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Video abstract – Pauline McGuirk and Phillip O’Neill talk about ‘Critical geographies with the state: The problem of social vulnerability and the politics of engaged research’

The debate over relevance in geography was not really about relevance (whoever heard of irrelevant human activity?), but about whom our research was relevant to…

David Harvey’s (1974: 23) lesson, it seems, has been well learnt by geographers. Few today would talk about ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’ geographical knowledges; the question is always ‘to whom?’ and ‘for what?’ (see also Demeritt 2000). And the answer, for some, is ‘government’/’the state’ and ‘public policy’. (For others, of course, activism of different kinds looms large.)

The so-called ‘geography and public policy’ debate is one of the discipline’s perennial discussions. And – sticking with the horticultural metaphor – it’s one of its most fertile too. It crackles (we’re switching metaphors now) with some of geography’s most electric interventions, from Jamie Peck’s (1999) ‘Grey geography?’, through Danny Dorling and Mary Shaw’s (2002) ‘Geographies of the agenda’, to Michael Woods and Graham Gardner’s (2011) ‘Applied policy research and critical human geography’ (there’s their interlocutors also: Pollard et al. 2000; Banks and Mackian 2000; Martin 2002; Massey 2002; Bell 2011; Gleeson 2011; Allen 2011; Bailey and Grossardt 2011; McGuirk 2011; Ward 2011). Questions explored include the feasibility and desirability of working with the state; the value of such academic labour; and the opportunities and threats which collaborations with governments hold out for critical scholars.

All these issues and more are considered in what we hope will be a very productive contribution to the conversation – Pauline McGuirk (University of Newcastle) and Phillip O’Neill’s (University of Western Sydney) forthcoming paper, ‘Critical geographies with the state: The problem of social vulnerability and the politics of engaged research‘. As Pauline and Phillip tell us, “[s]tate interventions to govern social vulnerability highlight the complexity of contemporary states, marked by neoliberal agenda but also by progressive interventions and the desire for effectiveness. This paper draws on collaborative research with government agencies on social vulnerability to assess the desirability of undertaking critical geographies with the state. We see states as contested terrains invested with the institutional capacity to mobilise diverse political projects. We argue that critical research in partnership with states is possible, as are mobilisations of the agency of state institutions to promote progressive policy development. The paper explores how we might use engaged research to intersect with the production and circulation of texts, technologies and practices within the state apparatus to achieve desirable change. While critical research with the state involves uncertainties and compromise, with no permanent resolutions, we conclude that states must remain centred in our critical conversations and praxis.”

You can see Pauline and Phillip speaking about their Antipode paper here:



Allen C (2011) Against dialogue: Why being critical means taking sides rather than learning how to play the ‘policy research’ game. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):223-227

Bailey K and Grossardt T (2011) Human geography, ideology, and institutional normativity. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):228-232

Banks M and MacKian S (2000) Jump in! The water’s warm: A comment on
Peck’s ‘Grey geography?’.Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 25:249-254

Bell D (2011) Grey area. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):215-218

Demeritt D (2000) The new social contract for science: Accountability, relevance, and value in US and UK science and research policy. Antipode 32(3):308–329

Dorling D and Shaw M (2002) Geographies of the agenda: Public policy, the discipline and its (re)‘turns’. Progress in Human Geography 26(5):629–641

Gleeson B (2011) The challenge of application: Policy research and much more. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):219-222

Harvey D (1974) What kind of geography for what kind of public policy? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 63:18-24

McGuirk P (2011) Policy research as critical praxis. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):233-237

Martin R (2002) A geography for policy, or a policy for geography? A response to Dorling and Shaw. Progress in Human Geography 26(5):642-644

Massey D (2002) Geography, policy and politics: A response to Dorling and Shaw. Progress in Human Geography 26(5):645-646

Peck J (1999) Grey geography? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 24:131-135

Pollard J, Henry N, Bryson J and Daniels P (2000) Shades of grey? Geographers and policy. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 25:243-248

Ward K (2011) Applied policy research and critical human geography. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):238-241

Woods M and Gardner G (2011) Applied policy research and critical human geography: Some reflections on swimming in murky waters. Dialogues in Human Geography 1(2):198-214

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