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date: 17 January 2018

Geographic Insights into Political Identity

Summary and Keywords

Moving away from the conventional geopolitical analyses of territory, states, and nations, geographical research is now focused on the ways in which political identities are constituted in and through space and place, as well as the power and the marginalization associated with identity making and their implications for social justice. Poststructuralist theory problematized the fundamental premise that the literal subject is resolutely individual, autonomous, transparent, and all knowing. Feminist scholars have also insisted that the self is socially embedded and intersubjective. Meanwhile, research on geographies of gender and sexuality has emphasized the importance of embodied research. There are four prominent and inherently political themes of analysis in geographical research: nation states and nationalism; global identities; citizenship and the public sphere; and war and security. Geographers have critically examined the production and reproduction of national identity. Geographers have also focused on the contemporary transnationalization of political identity, as the mobility of people across borders becomes more intensive and extensive because of globalization. Consequently, globalization and global mobility have raised important questions around citizenship. Rethinking war and the political, as well as security, has also become a pressing task of geographers. Meanwhile, there has been a growing attention to the political identities of academics themselves, which resonates with a concern about forms of knowledge production. This concern exists alongside a critique of the corporatization of the university. Questions are being raised about whether academics can use their status as scholars to push forward public debate and policy making.

Keywords: geographical research, political identities, identity making, social justice, national identity, global identities, citizenship, war, security


Geographers are fascinated with the ways in which political identities are constituted in and through space and place. Early interest in this area mirrored conventional geopolitical analyses of territory, states, and nations, while more recently geographers have begun to explore a variety of issues such as public space, mobility, and war. Geographical research thus has moved away from an analysis that presumes the centrality of the nation state to examine the theoretical and substantive politics of grounded research that is also attuned to global issues. Significant among these contributions has been the examination of the co-constitutive production and reproduction of spaces across a range of scales (Massey 2005). How identities take shape and crystallize is always a political project, and geographers have been concerned with both the power and the marginalization associated with identity making and their implications for social justice (e.g., Smith 1994; Sibley 1995; Harvey 1997). This essay begins with a broad overview of the work on geographies of political identity and draws attention to significant theoretical influences. It then turns to highlight four prominent and inherently political themes of analysis: nation states and nationalism; global identities; citizenship and the public sphere; and war and security. This thematic approach is suggestive of the breadth of geographical research, but also exemplifies the importance of spatially sensitive investigations to the study of political identity. A final section discusses how the pervasive concern for social justice has been refracted back onto the discipline as geographers interrogate their own roles as researchers, teachers, and activists.

Place and Political Identity

In the first part of the twentieth century, there was almost nothing in the way of a concept of political identity in geography. Determinist approaches to the subject reigned, from the environmental determinism of Ellen Churchill Semple, to the cultural organicism of Carl Sauer. The structuralist theories that succeeded did not shed much further insight onto issues of subjectivity. The terrain shifted somewhat with the flurry of interest in Anthony Giddens structuration theory, which sought to articulate a role for both agency and structure within the social system. Louis Althussers nuanced engagement with Marxism, with its theorization of the interpolation of the subject, also provided a key lever with which to pry open the tendency toward structural closure. Questions of subjectivity and power became more prominent in the discipline with the increasing influence of poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial theories, which underscored the politics of identity formation in ways that resonated with the social justice movements of the 1960s. Work in geography began critically to interrogate the spatial formations of gender, race, and class. Over time, this rubric would broaden to include other aspects of identity formation such as sexuality, disability, and religion, at the same time that research would aspire to more nuanced studies of identity formation across multiple axes.

Poststructuralist theory contributed to geographical studies of identity by problematizing the fundamental premise that the liberal subject is resolutely individual, autonomous, transparent, and all knowing (Gilbert 2009). In contrast, identities are revealed to be always knitted together in relation to others, through language and other discourses that conceal as much as they reveal about the self and the other. Identities are thus socially constituted, never fully coherent, and always political. Michel Foucaults critical genealogy of subject formation has been especially compelling for geographers because of its attention to spatialities of power. In works such as Discipline and Punish (1977), he examines the technologies of domination and techniques of the self that are mobilized at institutional sites of surveillance and self-discipline such as prisons. Chris Philo draws significantly on Foucaults work in his extensive studies of the spatial tactics of differentiation, exclusion, and isolation employed in UK asylums and medical discourses (Philo 1989). Comparable studies of the workhouse by Felix Driver illustrate how this institution constitutes paupers as subjects of care, which both contributes to and reinforces their marginalization (Driver 1993). Still other work has demonstrated how the spatial design of schools inscribes dominant ideologies of gender and class as part of the project of developing academic competency (Ploszajska 1994). This research provides powerful site-specific analyses of the creation of compliant and silent subjects in the totalizing spaces of the institution.

Feminist scholars have also insisted that the self is socially embedded and intersubjective. Feminist geographers have examined the spatial dimensions of the relational construction of identity, and the marginalization that is inscribed through the hierarchical differentiation between subjects, for example through the gendering of public and private spaces, and the privileging of the masculine public sphere (Nagar 2004; Staeheli and Kofman 2004). The body has been a touchstone for this analysis, for both its material and symbolic role in the delineation of gender relations (Nelson and Seager 2005:2). To this end, some feminists have sought strategically to reify essentialized notions of gender and the female body to affirm personal and private domains and hence recognize the centrality of womens subjectivity. Others, however, have problematized the very constitution of gender categories. In her highly influential book Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance: identities are constantly iterated through routinized acts, and hence are always in negotiation and liable to disruption. These opposing approaches are indicative of some of the keen debates that have proliferated around research on the politics of identity, debates that have themselves been crucial to the opening up of questions around subject formation (Katz 1994).

Butlers concept of performativity has been influential in the work on geographies of sexuality, particularly through her discussion of drag as a practice of transgression that is at once pointed and playful. Research in geography has sought to carve out a space for considering the ways in which gay, lesbian, and transgendered bodies challenge and disrupt normative social and spatial identities (Bell and Valentine 1995; Duncan 1996). Examples of this work range widely, from gay neighborhoods, to analyses of the gentrification and commodification of landscapes for gay leisure and tourism, from critical studies of racial and sexual segregation under apartheid, to the politics of social rights and same-sex marriage (Knopp 1992; Elder 1998; Valentine 2003b; Nash 2006). Yet, as Natalie Oswin (2008) argues, there is a paradox here, for one of the principal contributions of queer theory, such as that by Butler, has been to destabilize an essentialized concept of sexual identity. There is a danger that queer geographies can reinforce an opposition between homosexual and heterosexual spaces and therefore reify their coherent exclusivity. Oswin thus suggests there is a need to move away from queer subjects to consider the construction of normative and non-normative identities and practices (Oswin 2009:97; see also Browne 2006). The work of Jasbir Puar is cited as exemplary for its interrogation of the sexualized, racialized constructions of Muslim terrorists (e.g., Puar 2007).

Research on geographies of gender and sexuality has emphasized the importance of embodied research, with reference to Donna Haraways critique of the universal and objective pretensions of disembodied knowledge production. This demands a reflexive engagement with the positionality of the researcher, and an awareness of the intersubjective and political dimensions of academic work (England 1994). Politics is no longer the sole domain of the state, but is recast in terms of the everyday struggles, negotiation, cooperation, and social justice that play out across mundane and private arenas (Kofman and Peake 1990; Cope 2004). As new forms of politics have been opened up, new ways of understanding embodied identity have also been made possible. Importantly, the body has also been a strategic site for interrogating the naturalization of race in and through space, and its co-constitution with other aspects of identity (Kobayashi and Peake 1994). The work on race by cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall and bell hooks has been formative to geographical research on race and racism that attends to the spatial specificity of racial formations (Jackson 1987; Penrose and Jackson 1993). So too the postcolonial critiques by writers including Edward Said, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Homi Bhabha, who have addressed the unequal power relations between colonizer and colonized, occident and orient, and self and other that have been foundational to Western knowledge production (McEwan and Blunt 2004). These themes pervade Kay Andersons thorough monograph Race and the Crisis of Humanism (2007), which provides a situated account of the fluidity of the concept of race and its mobile uses in colonial projects. Colonial encounters, and particularly those with Aboriginal Australians, she argues, reconstituted race in the mid-nineteenth century, as universal models of humanism fell way to narratives of exclusionary and divisive biological differentiation.

Yet while race has been disassembled as a natural phenomenon, its divisive power as a social institution is pervasive. The present continues to bear the impress of colonial racism, and the violence of slavery and segregation still frames the experiences of racialized populations across local, national, and global scales (McKittrick 2006; McKittrick and Woods 2007). As postcolonial-feminist theorist Guayatri Chakravorty Spivak has provocatively asked, within this framework of imperialism is it ever possible for the subaltern to speak, and to be heard? Activist research has offered one way of addressing this question. Ruth Gilmores Golden Gulag (2007) documents the racial politics of the rapid rise of incarceration in the United States. Her work arises from her own embodied practice in the ongoing protests that challenge the use of prisons as catch-all solutions to social problems. In her history of radical activism in Los Angeles, Laura Pulido (2006) employs a multiethnic approach to the social constitution of racial and ethnic identities that insists of understanding such identities in relation to one another. The growing body of research on mixed race identity complicates this question still further, as subjects negotiate new configurations of the self, often under conditions of increased scrutiny (Mahtani 2002). By contrast, whiteness is less rarely dissected, despite its centrality to racialization (Bonnett 1997). Thus it is possible, as Linda McDowell (2003) illustrates, for young, white, working-class men in Britain to take their whiteness for granted, even as their macho, masculine self-identity is being made vulnerable by contemporary labor market restructuring (on class, see also Gibson-Graham et al. 2000; Duncan and Duncan 2003).

Even nuanced accounts of political identity, however, can reinforce a normative model of the body that suppresses the experiences of those who have special physical or mental health needs (Butler and Parr 1999). There is a presumption of ableism in the construction of the spatial landscape; automatic cash machines, for example, are often inaccessible for the wheelchair bound (Imrie 1996:1). This work on disability has helped to undermine singular conceptions of health and normalcy by identifying the bodys historical and geographical contingency (Gleeson 1999). It has also been at the vanguard of promoting an embodied and engaged praxis that works toward the empowerment of research subjects through research design and the dissemination of results (Valentine 2003a). Thus, the study of geographies of disability has made a significant contribution to the politicization of research. It is part of a large body of work that addresses forms of spatial marginalization, and how these are negotiated and resisted in everyday practice (Pile and Keith 1997; Sharp et al. 2000).

Geographical research on political identity has thus made a significant contribution to understanding how identities are performed and constituted in and through space. Particular attention has been addressed to processes of marginalization and oppression, and to ways in which space is used to subvert and transgress dominant forms of subjectivity. Much of this work has sought to move away from an additive approach that catalogues more and more forms of subordination so that the categories of liberal inclusion can be expanded. Rather, there has been a considered effort to destabilize the liberal subject as autonomous, transparent, coherent, and universal, even if this objective is not always foregrounded. For Sue Ruddick (2007), this destabilization of the liberal subject is central to her project. As she illustrates in her work on children, liberal inclusion presents dangers alongside any gains that are made. While an articulation of childrens interests in family separations has been used to recognize more expansive forms of care giving (e.g., gay and lesbian parents), it has at the same time been used to affirm a model of traditional family structures and a withdrawal of the state with respect to family entitlements. Thus, Ruddick argues, geographers need to be more explicit and more engaged with upending liberal forms of subjectivity (see also Browne 2006). The remainder of this essay examines if and how these issues and debates play out with respect to geographical research on four themes: nation states and nationalism; global identities; citizenship and the public sphere; and war and security.

Nation States and Nationalism

As noted above, in much contemporary research politics has been decentered away from the nation state to draw attention to how power congeals at other sites and scales, and what spatial tactics are used there. This does not mean, however, that the traditional interest in territory and the state has been lost. In particular, geographers have critically examined the production and reproduction of national identity, and the interests that are served in its articulation. In the late nineteenth century, geographer Friedrich Ratzel coined the term Lebensraum (living space) to capture the dynamics of the common nationalist expansionism of his era. While Ratzel did not foresee the concepts abuse by the Nazis, it is precisely this naturalization of territorial possession that has become a target of geographers. There has been a determined effort to examine the complicity of the discipline in writing the world and in forging nationalistic narratives of geopolitical space (Dalby 1991; Tuathail 1996).

Scientific exploration, surveys, and map making all strategies that demonstrate the collusion of geographers have been used to provide syncretic knowledge about unfamiliar landscapes (Driver 2000). As Edward Said has argued, these representations constitute myths about colonial others that promote racial stereotypes while bolstering domestic national narratives and creating what Benedict Anderson has called imagined communities of national belonging. Neil Smiths monograph on Isaiah Bowman, geographer to President Roosevelt, brings this critique into the twentieth century by attending to Bowmans role as a key architect of postWorld War II US geoeconomic imperialism (Smith 2004). During the Cold War, foreign policy relied on the instrumental knowledge derived from the new academic field of area studies to carve up the world in cultural and geopolitical terms, grounded in a longstanding anxious division of us and them in the US (see also Campbell 1992). These anxieties proliferated across policy discourses and public culture. The popular US magazine Readers Digest, for example, projected a double discourse of Soviet expansionism that needed to be stopped, and US vulnerability that helped to coalesce national narratives (Sharp 2000).

Geographers have been acutely interested in these forms of belonging and exclusion that are endemic to nationalist narratives, particularly where they are overtly linked with representations of landscapes. Rural idylls are central to nationalist discourses, and landscape painting has been one canvas onto which these ideals have been commonly projected. Subject identities are constituted vis--vis these visual narratives that convey idealized narratives of inclusion and exclusion (Daniels 1994). In the interwar years in England, for example, rural landscapes were harnessed toward reconstruction, drawing together the moral aesthestics expressed in much landscape painting with a new constellation of modernity, nationalism, citizenship, and the body (Matless 1998). Geographers have also examined the weaving of national history and memory into futurist national imaginaries by examining the iconographies on everyday objects such as money and stamps, which, as they circulate, subtly legitimate the authority of the nation state (Gilbert 1999; Raento and Brunn 2005). This research on national narratives has sought to destabilize the naturalization of national identities by illustrating the amount of effort and work that has been exerted in holding such notions together. Equally, geographers have examined how national icons of heritage and commemoration such as monuments, memorials, and parades are also sites of disruption where new forms of political identities vis--vis the nation state are articulated (Harvey 1979; Osborne 1998; Johnson 1999; Kong and Yeoh 2003).

Geographers have also interrogated the techniques of the state that are deployed to project a cohesive national identity. The spatialization of the law, for example through the delineation of public and private place, is constitutive of the production of subjectivity and liberal ontologies of private property and ownership that are fundamental to the liberal state (Blomley 2005). Census data has been used to extend social control across the territory by mapping the characteristics of the national population so that a coherence to the national body is presented, even while the population is disaggregated into fixed social categories along the lines of income, race, gender, and so on (Hannah 2000). Maps are used as tools in the delineation of the national border, but they also work to produce social identities that can be read through the maps supplemental materials such as the legend (Harley 2001). Geographers have sought to prise open these practices. Mapping, for example, as with most of these techniques of the state, has also been used to challenge formal state practice and the rule of law. The legal recognition of indigenous maps and oral evidence in the landmark Delgamuukw case in British Columbia, Canada, for example, was a precedent for affirming indigenous self-government and land rights that would challenge the hegemony of the central state (Sparke 2005). Thus, while the state has appeared to be hegemonic, its authority to speak for all is always subject to political negotiation.

These disruptions rise to the fore when claims for subnational political autonomy are voiced, as in Wales (Gruffudd 1994; Jones 2008) or in Quebec, where not only French separatism is at play vis--vis the Canadian state, but also indigenous territorial claims within the province of Quebec (Desbiens 2000). Racial and ethnic prejudices are viscerally experienced, but discord may be hidden within everyday landscapes (Flint 2003). The papers in Richard Scheins collection, Landscape and Race in the United States (2006), provide rich insight into the racialization of the landscape, and give voice both to the pain of the geographically dispossessed and to the pride of community. As these chapters illustrate, racial and national identities are co-constituted in lived everyday landscapes. The collusion between racial and national identities and the exclusions on which they rely have proved difficult to surmount. In South Africa, attempts have been made to create revisionist but progressive accounts of national identity but, like the process of national reconciliation, they have been fraught with the racial legacy of apartheid (Barnett 1999; Hammett 2008). On another note, however, the overwhelming attention to racial issues in South Africa can mask the other forms of discrimination that existed under apartheid, such as the violent sexual politics that regulated peoples lives through oppressive marriage laws (Elder 1998).

As geographers have noted, fractious politics are especially apparent at the liminal margins of the nation state, at the borders that have long been seen as absolute and discrete external markers. In the West Bank and Gaza strip, the intensification of securitization at the borders is meant to exert just this: identity documents, population registries, and permit systems are used to regulate nationhood, both through associations of national belonging, and by using such processes of identification for deterritorialization and dispossession (Abu-Zahra 2008). But boundaries are constantly challenged and contested, contingent and socially produced (Tuathail 1996; Newman and Paasi 1998). The transformation of borders in North America under free trade is one such example. As Matthew Sparke delineates, a new transnational region of Cascadia has emerged between the US and Canada on the western coast (Sparke 2005). Cascadia was created to enhance cross-border trade and regional development, but it also helps legitimize regional political identities for the business class, who are eligible for pre-clearance programs that facilitate their mobility. Yet while the border appears to be more open, it is becoming more impermeable to those who are deemed risky subjects, who face increased measures of securitization (Gilbert 2007). This rescripting of the border is especially evident at the USMexico border, where undocumented migrants have become criminalized and transformed into illegal aliens by the US border initiative Operation Gatekeeper, which was launched directly in response to the expansion of free trade (Nevins 2002; Coleman 2005). And yet, the borders are still not entirely discrete. Despite the xenophobic political protest against Mexican labor in the US, the matrculas consulares, or consular IDs, issued by the Mexican government for nationals living abroad are more and more accepted as formal documentation in the US to register their bearers for financial or social services (Varsanyi 2007). Identities and forms of identification are thus pieced together in complex ways.

Global Identities

The matrculas consulares that Varsanyi examines are a telling example of the contemporary transnationalization of political identity, as the mobility of people across borders becomes more intensive and extensive under processes of globalization. As globalization unfolds apace, the essentialist premise that place is bounded and finite (and contained within the nation state) has been disassembled. Doreen Massey (1991) has suggested we consider a global sense of place, in that one site may bear the impress of multiple global networks of food, clothing, economies, place names, and so on. People perform their own identities out of this flux, knitting together their complex identities through these multiple experiences in place and across borders. More recently, Steven Flusty (2004) proposes a concept of complex and multiple “globalities” to capture the ways in which the global and the local are worked through in everyday spaces and practices. He attends to the pastiche of objects that circulate through space, especially urban spaces, and that help constitute identities as simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

Geographers thus challenge determinist, top-down approaches to globalization so as to disrupt the neat ordering of the world in terms of discrete global, national, regional, and local spheres, or simplistic dualisms of local and global (Herod and Wright 2002). Scale itself has been exposed as a social production, rooted in political economy approaches that blithely ignore the value of social reproduction and the body (Marston 2000). Because of the implicit hierarchy embedded in scalar concepts, there has even been an argument to abandon scale in favour of a “flat ontology” that examines complex relations in place (Marston et al. 2005). Both perspectives seek to engage with what Massey calls the “power geometry of time–space compression”; that is, the uneven constitution of identity along axes such as race and gender in the organization of the global. To this end, Cindi Katz has appealed for a “countertopography” of globalization that embraces an “oppositional politics” that sees across global sites to identify the simultaneity of oppressions and opportunities (Katz 2001).

Katz’s own research operates within a “countertopography.” She examines the impact of global economic restructuring on the community of Howa, Sudan, where the influx of development capital has restructured the agricultural economy and transformed community, familial, and gender relations. One aspect of this work is to understand what is taking place in Sudan alongside US restructuring and disinvestment in New York City, where the impact on securing social reproduction is also being felt. Similarly, Melissa Wright compares and contrasts labor practices at multinational factories in both Mexico and China (Wright 2006). Drawing on ethnographic research, she attends to the myths of disposability that frame women’s work and are used both to justify their relegation to unskilled labor and to legitimize their high turnover rates. At the same time, she identifies strategies of resistance, as in Chihuahua City, Mexico, where the Mujeres de Negro formed to raise attention to the spate of murders of young women in that city so that their lives are not so easily disposable. Rachel Silvey’s careful case study of two Indonesian communities illustrates the various ways in which constructions of gendered identity intersect with local and international discourses and affect the labor activism of the workers (Silvey 2003). In Jowo, where there is a much larger migratory population and many more single (unmarried) workers, there is a much stronger labor activism, compared to Sunda where women are firmly ensconced in family networks. Hence, while global economic restructuring is reshaping familial and social relations, the ways in which political identities are mobilized on the ground may differ significantly because of those very familial and social relations.

Rural to urban migration is an endemic feature of globalization, but so too is mobility across nation states, although in complicated ways (Cresswell 2006). As noted in the previous section, borders are loosening for some groups, particularly business travelers, and tightening for others. While affluent gays and lesbians are able to partake in sexual tourism because of their class privilege (Binnie 2004), they continue to face discriminatory practices with respect to full migration (Oswin 2008). Tourism itself is throwing up “resistant identities.” In Goa the locals have faced a double displacement because of international tourism: displacement from the beaches that have been colonized by resorts, and displaced in the articulation of a tourist-friendly concept of Goa (Routledge 2001). In response, activist groups have emerged to address the concerns of the affected communities, but they often exert a problematic, coherent Goan identity in their defense. Other groups move across borders to find work. The Canadian domestic worker program, for example, creates a system of quasi-indentured labor whereby employees are able to migrate on two-year contracts but are tied to a specific employer. In collaborative research with the Philippine Women Centre, Geraldine Pratt (2004) has highlighted the ongoing struggles of these women to articulate their rights, particularly around the work place given their marginal status. In Singapore, domestic workers are explicitly relegated to the domestic sphere, in contrast and opposition to new articulations of Singaporean national identity through the civic sphere (Yeoh and Huang 1999). In both these examples, domestic workers face a double marginalization with respect to gender and race.

Geographers have thus illustrated how global mobility creates a complicated landscape of social relations. In particular, immigrant communities whose lives straddle expansive geographies negotiate complex identities around landscape and home, past and present on a daily basis (Tolia-Kelly 2004). Claire Dwyer’s study of diasporic, young South Asian women in the UK reveals the paradoxes of multiple forms of belonging (Dwyer 1999). For the young women who adopt the veil, it becomes a visible marker of difference that constitutes them as outsiders among mainstream British youth. Yet interviews with these women also suggest a more nuanced account, whereby dress is used to negotiate alternative subjectivities, to challenge both mainstream perceptions of Muslim women, but also their own position within their diasporic communities. Transnational mobility thus may be constraining but may equally offer opportunities. Yet, Kathrayne Mitchell cautions against narratives of hybridity that celebrate mobile identities and evoke a limitless sense of opportunity (Mitchell 1997). As work in geography on asylum seekers and refugees insists, there are a great many people who are under pressure to move, or who endure forced mobility (Hyndman 2000; Mountz 2003). In their host countries, asylum seekers are often criminalized, and in the contemporary context analogies are drawn between refugees, criminals, and terrorists (Hyndman 2005). The implementation of offshore processing zones, so that potential migrants are processed or detained in spaces outside the country of application, reveals the way in which geography itself is being used to regulate mobility and to curtail the claims of mobile subjects (Hyndman and Mountz 2007).

Citizenship and the Public Sphere

Globalization and global mobility have raised important questions around citizenship, and the formal membership that exists between individuals and the political community, usually the nation state (see Painter and Philo 1995). All citizens are presumed to possess inalienable political, legal, and often social rights, which formalize the subject’s status vis-à-vis the state and constitute their identity through rights, responsibilities, and forms of belonging. Yet the aspiration to, and promises of, inclusiveness have been shown to be bankrupt. As feminist geographers have illustrated, even when formal status is secured, full citizenship has never been realized by much of the population (Kofman 1995). The longstanding divisions between public and private space continue to exclude women from civic participation because of their presumed association with the home and social reproduction (Kofman 1995). This model of public and private also reinscribes marginalization with respect to sexuality: the hetero-normative limits to marriage laws and the criminalization of some forms of sexual activity, for example sodomy, create a differentiated citizenship that impinges most directly on nonheterosexual citizens (Bell 1995; Valentine 2003b). There are also, as noted above, migrants whose formal status is vulnerable. Moreover, as geographers have illustrated in their work, there are persistent assumptions that even immigrants who achieve citizenship status can’t and won’t assimilate fully, a prejudice that lingers vis-à-vis Arab-Americans (Nagel and Staeheli 2005).

Citizenship ideals are being reconfigured by neoliberal objectives. Western educational discourses denote a shift between the promotion of tolerant, national citizens living in diverse societies, to neoliberal “global cosmopolitans” who are able to maximize diversity in strategic ways in the global arena (Mitchell 2003). The new model of citizenship embraces the entrepreneurial subject and manifests itself in global sites; the rise of a masculine, Islamic “yuppie” in Tehran speaks to this internationalization of Western citizenship ideals (Rouhani 2003). A sense of global citizenship may also be emergent in the political activism of diasporic networks, or international environmental activism (Desforges et al. 2005). The European Union offers one example where citizenship has been formally transnationalized, although as geographers have shown, regional citizenship has not replaced a sense of the national but exists alongside it (Ehrkamp and Leitner 2003; Kofman 2005). Geographers have thus sought to address the emergence of multiscalar citizenships among the proliferation of dual and multiple nationalities – new forms of belonging that echo with the global mobilities described above (Painter 2002).

Understanding citizenship as a multiscalar process, however, means also thinking about the local, and the situated practices through which citizenship is experienced every day. While geographers have largely focused on urban citizenship, there has been a resurgence in rural political activism around issues such as global economic restructuring and the impact on agriculture and land reform (Woods 2004:459). This engagement has emerged precisely in response to the rollback of state provisions associated with social citizenship (e.g., welfare, education, health) and the devolution of state responsibilities to the local. Neoliberal governing through community encourages local, active participation, for example through neighborhood watch programs, which are reshaping citizenship in terms of obligations rather than rights, and exhausting those same citizens in the burdens that they have to bear as a result of state offloading (Desforges et al. 2005; Herbert 2005). At the same time, as research on urban gentrification has illustrated, social space is being cleansed of obstacles to privatization and capitalist accumulation (Smith 1996). In Australia, urban development and sprawl have trampled over Aboriginal sacred and mundane spaces, while capitalizing on the legacy of Aborigeneity in projects of urban revitalization (Jacobs 1996). In the US, there have been widespread efforts to remove homeless populations from the public sphere, for whom protests are a crucial strategy for “practicing” democracy (Mitchell 2003:152). Don Mitchell examines the articulation of a “right to the city” in the protests at People’s Park, Berkeley, in response to the university and state’s reappropriation of the grounds and the expulsion of its more transient occupants.

Public space, Mitchell argues, is intrinsic to citizenship ideals: it is the site of interaction and engagement, where ideas of governance are debated and negotiated, where political identities are recognized and respected, and where citizens are able to engage directly in the politics of being ruled. Hence, achieving full citizenship requires that one be able to stake a claim to the public sphere, a point that geographers have made most explicitly vis-à-vis urban space. Michael Brown argues that public space in the city holds out the potential for radical forms of politics and the affirmation of political identity that push toward inclusiveness and recognition (Brown 1997). He illustrates how urban activism around HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, Canada gave a public dimension to the illness. Activist groups agitated for more widespread attention to the disease, while also providing much-needed health care that was not being provided by the state. But radical citizenship was also manifest in the ways in which mourning and grief, usually thought of as private emotions, were made public through the AIDS Memorial Quilt. For noncitizen populations, the claims to the public sphere may be especially important. In Germany, Turkish immigrants, who exist in limbo without status, take to the streets to make a space for their minority religious and ethnic identities, but also to demand voting rights (Ehrkamp and Leitner 2003); whereas in Turkey it is the Kurdish minority who stake claims to their right to the city of Istanbul, in response to the discrimination they face every day at school, at work, and in the neighborhood (Secor 2004). As Jennifer Ridgley has argued vis-à-vis the sanctuary city movement in the US, there are multiple instances where cities have been at the vanguard of providing progressive protections to their nonstatus populations, defending them against repressive and intrusive federal practices around racial profiling and information gathering (Ridgley 2008).

Thus the urban can be the site of progressive engagements with public space and articulations of citizenship. Nonetheless, David Bell and Jon Binnie suggest that the concept of citizenship be treated with ambivalence (Bell and Binnie 2000). They question the push toward expanding citizenship claims and rights-based inclusiveness, for example same-sex marriage, as a form of assimilation that dilutes other forms of transgressive social relations. They put forward the model of the dissident sexual citizen as a figure of critique: a transgressive figure who continually negotiates the tensions at the heart of citizenship’s demand for obedient subjects. This ambivalence toward citizenship is also captured in Deborah Cowen’s work on the soldier-citizen (Cowen 2008). She attends to the soldier as a central but exceptional figure to models of citizenship. The generative figure of the soldier looms in the post–World War II model of social security; the military benefits offered to recruit personnel for state service and sacrifice provided an archetype for the welfare state. Similarly, the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state and the shift to workfare regimes also draws on military models of making rights contingent on labor market participation. Thus, while soldiers may seem exceptional to citizenship – they are asked, and expected, to die for their country – they are also constitutive of liberal models of citizenship. This interpenetration demands that liberal models of citizenship be rethought.

War and Security

The broader point of Cowen’s discussion of military workfare is that warfare is not outside the realm of politics but is constitutive of it, and that there is a pressing need to “think war through peace” (Cowen 2008:257). Rethinking war and the political has become a pressing task of geographers, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. In The Colonial Present (2004), for example, Derek Gregory examines the deliberate imperial amnesia that constitutes the present; an amnesia made possible, in part, because of the longstanding colonial “othering” that pits a “progressive” West against an “immobile” Islam, and propels the conflicts in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan (Gregory 2004:58). For the US, it is only as a “banal terrorism” has proliferated in its cities, in the guise of soldiers on patrol, in camouflage but in plain view, that this blindness has lifted (Katz 2007). As Colin Flint so aptly notes, at around the same time as the terrorist attacks in the US between 3.1 and 4.7 million people died in Congo, with nothing like this same response (Flint 2004:3).

Since 9/11, nationalist discourses have been subject to persistent critique for their role in harnessing popular support for war, and for aligning populations with the interests of the state (Dijkink 2004). These are contemporary concerns but they have a historical lineage: fractious narratives of patriotism and solidarity are commonly used to constitute an enemy “other,” even within formerly cooperative communities, as in the former Yugoslavia (Dahlman 2004). The divisive othering may have imperial roots, as manifest in the struggles over claims to nationalism in Burundi and Rwanda, where the populations were differentiated hierarchically to facilitate colonial rule, a differentiation that helped exacerbate the violent ethnic conflict in the late twentieth century (Daley 2006). Eric Olund, drawing on Foucauldian analysis, argues that race and violence are co-constituted within the national body politic, and that race is a common form of classification used to divide the population into productive (and deserving) and unproductive (and undeserving) citizens (Olund 2007). At times of war, racial hysteria erupts, whether with reference to the anti-German attitudes of World War I, or to the anti-Muslim or anti-Islam attitudes of the “war on terror.”

Jasbir Puar (2007) uses a parallel frame of biopolitics to interrogate both the racial and sexual differentiations mobilized by the contemporary US war machine. Islamic terrorists, for example, are cast as homophobic – and then, at Abu Ghraib, emasculated; but there are also examples of queer organizing around antiterrorism that perpetuates the simplistic differentiation between a more open and liberated West, and repressive Islam. The affirmation of the heteronormative nuclear family, and its elision with nation and nationalism, also contributes to the production of sexualized security narratives (Cowen and Gilbert 2008). Lorraine Dowler’s examination of women’s resistance, past and present, moves beyond the usual associations of women as either war victims or icons, but she also illustrates that this resistance is persistently scripted in terms of conventional exclusionary gender narratives (Dowler 2004; see also Mayer 2008). Narratives of masculinity are also pernicious at war time, as associations are forged between militarism, weapons, virility, and manliness. Thus US foreign and domestic policies after 9/11 draw heavily on masculine narratives of the “showdown” and even portray the President growing into manhood after the terrorist attacks (Hannah 2005). Drawing significantly on the work of international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe, in their research geographers have sought to subvert the normalizing gendered narratives that are used to legitimize war.

Religious identity is a crucial attribute in contemporary conflict, although geographers have infrequently addressed this issue (Stump 2004). Michael Watts argues for an interpretation of Revolutionary Islam as a form of anti-imperial political ideology that has arisen in response to the oppressive forces of Western economics – and in this sense has parallels with antiglobalization activism – while it also challenges Western secularism (Watts 2007). In a different vein, Rupal Oza illustrates how religious nationalism has been maneuvered by the right-wing Hindutva party in India, who have pushed forward their agenda through successive waves of spatial occupation that have led to the brutal dispossession of the Muslim population (Oza 2007). These geographers seek to ground otherworldly battles of good and evil in terms of their political-geographic reality of cultural and economic domination (Flint 2004; see also Gregory 2004). Bodies are thus fully implicated in war. Marcus Power’s discussion of the struggles that war veterans in Angola and Mozambique face over disability rights provides insight into the intimate impact on war casualties, but also the conflictual dynamics of Western rights-bearing discourses of citizenship within an African context (Power 2008).

Securitization has become pervasive thanks to a globalized discourse of fear (Pain forthcoming). As Merge Kuus writes of Estonia, debates around European integration have been framed in terms of security discourse whereby threats to ethnic, national identity are mobilized both with respect to a European Estonia and a non-European Russia (Kuus 2002). Borders are increasingly securitized by the use of biometrics that sort populations not in terms of prior culpability, but through risk profiling to determine what risks a person might pose in the future (Amoore 2006). The application of risk profiling is expansive, and is even applied to financial transactions where the remittances of migrants and students, particularly those of Muslim descent, are targeted as suspect (Amoore and de Goede 2005; Atia 2007). Urban spaces are becoming littered with security technologies such as CCTV cameras, blurring the boundaries between public and private spaces, but also, as above, using strategies of risk profiling and targeting to monitor behavior (Introna and Wood 2004). These surveillance technologies are designed around normative bodies, against which any deviations are rendered suspect. Western urban bodies are thus increasingly under vigilance. But at the same time, the recasting of Western war in terms of targeted urban warfare on the Global South renders its populations invisible (as collateral damage), precisely as these people become more vulnerable to the US war machine (Graham 2008).

Geographers have taken up Georgio Agamben’s “spaces of exception” with great gusto. Spaces of exception are those places where the “other” – the homo sacer – has been incorporated, but only because of the suspension of the juridical order by the sovereign power, and the effective abandonment of the exception. The concentration camp is emblematic of such a liminal space, as it is neither inside nor outside the rule of law. Gregory examines the global prison spaces of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib in this light; the expansion and contraction of sovereignty on the bodies abandoned within, and the violence that this makes possible (Gregory 2007). But Gregory pushes Agamben’s analysis further to situate his theoretical concept within grounded accounts of imperial violence, past and present. Other geographers have sought to illustrate that spaces of exception are not only generated in exceptional spaces, at exceptional times of war, but are manifest in the everyday at all times (Minca 2006). Although the ubiquitous application of “spaces of exception” is much debated, it has been helpfully used to illustrate how spaces are inflected with racial and gender power relations. It is to this end that Gerry Pratt examines the ways in which the lives of two groups of racialized women – Philippine domestic workers and the women of downtown Eastside in Vancouver, Canada – are legally abandoned by the state and rendered invisible (Pratt 2005). Pratt narrates the stories of these women precisely to bring them into view, to bear collective witness to our neglect of them.

Political Identity and the University

Political identity has thus been a crucial issue addressed by geographers, who have refracted many of the political issues that are raised back onto the discipline. There has been growing attention to the political identities of academics themselves: their pervasive whiteness and heteronormativity, entrenched in middle-class politics (see the special issue of The Professional Geographer edited by Schein 2002). The work resonates with a concern about forms of knowledge production, and the dominance of Anglo-American geography, with respect to language (Paasi 2005) and, further to this, to the ways in which language frames research questions and rationales (Mamadouh 2003). As others have illustrated, in the widespread push to publish in so-called international journals, knowledge from elsewhere is deemed parochial, while Anglo-American experience is generalized and made universal (Robinson 2003). Some effort has begun to be made to address these biases. The International Critical Geography group deliberately holds its conferences outside the Anglo-American center and encourages international participation. In the realm of publishing, one of the mandates of new journals such as ACME and Human Geography is to open a space for geographers outside of the Anglo-American nexus to be heard, while also providing a publishing venue that exists without corporate sponsorship and, in the case of ACME, offering open access to content.

These concerns about knowledge production exist alongside a critique of the corporatization of the university (Antipode special issue 32 (3), 2000). This includes critical reflection on the labor market in which academics toil: the overtime work expected of permanent faculty, the rise of casual and contract labor who are bearing the brunt of teaching responsibilities, and the increasing demands on graduate students (Wills 1996; Freeman 2000; Laoire and Shelton 2003). A significant amount of frustration is also directed toward publishing houses that exploit academic labor: work is unpaid, but copyrights are out of the hands of authors (Bauder and Engel-Di Mauro 2008). Some of these concerns reared their head as geographers joined the protest against the publisher Reed Elsevier, which is a participant, through one of its subsidiary companies, in the global arms trade (Chatterton and Featherstone 2007). When the Royal Geographical Society sought to merge with the Institute of British Geographers in the mid-1990s, hackles were also raised. With the merger, the IBG assumed the RGS’s corporate sponsors, including Shell Petroleum, which was heavily invested in oil extraction in Nigeria and was targeted by environmental activists for its exploitation of both the environment and the local peoples. As many geographers argued, the new links between RGS and Shell compromised the academic integrity of the organization, but also demonstrated a studied ignorance of environmental and social issues outside the UK (Gbadegesin 1995).

In the face of the neoliberalization of the university, hard questions are being raised about whether academics can use their status as scholars to push forward public debate and policy making (Peck 1999; Mitchell 2008). How to negotiate one’s own activism with academic research agendas continues to be a pressing issue, as many of the studies mentioned above (and many others) address (e.g., Brown 1997; Gleeson 1999; Routledge 2001; Pratt 2004; Gilmore 2007; Koopman 2008). Given the corporatization of the university, geographers face some of these dilemmas on their own campuses; Rachel Silvey describes her own complicated positionality during an antisweatshop campaign at her university (Silvey 2002). Others are deliberately seeking to reinvigorate their teaching by incorporating their activist interests, and in so doing to bring questions of autonomy and political identity to the fore in the classroom to build toward transformative and participatory politics (Chatterton 2008). This demands a more political and politicized engagement in teaching and in fieldwork, whereby academics trouble the distinctions between researcher and research subjects to open up new forms of knowledge production, and to problematize the role of academics in these processes (Katz 1994; Nairn 2004). As posthumanism gains ground in the discipline, and the differentiation between the human and the nonhuman becomes increasingly blurred, no doubt further questions regarding political identity and knowledge production will rear their heads (Castree and Nash 2006). This work portends a significant impinging on the geographical challenges to the coherence of the liberal subject.


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Thank you to Colin Flint and two anonymous reviewers who provided very perceptive and constructive feedback, and have helped me to sharpen my arguments.