Critical geography is one variant of critical social science and the humanities that adopts Marx’s thesis to interpret and change the world. Fay (1987) defines contemporary critical science as the effort to understand oppression in a society and use this understanding to promote societal change and liberation. Agger (1998) identifies a number of features of critical social theory practiced in fields like geography, which include: a rejection of positivism; an endorsement of the possibility of progress; a claim for the structural dynamics of domination; an argument that dominance is derived from forms of false consciousness, ideology, and myth; a faith in the agency of everyday change and self-transformation and an attendant rejection of determinism; and a rejection of revolutionary expediency.
Critical geography in the Anglo-American world rooted in the radical geography that emerged in the early 1970s. Peet (2000) provides an overview of the evolution of radical and critical geography. In the early 1970s, radical geographers tried to transform the scope of the discipline of geography by responding to the great issues of the time: civil rights, environmental pollution, and war. The mid- to late-1970s saw ascending critiques of the quantitative revolution and the adoption of Marxist approach. The 1980s were marked by fissures between humanistic, feminist and Marxist streams, and a reversal of structural excess. In the late 1980s, critical geography emerged and gradually became a self-identified field.
Although closely related, critical geography and radical geography are not interchangeable. Critical geography has two crucial departures from radical geography: (1) a rejection of the structural excess of Marxism, in accordance with the post-modern turn; and (2) an increasing interest in culture and representation, in contrast to radical geography’s focus on the economy. Peet (2000) notices a rapprochement between critical and radical geography after heated debate in the 1990s. Nevertheless, Castree (2000) posits that critical and radical geography entail different commitments. He contends that the eclipse of radical geography indicates the professionalization and academicization of Left geography, and therefore worries about the loss of the "radical" tradition.
As a consequence of the post-modern turn, critical geography doesn’t have a unified commitment. Hubbard, Kitchin, Bartley, and Fuller (2002) asserts that critical geography has a diverse epistemology, ontology, and methodology, and does not have a distinctive theoretical identity. Nonetheless, Blomley (2006) identifies six common themes of critical geography, encompassing:
An emphasis on representation as a means of domination and resistance. A common focus of critical geography is to study how representations of space sustain power; or on the contrary, how representations of space can be used to challenge power.
An optimistic faith in the power of critical scholarship. Critical geographers believe that scholarship can be used to resist dominant representations, and that scholars can undo said domination and help free the oppressed. There exists an implicit confidence in the power of critical scholarship to reach the uninformed, and in the capacities of people to defeat alienation by means of reflexive self-education.
A commitment to progressive practices. Critical geographers want to make a difference through praxis. They claim to be united with social movements and activists with commitments to social justice. The actual relationship between critical geography and activism has been much debated.
An understanding of space as a critical tool. Critical geographers pay special attention to how spatial arrangements and representations can be used to produce oppression and inequality. Critical geographers identify to varying degrees how space can be used as both a veil and tool of power.
A few important questions remain unsolved in critical geography. The first one is that there has been relatively limited discussion over the shared commitments of critical geographers, with a few exceptions such as Harvey (2000). The question such as "what are geographers critical of", and "to what end" needs to be answered. Barnes (2002) comments that critical geographers are better at providing explanatory diagnoses than offering anticipatory-utopian imaginations to reconfigure the world.
The second question concerns the institutionalization of critical geography. Even though critical geographers conceive themselves as rebels and outsiders, critical thinking has become prevalent in geography. Critical geography is now situated at the very heart of the discipline of geography. Some see institutionalization as a natural result of the analytical strength and insights of critical geography, while others fear that institutionalization has entailed cooptation. The question is whether critical geography still holds its commitment to political change.
Lastly, as critical geography is practiced across the world, the insights of critical geographers outside the Anglophone world should be better acknowledged. In this regard, Mizuoka et al. (2005) offered an overview of Japanese critical geography praxis since the 1920s. In addition, critical geography should also forge stronger linkage with critical scholars in other disciplines.
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^Harvey, David (2000). Spaces of Hope. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520225787.
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^Mizuoka, Fujio; Mizuuchi, Toshio; Hisatake, Tetsuya; Tsutsumi, Kenji; Fujita, Tetsushi (2005). "The Critical Heritage of Japanese Geography: Its Tortured Trajectory for Eight Decades". Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 23 (3): 453–473. doi:10.1068/d2204r. S2CID 140725013.
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Peet, Richard (2000). "Celebrating Thirty Years of Radical Geography". Environment and Planning A. 32 (6): 951–953. doi:10.1068/a32202.
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