AdamTickell, EricSheppard, JamiePeck and TrevorBarnes ( eds ), Politics and Practice in Economic Geography , London : Sage , 2007 . ISBN 978-1-4129-0785-9 ( cloth ), ISBN 978-1-4129-0785-6 ( paper )
2007 was a year for the economic geography textbook. The year started off with the much anticipated fifth instalment of Dicken's Global Shift and was swiftly followed by Coe, Kelly and Yeung's Economic Geography: A Contemporary Introduction and An Introduction to Economic Geography by Cumbers and Mackinnon. Edited by Tickell, Sheppard, Peck and Barnes, the final book off the production line was Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. Not set up to describe what economic geography is, Politics and Practice is unique in that it attempts to explain, even justify, what economic geographers do. Indeed an alternative title would be: “Economic geography: why we do what we do”.
The inspiration for Politics and Practice came from Massey and Meegan's 1985 anthology Politics and Method. Written against the backdrop of a protracted economic crisis, the deindustrialisation of core manufacturing regions, and the fiscal crisis of the state, Politics and Methods paved the way for debating the inter-relationship between politics, methods and research practices in industrial economic geography. Emphasizing methodological reflexivity, Politics and Methods was path breaking in its approach, but the economic geography referred to now bears little resemblance to that of today. With this as inspiration, and echoing Sayer's (1993:329) call that “what is needed after the ‘linguistic turn’ is a further ‘practical turn’”, Politics and Practice is an attempt to bring methodological reflexivity back into economic geography. But why now?
To the casual observer Politics and Practice may appear little more than an update of Politics and Methods: the cover is a collage of the original design for Politics and Methods; the foreword is written by Massey and Meegan; and, the opening comments pay due homage to Massey and Meegan's earlier attempt to initiate a disciplinary conversation around the inter-relationships between research methods, politics and research practice. But Politics and Practice is much more than an update; it is a collection with a clear agenda. Based on what the co-editors see as current state of economic geography, for them “the lack of explicit conversations about research methods has contributed to economic geographers talking past, rather than with, one another” (p xiii). All of which has impeded economic geography's capacity to communicate effectively with cognate social-science disciplines. But it has also led to an uncertainty about what economic geographers do, and perhaps more importantly, how economic geographers go about doing what they do. Put simply, the co-editors appear concerned that the economic geographers’ capacity to break new ground over the past two decades has been tempered by a lack of critical reflection on the practice of using research methods to understand the social world—in their own words, “doing it rather than talking about it has been the dominant intellectual culture” (p 1). The rationale behind Politics and Practice is therefore “not just about producing new economic geographies; it is about producing them in new ways” (p xv).
Aspiring to an economic geography that it is as effective at holding its ground as it is in breaking new ground, Politics and Practice brings together 33 leading economic geographers to “talk about” those methodological decisions which are routinely buried in traditional academic outputs. These decisions include ethics, the politics of writing, research positionality and research design. Contributors to Politics and Practice were therefore invited to “lay bare their personal engagements with methods” and to “place themselves in the story” (p xiv). The result is a largely unique volume.
The first thing that struck me on reading this collection was the style. Gone is the density of the academic prose often associated with economic geography. Also gone is the dryness that often afflicts methods texts. Indeed Politics and Practice is something entirely different because, for want of a better description, it is “autobiographical” in nature. The result is a real sense of openness and exposure to the real nitty-gritty of day-to-day life as an economic geographer. No more so was this the case than in the opening two contributions by Schoenberger and Mountz. Written in the first person, what was remarkable was how the level of description and insight ensured that it felt as though I was reading a novel; not a book on the practice of economic geography. However, this approach is not consistent across the volume. While a majority of chapters are written in the first person, a number, notably those which are more theory laden, remain largely in the third person—see the chapters by Clark and Sayer. Understandably, given the need for coverage, it does draw the volume away from what I see as one of its great strengths—the openness and accessibility with which it deals with the day-to-day decisions that face economic geographers.
As for the content, Politics and Practice is organized according to four overlapping themes: Position and method—the shifting relation between research and the subjects of research; Politicising method—the ways in which practices are bound up with politics; Quantity and quality—the ongoing role of quantitative methods, and their relationship to qualitative economic geographies; and Mobilising economic geography—the geographical challenge of moving between different field sites, places of “analysis”, and spaces of engagement. Rather than focus on the content of each section, in this review I want to focus on three cross-cutting themes which emerge from the volume. The first theme centres on the constraints imposed on practice by the structural conditions of academic life. Here Wills talks of the UK Research Assessment Exercise “making it harder than ever to step back and to assess the motivations we have” (p 132), while Kwan and Rigby both make mention of the imposed pressures that tenure brings to early career researchers in the US. Somewhat related to this the second theme is the honesty with which the contributors discuss the difficulties of doing research. In an environment where defending one's own research is usually at the forefront of our activity, it is refreshing to see contributors being open enough to admit to the difficulties, pressures, even flaws in their own research. The third and final theme that I want to highlight is the recognition and acknowledgement paid by contributors to how their practice has been shaped by, and can be traced back to, being in a certain department, at a certain time, and working with certain people. Here the importance afforded to the role of mentors (usually doctoral supervisors) in shaping how they now practice economic geography is deemed critical.
And herein lay the real strength of Politics and Practice. While on the surface it looks and feels like a heavyweight economic geography textbook—tackling methodological reflexivity is no easy task—it is targeted at an audience of students and early career researchers. Though it might not be marketed as such—the cover notes, chapter titles and lack of illustrations do little to persuade you that this it is not a weighty volume—it is listed in the “Acknowledgements” how the impetus for the book came from discussions between the co-editors and early career researchers at the 2004 and 2006 Summer Institute in Economic Geography. From this Politics and Practice has stayed true to its roots and delivered a unique insight into the politics and practice of economic geography, which all doctoral students and early career researchers in economic geography should be encouraged (maybe even forced) to read it.