Moritz Albrecht: Thoughts about the place of social theory focused science in society, or: what happens if asked to write a blog without a fixed topic!
When I decided to study Geography more than a decade ago, some of my good friends from my German high school remarked with a grin and in relation to my future after University: “welcome to the unemployment office”; they themselves choosing educational pathways related to business studies. This expression of distrust into the practicability and purposefulness of a subject for society, and I am rather sure they would have expressed a similar opinion had I chosen to study history, to my understanding arises a series of challenges not only for a department such as HiMa but also for students, researchers and scholars of Geography, History and Environmental Policy in general. Whereby at least for the latter, to the sake of our department, large parts of the public see a need and purpose, despite their lack of understanding about the sociological aspects of the subject.
While I am no expert about the scientific fields of history I will confine the reminder of this short comment towards some thoughts about the challenges for human geography, and thereby specifically to critical geography which I consider my personal scientific playground.
With time passing by I was continuously challenged by these initial comments from my friends and what they meant to my subject in a wider sense. On the one hand it pleased me to waive those aside as unqualified comments of ignorant, philistine neoliberal yuppies on the other hand I was aware that they maybe were yuppies, but not that ignorant and philistine and that such comments did not appear out of nothing but derived from wider conceptions about what geography is. I more and more came to turns that there is a certain problem with what ideas and perceptions our subject is connected to, particularly in the public realm! I see it embedded in a struggle for what is deemed to be of purpose and practicable for our society; and honestly speaking, human geography concurrently isn’t ranked too high.
Now it can be argued: but we have very applied methods such as geospatial analysis with geo-information systems (GIS), high level statistical analysis and methodology which creates valuable models to map and measure society and trains students towards valued and prosperous job opportunities. True that, and sadly speaking that has been probably a reason to keep the paint on the walls of the frumpy geography mansion (yes I do believe it’s not only a normal house). I should point out that by saying sadly, I by no means want to discredit the vast and valuable possibilities which lay within these approaches, but my personal feeling that geography seems to become reduced to such approaches.
In my work as a researcher I feel this transition specifically in several ways and I’m amazed by certain parallels to the “spatial turn” in the 1960’s, as had been highlighted by geographer Neil Smith. First, application calls and meetings by big funding bodies are often like a slap in the face for the humanities and social theoretic work. There is a big talk of multidisciplinary approaches and everyone is ought to be included but when reading the calls, if on national level or EU level a clear economic and quantifiable approach is favored. Demand for qualitative social sciences or humanities? Yes, if it creates a company or business/policy model! Thanks for the information! Second, talking to other (self-acclaimed “natural”) scientists or practitioners, the purpose of such qualitative, theory developing studies is often questioned or even considered a waste of time and money.
So what kind of point do I try to establish with this blog, except whining around how bad everything is and that no one, specifically outside of social scientific academia itself, respects my or our scientific endeavor? Actually I’m not that sure about that myself. I guess to a large degree we might pick at our own nose because, shouldn’t we know how governance processes are reproduced? Qualitative social scientists such as most critical geographers study and unfold complex relations of knowledge production and distribution, unravel how by such means decisions are framed and spatialities reworked and thereby forward an understanding of the complexities of society. So we should also know how to influence, by which means and through which governmental technologies, the various actors in society now deemed responsible for our claimed demise. But still, quantitative, natural “fact” driven approaches seem on the rise again and prone to remediate the gains achieved within the so called cultural turn. To express it in an exaggerated fashion, is it because “fact” driven, straight forward applicable solutions suit better to mobilize the masses? Probably yes! But I also see it in something what has been termed “simulative democracy” (Blühdorn 2013). Thus, political means to formulate or accept a problem, for instance climate change, and by providing technological innovations, policy aims (number based, e.g. 202020 target of EU renewable energy) and widely agreed pathways (change to sustainable production based on their definitions) to solve the problem without actively opening up and challenging the current system (need to grow, energy intensive society,…) itself. To some degree I see this to lead to a growing lack of interest in the philosophical understanding of our society. One of humanities and social sciences most enriching strengths to my opinion!
But, before I loose myself in these complexities I try to come back where I started. How do we might accept and eventually tackle such challenges, if at all? Should we get more involved, maybe change to become more applied? Should we use our knowledge about societal processes to actively influence society or lobby funding bodies? That’s at least not my understanding of the tasks of a social scientist. Or can we afford to wait until time heals all our wounds and we will be fashionable again, since everyone knows that tastes are changing! I don’t have a straightforward answer to these question myself which makes these a constant challenge for my subject, for my personal career choices but to my understanding also for our students which dare to choose such subjects as their destiny. Which, despite the mentioned aspects, I see as a very challenging and highly personal rewarding (not monetary) choice. Further, while colleagues involved in GIS might feel less affected by these trends we must remind ourselves that we still live in the same house (or mansion) and would do better to join forces than to get lost in turf quarrels. This similarly accounts for our neighboring subjects (e.g. within HiMa, the University), if only from a student’s perspective to increase hers or his intellectual understanding, or from a departmental perspective like HiMa and its staff. As we social scientists should know best, no one owns power nor has a monopoly for the truth so shouldn’t it be in everyone’s interest to combine all the” truth” and scientific power we can generate to make our voice heard instead to argue in a rather childish fashion about the superiority and length of our methodological tools and approaches. You may answer this question yourselves.
As to my understanding, and this is an aspect I like to remind our students off (I’m not sure if I have been too good in actually doing so!), an integrated geography while necessarily applied and rather quantitative in some aspects, requires a strong philosophical substance if we want to remain open to address real challenges confronting our society in the long run. Else, we can just distribute some geographical skills and methodology to keep the current simulation running which, and we should know better also from our partners in history, is often to sustain the unsustainability of society (e.g. Blühdorn 2013). To make ends meet, and to return to my introductory example about the unemployment office. If you are afraid of this, I might recommend studying engineering or the more applied side of our subject (e.g. GIS), but if you’re really interested in the complex processes and social understanding of our space and society, don’t be afraid and join the ride. I certainly do enjoy it without regret that I made the decision 10 years ago and in my consequent move towards a social theory focused geography later on. I’m also positive that there will always be a need for philosophical based theorizing in geography and society aside ups and downs in funding calls specifically if combined with new geographical technologies. But let’s see who, at the end of my University time has the last laugh, I, or my friends, or maybe we laugh all together in the unemployment office after another economical or environmental crisis!
Blühdorn, I. (2013). The governance of unsustainability: ecology and democracy after the post-democratic turn. Environmental Politics, 22(1): 16-36.