Geographies of Justice: New Directions in Research, July 2012

The University of Dundee hosted the Geographies of Justice research group pre RGS-IBG event on 2nd July 2012.  The event was well attended and highlighted the incredible diversity and array of excellent research going on in geography related to the theme of ‘justice’.

Dr Peter Hopkins, who stepped in to provide the opening lecture at the last minute, provided a very thought provoking and interesting examination of the ways in which the Occupy protest at Newcastle University illustrate some of the broader themes of the group.  This included thinking about how the spatial politics of the Occupy protest were a very specific example of resistance, resilience and social action in the face of the perceived injustice of an increase in student fees.  The discussion and questions emerging from this opening address linked into the themes of the second session – spaces of justice research.

The first set of papers aimed to critically engage with and problematize the notion of socially included spaces.  Dr Susan P. Mains discussed the role of social inclusion in the planning of the V&A in Dundee and highlighted some of the work that a multi-disciplinary team at the University of Dundee hope to do in order to explore some of the broader questions about inclusion/exclusion in relation to the waterfront re-development in the city.  Dr Matej Blazek and Dr Fiona Smith then contextualised the notion of social inclusion by discussing the role that participatory methods can play in researching with young people and the geographies of criminal justice and young people respectively. These papers were helpful for grounding and providing evidence for the afternoon sessions.

Before those however, Dr Gareth Edwards and Luis Enrique Eguren gave papers around the theme of ‘safe spaces’.  Gareth’s paper explored some of the difficulties around justice and environmental sustainability, while Luis’s explored the spatial and political role that internally displaced migration has had in South America. This helpfully linked to some of the research contexts for the first session of the afternoon.

After lunch, the first session contained three papers under the heading ‘giving voice in justice research’ where the papers focused on justice-related issues in developing countries. Dr Jon Pugh discussed the complex processes whereby civil servants in the Caribbean find their voice and he introduced work from the philosopher Stanley Cavell who has rarely been discussed in human geography research. Wayne Shand then presented his work about the lives of street children in Accra, Ghana and in particular, he discussed the innovative participatory approach to researching this topic that was being employed by the organisation StreetInvest. The final paper in this session connected with the opening lecture on student activism. Jojo Nem Singh’s paper explored the experiences of student protest in Chile and the responses of the state and local people to student’s struggles to promote people’s rights to education.

The final session of the day was entitled ‘shaping agendas in justice research’.  This encapsulated many of the This was a panel session with Prof’s Rachel Pain, Sue Parnell and Gordon Walker and Dr Peter Hopkins acted as discussant.  Rachel Pain began by exploring the ways that justice impacts on theory and practices.   She framed her arguments with the question: what impressive and diverse ways can we begin to explore and understand the most pressing issues in the world today? Talking about the importance of ‘radical geographies’, she explained that a key role of geographers interested in justice should be informing/working against injustice.  Through the use of relational methodologies, she suggests that shedding light on injustice can begin in our very own academic situated settings.  Peter Hopkins’ paper on student protest is a good example of this.

The second discussant Prof Gordon Walker utilised many of the themes present in Gareth Edwards’ paper and explored the intertwining of environment and social difference.  In terms of moving forward for future justice research in this area, Gordon highlighted 4 key themes.  The first, space and scale, show a need for thinking about flows between global and local scales particularly in relation to thinking about (in)justices involved with climate change.   The second is social complexity.  Although issues such as gender, age, disability are beginning to be thought about in relation to environmental injustice, more work needs to be done.  The third and fourth areas explore the need for a strong theoretical input for future agendas, and particularly, using a theoretically informed methodology to explore the lived experiences of injustice.

Sue Parnell gave an insightful summary of some of the key tensions/challenges and contradictions that she thinks we face as people interested in the geographies of justice.  Beginning with locational choices, she made the point that people often narrow their research focus in times of austerity, focussing on the research landscape on our doorsteps, but to do this we risk as researchers committing a global injustice.  Her second point linked back to Gordon and Rachel’s presentations and highlighted the need for research questions that are theoretically informed.   In particular, the locale is vital and linking theory to particular questions. Sue’s next three tensions all relate to situating justice research in the context of the locale.  Understanding the differences between the terms ‘justice’, ‘inequality’ and ‘poverty’ is key, and being careful to use the right term in the right contest.  This links into ‘values’ – understanding the local values and importance of particular contested terms.  She gave the example of the complexity of understanding gender relations in the developing world; where gender equality may seem like a given in policy terms, the reality when working on the street may be different. Thus it is important to have a clear objective about who the audience is for the particular outputs from research. Her final two challenges relating to the future of justice research link to placing justice in geography and utilising appropriate evidence. In particular, the link between theory, conceptions and methods was noted as a key way of providing rigor to research. Debating where justices research sits within the discipline, Sue argues that it can informs debates across many of the geographic sub-disciplines and therefore should be situated within the discipline.

These interesting, thought provoking points of note led to a wide ranging debate on shaping agendas in justice research. The discussions centred round the importance of theory in informing practice and understanding the research context. The common theme appeared to be, however, the importance of the research being done by the geographies of justice group members and the exciting possibilities for future research.  Overall, the geographies of justice pre-conference event was a stimulating day of papers and discussion, illustrating not only the diversity of research being undertaken by group members, but also the important impact that this research can have in re-addressing inequality.

Andrew Wooff, Postgraduate Representative, Geographies of Justice Research Group

Last modified: Fri, 01 Aug 2014 16:55:57 BST