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 that political identities are constituted in and through spaces and places at various sites and scales. Many geographers attend to how power gets articulated, who gets marginalized, and what this means for social justice. Poststructuralist theory problematized the fundamental premise that the literal subject is resolutely individual, autonomous, transparent, and all knowing. Feminist and critical race scholars have also insisted that the self is socially embedded and intersubjective, but also that research needs to be embodied. There are four prominent and inherently political themes of analysis in contemporary geographical research that resonate with contemporary events: nation states and nationalism; mobility and global identities; citizenship and the public sphere; and war and security. Geographers have critically examined the production and reproduction of national identity, especially salient with the rise of authoritarianism. 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 and belonging. 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 that 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.
Geographers have been fascinated with the ways that political identities are constituted in and through space and place. Early interest in this area mirrored conventional geopolitical analyses of territory and states, in that research focused on national identity. While nation-state and national identities continue to matter, geographical research no longer presumes their centrality, but rather attends to how identities are spatially constituted at different scales and different sites, and with respect to contemporary phenomena such as citizenship, migration, incarceration, and war. (Massey, 2005). The decentering of the nation-state and attention to other forms of political identity have been informed by geography’s engagement with poststructuralist theories, which show how identity is produced and reproduced in and through space. This article begins with a broad overview of the work on geographies of political identity and draws attention to significant theoretical influences. It then highlights four prominent and inherently political themes of analysis: nation states and nationalism; mobility and global identities; citizenship and the public sphere; and war and security. These themes are not exclusive, but rather the issues are overlapping. The thematic approach, however, points to the breadth of geographical research and illustrates the importance of spatially sensitive investigations to the study of political identity. It also highlights the concern that geographers have had both with power, marginalization, and social justice (e.g., Harvey, 1997; Sibley, 1995; Smith, 1994). A final section briefly 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 20th 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’s structuration theory, which sought to articulate a role for both agency and structure within the social system. Louis Althusser’s 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, critical race, and postcolonial theories, which underscored the politics of identity formation in ways that resonated with the social justice movements of the 1960s. 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 Foucault’s 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 (Foucault, 1977), he examined 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 drew significantly on Foucault’s 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. Other research in geography has focused on social formations that create marginalization, for example along class lines (Duncan & Duncan, 2003; Gibson-Graham, Resnick, & Wolff, 2000; Lawson & Elwood, 2018). 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 & 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 & Seager, 2005, p. 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 thus recognize the centrality of women’s subjectivity. Others, however, have problematized the very constitution of gender categories. In her highly influential book Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler argued that gender is a performance: identities are constantly iterated through routinized acts and, hence, are always in negotiation and liable to disruption. Butler’s arguments have been crucial to unfolding debates in geography on the politics of identity, debates that have themselves been crucial to the opening up of questions around subject formation (Katz, 1994).
Butler’s concept of performativity has also 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 that gay, lesbian, and transgendered bodies challenge and disrupt normative social and spatial identities (Bell & 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 (Elder, 1998; Knopp, 1992; Nash, 2006; Valentine, 2003b). Yet, as Natalie Oswin (2008) argued, 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 suggests there is a need to move away from queer subjects to “consider the construction of normative and non-normative identities and practices” (Oswin, 2008, p. 97; see also Browne, 2006).
Research on geographies of gender and sexuality has emphasized the importance of embodied research, with reference to Donna Haraway’s 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 (Cope, 2004; Kofman & Peake, 1990). As new forms of politics have 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 & 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 & Jackson, 1993). So too, the postcolonial critiques by writers including Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, 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 & Blunt, 2004).
Questions of political identity have come to the fore in works from indigenous scholars, whose critiques point to the limits of political recognition from settler states. The work of geographers has been greatly informed by that of scholars outside the field. The work of Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang (2012) has pushed scholars to think beyond decolonization as a metaphor, and instead to address indigenous relationships to the land. In this vein, Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks (2014) offers an emancipatory framework of “self-recognition” that moves beyond the nation state in returning to place-based cultural and economic practices. Place-based ontologies are similarly central to geographer Michelle Daigle’s (2016) call for claims of indigenous self-determination that do not depend on the colonial spatial-legal identities and territorial imaginings of recognition-based strategies. geographical research is also turning to the alliance of indigenous and nonindigenous people of color in their efforts to dismantle settler colonialism (Pulido, 2018).
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 that seeps into contemporary social formations. The violence of slavery and segregation still frames the experiences of racialized populations across local, national, and global scales (McKittrick, 2006; McKittrick & Woods, 2007) and entangles in new ways with technologies of surveillance and control (Browne, 2015). Ruth Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007) documents the racial politics of the rapid rise of incarceration in the United States and the forms of state-sponsored “vulnerability to premature death.” 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. Rashad Shabazz (2015) examined how architectures of confinement extend beyond the prison walls, for example through housing, in ways that have spatialized blackness in Chicago across the 20th century, while other geographers have examined urban racial formations in other cities such as Durban (Chari, 2010) and Halifax (Rutland, 2018). Other work has illuminated the structural challenges facing environmental justice initiatives that seek state protection for vulnerable racialized populations (Mollett, 2014; Pulido, 2018). A common theme for critical geographers is the moral imperative to consider that, as Smith and Vasudevan write, “political life is figured as a battle for a particular kind of future,” (Smith & Vasudevan, 2017, p. 211). This attention to futurity is manifest in the work of geographers on black place making and the claims to alternative futures through fugitive and subversive politics that center a Black sense of place (Eaves, 2017; Hunter, Pattillo, Robinson, & Taylor, 2016; McKittrick, 2013).
Understanding race and intersectionality, as well as more nuanced understandings of race such as mixed-race identities, has been another avenue of research (e.g., Bonds & Inwood, 2016; Crenshaw, 1991; Mahtani, 2002). 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 & 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, p. 1). This work on disability has helped to undermine singular conceptions of health and normalcy by identifying the body’s historic and geographic 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 & Keith, 1997; Sharp, Routledge, Philo, & Paddison, 2000).
Geographic research on political identity has thus made a significant contribution to understanding the multiple axes along which identity is constituted and how these identities are produced and reproduced in and through space. Particular attention has been addressed to processes of marginalization and oppression, and to how 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 catalogs more and more forms of subordination so that the categories of liberal inclusion can be expanded. Instead, 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. Research on the increasingly blurred differentiation between the human and the nonhuman is taking this research in new directions, provoking further questions on political identity and knowledge production (Castree & Nash, 2006). However, as Puar (2017) reminded us, we must analyze how those considered subhuman or inhuman are elided in posthumanist approaches that all too often view the posthuman as an idealized humanness. The remainder of this article takes up these nuanced understandings of identity and shows how geographers not only draw upon them, but also attends to how they are constituted in and through spaces and places and with what effects. The focus is on four key themes that have emerged in geographical research that reflect some of the most pressing concerns of the moment: nation-states and nationalism; mobility and global identities; citizenship and the public sphere;; and war and security.
Nation States and Nationalism
As noted, 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 to attend to the spatial tactics that 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.
Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities of national belonging has been crucial to this analysis, as too has Edward Said’s critique of the ways that national narratives inevitably constitute the Other or outsider, as with his analysis of Orientalism. Along these lines, Joanne Sharp has interrogated the popular U.S. magazine Reader’s Digest, for example, which projected a double discourse of Soviet expansionism that needed to be stopped and U.S. vulnerability that helped to coalesce national narratives (Sharp, 2000). Other geographers have focused on the role of representations of landscape in national narratives, such as in the visual arts (Daniels, 1994), and on how rural landscapes and ideas of nature have been harnessed to nation-building projects (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 & 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-à-vis the nation state are articulated (Harvey, 1979; Johnson, 1999; Kong & Yeoh, 2003; Osborne, 1998). Thus, while geographers interrogate national narratives, they also show—drawing upon poststructuralist theory—how these discourses are contested and partial.
Beyond representation, geographers have 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). Scientific exploration, surveys, map-making, and census data have 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, etc. (Driver, 2000; 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 map’s supplemental materials such as the legend (Harley, 2001). Geographers have also sought to pry open these practices. Mapping, for example, as with most of these techniques of the state, has 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.
Post-structural theory draws attention to the plural axes through which identity is articulated, and has been used to destabilize coherent national narratives. 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-à-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 Schein’s 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 address racial issues in South Africa can mask the other forms of discrimination that existed under apartheid, such as the violent sexual politics that regulated people’s lives through oppressive marriage laws (Elder, 1998).
The 21st century has seen an upsurge in nationalism, xenophobia, and outright racism, in electoral politics, extremist groups, and public discourse. Rupal Oza, for example, illustrated 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). With a focus on India, geographers are beginning to grapple with these racist articulations in Europe, especially with responses to the so-called “refugee crisis,” the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States (Araujo et al., 2017; Burrell et al., 2018; Crane & Grove, 2018). As these contributions insist, the fault lines long preexist the contemporary moment but have been accentuated at a time of stark economic inequalities and austerity measures, and brutal domestic and transnational violence.
Mobility and Global Identities
Just as geographers have examined the plurality of identities within national narratives, so too have they addressed how globalization has reconfigured identity. As globalization unfolds apace, the essentialist premise that place is bounded and finite (and contained within the nation state) and that identity maps on to national territory 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, etc. People perform their own identities out of this flux, knitting together their complex identities through these multiple experiences in place and across borders.
Drawing upon poststructuralist theory, geographers 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 & 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 favor of a “flat ontology” that examines complex relations in place (Marston, Jones, & Woodward, 2005). Both perspectives seek to engage with what Massey calls the “power geometry of time–space compression” (Massey, 1991, p. 24); 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, p. 1228).
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 U.S. restructuring and disinvestment in New York City, where the impact on securing social reproduction is also being felt. Similarly, Melissa Wright compared and contrasted labor practices at multinational factories in Mexico and China (Wright, 2006). Drawing upon 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 their city so that their lives are not so easily disposable. Rachel Silvey’s careful case study of two Indonesian communities illustrates the various ways that 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. How to study global processes and their local manifestations—from the top-down or bottom-up—is at the heart of some of the most pointed debates in the discipline, for example around planetary urbanism (see Peake, Patrick, Reddy, Tanyildiz, Ruddick, & Tchoukaleyska, 2018).
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 but now may be virtual and invisible (Amoore, 2011). 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 (Newman & Paasi, 1998; Ó Tuathail, 1996). 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 United States 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. 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 is especially evident at the U.S.-Mexico border, where undocumented migrants have become criminalized and transformed into illegal aliens by the U.S. border initiative, Operation Gatekeeper, which was launched directly in response to the expansion of free trade (Nevins, 2002). And yet, the borders are still not entirely discrete. Despite the xenophobic political protest against Mexican labor in the United States, the matrículas consulares or consular IDs issued by the Mexican government for nationals living abroad are more and more accepted as formal documentation in the United States to register their bearers for financial or social services (Varsanyi, 2007). Identities and forms of identification are thus pieced together in complex ways.
Mobility across nation states is experienced in complicated ways (Cresswell, 2006). For example, international tourist destinations, for example, are experienced differently by domestic and foreign tourists, guided by more mainstream or alternative tourist packages (Edensor, 2008; Yang, 2018). Other research shows that, 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 displacement in the articulation of a tourist-friendly concept of Goa (Routledge, 2001). 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 workplace given their marginal status. In Singapore, domestic workers are explicitly relegated to the domestic sphere, in contrast and in opposition to new articulations of Singaporean national identity through the civic sphere (Yeoh & 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 is uneven, and creates a complicated landscape of social and political 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, 2010). Claire Dwyer’s study of diasporic, young South Asian women in the United Kingdom 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, as well as their own position within their diasporic communities. Transnational mobility thus may be constraining but may equally offer opportunities. Yet, Katharyne Mitchell cautions against narratives of hybridity that celebrate mobile identities and evoke a sense of limitless 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; in the contemporary context, analogies are drawn between refugees, criminals, and terrorists (Hyndman, 2005). The implementation of off-shore processing zones, so that potential migrants are processed or detained in spaces outside of the country of application, reveals how geography itself is being used to regulate mobility and to curtail the claims of mobile subjects (Hyndman & Mountz, 2007). Within the space of the nation state, the carceral apparatus further constrains immigrant mobility, particularly those who face the ongoing threat of deportation (Martin & Mitchelson, 2009; Loyd, Mitchelson, & Burridge, 2012; de Genova, 2007). As borders continue to be securitized and even militarized in the 21st century (Jones & Johnson, 2016; Pallister-Wilkins, 2016), border policing is being moved away from the physical border, as local law enforcement is empowered to enact federal policies (Coleman & Kocher, 2011). The result has been more migrant vulnerability and death (Doty, 2011), even as borders are increasingly sites of struggle and resistance (Belcher, Martin, & Tazzioli, 2015; Montange, 2017; Jones, 2018).
Citizenship and the Public Sphere
The challenges to national narratives and global mobility have raised important questions around citizenship and about the formal membership that exists between individuals and the political community, usually the nation state (see Painter & 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 for 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 re-inscribes marginalization with respect to sexuality: the heteronormative 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 non-heterosexual citizens (Bell, 1995; Valentine, 2003b). 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 & Staeheli, 2005).
Geographers have shown how citizenship ideals are being reconfigured by national and neoliberal objectives. Western educational discourses denote a shift from the promotion of tolerant citizens living in diverse societies, to neoliberal “global cosmopolitans” who are able to maximize diversity in strategic ways in the global arena (K. 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 in international environmental activism (Desforges, Jones, & Woods, 2005). The European Union offers one example where citizenship has been formally transnationalized; however, as geographers have shown, regional citizenship has not replaced a sense of the national but exists alongside it (Ehrkamp & Leitner, 2003; Kofman, 2005; Painter, 2002). At the same time, there is recognition that those who don’t have citizenship are vulnerable, even as the imposition of citizenship can be itself a form of violence (Coddington, 2017; Hiemstra, 2010; Ngai, 2014).
Understanding citizenship as a multi-scalar process 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 its impact on agriculture and land reform (Woods, 2006, p. 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, even as they capitalize on the legacy of Aboriginality in projects of urban revitalization (Jacobs, 1996). In the United States, there have been widespread efforts to remove homeless populations from the public sphere, for whom protests are a crucial strategy to “practice” democracy (D. Mitchell, 2003, p. 152). Don Mitchell examined the articulation of a “right to the city” in the protests at People’s Park, Berkeley, in response to the university and state’s re-appropriation 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, to achieve 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 argued 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 illustrated that 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 that 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. Turkish immigrants, in Germany, who exist in limbo without status, have taken to the streets to make a space for their minority religious and ethnic identities, but also to demand voting rights (Ehrkamp & 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 in schools, at work, and in the neighborhood (Secor, 2004). As Jennifer Ridgley has argued vis-à-vis the sanctuary city movement in the United States, there are multiple instances where cities have been at the vanguard of providing progressive protections to their non-status populations, defending them against repressive and intrusive federal practices around racial profiling and information gathering (Ridgley, 2008).
The urban can thus be the site of progressive engagements with public space and articulations of citizenship. Nonetheless, David Bell and Jon Binnie suggested that the concept of citizenship be treated with ambivalence (Bell & Binnie, 2000). They questioned 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 constantly 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 attended 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 upon military models of making rights contingent upon labor market participation. Thus, while the soldier 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, p. 257). Rethinking war and the political has become a pressing task of geographers, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. A considerable amount of this research has drawn upon Said’s critique of Orientalism, mentioned above, to interrogate the forms of colonial and imperial Othering that have characterized the “war on terror.” In The Colonial Present (2004), for example, Derek Gregory examined 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, p. 58). For the United States, this blindness has only lifted as a banal terrorism has proliferated in its cities, in the guise of soldiers on patrol, in camouflage but in plain view (Katz, 2007). As Colin Flint so aptly noted, at around the same time as the terrorist attacks in the United States, between 3.1 and 4.7 million people died in Congo, with nothing like this same response (Flint, 2004, p. 3).
Derek Gregory has argued that the “everywhere war” characterizing the contemporary situation loosens traditional links between war and geography (Gregory, 2011), but direct relationships between homelands and their colonial frontiers further break down conventional binaries of war and peace, civil and military, and domestic and foreign (Graham, 2010). 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 20th century (Daley, 2006). Eric Olund, drawing upon 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 the First World War, or to the anti-Muslim or anti-Islam attitudes of the “war on terror.”
Jasbir Puar’s analysis of homonationalism has been taken up extensively by geographers. She used a parallel frame of biopolitics to interrogate both the racial and sexual differentiations mobilized by the contemporary U.S. war machine (Puar, 2007). 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 a 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 & Gilbert, 2008). Paul Amar (2013) used queer analytics to explore how new security regimes in the Global South assert their authority by constructing stigmatized gender expressions and sexualities as threats to moral security. Lorraine Dowler’s examination of past and present women’s resistance moves beyond the usual associations of women as either war victims or icons, though she also illustrated 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, U.S. foreign and domestic policies after 9/11 have drawn heavily on masculine narratives of the “showdown” and even portray the President growing into manhood after the terrorist attacks (Hannah, 2005). In their research, geographers have drawn significantly on the work of international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe to subvert the normalizing gendered narratives that are used to legitimize war.
Geographers have drawn upon post-structural and feminist theory to show how bodies are fully implicated in contemporary conflict. Jennifer Fluri (2011a, 2011b) illustrated how bodies are corporeal sites of geopolitical enactments and everyday security in Afghanistan, highlighting the importance of researching domestic spaces and gendered bodies within conflict zones as key sites of political contestation. 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). Puar (2017) interrogates how neoliberal regimes of rights and recognition use “disability” as a category to rehabilitate certain bodies while other populations are subject to “debilitation,” a slow wearing down that forecloses the translation to disability and acts as its biopolitical supplement. In the context of Palestine, debilitation is central to maintaining the permanent warfare of the Israeli settler colonial regime.
Securitization has become pervasive thanks to a globalized discourse of fear (Pain, 2009). As Merge Kuus wrote of Estonia, debates around European integration have been framed in terms of security discourse whereby threats to ethnic and 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, which 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, even being applied to financial transactions where the remittances of migrants and students, particularly those of Muslim descent, are targeted as suspect (Amoore & 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 & 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; the form of citizenship being engendered by biometric technologies is both biological and neoliberal, weakening the link between the ideal of citizenship and actual practices (Ajana, 2012). 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 U.S. war machine (Graham, 2008; see also Gilbert, 2015).
Geographers have taken up Georgio Agamben’s spaces of exception with enthusiasm. 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 the law. In this light, Gregory examined the global prison spaces of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, with focus on 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 past and present imperial violence. 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 gendered power relations. It is to this end that Gerry Pratt examined the ways that the lives of two groups of racialized women—Philippine domestic workers and 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 their neglect.
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 that language frames research questions and rationales (Mamadouh, 2003). With the upsurge of xenophobia and white supremacy (as discussed), free speech and academic freedom have become flashpoints as the concepts are wielded to protect the perspectives of dominant groups while silencing minority or dissenting voices (Sultana, 2018). These concerns about knowledge production exist alongside a critique of the corporatization of the university (see Antipode special volume 32, issue 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 (Freeman, 2000; Laoire & Shelton, 2003; SIGJ2 Writing Collective, 2012; Wills, 1996). Faced with these pressures, a movement to promote “slow scholarship” that centers a “feminist ethics of care” and collective action has arisen (Mountz et al., 2015, p. 1236).
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, policy making, and/or social revolution (Mitchell, 2008; Peck, 1999). How to negotiate one’s own activism with academic research agendas continues to be a pressing issue, as many of the studies mentioned (and many others) address (e.g., Bernardes et al., 2017; Brown, 1997; Derickson & Routledge, 2015; Gilmore, 2007; Gleeson, 1999; Koopman, 2008; Pratt, 2004; Routledge, 2001, 2001). Given the corporatization of the university, geographers face some of these dilemmas on their own campuses,Rachel Silvey described her own complicated positionality during an anti-sweatshop 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).
The perceptive and constructive feedback of Colin Flint and two anonymous reviewers was very helpful to an earlier iteration of this article.
Links to Digital Materials
ACME. ACME is an open-access academic journal devoted to critical and radical research on social, spatial, and political issues. It embraces work from a range of theoretical perspectives and promotes research that examines social change and social justice. The journal welcomes international contributions, and publishes materials in several languages.
Association of American Geographers. The Association of American Geographers is the largest national disciplinary organization in the world. Its members, based around the world, undertake research across the physical and social sciences. For those interested in geography and political identity, the websites of the following AAG specialty groups will be of particular interest for the resources that they contain: Disability; Ethics, Justice and Human Rights; Ethnic Geography; Geographic Perspectives on Women; Indigenous Peoples; Political Geography; Sexuality and Space; and Socialist and Critical Geography.
Autonomous Geographies. The Autonomous Geographies project, based in the United Kingdom, is devoted to creating and promoting spaces where alternative forms of collective action and politics are made possible. The website contains a number of academic and activist resources on issues and participatory actions that relate to geography and social justice.
The People’s Geography Project. The People’s Geography Project, based in the United States , provides knowledge and resources to the public and the academic community with an aim to promote better understanding of the complex operations of power through everyday geographies. Their objective is to inform and popularize critical ways of understanding, and in so doing to encourage transformative actions that build toward social and economic justice.
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