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Critical geopolitics

Critical geopolitics refers to a body of radical scholarship that emerged in the early 1990s and bridges the academic disciplines of Geography and International Relations. Setting itself in opposition to 'classical' Geopolitics, it conceptualizes geopolitics as a complex and problematic set of discourses, representations and practices, rather than as a coherent, neutral and objectivist science.

Critical Geopolitics sees the geopolitical as comprising four linked facets: popular geopolitics; formal geopolitics, structural geopolitics; and practical geopolitics. Critical Geopolitical scholarship continues to engage critically with questions surrounding geopolitical discourses, geopolitical practice (i.e. foreign policy), and the history of Geopolitics.

Key ideas and concepts

Rooted in poststructuralism, Critical Geopolitical inquiry is, at its core, concerned with the operation, interaction, and contestation of geopolitical discourses.

This poststructuralist orientation holds that the realities of global political space do not simply reveal themselves to detached, omniscient observers. Rather, geopolitical knowledges are seen as partial and situated, emergent from particular subject positions. In this context, geopolitical practices result from complex constellations of competing ideas and discourses, which they in turn modify. Geopolitical practice is not, therefore, unproblematically 'right' or 'natural'.

Further, since geopolitical knowledge is seen as partial, situated and embodied, nation-states are not the only 'legitimate' unit of geopolitical analysis within Critical Geopolitics. Instead, geopolitical knowledge is seen as more diffuse, with 'popular' geopolitical discourse considered alongside 'formal' and 'practical' geopolitics. These three 'strands' of geopolitical thought are outlined below:

Popular geopolitics

Popular geopolitics is concerned with the ways in which 'lay' understandings of geopolitical issues are produced and reproduced through popular culture. Popular geopolitics studies are, therefore, premised on the idea of a recursive relationship between popular culture and popular conscience. The complexity of popular culture's relationships with 'formal' and 'practical' geopolitical cultures has been studied with reference to a range of popular cultural products. Specifically, critical studies of newspapers, films, cartoons and magazines have all been published in leading peer-reviewed Geography journals.

Structural Geopolitics

Structural geopolitics is defined as contemporary geopolitical tradition.

Formal geopolitics

Formal geopolitics refers to the geopolitical culture of more 'traditional' geopolitical actors. Critical accounts of formal geopolitics therefore pay attention to the ways in which formal foreign policy actors and professionals - including think-tanks and academics - mediate geopolitical issues such that particular understandings and policy prescriptions become hegemonic, even common-sense.

Practical geopolitics

Practical geopolitics describes the actual practice of geopolitical strategy (i.e. foreign policy). Studies of practical geopolitics focus both on geopolitical action and geopolitical reasoning, and the ways in which these are linked recursively to both 'formal' and 'popular' geopolitical discourse. Because Critical Geopolitics is concerned with geopolitics as discourse, studies of practical geopolitics pay attention both to geopolitical actions (for example, military deployment), but also to the discursive strategies used to narrativize these actions.

The "critical" in Critical Geopolitics therefore relates to two (linked) aims. Firstly, it seeks to 'open up' Geopolitics, as a discipline and a concept. It does this partly by considering the popular and formal aspects of geopolitics alongside practical geopolitics. Further, it focuses on the power relations and dynamics through which particular understandings are (re)constructed. Secondly, Critical Geopolitics engages critically with 'traditional' geopolitical themes. The articulation of 'alternative' narratives on geopolitical issues, however, may or may not be consistent with a poststructuralist methodology.

Key texts and people

The emergence of Critical Geopolitics

Critical Geopolitics is an ongoing project which came to prominence when the French geographer Yves Lacoste published 'La géographie ça sert d’abord à faire la guerre' ('geography is primarily for waging war') (1976) and founded the journal Hérodote. The subject entered the English language Geography literature in the 1990s thanks in part to a special "Critical Geopolitics" issue of the journal Political Geography in 1996 (vol. 15/6-7), and the publication in the same year of Gearóid Ó Tuathail's seminal Critical Geopolitics book.

The subdiscipline is most commonly associated with a group of 'dissident' academics including John Agnew, Simon Dalby and, primarily, Ó Tuathail. Ó Tuathail's 1996 book Critical Geopolitics defined the state of the subdiscipline at the time, and codified its methodological and intellectual underpinnings. Subsequently, the definition of Critical Geopolitics has been broadened such that the project is no longer associated solely with the works of a small number of scholars.

Critical Geopolitics texts

Critical Geopolitics-based work has been published in a range of Geographical and trans-disciplinary journals, as well as in books and edited collections. Major journals in which Critical Geopolitics work has appeared include:

  • Annals of the Association of American Geographers
  • Antipode
  • Geopolitics
  • Political Geography

Elsewhere, Critical Geopolitics-derived studies have been published in journals specializing in popular culture, security studies, borderstudies (such as in the Journal of Borderlands Studies) and history, reflecting the breadth of subject matter subsumed under the Critical Geopolitics headline.

Texts in Critical Geopolitical theory

Critical Geopolitics 'theory' is not fixed or homogeneous, but core features - especially a concern for discourse analysis - are fundamental.

  • Introduction to Critical Geopolitical theory: Ó Tuathail's (1996) Critical Geopolitics (London: Routledge) details the aims, scope and intellectual context of Critical Geopolitics. It also provides a genealogical account of the history of Geopolitics, placing Critical Geopolitics in its temporal and disciplinary context.
  • Relationship between 'classical' and Critical Geopolitics: There are thematic concerns in common between classical and Critical geopolitics, leading to the question of whether 'mainstream' International Relations theory and geopolitics can be reconciled with the Critical project. In a 2006 article in the journal Geopolitics (vol. 11/1), Phil Kelly of Emporia State University argues that it is possible.

Popular engagement with the geopolitical, as (re)presented in popular culture, is a major area of research within the Critical Geopolitics literature:

  • Newspapers: The framing of geopolitical events in mass circulation newspapers has been addressed by a number of authors. Thomas McFarlane and Iain Hay's (2003) article in Political Geography, 'The battle for Seattle: protest and popular geopolitics in The Australian newspaper', is a highly-cited example. Further, it exemplifies how Critical Geopolitics research can use both qualitative and quantitative approaches to discourse analysis.
  • Magazines: Joanne Sharp's analysis of the ways in which the Reader's Digest (re)presented a sense of US national identity during the Cold War started life as a 1993 article in the journal Political Geography. Subsequently, it spurred her 2001 book Condensing the Cold War: Reader's Digest and American Identity. Further, Sharp's methodology prompted an in-depth debate (2003) about the practice of popular geopolitics, in the pages of the journal Geopolitics (vol.8/2).
  • Cartoons: An early (1996) and frequently-cited popular geopolitics study by Klaus Dodds considers the geopolitical content and effect of cartoons by Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell during the Falklands War; 'The 1982 Falklands War and a critical geopolitical eye: Steve Bell and the If cartoons' was published in Political Geography (vol. 15/6). Jason Dittmer has explored the cartoon Captain America as an illustration of a "nuanced and ambiguous" geopolitical script in popular culture. 'Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics' was published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (vol.95/3).
  • Films: Hollywood has been the subject of numerous popular geopolitics studies, both from explicitly 'geographical' perspectives, but also from academics from a range of backgrounds. Studies of film range from those that deal explicitly with the intertextuality between 'war films' and 'real' wars, to those that deal more broadly with issues of identity formation and representation.

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