Doreen Massey changed geography. As a creative scholar, an inspiring teacher and a restless activist, she initiated new ways of seeing, understanding and indeed changing the world. She launched critiques, both in the relatively small world of economic geography and the much bigger worlds of social theory and progressive politics, which would prove to be truly transformative; she developed arguments against a host of establishment and orthodox positions that left something better and more productive in their place; she confronted structurally embedded power relations, most notably of class and gender, while steadfastly resisting political and analytical foreclosure; and she started conversations that continue to resonate and reverberate, not least those around the protean potential of place, even in these challenging times.
“There is no point of departure” is a line that Massey liked to quote from Louis Althusser (1971
: 85; Massey 1995b: 351; Featherstone & Painter 2013
). For her, it meant that socially made historical geographies really matter, always and everywhere, and that futures are neither singular nor pre-given. Her own life was a case in point. The product of an “ordinary place” (Massey 2001b: 459), a public-housing estate just south of Manchester, Doreen Massey knew where she came from and for that matter, which side she was on. “I’m from the North West [of England] and have lived with, through and kind of in combat with regional inequality [since] my childhood”, Massey once explained (Massey with HGRG 2009: 405). Out of the conformity of postwar Britain, Massey fashioned a transformative trajectory not least, she later reflected, by participating in political movements “in the late 60s and the 70s with the emergence of Marxism, feminism, sexual liberation, being part of the GLC [Greater London Council] in the 1980s, or the kind of stuff that has happened more recently”, from Chavismo in Venezuela to the Occupy movement in London (ibid
.: 403, 405; Featherstone et al
: 253, 257).
From her adopted home of Kilburn, in North London, she would sometimes commute to work at the Open University with her longtime friend
and collaborator, Stuart Hall. The quotidian experience of driving to campus and back served as a reminder to both that one “can never ‘go home’ … You can’t go back”, since neither of them came from “this tract of southeastern England”, nor was it possible for them to return to the Jamaica or Manchester of their youth, which of course were not “the same as when we left” (Massey 2000b: 230). Walks down Kilburn High Street would evoke for Massey, indelibly, “a global sense of place”, quite the opposite of its sometimes parochial, introspective, singular, or static meaning, but instead an open-ended, processual, intersectional and dynamic sense of place, always in the (re)making (Massey 1991a
This understanding of place as an emergent constellation, or moving configuration, of social trajectories echoed the way in which Massey sought to problematize connection and difference – not separately but in the same time-space. As she would reflect in relation to her travels (and conversations) with Stuart Hall:
That Massey’s journey should take her here, all the way from regional science and industrial geography, is a story in its own right. Since there can be no singular point of departure, nor any final moment of closure, our purpose in this chapter is to trace some of the contours and milestones of Doreen Massey’s transformative intellectual and political journey. Reassembling the story will require, inevitably, some measure of chronology. But as David Featherstone and Joe Painter wrote in an earlier collection on Massey’s career-long contributions, “Any attempt to fit her work into a neat sequential account of geography’s recent past … would be doomed to fail” (Featherstone & Painter 2013
: 2). What follows then should be understood less as a sequence of steps or stages, and more as a collection of episodes in the formation of an intellectual and political biography. We begin in Manchester and end in Kilburn. In between, we arc selectively through Massey’s paradigm-making interventions in political-economic geography and late-neoliberal politics, through her distinctive interventions in Marxist and feminist theory, seeking to trace along the way some of the contours of her foundational contributions to the understanding of space and spatiality. And it still feels like we are barely scratching the surface …
Out of Manchester
Doreen Massey grew up in a working-class family in the Wythenshawe council estate in south Manchester, a public housing development that was for a while the largest in Europe (see Massey 2001b). Along with many of their neighbours, the Massey family relied upon the state for subsidized housing, free schooling and healthcare. This would be especially important for their eldest daughter, who was born with a calcium disorder that made her bones fragile and subject to breaks throughout her life. “[H]ad there not been a welfare state and the hospitals”, Massey later reflected, “I would probably not have survived so well. I really feel in a kind of physical, personal way the need for a welfare state, not as a ‘safety net,’ but just for ordinary people simply to provide a decent life” (Freytag & Holyer 1999: 85). She would take a hardly typical path for a working-class girl from the North, going to Oxford University in the mid-1960s, where not for the first nor indeed last time in her life she would sometimes feel like a “space invader” (see Telegraph 2016: 33; cf. Massey 1994
: 185). Somewhat ironically perhaps, given the discipline’s overwhelmingly conservative cast at the time, it was through Geography that she discovered her way out, even as she retained an abiding anti-establishment sensibility.
Despite being awarded a First at Oxford, Massey initially rejected the academic path and instead went to work in the computing department of a market research firm. As she described her thinking later, “The reason I left Oxford not wanting to be an academic was that I’d seen what I thought it meant to be an academic. And I didn’t want to be that. So I went into industry – and hated it!” (Freytag & Hoyler 1999: 84). Abandoning the private sector, she began her research career in earnest at the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES), an independent research institute founded by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1967 with a remit in spatial planning. Here she would make some of the first moves in what would amount to a radical rethinking of industrial and class restructuring. In 1970, Massey returned briefly to Oxford to participate in the UK’s first Women’s Liberation Movement conference of that era. “From then on”, she later reflected, “I have always been involved in feminist movements” (Albet & Benach 2012
: 53, editors’ translation). Massey would shape and channel her anti-establishment sensibility in productive tension with feminism in the ensuing decades, wary of currents within feminism that tended towards essentialism and narrow identity politics, and always emphasizing the imbrications of class and gender (Albet & Benach 2012
: 54). She insisted that “[C]lass and feminism … [affect] what kind of voice you have; what kind of role you can play, and want to play” (Featherstone et al
In 1971, Massey was granted a leave from CES to undertake a Master’s degree in regional science and “mathematical economics” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, then a citadel of neoclassical location theory, which she viewed as a “‘you ought to know your enemy’ kind of thing” (Massey with HGRG 2009
: 404). It was here that an extracurricular visit to the French Department provided a quite unexpected introduction to Louis Althusser and to a distinctive (and generative) interpretation of Althusserianism. After Penn, it was not the mathematics of location theory that she pursued, but instead an altogether more radical path. For a while, CES would be an accommodating home for what would prove to be formative work on the political economy of Britain’s “regional problem”, some of this in collaboration with Richard Meegan (see Meegan 2017
). But in 1979, when the incoming Thatcher administration abruptly withdrew funding for the organization, Massey found herself at a crossroads of sorts. Fortunately, at least for the short term, she had a research grant enabling her to work at the London School of Economics, and to make what would prove to be a remarkably catalytic visit to the University of California at Berkeley (Peck & Barnes 2019
). It was here, in what was otherwise an especially lean spell for British universities, that an unexpected opportunity arose:
Doreen Massey would spend the next 27 years of her academic career teaching at what many would consider, rather ironically, the most placeless of British universities, the Open University, a distance-learning institution in the infamously anonymous new town of Milton Keynes, where in the context of limited face-to-face contact with students she pioneered innovative ways of “teaching at a distance” (Clarke 2016
: 360), not to say engaging across distance.
Massey was on the frontline in some of the signature struggles against Thatcherism, including the miners’ strike of 1984–85 and the municipal-socialist project of the Greater London Enterprise Board, events that in retrospect marked an historical inflection point between a regionalist model of labour organization and the ascendancy of the “new urban left”. She was also heavily involved in a wide range of intellectual projects, as an
early editorial board member of Capital & Class
and Red Pepper
, as a co-founder of Soundings
with Stuart Hall and Michael Rustin, and as the key mover in an extended series of remarkably influential Open University course texts. For many years, Massey was engaged in political struggles in Latin America and South Africa too, as a researcher and activist. And she would devote the later part of her career to a creative and politically inspiring analysis of why the global financial crisis of 2008 had not led to the collapse of neoliberalism, culminating in a final project in collaboration with Hall and Rustin. Characteristically, what was known as the Kilburn Manifesto could be considered both a product of their (shared) place, as a model of conjuncturally situated political, economic, and cultural analysis, and a contribution that resonated and reached significantly beyond that place (see Hall et al
. 2012; Peck et al
). In these, as in so many of her other endeavours, Doreen Massey consistently gave the lie to the idea that the price of theoretical sophistication had to be paid in political irrelevance or incomprehensibility outside (and sometimes even inside!) academia. Similarly, she refused to accept that there should be a dividing line between political and intellectual work.
These were principles that she quite literally embodied. One of the most striking things about Doreen Massey was the contrast between her very small physical stature and her very large personality. Possessed of a radiant smile, ready laughter and boundless curiosity, she had a notable ability to connect personally and intellectually with those around her. Throughout her life, she moved in academic and political circles dominated mostly by men, and not only rejected but actively challenged the masculinist cultures of both those worlds. “This is a political position, not an essentialization around masculinity, femininity or whatever”, she once explained. “But I do find myself amazed by and wary of the ease with which writers make Olympian statements about the age … [while] standing outside society and describing it and forgetting that we’re also within it” (Featherstone et al
: 261). Massey never forgot that, despite the enormous influence that her own work would have in geography, in feminism, in social theory, and in left scholarship more generally. She handled this, as she noted in amusement in an interview with graduate students at the University of Kentucky in the early 1990s, by “just carry[ing] on being different!”
In what follows, we sketch some of the many generative and inspiring ways in which Doreen Massey carried on by being different, beginning where her scholarly career began, with a transformative critique of industrial location theory.
Doreen Massey made the first of many field-shaping interventions in 1973, with her practically terminal critique of the science of location theory. “Towards a Critique of Industrial Location Theory”, published in the recently launched radical journal, Antipode
, marked her uninvited arrival to the male-dominated, white-bread field known at the time as industrial geography. Hers was a nominally “tentative” critique from which the field would never really recover. The journey implied by the article’s title did not in the end result in a “march … into a newly-formulated industrial location theory” (Massey 1973
: 38, 33), but instead would take a more circuitous route to an entirely different paradigm. Not unlike British industry itself, the field of industrial geography was in a parlous state at the time, dogged as it was by unreflexive strains of empiricism and economism, and falling short in its attempts to account for disorienting patterns of path-disrupting, radical, and often divergent change (see Williams & Thomas 1983
; Martin et al
Critical not only of the epistemological but also the ideological affinities between location theory and neoclassical economics, Massey challenged the prevailing conception of abstract firms operating in abstract space on the grounds both of analytical insufficiency and an evident estrangement from real-world conditions: