Anthony Giddens and Human Geography

It is forty years since the publication of Anthony Giddens’ Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. It was the culmination of a body of work, by a sociologist, that a number of geographers found more than simply of interest. He was very visible indeed. He was a member of the editorial board of Society and Space when it was formed in 1983. He had a chapter in a significant collection edited by Derek Gregory and John Urry (Social Relations and Spatial Structure) and is cited prolifically by other contributors. Of the fifteen chapters in the book, ten make reference to his work (excluding Giddens himself in his chapter) for a total of thirty-two references altogether and Giddens is the most cited of anyone; Gregory alone made eleven of them. This contrasts with references to Marx whose works are cited a total of twenty-eight times in seven of the fifteen chapters; but twelve of these are in Harvey’s chapter and ten in Richard Walker’s. His work was an object of interest for some prominent names. In his book Postmodern Geographies, Soja devotes a whole chapter to him. Derek Gregory was equally fascinated and published a number of articles that drew on Giddens’ work, albeit in a constructively critical vein. Yet today, I suspect, many human geographers would wonder who he was and why he might have been important to the field at one time. He was the flavor of the day in the early 80s, but now his name has almost entirely vanished from the published work in human geography. So exactly what happened?

His contribution was certainly of the time. It was an example of a social scientist other than a human geographer attempting to show how social relations were necessarily spatial relations. If geographers remember little about his book they will certainly recall his emphasis on what he called time-space distanciation. As such it was part of a broader set of contributions along similar spatializing lines, including Frank and Wallerstein, though with less explicit focus on the global. This broader messaging was then underpinned by his adoption of the work of Hägerstrand: notably time geography.

Aside from time-space distanciation he might also be remembered for his contribution to resolving the agency-structure in human geography. The emergence of Marxist geography earlier in the 70s had led to a rebuttal from an equally emergent, if reactive, humanistic geography. The latter underlined the irreducible nature of the individual in contrast to the social structurings that were attributed to Marxism. This then came to something of a head in a paper by Duncan and Ley in the Annals (1982: 30-59.) that was sharply critical of what geographers had made of Marx hitherto: “Structural Marxism and Human Geography: A Critical Assessment.” According to this, Marxism gave short shrift to the claims of agency. Regardless of whether they were correct in their claims, Giddens seemed to provide a resolution of the opposition through what he called ‘the duality of structure’: people were certainly structured in their actions, but through their actions or as he called them, ‘practices’, they not only reproduced those structures, they might also, in virtue of their agency, transform them: so a world of unacknowledged conditions and unintended consequences. One should add that, for a reader of Marx, this seemed hardly novel. As David Harvey claimed at the time: “ … I see absolutely no point in discarding the fundamental Marxist conception, that people – both individually and collectively – make their own history, but that they do so under material conditions that are given not made by them, in favor of some looser and vaguer language of, say, agency and structure, however safer, because politically innocuous the latter might be” (Society and Space: 1987: 367-368.)

We should also recognize that part of Giddens’ significance was, indeed, to reinforce, provide some theoretical cohesion, to worries among some human geographers about Marxism and human geography. It was not just the structure-agency thing, fabricated as it might well have been, it was also a view that the Marxist geographers had not gone much beyond Marx to talk about geography; rather there was a view that Marxist geography was reductive, reading space off from the compulsions and possibilities of the capitalist form of development. This would be the background to the formation of the journal Society and Space,[1] and as I remarked, Giddens would be on the editorial board.

But today, hardly any human geographers refer to the work of Giddens, whether the Contemporary Critique or other of his work of that time which gained expression there. As far as the structure/agency question is concerned, it might be that his synthesis has simply been absorbed into human geography research and not worthy of citation as such. I would suggest, though, that there are more fundamental reasons.

First there is the typological character of Contemporary Critique: to make his revisionist claims with respect to historical materialism, he introduces various distinctions and alas, an over-abundance of them, and typically ones that are entirely novel and have to be assimilated by the reader: so system integration / social integration / societal integration; allocative resources / authoritative resources; class-divided / class societies. Then there are the stand-alone concepts like ‘time-space edges’ , ‘storage capacity’, ‘episodes’, ‘locales’, ‘regionalization of locales.’ It sounds very abstract and much of it was; which then made it quite limiting in the conduct of empirical research where you struggle to find citations.

A further disabling comes from the fact that he develops his claims as universals: as applying to all forms of social life throughout history, even while he acknowledges that how they are expressed might vary over time, and in fact in Contemporary Critique, he does give quite a bit of attention to how things work out under capitalism and in contrast to earlier ‘class-divided’ societies. But it is all a bit too fragmented, and how things hold together in a more integrated fashion proves elusive. Sometimes one has the impression that the historically received facts do not fit that comfortably with some of his concepts, and the argument can even strike one as ad hoc.

In a paper of 1987 (Society and Space: 73-91), Nicky Gregson tried to make sense of the problems of drawing on his arguments in empirical work by comparing Giddens framework – what he called ‘structuration theory’ – with critical realism. Critical realism recognizes levels of abstraction and this allows for a narrowing down on the concrete by moving from the more abstract to the so: so, for example, from Marx’s general conditions of production, through capitalism, to various forms of regulation, to fordism in a particular country. Giddens’ arguments are resistant to this sort of approach because of the way he abstracts the world to begin with: more a matter of generalizations than attention to the way in which the various concepts he presents cohere in a structure of relations.

To some extent his work was superseded. At the time he was writing, human geographers, spurred on by what they saw as the neglect of questions of space by the Marxists, saw him as providing some insight. But it was a highly abstract insight, and Harvey’s Limits to Capital would point in a direction more useful from the standpoint of empirical research. Sometimes Giddens just did not develop his points better with respect to the concrete. His idea of change through contact at time-space edges is very similar to Massey’s time-space juxtapositions but Massey’s empirical work underlined how important they could be. If Giddens’ record of concrete research had been more extensive, things might have been different. It is also the case that human geography no longer needs the recognition of the other human sciences. With its, often fertile, embrace of social theory, it has grown hugely in self-confidence. It is now legit in a way that it never was sixty years ago ( .)

There are other aspects of his Critique that one could take exception to. There is an implicit pluralism, that some will want to reject. It is, though, the way his work disappeared from sight that is most impressive. Human geography is certainly amnesic but there can be different reasons for that.

[1] Now Environment and Space D: Society and Space.

3 thoughts on “Anthony Giddens and Human Geography

  1. Giddens is certainly a voice from the past but one that never resonated with my research, or that of the spatial science (GIS) focus within geography/regional science. You tell a nice story and the revisit is a nostalgic reminder of geography in the 1980s.



  2. Thanks a lot for your interesting discussion, as you argued, Giddens’s interaction with the spatial, has been directed towards the ways in which social systems are situated in space and time in terms of structuration theory and with a dialogue with time geography. In general, Giddens emphasizes the constitutive agency of space and time in contextualizing social life and social institutions. For our present condition, he also argues, locales are to be seen as thoroughly penetrated by and shaped in terms of social influence quite distant from them. What structures the locale is not simply that which is present on the scene; the visible form of the locale conceals the distanciated relations which determine its nature. In this respect, Giddens’s argument is so similar to Doreen Massey’s argument, and of course, Kevin Cox himself.

    However, as I understand, one of the major reasons that can show why Giddens’s name has almost entirely vanished from the published work in human geography has been rooted in growing the post-structuralist discourse in human geography. Indeed, Post-structuralism has presented itself in human geography as a view beyond the intra-structural debates as well as a kind of pessimistic approach to the structures argument.


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