed directly, they must be studied through processes of abstract reasoning by constructing theories. This structuralist approach was initially used to study ‘primitive’ societies. Despite the diversity of cultural forms that can be found throughout the world, it was argued that there were underlying universal cultural structures that govern all human behaviour (such as prohibitions on incest). However, most geographers have allied structuralist approaches with Marxian theories, rather than anthropology. These attempt to update the ideas devised by Karl Marx in the context of the nineteenth-century industrial city (sometimes termed classical Marxism) in the light of developments in the twentieth century. These updated Marxian theories are also sometimes termed neo-Marxist approaches.
Marx argued that the key underlying mechanism in a capitalist society was a conflict between two major classes over the issue of value: first, the class made up of owners of capital and, second, the class of workers who owned little but their labour power. Of course, much has changed since Marx was writing in the nineteenth century. In particular, both the class structure and the role of the state have become much more complex. Nevertheless, at root, Marxian perspectives attempt to relate contemporary societal developments to the class struggle over value. Thus, structuralist approaches stress the constraints that are imposed on the behaviour of individuals by the organization of society as a whole and by the activities of powerful groups and institutions within it.
Critics have argued that, in playing down the perceptions of people, Marxian theorists ignore the fact that there are many different conflicts in society in addition to those based around class, such as those based around gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, religion, disability, nationality, political affiliation, location of neighbourhood, and so on. There is growing recognition that there are many different interests in the city, many different ‘voices’ and different theories that can represent these interests.
It is also argued by critics that Marxian theories also have a poor sense of human agency (i.e. the capacity of people to make choices and take actions to affect their destinies). Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that many people are relatively defenceless in the face of economic forces. Furthermore, it is important to note that Marxian theories are diverse in character and many scholars have tried to overcome these limitations in recent years. As we will see later in this book, the basic principles of structuralist thinking provide us with powerful tools for understanding contemporary social change (see also Box 1.1 on David Harvey – the key exponent of Marxian approaches in human geography).
Poststructuralist approaches
Poststructuralist approaches are strongly opposed to the idea that the world can be explained by a single, hidden,...

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