The Geographer of Space and Power: Doreen Massey, 1944-2016


Doreen Massey
Doreen Massey

Doreen Massey, the geographer of space and power, died on March 11 at age 72.

“A lot of what I’ve been trying to do over the all too many years when I’ve been writing about space,” she told interviewer Nigel Warburton in a 2013 Social Science Bites interview that remains one of our most popular, “is to bring space alive, to dynamize it and to make it relevant, to emphasize how important space is in the lives in which we live, and in the organization of the societies in which we live.”

Massey’s academic career combined that geographer’s focus on space with an advocate’s focus on inequality and class. Early in her career she theorized about the spatial divisions of labor, which she would describe as ‘power geography.’ She debuted that class-based thesis which while working at London’s Centre for Environmental Studies, a think tank where she took her first posting after studies at Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania.

When CES was shuttered in the 1980s Massey took a post at Open University. During her career, she produced an impressive body of academic articles and scholarly books, starting in the early 1970s with a number of planning-oriented books and moving into more consciously political tomes with themes of globalism, feminism and inequality, like 1984’s Spatial divisions in power and 1994’s Space, place and gender. “Her feminism was not just theory; it was something she did, and something she passed on,” the website for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies recalled (Massey was a member of the centre’s National Advisory Panel).

She also had an abiding interest in Latin America — one of her books was titled Nicaragua — and in 2007 started working directly with the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where her idea of power geometry was named of one of “five motors” for the country’s advancement.

Massey, a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of the British Academy, received a number of honors in her career, but turned down the award of an Order of the British Empire for her work. With Stuart Hall and Michael Rustin, she founded Soundings, “a journal on contemporary politics and culture,” the latest issue of which included an editorial she penned, “Exhilarating times,” and a joint interview in which she was joined by Rustin and Ben Little.

In 2005 she wrapped her arms around her conceptions of space – and pleas to reinvigorate how we perceive it –for the SAGE-published For Space (three free chapters from the book are available below). In its opening lines, she wrote, “I’ve been thinking about ‘space’ for a long time. But usually I’ve come at it indirectly, through some other kind of engagement. The battles over globalization, the politics of place, the question of regional inequality, the engagements with ‘nature’ as I walk the hills, the complexities of cities. … I have become convinced both that the implicit assumptions we make about space are important and that, maybe, it could be productive to think about space differently.”

Two years later, in her final book, World City, she returned to the complexities of cities in her examination of London, a city she loved and also saw as a victim of financial inequality. A second edition of the book came out in 2010 with a new preface titled, “After the Crash.”

“Doreen Massey was everything a scholar ought to be,” said Stephen Barr, managing director, SAGE London. “Through her research and writing she questioned assumptions, challenged received ideas, and carved out new ways of approaching her discipline. She was a sympathetic and supportive colleague for those she taught and supervised. In her political life she fought for the interests of the many, to improve the lives of people.”

Massey retired from the Open University in 2009, but remained active as a public intellectual. For example, she was part of the collaborative behind The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image project which critiqued neoliberal globalization, pre-Jeremy Corbyn New Labour, and the north-south divide in England. (Massey, born in 1944, grew up in a council estate in Manchester).  The project also resulted in Patrick Keiller’s 2010 film Robinson in Ruins.

As Jo Little and Jeremy Gilbert eulogized their friend Massey at the Open Democracy UK website:

Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a British scholar of her stature who remained so consistently and directly engaged in immediate political activities alongside rigorous academic work. She could relate a unique history of having engaged with and advised such earlier key figures of the left as Ken Livingstone in the 1980s and Tony Benn in the 1970s. In recent years she was proud to have been invited to advise Hugo Chavez’ government in Venezuela, and to have had one of her key conceptual phrases ‘geometries of power’ directly cited by Chavez in his political speeches. But she was by no means a mere counsellor to Great Men of the Left. She was a lifelong feminist and was absolutely at the forefront of the radicalisation of human geography from the 1970s onwards: a pioneer both in developing approaches informed by Marxism and then in complicating those approaches with a detailed attention to the multi-dimensional nature of power, space and selfhood.

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“At SAGE,” said Barr, “we always enjoyed working with her, from the early days of development of the SAGE London publishing program through to her recent contributions to Social Science Space and elsewhere. It was a privilege for us to have worked with her as an author, and we will miss her.” In honor of that relationship, SAGE -the parent of Social Science Space – has opened up some of Massey’s papers  that appeared in SAGE journals in the last 40 years and three chapter from Massey’s best-selling 2005 book, For Space.

Opening Propositions

Space/Representation

‘Throwntogetherness’: The Politics of the Event of Place

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“Symposium: The Kilburn Manifesto: After Neoliberalism?” | from Environment and Planning A, September 2014

Book review symposium: For Space, Author’s response | from Progress in Human Geography, June 2007

“Landscape as a Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains” | from Journal of Material Culture, July 2006

“The Responsibilities of Place” | from Local Economy, May 2004

“Geography on the agenda 1” |from Progress in Human Geography, March 2001

“Negotiating Disciplinary Boundaries” | from Current Sociology, October 1999

“Thinking Radical Democracy Spatially” | from Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, June 1995

“Industrial Restructuring versus the Cities” | from Urban Studies, October 1978

“Regionalism: Some Current Issues” | from Capital & Class, Autumn 1978


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