Parkouring into geography: 'spatial cultures'

Last time I blogged about going to the RGS-IBG conference at the end of August; I've just attended 'Spatial Cultures', a workshop-symposium at UCL.

In some ways the day was a similar experience to that of the RGS-IBG conference - a buzz of interdisciplinarity, shared ideas and new concepts, and an excitement about contemporary research relating to space. 

This is what I learned as an outsider-historian:
  1. Interdisciplinarity: again, like the RGS-IBG conference, interdisciplinarity, of the genuine and productive kind, again was the order of the day, and although everyone started off their presentations with a disclaimer of 'I'm a sociologist/designer/architect/computer scientist/archaeologist etc', everyone seemed to be speaking the same language, from their own disciplinary perspective.
  2. the centrality of GIS and technology in geography research: almost everyone used GIS, there were computer scientists interested in space and geography (including a very interesting critique by Alexander von Lunen, concerning the limitations of GIS for historians, and a debate about the differences between qualitative and quantitative GIS and critical GIS). Von Lunen's book, edited with Charles Travis, History and GIS: Epistemologies, Reflections and Considerations (Springer, 2013) is a detailed examination of these questions. By contrast, 'digital history' seems so primitive and if we are, as geographers imply, 20 years behind them, history won't get to this stage for ages.
  3. Space-syntax: the Bartlett School at UCL has a specialism in 'space syntax', and everyone, be they geographers, architects, urban planners and designers, computer scientists, sociologists & anthropologists, and even the archaeologists, seemed versed in the model and theory. They even called it a 'spatial syntax community'.  I need to learn more about this, but it struck me that I know of nothing equivalent in history, and that no model in history can be so interdisciplinary, where each discipline does its own research with its own methods and discourses, but informed and linked with other disciplines by this wider model. 
  4. The thin-ness of the spatial turn in history: historians currently taking the 'spatial turn', draw from the influences of Lefebvre, Soja, Harvey, de Certeau, etc etc, but they have had very little engagement, if any, with current geography and with space syntax. In part that is because space syntax is about predictions for the future as much as about contemporary and past interactions between people and the built environment - historians never want to predict what will happen next. But it is also in part because historians don't talk to geographers enough, and to a lesser extent, vice versa. 
  5. Structure of research in relation to theory and method: the very different way of composing papers from historians. Historians tend to lump historiography in the 'second paragraph with extensive footnote', before breathing a sigh of relief and getting on with explaining the empirical research. Geographers and social scientists by contrast don't seem to segregate theory and method and their predecessors' work from the main part of their research: they are integral to each other. Although the range of evidence or detail may be smaller than might be acceptable in history, theory and method are much more explicitly identified and critiqued in geography. 
  6. Historians have, by and large, done away with being explicit about method. Moreover, perhaps because of post-stucturalism and its discontents, it is possible to write or read a history paper that does not refer to theory at all. How many times have I sat through papers read at standard history conferences where the historian carefully dissects what a document or (increasingly, what a collection of media or oral histories) represents, without saying anything more than that or linking it to anything apart from a scanty historical context. In geography and social science, by contrast, theory and method is an integral part of the research. There is a much more conscious awareness of how theories and method compare with other scholars' work, and how different methods can be applied to the same evidence. I found this level of integration refreshing, and much needed in history.
  7. Everyone presented rather than read their papers. I'm finding the arguments for why historians sit and read their papers at seminars and conferences more and more unconvincing. Yes I know we need to maintain the beauty of a carefully constructed path of evidence and specific turns of phrase, but can't historians at least try to memorise some of their paper, and then talk with real passion and excitement about it? If social scientists can do it, then so can we. 
  8. Space and the body: in particular, there's a huge interest in parkour and its bodily-spatial relationships among geographers, urban planners and designers. 
  9. There's less interest in place. This conference was all about space and spatial cultures. There was little discussion of place, and a sense of place, whereas at the RGS-IBG conference, perhaps because of the presence of Doreen Massey and those whom she's influenced, the notions of place, belonging, boundedness and exclusion, held more sway. 


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