Introducing Social Geographies
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Introducing Social Geographies

Rachel Pain, Jamie Gough, Graham Mowl, Michael Barke, Robert MacFarlene, Duncan Fuller

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eBook - ePub

Introducing Social Geographies

Rachel Pain, Jamie Gough, Graham Mowl, Michael Barke, Robert MacFarlene, Duncan Fuller

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About This Book

`Introducing Social Geographies' is a major new text offering a comprehensive and up-to-date introduction to this important area of human geography. It presents a broad overview of social geography, clearly outlining the key theoretical and political positions, and making extensive use of examples to show how these frameworks can be used to analyse real social issues. The book is ideal for undergraduates first encountering social geography and includes topic overviews, summaries of key points, critiques, boxed case studies and suggestions for further reading.

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1 Introduction

DOI: 10.4324/9780203785454-1

1.1 What is social geography?

Social geography is concerned with the ways in which social relations, social identities and social inequalities are produced, their spatial variation, and the role of space in constructing them. It places particular emphasis on the welfare issues which affect people’s lives, and aims to expose the forms of power which lead to social and spatial inequality and oppression.
Although it is traditional to study human geography within the spheres of social geography, economic geography, political geography and cultural geography, there can be no clear distinctions between the four. Increasingly, the subject matter of each crosses the artificial boundaries which academics have drawn in the past. After all, geography is literally ‘earth-writing’, a holistic discipline which takes account of all of the processes influencing particular human environments. But many would maintain that it is still useful to maintain the sub-disciplines ‘to identify particular foci for intellectual study and analysis’ (Hamnett, 1996: 3). Changing interests in geography and elsewhere in the social sciences mean that each sphere is constantly developing, and receives more or less attention from geographers at different times.
In particular, attention to social geography as a discrete area of study has been diffused in recent years as the subject of Cultural Studies has become more influential, a situation sometimes referred to as the ‘cultural turn’. Boxes 1.1 and 1.2 outline what social geography was like before 1980, and what the cultural turn entailed. Today, ‘social and cultural geography’ are frequently grouped together. We welcome the invigorating effect that the cultural turn has had, but it has also had less the desirable effect of overshadowing some of social geography’s central concerns.
Informed by some aspects of the cultural turn and recent radical approaches in geography, our social geographies refocus attention on to inequality, social power and the material world. Drawing political and economic processes back into social geography is as important as acknowledging the power of culture.

1.2 A theoretical framework

We now need to tell you what sort of social geography it is that we are writing in this book. There is no one way of doing social geography. Every student, teacher, reader and writer develops her or his own perspective, influenced by their own positioning and beliefs (which we come to in the next section). The title of the book, Introducing Social Geographies, highlights this plurality. We present other geographers’ geographies in the book as well as our own, and it would be wrong to pretend that there are no differences within our own writing team!
We do think it is important, though, for any account of social geography to have a theoretical stance and to be explicit about it. Our social geographies should not be read as a universal authority on the subject, nor as free-floating and apolitical. The five key themes for social geography, below, will help to let you know where we are coming from in writing this book.

1.2.1 Individuals are part of societies

First, social geography is about society (see Box 1.3). It cannot begin from describing or analysing individuals, but instead must focus upon the social relations between people. In terms of subject matter, social geography therefore has most to say about social reproduction: issues of families and households, as well as social identities of race, age, sexuality, disability and gender, and the sites of the home, the community and the nation.

1.2.2 Space and society

Social geography focuses on the relationships between societies and the spaces they occupy and use. Space has an important role in actively constituting society. Space and place are important means by which societies and social groups organize themselves, distribute resources, come into conflict, are given meaning or create meaning for themselves. Thus social geography has particular contributions to make to social theory and social problems. Box 1.4 outlines some of these different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between space and society.

1.2.3 The significance of the local and the everyday

The focus of social geography is on people’s daily living spaces. Events and processes at different spatial scales can not be discussed in isolation from each other: for example, global processes shape local places and processes. However, the starting point for social geography is everyday experience, and therefore analysis is usually of events and phenomena at a local scale – the neighbourhood, the home, the local park, the workplace, and the body. Different meanings of place, and their relation to power, have been a central interest (see Box 1.5).

1.2.4 Social relations and identities are power relations

The social relations on which social geographers have concentrated their attention – those of class, gender, sexuality, race, age and disability – are about power, oppression and the distribution of resources in society. Social geography is also concerned with identities, which are always linked to ways of life, and so are not just about ideologies but power and resources. The distinctions of identity which relate to power are the most important; gender relations, for example, create ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities.
People’s perceptions of their own and others’ identity are variable and subjective, and so social identities are not fixed but take variable forms in different places and times. To some degree individuals and social groups are able to resist and change these identities, and space and place have important roles in this process. However, as social identities are not infinitely mutable but strongly underpinned by power relations and given material circumstances, the relation between power and resistance is a central concern in social geography. Furthermore, we need to be aware not only that gender, race, age, class, disability and sexuality each influences the socio-spatial world, but that they intersect and work together. One cannot be fully understood without reference to the others.

1.2.5 Social geography is political and has a role in social policy

Because social geography is about power relations, it is inevitably political. Power is confronted by people through personal resistance strategies, through social movements, and may be influenced by the state through social policy. All of these forms of resistance are dealt with in the book, although the state is not assumed to be neutral nor even capable of solving particular social problems. There is a strong case for geographers to contribute to social policy issues and other forms of action.

1.3 Approaches to social geography and positionality

1.3.1 Approaches to social geography

At undergraduate level, human geography is about inquiry, rather than lists of facts. It is important to be clear from the start of your studies as a geographer that ‘facts’ are contested, and that ‘truths’ can be represented in many different ways. Above all, human geography is subjective, which means that different people may have widely divergent views about the same phenomenon, and it is impossible to make an objective judgement about who is right (though some views are better grounded than others). Human geography is situated, which means that beliefs and knowledge are rooted in the social and political positioning of those who construct it.
Box 1.6 briefly outlines some of the main approaches which social geographers have taken. The references at the end of the chapter will be helpful if you want to learn more about these. In reality, few geographers work only within one of these paradigms, but combine approaches. The most important thing is that as geographers we ‘lay bare our own role as analysts’ (Jackson and Smith, 1984). Not all textbooks do this – and not all lecturers and students do it either. As you read the book, bear in mind our philosophical and political stance in writing it. You are also encouraged to develop your own stance.

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