Social Movements in Human Geography: a literature review

This text is the result of the second month of my PhD. Following the previous work, it aimed at considering the way geography has considered the question of social movements, once again by being “as wide as possible”. I do acknowledge once again its many flaws but, as with the previous reviews, I have chosen to propose it as it was at the time.

"Unknown Protester", Jeff Widener

“Unknown Protester”, Jeff Widener


As noted by Horacio Capel (1996), the evolution of the geographic discipline during the 19th century is marked by the decline of the traditional discipline, quickly followed, through the organisation of geographic societies and the investment of governments in the discipline, by a renewal as a new, institutionalised field, interested, as the author notes, in the idea of nationalism and its inculcation. Hence, one could argue that this “political”, or politically-oriented, geography does concern itself quickly about human objects, leading, in the emergence of its several sub-fields, to the constitution of a specific “human geography”, although, as noted by Paul Vidal de la Blache (1926), humans have always been part of the geographical reflection: “Man is interested in his own kind more than anything else. As soon as the age of travel and distant voyages opened, it was the discovery of social as well as environmental differences which chiefly excited his interest. […] Human geography, therefore, is not to be contrasted with a geography from which human interests are excluded. Indeed such has never existed except in the minds of specialists”. Therefore, the appearance of human geography cannot be connected, on the contrary of other human sciences, to the discovery of a new specific field of investigation or of a new object, but both to a shift in the conditions in which the geographical science was deployed, and of the perception of their object by geographers. To illustrate that idea, one could rely on the way in which Peter Kropotkin (1885) defines human geography:

“And now there remains the fourth great branch of geographical science – that which deals with with human families on the earth’s surface. The distribution of human families; their distinctive features and the modifications undergone by these features under various climates; the geographical distribution of races, beliefs, customs, and forms of property, and their close dependency upon geographical conditions; the accommodation of man to the nature that surrounds him, and the mutual influence of both; the migration of stems, in so far that they are influenced by the phenomena of nature; the laws of distribution of human settlements in each country, displayed by the persistency of settlements at the very same place since the Stone Age until our own time; the raising of cities and the conditions of their development; the geographical subdivision of territories into natural manufacturing “basins”, notwithstanding the obstacles opposed by political frontiers: all these are a wide series of problems which have recently grown up before us”

Lack of interest and discovery of the social movements by the geographers

A little more than one century after the first publication of that manifesto for a human geography by the anarchist theoretician, Joe Painter, while introducing the topic of political geography, defined by the author as a sub-field of human geography, notices that “Until recently, people appeared rather infrequently in textbooks of political geography. Political geographers now take social and political struggles and social movements much more seriously than in the past, but these concerns are often coloured by the historic discourse” (1995: 24). The same acknowledgement is made by Byron Miller on the field of social movement theory, when he deplores that

“For the most part, geographic structuring is ignored or, at best, treated as a minor issue. If geography is considered at all, it is typically (a) reduced to a separate time-distance variable to be included among a variety of independent social variables, thereby maintaining the old dualism of “the social” and “the spatial”, or (b) limited to an examination of national-level differences in movement characteristics, thereby incorrectly implying national homogeneity in mobilization process” (2000: 4 – 5)

The explanation for this lack of account of social movements in human and political geographies lies, according to the authors, in several connected elements, both historical, epistemological and situational:

  • According to Joe Painter, one should take in account the origins of the departments of geography and their connection with the political activity itself: “Like other discourses, political geography is marked by its origins. Early political geography was concerned mainly with the relationship between physical territory, state power and global military and political rivalry” (1995: 24). This origin should be stressed, as the construction of the geographical object that is the state seems not to have been questioned before a late period in the different paradigms shifts in the discipline.
  • The domination of the field by a specific school, the “spatial-analytic school” of human geography would have encouraged, for Byron Miller, a lack of attention to the questions of political change or more generally the importance of time in human geographies: “The supposed laws and structures of positivist science are presumed to operate harmoniously; social conflict plays no role. Indeed, social conflict is absent from virtually all explanations put forward by the spatial-analytic school; implicitly, spatial laws are believed to operate in isolation from social forces” (2000: 3). According to Robert Sack (1974), this can be linked to the third element we would like to advance in order to understand the lack of account of social movements in the geographic literature. The desire for geographers in general to define the boundaries of their discipline led to a theoretical bias defined by the author as “the spatial-separatist theme”, e.g. “The general and pervasive view in geographic thought that it is possible to identify, separate and evaluate the effects of the spatial, either as an independent phenomenon, or as a property of events examined through spatial analyses”. This bias is rooted, still according to Robert Sack, to the attempts made by positivist geographers to define a pure geographical object: “In recent years, many geographers have concentrated on ways to express the theme scientifically, in the hope that it would be both geography’s contribution to and distinctive place within the sciences” (Ibid).
  • Still according to Byron Miller, the lack of engagement of geographers in the study of social movements has to do as well with a situational reason, which is the separation of departments and publications. To put things clearly, “academics are not rewarded for publishing in journals outside their discipline” (2000: 7). But there seems to be more to it than that: it could also be that the definition of a specific field for human geography would have incited human and political geographers to neglect social movements in order to construct their disciplinary boundaries, focusing on the activity of states, as actor primarily organised on space through the concept of sovereignty and territory. The origins of such an assertion can be found quite early in the development of political geography. As noted by Joe Painter, “The political geography of states has been one of the longest running themes in the sub-discipline of political geography” (1995: 27). The influence of the first school of geopolitics, and the leading figures of Friedrich Ratzel and Harold Mackinder can be stressed here. The centrality of state as a living organism is at the core of the work of the first, who defines the activity of the state as primarily driven by geographical strategies, especially the access to a greater territory, resources and therefore power, before the organism “grows old” and eventually disappears (Ratzel, 1886). The renowned article of the second (Mackinder, 1904), although focusing on the importance of the heartland in terms of strategies and resources, is still developed in order to enlighten the interstate relations of the period, and the strategies of the states: “The oversetting of the balance in favour of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight. This might happen if Germany were to ally herself with Russia.” (Ibid, emphasis added). Later on, Joe Painter notes than formalisations of the field of political geography such as Richard Hartshorne’s in 1939 still conceive the state and its activity as the essential object of a political geography: “The state, [Richard Hartshorne] declares, was the defining subject-matter of the sub-discipline of political geography. […] Hartshorne’s notion of the state, therefore, was shorn in many of its explicit political association and made into the expression of territorial administration.” (1995: 28). Among other later reassertions of the state as the core of the political geographers’ interest, other authors can be quoted such as Ron Johnston, who asserts that

“The human geography of the world is often interpreted as the human geography of an assemblage of sovereign states. The existence of these, with their differing cultures, tradition, laws, regulations, environment and histories, is stamped on the landscape, and international boundaries and frontiers are clearly demarcated, in a large number of ways. Thus it is not surprising that geographers have used states as major units in their presentation of regional accounts” (1982: 9)

Despite this lack of account of infra-state actors such as social movements, Deborah Martin and Byron Miller note that there has been an interest for the question in geography since the early 1970s: “Not surprisingly, geographers have been concerned with social movements and collective action for some time. Early work by geographers include Sharp on the diffusion of postal strikes, Demko et al. on geographic variations in campus unrest, and Adams on place-based characteristics fostering urban protests.” (2000: 1). Moreover, the authors do not constraint such a study in a specific geographical paradigm, nor to specific social movements. As noted by Byron Miller in the introduction of his book, “I deliberately title this book Geography and social movements because it is really not about one particular movement, but about the importance of geography in any social movement” (Ibid: XII).

Aim and limits of the review

The aim of this review is to identify two elements: firstly, the way in which geographers, and especially human and political geographers, have constructed their relation with the political domain, and how the question of social movements has emerged from that theoretical basis. Secondly, it seeks to identify in which way human geography has constructed theoretical frameworks that understand, study and explain the social movements. To do so, the review will be articulated in two main parts: firstly, the ways in which the question of social movements have been treated by authors from the different theoretical schools of political and human geographies will be developed. Secondly, the geographical reinterpretation of social movement theory will be envisaged, since part of the theoretical work of geographers in that domain has consisted in either unveiling the “hidden geographies” of the study of social movements, or filling the geographical gaps in these studies. Because of the wideness of the existing literature either treating directly or influencing the geographical analysis of social movements, this review does not seek to be extensive.

The social movements from the point of view of some schools in human geography

The first part of this review is aimed at the identification of the ways in which several schools in human geographies have happened to treat the question of social movements. We base our typology of the movements in human geography without negating the relativity of such a typology: in his review of the paradigms in human geography, Paul Claval acknowledges this last point by showing the presence in the early geographical tradition of Alexander von Humboldt of concerns and methods that would later define the basis of spatial-analytical geographies (1964: 10). What is more, and has to be highlighted here, the development of the scientific controversies can lead (and, in that topic, have led) to massive misunderstandings and artificial oppositions. In his review of the “Schaefer-Hartshorne debate”, supposed to illustrate the opposition between a nomothetic and an idiographic point of view in geography[i], Geoffrey Martin (1989) insists on the fact that the objectives of the two authors were in the first place completely different, this leading to a controversy through which the terms of the debate were radicalised and personalised, and the two authors’ arguments blurred. Thus we must consider the artificiality of epistemological typologies such as the one presented here. The typology we will use here is mostly based on Byron Miller’s work, but has been used by other authors[ii]. Byron Miller’s typology divides the evolution of human geography, since the 1950s, in four main paradigms and three main eras[iii]:

Regional geography: The first paradigm goes back to the 1950s and the development of what is respectively considered as the “classical”, “chorological” or “regional” school of human geography. “This regional geography was highly empiricist and atheoretical, aiming at the classification and description of regions” (2000: 7 – 8). According to Paul Claval, the “classical” school is marked by its interest in the regional scale and detailed analysis of the interrelationship between man and his environment: “For [the classical geographers], the essential point was not the abstract analysis of what contributes to the originality of a region, it was the sentiment that the unity of a region is easy to perceive, easy to feel, and that the geographer must delimit and explain it; the region is an immediate given, a living data for the geographical observer” (1964: 58). Because of this attempt to characterise the geographical enterprise as the description of a region without defining what a region exactly is, “This conception led the classical geography to the publication of balanced regional descriptions, rid of all useless machinery of erudition” (Ibid: 60). For Doreen Massey, the domination of the discipline by the school of regional geography led the discipline to be considered as “the discipline where you learned lists of products” (1984: 2).

Spatial-Analytic geography: The period of the 1960s is characterised by both Peter Haggett (2001) and Byron Miller (2000) as a “positivist” or “logical positivist” shift – which is sometimes characterised as “the quantitative revolution” through which the “spatial-analytical school” developed itself. A more specific origin of that school as a collective scientific enterprise could be found in Fred Schaefer’s discussion of Richard Hartshorne’s The nature of geography (1953) and the following controversy. This approach is generally considered as an attempt to “scientificate” the discipline by drawing inspiration from the natural sciences: “This attitude developed on the natural sciences (like physics) but has been borrowed by geographers working in social-sciences areas. […] Much geographic effort of the 1960s went into trying to explain patterns of human behaviour with neat, lawlike statements” (Haggett, 2001: 772). David Smith states very precisely the theoretical viewpoint of the entrepreneurs of this “revolution”:

“Human beings arrange their life in geographical space. They exist and perform their activities at specific locations, and they move or distribute things in certain directions. They thus give character to places or areas, differentiating and connecting them with respect to various aspects of the human condition. The geographical expression of man’s existence can be thought of as a geometry of points, lines and areas. Production locations, places of residence, settlements and so on form patterns of points or nodes around which life is organized. Lines of communication and transportation form networks of movements and interaction. Human differentiation of geographical space forms systems of regions, or areas distinguished by some particular characteristics bestowing homogeneity or functional cohesion. The man-made landscape is a collage of these nodes, networks and regions. The analysis of this geometry is the basic task of human geography. But before the existing situation can be explained, or improved upon, it has to be accurately described. This implies a careful process of observation in which the results can preferably be expressed in numerical form, for the precise description of human geographical patterns is basic to their eventual understanding.” (1975: 15, bold emphasis added)

The emphases added in David Smith’s text are aimed to highlight the importance of this positivist imagination in the development of the “spatial-analytical” school. In reaction to the previous regional studies, the “spatial-analytical” school did not aim to describe the specificities of a place, but instead to develop a scientific framework in order to understand and explain “spatial facts” or “spatial processes” (Massey, 1984: 3), or to put it in Fred Schaefer’s words, geography “must pay attention to the spatial arrangement of the phenomena in an area and not so much to the phenomena themselves. Spatial relations are the ones that matter in geography, and no others” (1953).

The humanist/critical turn: The limits of such a conceptions were pointed out by the entrepreneurs of the second paradigmatic shift of the period, which respectively led to the conception of two rival – yet not incompatible – schools. According to Byron Miller, “Geography underwent another series of revolutions in the wake of the critique of spatial fetishism and, perhaps more importantly, the social unrest of the late 1960s and 1970s. As many geographers came to seriously question notions of harmonious, social-context-free spatial systems, adoption of political economy and humanistic approaches became widespread” (2000: 9). For Doreen Massey, as well as Peter Haggett, the theoretical gaps in the conceptions of space in the spatial-analytical school mostly explain such a shift. For the first, “It could not last. In the nineteen-seventies, again along with the other social sciences, a radical critique was launched in human geography of the dominant school of the sixties. […] Above all it was argued – and it now seems so obvious – that there is not and cannot be a separate realm of “the spatial”” (1984: 3) as for the second the shift was mostly due to the over-theoretical conceptualisations of the spatial-analytical school (2001: 772). Hence, this last school would mark the suppression of the academic boundaries between geography and the other social sciences. On another way, it seems that this last theoretical critique has led human geography to more specialisation and a pluri-paradigmatic situation, with opposition and completion between the humanistic, radical, and postmodern conceptions.

Having quoted these epistemological shifts briefly, we will now concern ourselves more specifically on the ways in which, according to their respective theories, these “schools” have focused or not on the subject of the social movements. Therefore the following will not question the respective validity of each theory, although it will when necessary take in account the criticism formulated by each of these schools to their rivals.

a. The regional approach and the ignorance of social movements

The school of regional geography or regional analysis can be linked to the theoretical legacy of several “classic authors” from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, among which Carl Ritter, Alfred Hettner and Friedrich Ratzel. Before the synthesis of the main theoretical elements of this school in Richard Hartshorne’s The Nature of Geography in 1939, we can identify several attempts to set its aims and object. The quantity of the literature of the topic does not allow us to develop an extensive study. We will mostly rely on Richard Hartshorne discussion of his book in Perspective on the Nature of Geography (1959), as well as on a previous work from Paul Vidal de la Blache in “Meaning and Aim of Human Geography” (1926).

The concern for regions: Synthetically, the concern of regional analysis relies on the general concept of “region” conceived as an ecological milieu in which and with with human population interact: “Whatever the variety of species living side by side, whatever the external differences in processes of adaptation, the entire plant population has a common stamp not to be mistaken by a trained eye. Such is the lesson of ecology […]. This idea seems to be the law governing the geography of living creatures. Every region is a domain where many dissimilar beings, brought together, have subsequently adapted themselves to a common existence” (Ibid). In this approach, the region appears, according to Paul Claval, more as an efficient scale of analysis as a conceptualisation: “Classical geography began the study of the region without interrogating itself on its nature. What mattered was to isolate an original sector, and to show from where this originality came, from the physical as much as the human point of view. […] We didn’t bother to compare the individuals we discerned at the chosen level of observation. What truly mattered was to paint a being with all the necessary fidelity” (1964: 59). This positivist criticism of the concept relies on the relative subjectivity of the definition of region in that school:

“If the combination of factors found in any area of the earth […] were to be almost the same in every other area, geography would have been reduced to the problem of determining the interrelationship among these diverse factors which produced the total complex repeated without variation over the world. […] Very early in human development, however, man discovered that his world varied greatly from place to place. It was to satisfy man’s curiosity concerning such differences that geography developed as a subject of popular interest” (1939: 15)

The opposition to human ecology: The question of the opposition between the possibilist and the determinist approaches in human geography has been, according to Paul Claval, one of the main vectors of the evolution of the discipline and its development as a science. For the author, possibilism can be defined very simply: “the nature offers, the man uses” (1964: 50). This scientific position cannot be considered, according to Catherine Rhein (1982), as separated from the focus of geography as the study of regions and as a mainly monographic enterprise: because of the refusal of a determinist bias, the development of a methodological choice of field-based studies and the selection of determined areas as the specific field of geography influence strongly the conception of geography as a science:

“The particular attention that Vidal accords to regional analysis, as a methodological practice, removes him and his students from a theoretical reflection on society and social structures. […] Therefore the complexity of the causality schemes, shown by and in the regional analysis, and the real difficulty that seems to represent for Vidal and his students the analysis of social facts are probably the two main reasons why the vidalian geography did not produce any “theoretical piece” in the sense of the durkheimians. It is likely that Vidal forbid himself to produce any. But among his students, Bruhnes, in his Human Geography, and Vallaux attempt such a work: it reveals to be fruitless, as the authors do not manage – for reasons mainly relying on the authors themselves – to get out of a sterile empiricism”

The main attempts, both by the Chicago School of human ecology and by the durkheimian school of social morphology, to understand space through the eyes of sociology, seem on the contrary to massively draw their premises from holistic and determinist approaches. The failure, according to Neil Smith (1989), of such enterprises relies on the importance of the social and geographical change of the end of the 19th century: “Attempting to explain a solid world that was melting in front of their eyes, environmental determinists were caught looking backwards to the nineteenth century rather than forward to the twentieth and were quickly metamorphosed into an intellectual stone”, thus opening the way to the hartshornian re-conceptualisation of geography.

The lack of interest for social movements: Concerning our primary topic, it is interesting to note that there is apparently no treatment of the question of social movements in the literature of the regional school. When defining the specific field of political geography, and drawing from its chorological conceptions, Richard Hartshorne defines it as “the science of political areas, or more specifically, the study of the state as a characteristic of areas in relation to the other characteristics of areas” (1935). In a later text defining the scientific agenda of such a political geography, the author remains in a state-centered approach, even when developing the criticism that can be addressed to such an approach, and especially some form of social movement in the rise of the Yugoslav nationalism:

“Though based on close relationship of South Slavic language, the main motivating impulse was opposition to foreign rule by German Austria and Magyar Hungary. In the hope of creating a nation they invented a new national word-Yugoslav. But finding no positive political concept for their state-or failing to make real the concept of a federation of related but different groups-the state became increasingly an imperial expansion of the dominant Serbian group. In consequence, under the force of outside attack by Germany, it broke internally. Again, however, the common suffering under foreign tyranny brought increased unity of feeling among the three Slavic groups. This rise of Yugoslav nationalism however was split by the socio-political conflict of communist revolution, dividing the country by classes, rather than by regions” (1950)

The movement studied here concerns political geography, for the author, as it concerns an attempt to create a state and control a territory, and allows to insist on the importance of nationalism. Because the author develops a theory of political geography as the study of politically organised areas, he fails to consider non-administrative scales of political activity (at least in the field of political geography): “There is of course a place for the geographic study of politically organized areas of lower levels-the subdivisions of states. […] In contrast [to a subregion of the Corn Belt], the subdivisions of states-whether provinces, departments, counties, or townships-are generally created by the state and are specifically excluded from certain political functions performed for them by the state of which they are a part” (Ibid). Therefore political geography, in the sense of Richard Hartshorne, interests itself only in administrative territorial phenomena, as they are in relation with a state. In such a conception, social movements appear as a blind spot.

b. The spatial-analytic school: first references to the social movements

b.1. The bases of the spatial-analytic school

Despite all the remarks that have been addressed to this text, it appears that the first systematic attempt to criticise the school of regional analysis and to develop another paradigm based on that criticism can be found in Fred Schaefer’s article, “Exceptionalism in geography”.

Geography as the study of spatial relations: This attempt begins with a will to redefine geography, not as the science of areal differentiation, but as “the science concerned with the formulation of the laws governing the spatial distribution of certain features on the surface of the earth” (Ibid). Later on, the author insists: “Geography, thus, must pay attention to the spatial arrangement of phenomena in an area and not so much to the phenomena themselves. Spatial relations are the ones that matter in geography, and no others. […] For instance, the connections between ideology and political behavior, or the lawful connections between the psychological traits of a population and its economic institutions do not concern the geographer. If he attempts to explain such matters the geographer turns into a jack of all trades” (Ibid). Nonetheless the agenda presented by Fred Schaefer is developed by another author, in the development of the controversy with the “classical” geographers, and the precision of what exactly such a definition of geography means can be found more thoroughly developed in William Bunge’s work, Theoretical geography (1966).

The author notes that the meaning of “spatial relations” is not explicit in Fred Schaefer’s article, and notes several distinct definitions of this concept:

  • Schaefer’s definition, considering “geographical laws as being morphological, patterns, without reference to time and change” (Ibid: 207).
  • James Watson’s definition, that puts forward an equivalence with the concept of distance, that has not according to William Bunge to be considered as “raw physical distance”: “[…] [Watson] recognized other sorts of distance than raw physical distance. He was taken with cost, time and social distance and produced what I believe to be one of the first map projections where the cost distance is used to plot the map” (Ibid: 208).
  • Finally, Edward Ullman’s conception, based on Crowe’s work: “By spatial interaction I [Edward Ullman] mean actual, meaningful, human relations between areas on the earth’s surface […] not static location as indicated by latitude, longitude, type of climate, etcetera, not assumed relations based on inadequate data and a priori assumptions” (1953: 56, quoted by Bunge, 1966: 209).

Nonetheless, for the author, these oppositions are in fact included in a broader and unique definition of spatial phenomena:

“If interacting objects are placed as optimally near to each other as possible, then typically a pattern is formed. Even if the movement process appears to be one of statistical diffusion, patterns result. Thus, instead of movement and pattern being contradictory concepts, they are dual expressions. The duals can be designated as spatial process, meaning movement over the earth’s surface, and spatial structure, meaning the resulting arrangement of phenomena on the earth’s surface – the spatial distributions” (Bunge, 1966: 2011)

The result of such an approach is what we have described earlier, at the inspiration of Robert Sack (1974), as the “spatial separatist theme”, and more specifically the first sub-theme of this theme, “the claim that there are spatial, non-spatial, and degrees of spatial facts, or more generally that space and properties of space exist absolutely. […] As Blaut puts it, “all that seems to be required is a belief that withdrawing the temporal dimensions from a section of reality, along with all other objects, somehow leaves “something spatial” behind for the geographer to study””. This “something” in William Bunge’s theme would be the relationship between different phenomena situated at different locations.

The mathematical method: The second element of discussion and contention between the defenders of “classical” geography and those of spatial-analytic geography is the possibility or not to adapt geography to the canons of the natural sciences and to mathematise the geographical framework. This will is apparently based on a strong positivist prejudice in the foundations of the spatial-analytic school, especially present through three assertions concerning the nature of the scientific explanation, which can be summarised in one sentence: the scientific explanation relies on the development of abstract predictive laws. These three assertions find themselves developed by Fred Schaefer, Paul Claval and William Bunge.

  • For Fred Schafer, “First, [the geographer] must try to find those relations obtaining among the individuals and the classes by virtue of which the area considered has that unitary character that makes it a region. Second, he must identify the relations which obtain in this particular area as instances of the causal interrelation that hold, by virtue of general laws among such features, individuals, classes, or what have you, in all known circumstances” (1953). Later on, the author asserts that such a position is not a position about science, but the only scientific position: “If determinism is taken to mean that nature is lawful throughout, permitting of no “exceptions”, then it is the common ground of all modern science” (Ibid).
  • For Paul Claval, “All these recent researches present common points: they try to build rational mechanisms that present the reality. It has always been the way of political economy. It is based on the hypothesis that the man has a rational behaviour. It tries to show that by reasoning, it is possible to find the laws of economy” (1964: 135). Later on, the author also insists on the necessity to implement statistical methods in geography in order to develop a predictive model.
  • According to William Bunge, this theoretical assertion finds its sources in the theory of science itself: “A theory is formed by the union of logical systems with operationally defined facts. Theory is the heart of science because scientific theory is a key to the puzzles of reality. […] It has the power, indeed requirement, to predict. If a theory cannot predict it has not discovered a rule of reality” (1966: 2). As such, a scientific theory has, for the author, to be based on a mathematical reasoning. Indeed, “verbalised theory tends to be incomplete – explicitness and freedom from contradiction is not assured. Thus, science, striving for clarity, ultimately is forced to use mathematical forms” (Id). In geography, still according to the author, two main pitfalls can jeopardise such a theoretical work: the idea of description as a non-scientific practice, to which the author answers by arguing that description, as selective, is constructed (and must therefore be theoretically constructed); the second pitfall concerns prediction in geography, the author answers that the uniqueness that would, according to authors such as Richard Hartshorne, block the possibility of prediction, is in fact a non-problem: “Hartshorne confuses unique with individual case. Individual case implies generality, not uniqueness. For example, assume there is a theory that explains the existence of islands. There is only one Manhattan Island. Yet, if Manhattan Island conforms to the theory of islands, it is different from other islands only from a peculiar quantitative combination. Manhattan island is an individual case, as are all other islands, and the theory is still applicable” (Ibid: 9).

Effects on the concept of space and the concerns of geography: It is argued by William Bunge that the main difference between Fred Schaefer’s conception of geography and Richard Hartshorne’s one is that the second relies on the concept of place, while the first draws from the concept of space (Ibid: 12). Later on, the author qualifies more precisely what he understands by space: “In spite of its crucial role, the term spatial remains largely undefined throughout this book. Spatial is here defined to mean either geometric or movement over the earth’s surface” (Ibid: 175). In order to precise what is meant exactly by “spatial properties”, John Nystuen argues in favour of a highly abstract conception, the “isotropic plain”, defined as “the elementary, abstract, geographical space that has no difference from place to place or in one direction to another; that is, not only are places the same, but movement effort is the same in all directions from every place” (1963). In this case, “pure” spatial relations concern the direction, distance and connectiveness of the situated units. These concepts form “the axioms of the spatial point of view” (Ibid). The author does not, however, try to apply this “isotropic plain” concept in geography: he does take in account history, dimension, time-space, but as as elements to set apart or used as a way to enlighten, in the spatial analysis, the specific spatial processes: “We are interested in those activities and processes which explain how the elements under study are arranged and associated in space” (Ibid).

Thus, the questions answered by geography are restricted to considerations of geometric distribution and movement. This is clearly enunciated by William Bunge who defines the two “arms” of geography as such: “The end product of classificatory geography, the differentiation of areas on the earth’s surface, is purely descriptive. Classificatory geography answers the question “What is where?” but this leaves geography without explanatory or predictive power. Theoretical geography answers the question, “Why the where?”” (1966: 234).

b.2. Three case studies of social movements in the spatial-analytic school

These theoretical foundations have a direct effect on the way the question of social movements is considered by authors issued from the spatial-analytic school. When identifying the geographic literature on social movements, the first occurrence noted by Byron Miller are three articles from a book edited in 1973 by Melvin Albaum, the thirty-fifth, thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh chapters of Geography and contemporary issues: studies of relevant problems[iv], respectively titled “The 1970 postal strikes: the behavioral element in spatial diffusion” by Virginia Sharp, “Student disturbances and campus unrest in the United States: 1964-1970” by George Demko and al. and “The geography of riots and civil disorder in the 1960s” by John Adams, in the last section of the book, “Conflict and conflict resolution”. While analysing three very different kinds of social movements (postal strikes, student unrest and minorities riots), the three articles seem to draw on a common theoretical background that allows us to identify what are the problems the authors try to solve by questioning these cases, based on which kind of data, and through which theoretical viewpoint.

Questions of location and diffusion: The first and most obvious connection between the three articles is the strong influence of the spatial-analytic framework on the definition of the authors’ research problems. Thus, the two main questions the authors attempt to treat are the distribution and the diffusion of the phenomena they study during given periods.

  • In the first case, Virginia Sharp (1973) defines her project as such: “Through an investigation of the spread of the United States postal strikes of 1970, this paper intends to assess the applicability of diffusion concepts developed largely with respect to material innovations to a “human action” type of innovation”.
  • For the team working with George Demko (1973), the previous studies on the topic of “student unrest” in the 1960’s have failed to analyse this object through an objective framework: “This obviously timely topic has generated a plethora of hasty studies and comments in the press as well as in scholarly journals, but too few measured analyses of the available data related to these phenomena. Moreover, the bulk of the writing on this topic is addressed to the etiology of student dissent, even though most of the investigators focus on a single disturbance or a set of disturbances over a relatively short period of time”. The authors, on the contrary, divide their own study in three different parts, concerning the characteristics (defined in terms of date, number of partakers, injuries and arrests, quantitative data specific to the school on one hand, and causes of the unrest on the other), the distribution and the spatial spread of their object. The article concludes by showing a pattern of distribution of the unrest (mostly concentrated in the most densely populated states of the country) and its diffusion (depending on the origin of the unrest).
  • The last case does not only seek spatial effects in analysing the minority riots in the cities of the United States during the sixties, but explores as well the psychological origins of the movement. Yet, the authors qualifies the aim of his study as such: “[This paper] examines why some cities had riots while others were peaceful, and presents a model proposing why some black neighbourhoods exploded while others remained tense but calm” (1973). This article is probably the one that studies the least the questions of diffusion of the movement, and the most the questions of its origins.

Therefore it seems that the main question for the authors remains: “Where do things happen and how do they expand?”, thus fitting with the agenda presented earlier, this question mainly corresponding to the interest to the way in which things are arranged in space.

The origins of social movements: Even though two of the authors do not explicitly ask the question of the origin of the “unrest”, it is still possible to identify different answers to that question in the development of their reasoning.

  • In the case of the postal strikes, Virginia Sharp insists on the fact that “this measure of time indicates the time at which local postal employees actually began to strike. It does not measure the time at which the employees made the decision, but the time when the physical act began” (1973). Nevertheless, the author presents a paradox concerning the decision to strike: “In most diffusion studies, acceptance serves as a present or potential reward for the adopter. However, a definite penalty was associated with the decision to strike. It is a felony for a federal worker to go on strike […]” (Ibid). She includes four explanations of why a local postal union could decide to strike in her model: the distance and the importance of the channel of communications explains the geographic diffusion through a network analysis; the position of the office in the postal hierarchy that explains, through the assumption that the higher the number of people striking is, the less the chances are for each striker to be apprehended; the economic resistance explains the increasing of the propensity to strike for workers paid the same wage by the differences of the cost of living; the local social structure, defined by the author as the local vote habits, that connects the likeliness to strike to the relative weakness of the conservative ideas.
  • In the second article the authors define five types of student unrest by etiology: “social disturbances initiated by a victory in an athletic event or a similar incident, internal disturbances, sparked by the faculty tenure decision, non-academic personnel wage disputes or similar events, external disturbances which were sparked by foreign policy or related incidents, recruiting disturbances related directly to military or industrial recruiting on campus, and racial disturbances which were associated with some racially related event or incident” (Demko and al., 1973). Nonetheless the argument remains mainly descriptive. In explaining the patterns of diffusion and location they identify, the authors rely on three main arguments. First, the earliness and quantity of occurrences in the North-East correspond to the density of population and the importance of industry in the states. Second, when that element cannot be raised, as in Texas, the explanation comes from the relative importance of “predominantly Black Colleges”. Lastly, student unrest diffuses from East to West, and from “good quality” schools to “low quality” schools. These elements are presented as descriptions and are not explained. In the conclusion of the article, though, the authors propose some further research questions: “Some of the more obvious of these questions involve the role of the mass media in the spatial spread of student unrest, the role of student leaders in precipitating unrest, and the association of ecological characteristics of location and disturbances” (Ibid).
  • John Adams’ article is, on the three, the one to treat the more explicitly of the causes of the movement it studies. The author draws mostly from the psychology of crowds and the theory of the relative deprivation in one hand, and an explanation by the blocked economic opportunities on the other hand in order to explain the origins of the riots in the inner cities: “The most useful theory of riot origin seems to be a combination of the second [relative deprivation] and the third [blocked opportunities] theories[v]. The relative deprivation theory accounts for the level of intense discontent among the working class and lower middle class blacks who are neither the poorest nor the most prosperous. The blocked opportunity theory accounts for the low level of capabilities or realization of personal, economic, and environmental rewards inside the American system” (1973). In the article, the author explains the “Where” by mobilising mostly objective statistical data such as, but not restricted to, employment rates and urban growth.

The relation between space and the studied movements: The two first examples illustrate the conception of space as a container of social activity, which is, in our sense, the main characteristic of the quantitative conception of space: the spatial interactions or spatial characteristics of the movements studied by the authors remain mainly about the location and the movement of these movements in a space that, if not as isotropic as the abstract construction of John Nystuen, remains mainly constituted based on the geometric conception of space. The interest of the authors for questions of distance, local objective characteristics, and the lack of interest for the actors-based definitions of space, tend to illustrate that conception.

Nonetheless, the last author does not only consider space completely as “flat”[vi] as the other two: even though the term is not employed by the author, part of his argument is based on social and psychological representations of space. Trying to explain the origins of the state of relative deprivation in the 1960s, the author explains, based on the growth of the city and the black neighbourhoods, that “Even though the black neighbourhoods is segregated from white neighbourhoods in both cases, the “activity space” of an average black resident […] intersects a proportionally wider spectrum of the available urban experience in 1920 than in 1960” (Ibid). Later on, the author relies on testimonies from ghetto residents to assert his point: “Feelings of helplessness and isolation recurred in city after city. When asked what she would do if she had enough income a woman declared: “The first thing I would do myself is move out of the neighbourhood. I feel the entire neighbourhood is more or less a trap”” (Ibid). Nonetheless the author still relies on objective data (such as the population growth in a single neighbourhood) to strengthen his argument. In his conclusion, the author still uses references to perceptions and proxemics, which he defines as “the perception and use of space”, to explain the occurrence of what he considers a pathology.

Lastly, the two first authors seem to encourage insights in a thicker and perhaps more sociological way to conceive space. Virginia Sharp concludes her article with an encouragement in the development of a concept of “functional behavioural space”: “Perhaps the economic and socio-political resistance factors studied here can be considered measures of “functional behavioural space” applicable in the study of other ideas and actions with string cultural determinants to acceptance” (1973). In the same way, George Demko and al. (1973) conclude that “Clearly, student activism and campus unrest which occurred from 1964 to 1970 are indicative of behavioural patterns symptomatic of our time, and fully deserve careful attention and study”.

c. The phenomenological approaches: inclusion of social theory in the field of human geography

According to Edward Soja, the first strike in favour of a re-conceptualisation of space came from Marxist theory – and more specifically, the French Marxist movement – in the beginning of the 1970s: “There seems to be a convincing basis for claiming that French Marxism, from the onset, was more inclined toward an explicit spatial perspective and theorisation than Marxisms elsewhere. Throughout the twentieth century, French critical thought, whatever its primary sources, preserved an ongoing spatial discourse […]” (1989: 6 – 7). The importance of the publication of Henri Lefebvre’s trilogy on the everyday life, Critique de la vie quotidienne [Everyday life in the modern world] is underlined by Edward Soja, who sees in this study the first systematic approach of space by Henri Lefebvre: “Lefebvre concentrated attention on the characteristic features of the modernized capitalism that consolidated around the turn of the century in what he called a “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption” choreographed by the capitalist state – in essence, an instrumentalized “spatial planning” which increasingly penetrated into the recursive practices of daily life” (Ibid: 49). However, the author recognises as well another important source of this re-conceptualisation in the work of an American group of geographers that emerged in the 1960s and began its scientific work in the early 1970s: “In this context of change, parts of Modern Geography also began to radicalize, led by contributors to the new journal Antipode and inspired by a series of leftward turns taken by some of the most prominent anglo-saxon geographers of the time” (Ibid: 52). Such turns include, but are not restricted to, David Harvey and William Bunge.

The reasons of the rise of an interest for the political and social qualities of space can, depending on the explaining author, rely on at least three main shifts. First we can note an epistemological shift, based on the lack of explanation the spatial-analytic school offered: according to Edward Soja, “after all was said ans done, outcomes continued to explain outcomes infinite regression of geographies upon geographies, one set of mappable variables “explaining” another through the “goodness” of fit” (Ibid: 51). As such, Robert Sack criticism of the separatist theme in geography: “There are many geographic locutions that can find empirical, deductive nomothetic expression, but not those that are concerned with the separation of the effects of the spatial” (1974). The second reason could be a different politicisation of the academic world in the 1960s and the introduction of radical political theory. The last reason is presented by Henri Lefebvre as one of the origins of his scientific enterprise: while space had become, through urban planning and urbanism, one of the main supports of the modern society’s political activity, the scholars who concerned themselves about space remained blind to such a connection.

This last part will be divided into several sub-parts, as follows: after a quick review of the key concepts of critical geography, and its diverse sub-fields, and the ways in which several authors have articulated spatial and political questions, we will focus on later reviews of the geographical literature on social movements.

c.1. Some concepts of critical geography

The social-spatial dialectic in the Marxist approach: As the criticism of a separation between spatial and social phenomena emerged, attempts to cross the two concepts are developed in the 1970s and the 1980s, during the “spatial turn” in social sciences, after a period of criticism of spatial analysis as the analysis of the outcomes of social activity. According to Doreen Massey,

“One of the worst results of the schools of quantification and spatial analysis was their reduction of all to this simple (but quantifiable) notion of distance. […] In our view, the full meaning of the term “spatial” includes a whole range of aspects of the social world. It includes distance, and differences in the measurement, connotations and appreciations of distance. It includes movement. It includes geographical differentiation, the notion of place and specificity, and of difference between places. And it includes the symbolism and meaning which in different societies, and in different parts of given societies, attach to all of these things” (1984: 5)[vii]

The basic assertion of such a conception can be expressed quite simply: as every other part of any human society, space, in its configuration and its use, can be considered as the result of a specific mode of production. As Edward Soja puts it, “The generative source for a materialist interpretation of spatiality is the recognition that spatiality is socially produced and, like society itself, exists in both substantial forms (concrete spatialities) and as a set of relations between individuals and groups, an “embodiment” and medium of social life itself” (1989: 120). Based on the work of Henri Lefebvre, the author thus distinguishes between social, material and personal space.

Because space is conceived in that viewpoint as a construct produced in a characterised mode of production, then space contains or incarnates the specific contradictions of this mode of production: the capitalist space expresses in a way the class struggle and the domination induced by the capitalist mode of production.

This assertion is far from obvious, and must be developed based on both Henri Lefebvre’s and David Harvey’s work. As the first recalls, space gives itself on the first place as purely natural, and only those space transformed by the human activity can be considered as “produced”:

“If we look at a corn or a wheat field, we know very well that the furrows, the seeding, the fences, the bushes and the wire designate relations of production and ownership. And that it is very less true for an uncultivated territory as a land or a forest. […] But such a spatial character moves away, in which natural particularities an objects concerned by such particularities prevailed. With nature! Does a “natural park”, national or regional, belong to the natural or the artificial? We can hesitate.” (2000: 100)

Therefore, still as stated by Henri Lefebvre, the social space can be considered as a product, which is the result of the transformation of a raw material (the nature) through an activity. This does not make of space the equivalent of any other product, though. To paraphrase Henri Lefebvre, space is not produced as a kilo of sugar, nor by the agency of goods and their respective locations:

“Social relation? Yes, indeed, but inherent to the relations of ownership (of the land and the earth, mostly), and on the other hand linked to the productive forces (which model that earth and land), the social space manifests its versatility, its “reality”, in the same time formal and material. Product that can be used, it is as well a mean of production; network of exchanges, flow of raw material and energies that shape and are determined by space” (Ibid: 102)

David Harvey’s conception of space seems to be close, yet different, of Henri Lefebvre’s. Both of them refuse to consider space as a separate realm or to reduce it to its Euclidian formulation. For David Harvey, such a Euclidian conception fails to include at least two of the most important characteristics of social space, its cognitive as well as symbolic aspects: “Architecture, suggests Langer, is an ethnic domain […]. In other words, the shaping of space which goes on in architecture and, therefore, in the city is symbolic of our culture, symbolic of the existing social order, symbolic of our aspirations, our needs, our fears” (1973: 31).

This theory of space as a relationship and an agency that derives from (or is produced by) and influences social relations, which are themselves coherent with a given mode of production in a given society leads to consider spatial contradictions, such as, per instance, the uneven repartition of land, or the mechanisms of exclusion of which Henri Lefebvre talks, as the parallels of the social contradictions. Such a conception influences directly the way in which the question of social justice is thought of. For David Harvey, the access to political theory passes by raising the question of spatial injustice: “Our objective is to eliminate ghettos. Therefore, the only valid policy with respect to this objective is to eliminate the conditions which give rise to the truth of the theory. In other words, we wish the von Thunen theory of the urban land market to become not true. The simplest approach here is to eliminate those mechanisms which serve to generate the theory. The mechanism in this case is very simple – competitive bidding for the use of the land. If we eliminate this mechanism, we will probably eliminate the result” (Ibid: 137). This does not, however, lead to consider space as a simple result of social structures, as space is part of the work of production as much as its result:

“We have already acknowledged that the organization of space can reflect and affect social relationships. But created space has a deeper meaning than just that. […] Created space in the modern city has an equivalent [as the cosmic order representation of the ancient city’s space] ideological purpose. In part it reflects the prevailing ideology of the ruling groups and institutions in society. In part it is fashioned by the dynamics of market forces which can easily produce results which nobody in particular wants. Created space is an “ethnic domain” in only a very limited sense. Yet created space is an integral part of an intricate sign-process that gives direction and meaning to the daily life within the urban culture. The signs, symbols and signals that surround us in the urban environment are powerful influence (especially among the young).” (Ibid: 310)

To put it simply, in such a theory, space remains a stage for various resources, and the matters of distance are not completely extracted. What is added though is the importance of meaning and the symbolic charge of space, as well as the dialectical relationship between spatial and social structures, which co-influence each other. Therefore, space becomes a relevant point of entry to analyse political and social movements, or, as Henri Lefebvre puts it: “Space becomes the main focus of struggles and actions aiming at something. It never ceased to be the place of resources, the milieu in which strategies are deployed, but it becomes something else than the theatre, the indifferent stage, the setting of actions. […] Medium? Milieu? Intermediate? Yes, but less and less neutral, more and more active, as an instrument and an objective, a mean and a goal at the same time” (2000: 471 – 472).

The notion of place: It could be argued, as done by Byron Miller, that such a conception of space increases the importance of the concept of “place”, as a way to gather two ideas: the importance of location and of location effects such as those quoted by Doreen Massey (distance, movement, geographical differentiation) but in relation with the meaning given to such elements. For Yi-Fu Tuan (1974),

“A place is the compelling focus of a field: it is a small world, the node at which activities converge. Hence, a street is not commonly called a place, however sharp its visual identity. L’Etoile (Place de Charles de Gaulle) is a place but the Champs-Elysée is not: one is a node, the other is a through-way. A street corner is a place but the street itself is not. […] When a street is transformed into a centre of festivities, with people milling around in no particular direction, it becomes non-directed space – and a place”

In other words, a place is not a mere location. According to Byron Miller, the most accurate definition of place is given by John Agnew: “Interwoven in the concept of place … are three major elements: locale, the settings in which social relations are constituted (these can be formal or informal); location, the geographical area encompassing the settings for social and economic processes operating at a wider scale; and sense of place, the local “structure of feeling”” (1987: 28). Geographically, place has its use as it helps overcome the theoretical pitfall that constitutes the opposition of uniqueness and generality: on one hand, because of its specificity, a place refers to a unique setting; on the other, because it incorporates wider processes, it is yet related to a notion of generality.

In other words, place can be thought of as close to the notion of context[viii]. John Agnew develops the ways in which such a context is related to wider processes (Id):

  1. The social division of labour, which defines different socio-economical areas, but also impacts the class and community system
  2. The presence or absence of communication and transportation means that influence the relation of a given place to others
  3. The institutional activity of states and their internal regional divisions; the political and collective divisions such as class, ethnicity, gender, that vary from place to place
  4. Spatial claims formulated by political groups, such as nation-state, municipality, region, etc.
  5. What the authors calls “the micro-geography of everyday life”, in other words the way in which an individual, through social interaction and spatial practice, constitutes a personal space.

Applying this framework to electoral geography, the author reaches two conclusions: “The first is that an adequate conception of “mapping politics” cannot reduce it to single universal factors or causes. That is to both disengage space from any constitutive role in politics and to miss the multiscalar quality of social causation. The second is that context cannot simply be reduced to neighbourhood or friends-and-neighbor “effects”. That is to separate out “the local” as a spatial effect working against more abstract or general and aspatial social effects” (Id).

An example of direct connection between a spatial and a political strategy is shown by James Duncan’s work on the colonisation of the city of Kandy by the British Empire (1989). The author shows in which way the colonial power influences the landscape of the city in two ways:

First, the colonial authority was imposed by modifying, undermining or replacing the traditional symbols of authority. Among other changes, “The palace of the king became the residence of the governor’s agent, the highest-ranking Englishman resident in Kandy. The king’s audience hall located on the hallowed ground between the Temple of the Relic and the palace became the civic court during the week and the Anglican church on Sundays. In the alcove where the king of Kandy’s throne once sat stood the pulpit and behind it a picture of the English king”.

Second, the English conception of the landscape[ix] was imposed through political as much as social practices: “Because of the elevation and topography of Kandy it was possible to create facsimile of the landscape of home. […] Kandy was designed to resemble a romanticized image of a pre-industrial England. […] And how was it done? Promenades, such as Lady Horton’s Walk, carriage drives such as Victoria Drive, and riding paths such as The Green Gallop, were created. The dense jungle around Kandy was pruned to reveal the best views of the town, the lake and the surrounding mountains. […] English vegetables, fruits and trees were introduced and both formal and informal English gardens and parks were laid out” (Ibid).

To generalise what James Duncan states about the transformation of the city of Kandy, both the political and everyday spatial practices of a given society contribute to shape its landscapes and to represent this society’s power’s ideology. In the process of colonisation described by the author, contention between two political orders occurs so to speak on place as much as on the effective control of the territory, legitimate coercion and political institutions.

c.2. A geographical treatment of social movements: Byron Miller’s conceptual framework

As stated by Byron Miller, while the re-conceptualisation of geography was taking place, the interest for social movements increased in the field of human geography: “In the 1980s, geographers increasingly turned their attention to urban social movements. […] Toward the end of the 1980s, geographic social movement research became increasingly diverse, with considerable attention paid to issues of gender, labor, environmental justice, peace, collective identity construction and the rootedness of social movements in place-specific contexts” (2000: 1). Such a literature underlines notably the importance of local identities in the definition of strategies of resistance. As Byron Miller notes, “the effects of place and community on the origins and dynamics of collective action remain, in large part, untheorized. The existing geographical literature focuses primarily on the formation of class and territorial alliances in movements resisting or adapting to economic restructuring; that collective action will occur at all is simply assumed” (1992). An example of such a work can be found in William Bunge’s book Fitzgerald, The geography of a revolution (1971), which attempts to explain a violent outburst in a neighbourhood of Detroit by rebuilding the map of the neighbourhood since the colonisation of the United States. There does not, however, appear to be a geographical theory of social movements as much as a theory of geographically-defined or geographically-analysed social movements.

A geographical viewpoint on three paradigms in social movements theory: Before developing his own framework, the author offers to analyse the geographies of the three main paradigms in social movements theory (resource mobilisation theory, the school of political process and the school of new social movements). He draws on that matter on the studies on the “hidden geographies” of social theory led by John Agnew (1993). If part of his review consist in an explication of these paradigms, his contributions can be quoted.

  • Geography in the RMT: The main link between RMT and geography lies according to the author in the criticism that has emerged inside the school of the resource mobilisation concerning the rational postulate of this school, and the reassertion of the importance of identity, because of the construction of place-based identities and the importance of place in the understanding of wider identities: “Geographically specific constructions of collective identities – whether place-based or not – have implications for the bases on which particular social movements organisations are built, including the possible avenues for and barriers to alliance formation” (2000: 21). The question of recruitment is therefore particularly enlightened by taking in account the spatial: because every actor, either individual or collective, has a spatial practice which defines a network of “known world”, then it is likely that the strategies of recruitment of new members will pass by such networks. In that domain, the study led by Roger Gould on the Commune’s uprising in France can be quoted, as it clearly shows the importance of the institutional recruitment of the National Guards on the ways in which these Guards enrolled into the Commune (1991). For the author, the contribution of geography to the RMT framework does not stop there: in addition to the question of recruitment, the topic of social movements strategies in terms of what the author calls “politics of signification” is raised, in other words how social movements frame narratives that are in the same time credible, in resonance with the actors’ experiences, and capable of mobilising collective values or myths. For the author, such discursive resources vary depending on places, not only in national terms but on a variety of scales.
  • Geography in the political process theory: Although the studies focused on the political processes generally develop a temporal framework, Byron Miller insists that “political opportunities are as much geographic as they are politic” (2000: 25), because the variables that define an opportunity to act vary as much in space as in time. Both comparative studies and diffusion studies can be quoted as drawing on that postulate. Nevertheless, Byron Miller deplores a lack of treatment of the spatial dimension in the political process literature, and the centrality of the national scale when such a treatment exists: “To the extent that the literature does address the geographic variation in political opportunity, it does so almost exclusively at the national level. Kitschelt’s well-known study of the political structure of four democratic states (France, Sweden, West Germany, and the United States) investigates the ability and willingness to incorporate these challenges in public policy. This work explicitly recognises geographical differences in political frameworks and public policies, but, as with numerous other studies, only at the national level” (Ibid: 26). Even when decentralised, the studies quoted by the author remain focused on the local state. This framework still highlights the question of the politics of scale according to the author: “These geographic differences have important implications for the spatial strategies of social movements. If movements mobilise more readily where the political opportunity structures are favourable, either decentralised or centralised mobilisation strategies may be appropriate, depending on the opportunities present at the central versus local state” (Ibid: 28). This last element is particularly relevant in the case of place-aimed movements that are trying to impose their own scale, per example in the case of nationalist movements. Indeed, as the author highlights, “Scale is not pregiven, but is itself an “object” of struggle with political consequences” (Ibid: 29).
  • Geography in the new social movements theory: For the author, the main theory influencing the new social movements theory – the Habermasian theory of communicative action – fails to conceptualise space while being necessarily spatial: “The geographic constitution of systems and lifeworlds – or abstract spaces and social spaces, to use Lefebvre’s spatial terminology – is manifest in a variety of ways. The territories that some collectivities build and defend are not just metaphorical but also real places, such as neighbourhoods, residential developments, schools, community centres, places of worship, and parks. […] Geographic scale is crucial to identity construction, not only in terms of material patterns of spatial interaction, but also in terms of how people conceptualise and represent the geography of their lives” (Ibid: 32 – 33). The symbolic importance of such a personal mapping of the world leads therefore to explain geographically one of the main questions raised by the school of the new social movements: “If social movements are not class-based, what is their origin?”, and the processes of construction of the mobilised identities, as “sexual, gender, “racial”, class and ethnic identities are constructed through, and obtain their meaning in, space” (Ibid: 34). On this topic the contribution of Castells to the theory of social movements is raised, as this theoretician explains how there is indeed no difference in the facts between political, economic and cultural claims in contention. Despite this division between paradigms, Byron Miller attempts to articulate these theoretical frameworks between them and with geography: “Resource mobilisation research could examine the spatial distribution of resources among the SMOs and the communities they attempt to mobilise. Research on the framing could address the geographical targeting of frames and whether they match place-specific cultural constructions. Political process research could explore the geographic differentiation of the state across places and scales […]. New social movements research could examine how the spatial structuring of people’s daily lives affect the construction of identity […]” (Ibid: 37).

However one could argue that such an account of the geographies of social sciences is far for sufficient in order to incorporate social movements to the field of human geography: in such a proposal, space and geography remain in a way one of the factors that inform the dynamics of social movements. If we take as an hypothesis that space matters for the overall understanding of social movements in a very particular way, it is not possible to satisfy oneself of a reduction of space to a mere variable. And as a matter of fact, Byron Miller does recognise that “Neglect of the geographic structuring of articulating social processes is evident in attempts to integrate diverse social movements theories” (Ibid: 40). On the other hand, there is not, as far as we can see, any general geographic theory of social movements. The author of Geography and social movements therefore attempts in his second chapter to summarise a geographic model of social movements that would take account of both the evolution of human geography, and of social movement theory.

Byron Miller’s geographic model of social movement mobilisation: The model developed by Byron Miller draws essentially its predicates from Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of communicative action, despite the fact that the author considers this theory as “at a highly abstract level that ignores the spatial constitution and differentiation of society” (Ibid: 42). He thus offers to amend it with Henri Lefebvre’s theories[x], especially by including the notion of abstract space (rational representations of space) and social space (spaces of life) to the respective notions of system and lifeworld, in order “to foreground the differentiated systemic and lifeworld spaces within which mobilisation takes place, and over which struggle occurs” ((Ibid: 42 – 43).

Such a framework is not without consequences. Particularly, in Byron Miller’s presentation of Jürgen Hambermas’ work, social movements seem to remain something different from “proper” forms of political participation, as much as the connections between political contention inside and outside of the routine political game. What is more, the framework does not concern itself with the question of the strategies of the social movements, the choice of “strikes”, alliances, narratives and registers of mobilisations that characterise the activity of on-going social movements, as it focuses on the etiology of such movements. The author still accords an important capacity of explanation to this model, as it “addresses systemic processes of material reproduction (in both the economy and the state), lifeworld processes of symbolic reproduction, some aspects of these processes’ interaction, the formation of individual and collective identities, and the generation of conflicts that give rise to social movements” (Ibid: 47).

The spatialisation of Jürgen Habermas’ framework: Because of the largely aspatial viewpoint of Jürgen Habermas, Byron Miller begins by spatialising four elements of his framework, respectively the economy, the state, the lifeworld, and the interaction between the three previous elements.

In the case of the economy, the author argues that Jürgen Habermas does not take enough account, in his view of the relation between a colonising system and a colonised lifeworld, of the “ever-increasing mobility of capital and its equally destructive impact on lifeworld functions” (Id).

Indeed the economical geography does define and qualify given areas and regions, their population and this population’s identity, especially due to the fact that a spatial division of labour exists: “Within the uneven geography of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century industrialisation, Bennett and Earle show that there was also a significant division of labour, particularly as it relates to skills and wage differential. Where wage and skill differentiation was significant, socialist politics were undermined” (Ibid: 50).

This spatial differentiation leads to a political differentiation. Indeed, the kind of claims that rises in an area defined by a type of industry and a certain kind of activity is clearly not the same as the one that rises in a completely different area, but there is more to it than that, as Byron Miller notes that “The spatial division of labour determines, in large measure, the economic groupings that are likely to engage in struggle in a particular place, the types of coalitions that can be formed, and the skills and resources available to political causes” (Id).

For what concerns the state, the author mostly bases his argument on the theories of the school of political process. If the state’s activities produce grievances, “Political mobilisation needs necessarily be aimed at the state(s) (central or local) whose actions produce grievances. Rather, if political opportunity structures differ significantly among central and local states, political mobilisation may be directed at the state(s) with the most open structures of political opportunity” (Ibid: 52). Therefore, at the contrary of a view that would reduce the state to an opponent for political movements, the author argues that some scales of the state can be played against others, especially the local state.

The question of the lifeworld and the construction of individual as well as collective identities in this realm relies on the theoretical mistake that leads to identify community and place. The author suggests instead to focus on the notion of sense of place highlighted by the humanistic geography to understand how place takes an important part in the formation of lifeworlds. More, the notion of communicative action does for the author only take its full meaning when considered geographically: “The meanings, understandings, and sense of “existential belonging” developed in a place-based community are rooted in communicative action; this in turn can have implications for the political action” (Ibid: 57). This affirmation stresses the importance of collective geographies and of the ways the collective identities are locally embedded.

The author’s proposal leads to a clarification of the ways in which spatiality matters in the formation of the groups that will potentially engage in contention, the economic geography and the differences between territories, as much as the geography of these groups and their members, in terms of everyday life practices as well as the constitution of a collective identity that can be mobilised by a social movement. It does also give a focus on why certain places are concerned by a mobilisation while others are not, and why certain movements do focus on a certain scale, and potentially shift this focus during an on-going mobilisation. This framework seems to be close of the notion of resistance as developed by James Scott in his essay Weapons of the weak: everyday life of Peasant resistance (1985). However, as noted earlier, it fails to consider the forms of resistance and the strategies chosen by the social movements, as much as it overlooks the importance of the active political work of such movements in order to mobilise partisans.


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[1]     Daniel Meier, Mariage et identité nationale au Liban. Les relations libano-palestiniennes dans le Liban de Taëf (1985-2005) [Marriage and national identity in Lebanon, The Lebanese-Palestinian relations in Taif’s Lebanon (1985-2005)], Paris: Karthala, 2008

[i] These categories are taken from the work of Wilhem Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, without referencing, in Richard Hartshorne, 1959: 148 – 149

[ii] Including: John Allen and Doreen Massey (ed.), Geography matters! A reader, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984; Edward W. Soja, Postmodern geographies, The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London: Verso, 1989; Ron J. Johnston, “Paradigms and Revolutions or Evolution?”, first publication 1978, in. Agnew, Livingstone and Rogers, op. cit.; Peter Haggett, Geography, a global synthesis, Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001; P. Claval, op. cit.; Peter Daniels, Michael Broadshaw, Denis Shaw and James Sidaway, Human Geography, Issues for the 21st century, Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001

[iii] The key concepts of each school will be developed further on.

[iv] Whether these three articles are or not the first approaches of social movements in human geography seems to be relatively unimportant here, for practical as well as epistemological reasons. First, even though it is likely that the question has appeared previously, we are unlikely to ever find the “first occurrence” of the question. Second, finding such an occurrence would not necessarily be very useful, because of the inclusion of the studies in broader paradigms.

[v] The first and rejected theory being the deviance or “riffraff theory”.

[vi] We owe this expression to William Bunge, according whom the geographical practice of placing spatial relations on a map does not constitute an operation of translation from a three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional surface, but from a two-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional surface, because the actual geographical research object would be relationships on the surface of earth only. (Cf, Bunge, 1966: 215 – 216)

[vii] We must nonetheless differenciate Doreen Massey from the Marxist approach we discuss further on.

[viii] This comparison is directly inspired by John Agnew’s article, “Mapping politics: How context counts in electoral geography (1996)

[ix] It must be noted here that the notion of landscape refers as much to the agency of elements such as a façade, a lake, a cliff, as to the cultural construct that defines such an agency as pleasant or unpleasant.

[x] In order to be as synthetic as possible, we will not develop on the theory of communicative action as thoroughly as Byron Miller. It should however be noted that the author highlights the importance of the dual relation between the system, defined as “the primary sphere of material reproduction”, divided in two parts: the state and the economy, and the lifeworld, defined as “the primary sphere of symbolic reproduction”, divided in the public and the private sphere. The system-based form of interaction, especially monetisation and bureaucratisation, have a tendency to supplant the lifeworld-based one, leading to a failure for the system to replace communicative (i.e. non-intrumental and based on interaction and mutual understanding) action in the traditional lifeworld domain that is symbolic reproduction. This failure leads to the constitution of social movements.

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2016, February 18). Social Movements in Human Geography: a literature review. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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4 Responses

  1. Claire Hancock says:

    Allow me to correct an apparent misconception on your part : there is no “school of geography around Jacques Lévy” in France (maybe in Switzerland where he teaches) and Ripoll has been consistently critical of Lévy’s positions. May be worth looking in to a little more closely.

    • Alex Mahoudeau says:

      Thank you for the correction. I was under the impression from reading Ripoll that he was following Lévy’s propositions. I will certainly develop that reading.

  2. Claire Hancock says:

    I believe you would be interested in Fabrice Ripoll’s work on space and social movements (a few available here

    • Alex Mahoudeau says:

      Yes! I’ve read it since then (that review was three years ago, it is completely partial, the field is much wider than is presented here). What a great author, his article on the dimensional approach has been really important for me and the way I am framing my research question. The whole school of geography around Jacques Levy is very interesting, I think. Too bad it is still a bit unknown in the UK, as far as I could see.

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