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Doreen Massey: Spatial Divisions of Labour

by Frank Stilwell on May 16, 2019
Past & Present

Discussing the analytical and political challenges

It is important to have a spatial or geographical dimension to political economic analysis, just as it is important to recognise its temporal dimension. In the real world, all human activity occurs in both space and time. Any social science that is oblivious to these features is bound to be in adequate or, worse, deeply misleading.

But how best to introduce that spatial dimension into political economic analysis? That is the question. Diverse attempts have been made over the years. Some particularly important initiatives occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. The British geographer David Harvey wrote some pioneering essays that were brought together in his book Social Justice in the City, exploring the shift from liberal to Marxist formulations of urban inquiry. The French radical social theorist Henry Lefebvre made an important contribution with his book on The Production of Space, as outlined by Sirma Altun. The Spanish writer Manuel Castells, more influenced by the Marxism of Louis Althusser, chipped in with his study of The Urban Question. Completing this foundational quartet, Doreen Massey’s Spatial Divisions of Labour, first published in 1984, pushed on with a grounded empirical study of how industry, work, class, gender and state were being transformed during an era of economic restructuring. Her work was appropriately subtitled ‘social structures and the geography of production’.

Massey’s work has been carefully reconsidered by the Past & Present political economy reading group at the University of Sydney during a series of weekly discussions this semester. The focus has been on Massey’s conceptions of social relations and spatial organisation, of uneven development and spatial structures, and her treatment of the specific experience of regions in the United Kingdom. This all comes together as the empirical study of people, stratified by class and gender (and, to a much lesser extent, ethnicity), in places, that is the regions where they live. But it is the study of people in places coping with changes typically originating elsewhere, such as in the boardrooms of large corporations. So it is really about people, places and power.  

Some complex conceptual issues need to be grappled with on this intellectual journey, as the reading group discussions have shown.  Interpretations of class and gender relations are a recurrent issue, as are how inequality is reproduced by class power relations operating to reshape regional development. ‘Geography matters’ is a theme that recurs throughout Massey’s writing. Well of course, as a geographer, she would say that! But, in practice, her pioneering work is at least equally a demonstration that history matters. Her analysis highlights that, if we are to understand the emergence and persistence of depressed regions, we need to do so in historical context. This is particularly evident in the UK where regional problems of unemployment and economic insecurity are concentrated in areas that had formerly been cradles of capitalist development. The previous powerhouse centres of the industrial revolution in Britain had become economic laggards by the mid-twentieth century. Successive governments had attempted to give aid to the variously called ‘special areas’, ‘depressed regions’ and ‘development areas’. These policies were largely ineffective in turning around the dominance of London in the south-east as the British economy became accentuated by the effects of technological change, globalisation, financialisation and neoliberalism.

The legacy of the spatial divide is evident to this day. Perhaps its most obvious political manifestation of this is the variegated pattern of voting for Brexit. The biggest support for remaining in the EU was in London and the south-east of England, whereas the biggest support for leaving was in those regions where the long-standing economic difficulties remained largely unresolved, albeit with varieties within those spatial divisions. One should not be surprised that people in the latter regions felt that they could not really vote for continuation of the status quo, irrespective of whether Britain’s EU membership is actually the key issue.

However, as Riki Scanlan’s previous article about Massey’s work, referencing Allan Cochrane, points out, “the geographies of Brexit and Bremain crosscut geographies of uneven development within the UK. Privileged elites outside of London voted to leave: insecure workers voted to remain”. In any case, political preferences and allegiances cannot be simply read off economic conditions, as Massey would have always emphasised. Politics matters, of course, but the factors that shape it involve complex intersections between the economic, social and cultural, all shaped by—and developing in—specific spatial and temporal conditions.

This is indicative of Massey’s flexibility of analytical method that has been identified by Llewellyn Williams-Brookes, another member of the reading group, in a further article published on this site. As Williams-Brookes succinctly states, in Massey’s work “space emerges as a rich but dizzying category”. It is the grounding of her analysis in empirical exploration, rather than the demonstration of any particular prior theory, that is the hallmark. On this reading, the role of theory is as an aid to forming focal points and developing themes that can guide empirical study, but it is the evidence of what is happening ‘on the ground’ that is ultimately decisive.

These features of Massey’s approach are abundantly evident in her “Spatial Divisions of Labour” with its very detailed focus on the experience of industries and regions, classes and gender, places and power relations in the UK. Indeed, therein lies an evident difficulty in analysing her work – half a century later and on the other side of the world. In some respects, that is Massey’s point—that we cannot understand any specific regional case without detailed consideration of the specific industrial structure and its relationship to local social characteristics, while focusing also on how global forces impact at the local level. However, without a good knowledge of the British regional scene, the significance of some of her points can be rather difficult to follow. The specificities of time and place are of paramount importance but it is sometimes difficult to see their relevance to other contexts.

Discussion in the reading group picked up in a more lively way on some key methodological issues. How to actually analyse the spatial dimension of political economic activity? What level of spatial disaggregation is appropriate? Are we always faced with the conundrum of trying to navigate between broad generalisations and very detailed specific inquiry of particular regions, industries and localities? Effective social science must operate somewhere in a middle range, it seems. As one of the contributors to the discussions pointed out, we need to be aware of the problem of infinite regression, of endlessly drilling down to the unique specificities of each time and place. A focus on detailed case studies never really permits the construction of generalisations which are the essence of social science, or at least of social science that yields useful lessons from the analysis of past experiences. Getting the balance right is never easy.

On a personal level, I should say that revisiting Massey’s work has been very engaging. I knew Doreen a little through the personal contact we had when I was a visiting researcher at the Centre for Environmental Studies in London during the 1980s (before that institution became a casualty of the Thatcher government’s public spending cuts). My own PhD, completed previously at a British university, had been about regional development in the UK: in it, I had been grappling with many of the same issues, albeit coming to regional analysis from a quite orthodox economic, rather than geographical, background. Using statistical techniques, like shift and share analysis, had been my way of dealing with the challenge of relating the spatial and structural dimensions in the study of employment and economic development. Massey’s more relational Marxian approach was quite an eye-opener, along with the other new writing in urban and regional studies described above.

The political dimension of it all is also worthy of comment. Implicit in social democratic politics is the presumption that state policies can make a difference, ameliorating if not solving the problems of regional economic balance. With the advent of neoliberalism that political stance was marginalised. But it was never abandoned by progressive political economists in their analysis and advocacy. For example, the British political economist Stuart Holland combined his own writing on regional economic analysis and policy with exploration of the socialist challenge, seeking to fundamentally reinvigorate social democracy and make labour parties engines for socialist policies.

The political economic significance of Massey’s work, both analytically and politically, continues to be debated. A review appeared in the international journal Regional Studies in 2017 by Michael Dunford, available HERE. That same journal has also recently published an excellent article by Betsy Donald and Mia Gray called ‘The Double Crisis: In What Sense a Regional Problem?’. This picks up on the challenge made by Massey in the 1980s in which she asked researchers and policy-makers to consider in what sense a regional problem existed: was it, for example, a problem of regions or a broader problem in regions? Updated to the current era, the question is how regional problems relate to the ‘diabolical double crisis’ of an increasingly unstable global capitalist economic system and the threat of runaway global warming. Doing conventional research work based on theories of economic equilibrium, supplemented by banks of statistical data, is not the answer. Massey’s challenge needs to be revived and updated.

Massey’s analytical work in the 1980s was a springboard for thinking about geography and history in relation to the deep challenges facing all who aspire for a more secure, equitable and sustainable society. The nature of the challenge changes in time and space but also has strong elements of continuity. Hence the importance of re-visiting her work and comparing it with these more recent debates around what is to be done.

Frank Stilwell
Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, co-ordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE), and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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