Regenerating Political Geography Workshop — University of Birmingham June 24th 2015

I have spent the day at the Political Geography Research Group Workshop at the University of Birmingham, organised by Adam Ramadan and Sara Fregonese. This is an (almost) annual event bringing together postgraduates, post-docs and lecturers to think about current research and teaching in the field of political geography. This year the workshop was titled ‘Regenerating Political Geography’ and was focusing on emerging research strands while also giving the requisite tools to a new generation of political geographers to embark on the next stage of their career. I was sorry to miss the second day (where Alan Ingram and Fiona McConnell were talking on teaching, while Jason Dittmer and Sara Fregonese gave presentations on the job market).

The morning paper session provided an excellent snapshot of some emerging research in political geography. Arshad Isakajee and Thom Davies (both at Birmingham) gave a vibrant and insightful talk exploring refugee experience in Northern France. The main argument was that the violence exerted on refugees should be seen as a continuum from home experience (a thanopolitics of violence), through the violence of transit, to the violence of abandonment when reaching European shores. It was persuasively argued, and in particular the visual and participatory methods were a real inspiration. The subsequent discussion centred on the political implications of using the term ‘abandonment’, does this convey a sense of misplaced passivity, where a deliberate set of political practices is rather obscured as bodies are thrust ‘outside’ political calculation? The paper authors made a convincing case for their rubric, arguing that abandonment signifies a set of violent political practices, while their methods focus on their material and bodily implications.

The remaining papers in the session were equally stimulating. Christina Oelgemoller used the concept of ‘transit space’ to draw attention to the erasure of sites of transition in processes of migration.  Jonathan Rokem (UCL) explored urban segregation in Stockholm and Jerusalem, examining the spatial segregation of immigrant areas of both the cities. In Stockholm, Rokem drew a link between the geography of minority groups and urban infrastructures. The very interesting conclusion drawn was the rather contradictory outcomes of urban planning policies: where they are designed to foster forms of integration greater separation followed, while desires for separation led to impulses to integrate. This was a another illustration of the need to trace the material effects of policy implementation, where perverse outcomes can confound the clean lines on the drawing board.

In a final presentation Sam Strong (Cambridge) gave a stirring ethnography of life in Blaenau Gwent, looking at particular at the role of food banks. He traced the political work that is undertaken by feelings or designations of ‘shame’, concluding by identifying an emergent biopolitics of shame. Sam argued that food banks are a metonym of a shame society, providing vignettes from the field to explore not simply the transactions themselves but the wider embodied practices of visiting the foodbank and the atmosphere of vulnerability that this provokes. It was powerful stuff, the affect exacerbated by Strong’s measured style of delivery. It made me think of anthropological work on gift giving (and gift theory), work that highlights the social and cultural effects of ties of reciprocation and explores the complex positioning of those giving and receiving gifts (in Geography, Emma Mawdsley‘s 2012 work has been influential in thinking through how gift theory can help us understand the various ethical and normative positions claimed within the distribution and reception of international aid).

After lunch, Fiona McConnell, James Sidaway and myself gave a session on ‘Emerging Research Directions’ in political geography. It was a lively and enjoyable session, covering some of the theoretical, methodological and practical issues that have shaped (and will shape) future political geographical research. James looked back to the first editorial in what was Political Geography Quarterly (now Political Geography) to trace which themes have endured and why, while the discussion went on to think about some of the implications of a more collaborative work environment, how this corresponds with institutional demands on early career academics and the potential risks and opportunities of an increasing emphasis on ‘impact’ in political geographical research.

It was a superb day, and congratulations once again to Adam and Sara for their organisation. These are important occasions to share ideas while also providing practical support and advice on developing research networks, designing successful teaching and managing an academic career.

Alex Jeffrey, June 2015

Reference

Mawdsley, E. (2012) The Changing Geographies of Foreign Aid and Development Cooperation: Contributions from Gift Theory. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (2), 256-72

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