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Contemporary geographical debates which focus upon culture and economy

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Following a rejection of the positivist approach in the discipline of human geography, an emergence of a relevance debate became apparent. Geographers became increasingly concerned with making geography relevant to and critical of real world problems. This relevance debate then gave rise to an opening up of geographical sub-disciplines, including those disciplines of cultural geography and economic geography.

During the course of this essay I will offer a critical review of the contemporary culture-economy debate within human geography, starting with a historical account of the evolution of the debate, before reviewing the different aspects and voices of the debate, whilst critically engaging with these, and then finally to articulate my stance in the contemporary debate. Firstly, it is important to understand the evolution of the contemporary debate, in order to set current voices in context.

The dominant school of thought in relation to the culture-economy debate, up until the 1980’s, originated from the formations of modernity and 19th century social science. In particular, the wisdoms of German sociologist Karl Marx, who believed that ‘culture is nothing but a derivative of class relations’. Geographers traditionally viewed the economy as determining culture in the way Marx and his contemporaries thought of structure determining agency in society.

In analyzing urban problems, for example social exclusion, economic geographers would do so through emphasizing economic explanations and social structural class issues such as inequalities in the housing and labour markets and the influence of capitalism. Culture, in turn, was seen to be the logical outcome of exploitation and a reflection of class position. Culture was simply a derivative of events in the separate, economic sphere according to such Marxist political-economists.

This 200 year old philosophy remained largely uncontested until the 1980’s ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences, which lead to a revival of the debate. Scholars of this ‘cultural turn’ questioned the taken for granted, Marxist conceptualization of the relationship; that culture is derived from economic processes. They questioned the economic determinism behind the concept, and greatly opposed such reductionism, arguing that you cannot simply explain everything on the basis of class-relations.

As well as contesting the over-emphasis of economic explanations, those involved in the cultural turn also questioned why culture would be a derivative of the economy, and not vice-versa. These cultural geographers instead focused on the production of meaning in economic practices, such as production of material goods, and tried to deconstruct and reconstruct economic discourses to understand them in a cultural sense. ‘Meaning is actively constructed, negotiated and contested, always constituted through the shared discourses of human and non-human agents’ by scholars of the cultural turn (Johnston et al, 2000).

Amin and Thrift (2000) acknowledge that the cultural turn has had very positive impacts on economic geography, opening up new worlds of research and ideas and widening and enriching theoretical debate. Paradoxically, as a result of the cultural turn, many writers noted an apparent overemphasis on cultural issues, alongside an underemphasis on the economic; a reversal of the previous situation, where cultural issues were marginalized by economic explanations.

Commentating on this perceived ‘crisis’ in economic geography, Rodriguez-Pose (2001) metaphorically argues that the source of ‘the infection’ in economic geography could be attributed to a ‘cultural-turn disorder’ (p. 7). He believes that as a result of the cultural turn, there has been an excess in theory and a lack of empirical evidence, as economic geographers have been too busy ‘deconstructing and constructing discourses’ that they have ‘forgotten about building an empirical and analytical body around this theoretical corpus’.

Also dissatisfied with the results of the cultural turn, notably its effect on the marginalisation of political economy and the shift of urban studies tending towards descriptive science, in a bid to ‘recover some theoretical space’, urban theorists Patrick Le Gales and Rob Shields were invited by Ash Amin (1999) to address such concerns, as will be discussed below. As we have seen, traditionally there has been a certain seperatism between the cultural and the economic in regional development and urban studies, with the debate concentrating on how to conceptually prioritize one over the other.

Following the cultural turn, however, the question at the core of the contemporary debate is how to reconceptualise the relationship between culture and economy. The essence of the contemporary debate is no longer concerned if they relate, but rather, to explore the degree and forms of connectivity between the two. The literature seems to tend towards bridging the gap between the two. There seems to be three main positions in this debate. The first is based on the idea of adding, or incorporating, the cultural into economic analyses of the urban.

From this perspective, the economic is still being privileged, but cultural elements are negotiated in analysis. Here, the urban economy is analyzed through the lens of the culture of cities, concerned with the commercialization of culture, where culture is used as a selling tool in terms of city marketing, for example cities as consumption centers, event holders or sites of prestigious developments.

Invited to write in the European Urban and Regional Studies journal (vol. 6, no. , 1999), supporting this approach Patrick Le Gales argues for an incorporation of the cultural in to the economic; ‘it is,.. argued that an opened political economy of cities must take culture more seriously than in the past but that there is no reason to reject political economy to work on the culturalisation of cities. ‘ Le Gales formulates his argument by reviewing three forms of political economy (Marxist, neo-classical and ‘new political economy’) and highlighting both their relevancies and limitations in finding a new approach to research in regional planning and development.

He discusses each in reference to their degree of openness towards the incorporation of culture. Critical of the first two on this note, Le Gales calls for a political economy which is inflected by culture, which would ‘be more political and more sociological and which takes into account some of the concerns which have been raised in the cultural studies literature’. He rejects the approach of the complete incorporation of culture and economy, labeling it as a ‘grand attempt’ to take all the factors into account at one go.

Instead he believes that we should work on a more opened version of political economy, the ‘new political economy’ where cultural factors such as deconstruction of categories, recognition of identities and meaning can successfully be incorporated into economic analysis. Le Gales also emphasizes the importance of the role of the spatial locality to such analysis, arguing that locality studies allows for an identification of regulations, strategies and culture in the making.

The second main position identifiable in the culture-economy debate starts from the opposite sphere, that of cultural studies. Also known as the culturalization thesis this approach argues that today, culture is more influential in economic development than political structures; that economic practices increasingly involves the production and consumption of items that are cultural and that economic life is characterized by symbolic and aesthetic processes.

People are increasingly consuming a whole symbolic lifestyle when consuming particular goods, as part of a process of identity construction. For example, when people choose to live in particular prestigious areas of a city, or frequent particular, ‘fancy’ restaurants, they are doing so to convey who they are, as a symbolic reflection of their self identity. In deconstructing meaning from consumption and production practices, our worlds of consumption can be seen as socially created where ‘processes of socially created needs come to the fore’ of economic capitalist production (Johnston, 1997).

The culturalisation thesis, as recognized by Simonsen, is developed by Lash and Urry (1994) to convey how economy and culture have now reached unprecendented levels of in their involvement with each other, that ‘the economy is increasingly culturally inflected and culture is more and more economically inflected’ in terms of consumption and production of economic goods, in so far that the division between the two is becoming increasingly unmarked.

Shields, invited with Le Gales to offer a contribution to the debate, identifies with this approach emphasizing the ‘importance of synthesizing the cultural and the economic’ which, like Le Gales, he believes can be most effectively analysed in the ‘lived reality’ of the spatial locality, ‘where there is the opportunity to see how culture ‘works’ and better understand what economic struggles ‘mean”.

Following examples of Nancy Fraser’s (1989) argument that redistributive justice involves both economic justice and cultural struggles for recognition in our era of globalisation, Shields tries to demonstrate the inseperability of culture and economy. Opposed to the reductionism of political economy, Shields argues that it is impossible to conceive any social activity that is ‘solely economic without a shred of cultural content’.

He points out that classical Marxist theoretical division of ‘base and superstructure’ i. . culture and economy, has left key political economy concepts such as class ‘uncoloured by the complexity of ethnicities, regionalism, location (in the sense of neighbourhoods and personal sense of home), colours (racialized), religions and sexualities’. Emphasizing these other social/cultural forms of ‘class’ division outside economic class division, he demonstrates how interlaced cultural and economic factors are, such as is denied by political economy determinism.

Before beginning an introduction of the third position, that of reconciliation between culture and economy, I will outline the main points of critique of the two articles, which has effectively lead to the third approach of reconciliation. In critique of Le Gales article, Kirsten Simonsen (1999) notes a few reservations about his argument. Firstly, she points out that he makes it unclear what he actually means by the concept of culture, as it is left undefined, referred to as simply the ‘cultural element’, whilst political economy is clearly elucidated.

This makes it unclear what exactly political economy should be integrating. This privileged explanatory importance rewarded to political economy serves to marginalize the importance of culture, determining it as a secondary, added on aspect, which doesn’t require explanation. She infers two possible conceptions- culture as consumption and culture as tradition. The first involves urban politics and investment in consumption centers, prestigious property development and major events.

As Simonsen points out, this conception doesn’t involve ideas of consumption practices or construction of meaning in consumed products or places. The second involves the idea that culture is tradition as part of specific localities, which relies on the idea of cultures as homogeneous local identities where everybody follows the same codes of meaning. This then conceptualizes the economic and political as the dynamic forces of change, which influence stable cultures in the structuring of societies, when in reality, cultures are multi-variant and individually complex.

Her second reservation about Le Gales paper is the strategy he adopts in explaining the relationship between culture and economy; an approach of opening up political economy to allow for the incorporation of the cultural into the economic. Simonsen is dissatisfied with his approach, seeing it as a ‘strategy of addition’ whereby the basic premises of political economy remain unaffected and the argument is reduced to how to incorporate culture into the already existing theoretical framework of political economy as opposed to investigating the relationship between culture and economy, as he intended to do.

This criticism is echoed by Tomlinson (1999) commenting that Le Gales vision of an enhanced political economy raises questions of ‘how to understand culture itself’, in which Le Gales risks reducing culture to ‘a functional, servicing role in a structural account that is given explanatory priority’. Simonsen also criticizes Shields for focusing his explanatory framework on just one pole of the argument, this time privileging his understanding of culture over a development of what he means by economy. This effectively results in the kind of marginalisation of political economy that Le Gales argument had on culture.

Simonsen believes that to be successful in the overcoming the gap between studies of the cultural and economic then the approaches should not start out at opposite ends of the poles asLe Gales and Shields have. Such approach, she argues, serves to ‘reproduce the opposition they set out to transcend’. Dina Vaiou also voices her concerns about the generalizations of meanings associated with economy and culture in both articles. She recognizes, like Shields but unlike Le Gales, that culture has various meanings at different historical, social and spatial scales.

She then promotes the idea that, in order to reconstitute a critical project of urban analysis, we need to recognize and accept the heterogeneous nature of these different conceptions of meaning. Following the critique of the oppositional character, which still seen to remain in European debate on culture and economy (as demonstrated by Le Gales vs Shields) despite attempts to overcome this, commentators once again tried to move beyond such oppositional discourses, in a bid to find a theoretical framework that would incorporate the economic and the cultural minus the ambiguity associated with previous attempts.

Nicky Gregson, along with Simonsen and Vaiou already mentioned here, collaboratively attempt such a challenge, seeking to address the reservations of many discussants of the debate. Gregson et al were concerned with the ambiguity that has accompanied previous discussions of economy-culture, particularly the assumption that each of the terms are universally understood and articulated in the same way. As they assert, ‘this is far from the case’.

They were also concerned that the European debate has had the effect of maintaining the separation of the terms they were supposed to bring together by demonstrating the privileged importance of either side, whether explicitly or implicitly. Through a penetrating analysis of each of the two sides, Gregson et al highlight the failure of both positions to theoretically articulate the debate by excluding from analysis their respective counterpart by conveying the debate as a performance where, for example ‘culture has a walk on part on the economic stage’, or vice versa.

In performing the debate rather than analytically tackling it is where the debate has in-so-far failed to theoretically articulate the economy-culture question. In response to this fundamental problem, Gregson et al propose as a starting point, ‘radical break from arguments about differential logics’ and to award culture and economy ‘equivalent conceptual standing’. They also call for meaning to be taken more seriously in relation to culture- that culture should be thought of meaning in its widest sense, rather than a narrow conception of culture as production and consumption of cultural items.

We must think of meaning and practice as inseparable concepts and think of economic practices as norms and values and schemes of deeper meaning. We must recognize that practices and activities are about ‘creating, negotiating and fixing meanings’, and that as well as producing goods and services, these economic practices produce ways of doing and thinking, normatively or not. They argue that these ways of doing/thinking will ‘need to be acknowledged in turn as frequently having critical economic effects’ in terms of competitiveness of regions/firms/commodities/products.

To illustrate their argument, they use the example of Zelizer’s (1994) work on the social meaning of money, showing that contrary to instrumental views of money as ultimately objective, money has different social meanings indifferent contexts, eg. ‘dirty’ money, ‘pocket’ money, ‘housekeeping’ money, ‘spending’ money. This illustrates, according to Gregson et al, what they ‘understand by the necessary connection between particular (economic) activities/practices/commodities and their meaningful constitution’. Here they have illustrated the inseparability, not merely the inflection, of economy-culture.

In conclusion, it is obvious that the reconciliation of culture and economy is an incredibly complex and problematic challenge. As I have shown, through a review of critique, there are certain merits and restraints in each of the approaches. I agree with Simonsen, amongst others, that the dualistic nature and the oppositional nature of debates so far is ‘devestating to a progressive reconstitution of critical urban and regional studies’, as this acts as a barrier to formulating a clear theoretical framework of analysis. However, I think that the challenge is larger than first thought, and may even be an impossible one to put into practice.

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