Relational Turn in Economic Geography

Relational Turn in Economic Geography

This is an important topic.  Uneven development using orthodox economic and development theories has led researcher to look for alternative explanations.

  • How to properly integrate Global – Regional – National – Local perspectives?
  • How valuable is relational (network) perspective?
  • What is the role of power relations among Actors?
  • How does Institutional, Cultural, and Social embeddedness of Actors impact development and economy?
  • How does actions and interactions of Actors affect local economic environment?


From Toward a relational economic geography

During the 1990s, a controversial debate has emerged in economic geography and other social sciences, such as economics and sociology, focusing on the question of what research program, key focus and methodology a novel economic geography should embody (Perrons, 2001). This was, partially, a reaction to the work of Krugman (1991), Fujita et al. (2001), and others who claimed to have developed a new economic geography. This self-proclaimed new economic geography offers an interesting economic perspective on the conventional problems of spatial distribution and equilibrium, based on an analysis of increasing returns, transportation costs, and other traded interdependencies (Martin and Sunley, 1996; Bathelt, 2001). Yet it fails to develop a comprehensive research program as a basis for economic geography because ‘. . . the new economic geography ignores almost as much of the reality they study as old trade theory did’ (Krugman, 2000, p. 50).1 In following Martin and Sunley’s (1996) suggestion, this approach is better classified as geographical economics. While this literature brings economic geography closer to the core ideas of neoclassical economics, Amin and Thrift (2000) have recently suggested another fundamentally different direction for economic geography, capitalizing on concepts and theories from other social sciences. Amin and Thrift (2000, p. 4) provocatively claim that economic geography is no longer able to ‘fire the imagination’ of researchers. Therefore, they ask for a critical reflection and renewal of this field’s basic goals, concepts, and methods. The reactions to their contribution have stimulated a debate, parts of which have been published in a special issue of Antipode in 2001. This debate has unfortunately been dominated by discipline-political arguments, opinions, and claims. In essence, it focuses on the question of whether economic geography should be closely associated with economics or lean towards the social, political, and cultural sciences. In particular, Thrift (2000) has identified a growing interest in the cultural dimension of economic relations, as well as in economic issues of cultural studies. While Amin and Thrift (2000) propose a cultural turn away from neoclassical economics, their critics emphasize existing linkages with and the importance of economic theories as a foundation of economic geography (Martin and Sunley, 2001; Rodriguez- Pose, 2001). We agree with Martin and Sunley (2001) that this debate is partly based on false dualisms, such as economics vs. sociology and quantitative vs. qualitative methodology. In our view, this discussion is unclear because it mixes normative accounts of the discipline’s policy implications with epistemological and methodological arguments. The debate is also somewhat misdirected for it tries to separate those economic and social aspects that are inseparable. The decisive question cannot be whether economic geography should be economized or culturalized. Rather, the economic and the social are fundamentally intertwined. They are dimensions of the same empirical reality which should be studied in a dialogue of perspectives rather than in mutual exclusion and reductionist prioritization (Stark, 2000).

The second transition is characterized by a reformulation of the core concepts of economic geography. In the following sections, discontinuities between relational economic geography and regional science will be identified according to five dimensions of the research design. These dimensions include the conception of space, object of knowledge, conception of action, epistemological perspective, and research goal. From this, we develop a relational framework for analysis which systematically focuses on economic actors and their action and interaction. The basic propositions of this framework will be developed in the remainder of this section (Table 1).

4.1. Conception of space

A relational view of economic geography is based on a relationship between space and economy which is contrary to that of regional science.10 Specifically, regional science views space as a container which confines and determines economic action. It treats space as a separate entity which can be described and theorized independently from economic action. In contrast, a relational approach assumes that economic action transforms the localized material and institutional conditions of future economic action. Similar to Storper and Walker (1989), this approach emphasizes that the economic actors themselves produce their own regional environments. The way in which spatial categories and regional artifacts have an impact on economic action can only be understood if the particular economic and social context of that action is analysed (Bahrenberg, 1987). Spatial structures and processes have, however, been socially and economically underconceptualized in regional science. We contend that space can neither be used as an explanatory factor for economic action nor be treated as a separate research object in isolation from economic and social structures and relations. Consequently, as space is not an object of causal power to explain social or economic action it cannot be theorized (Sayer, 1985; Saunders, 1989; Hard, 1993).11 Of course, economic processes also have material outcomes (e.g. infrastructure) which are localized in certain places and territories and exist over longer time periods. Such structures clearly have an impact on economic action and interaction in these localities. Nonetheless, economic actors and their action and interaction should be at the core of a theoretical framework of economic geography and not space and spatial categories. Spatial scientists, such as Bunge (1973), treat spatiality as the object of knowledge in economic geography. They aim to detect those spatial laws which govern human action without looking at the actors themselves. Instead of treating space as a container, we suggest a conception of space as perspective (Glu¨ ckler, 1999). In other words, we use space as a basis for asking particular questions about economic phenomena but space is not our primary object of knowledge. It is this conception that we refer to as the geographical lens. As part of this, economic exchange becomes the focus of analysis and not space. Similarly, we do not seek to identify spatial laws but, instead, look for explanations of localized economic processes and their consequences.12 It is particularly through the application of a distinct perspective to the study of an object of knowledge that discipline-specific research problems can be formulated. The spatial perspective or geographical lens leads economic geographers to pose research questions about an economic phenomenon, different from those typically asked by economists or sociologists. We also suggest that the perspective applied helps mobilize a particular terminology and, over time, a set of tacit knowledge which entails an understanding of what it is that is being analysed and how this subject matter can be described and evaluated adequately.



From Rethinking relational economic geography

Since the mid-1990s, the softening of sub-disciplinary boundaries within human geography and the more general call for a ‘relational thinking’ in human geography (Massey et al . 1999; see also Allen et al. 1997; Sack 1997; Lee and Wills 1997) have stimulated the consolidation of what might be termed a ‘relational economic geography’. 1 In this ‘relational turn’, economic geographers tend to place their analytical focus on the complex nexus of relations among actors and structures that effect dynamic changes in the spatial organization of economic activities (see Amin 1998; Dicken and Malmberg 2001; Ettlinger 2001; Bathelt and Glückler 2003; Boggs and Rantisi 2003). This relational economic geography is concerned primarily with the ways in which socio-spatial relations of actors are intertwined with broader structures and processes of economic change at various geographical scales. Despite the claims of novelty among most economic geographers who have taken on such a relational thinking in their geographical analysis, it remains unclear whether this ‘relational turn’ represents merely a modest reworking of earlier work in economic geography that might not be explicitly relational in its conceptualization and analysis. After all, heated debates on the spatial divisions of labour, locality studies and flexible specialization dominated the heyday of economic geography during much of the 1980s and the early 1990s (Scott 2000). With hindsight, these debates have legitimized the analytical concern of economic geography with the social relations of production and the relations between the spatial and the social (Harvey 1982; Thrift 1983; Massey 1984; Smith 1984; Gregory and Urry 1985; Lee 1989). By sidestepping the pitfalls of an earlier brand of quantitative economic geography concerned with spatial geometries and locational analysis, the substantive foci on regions, localities and production processes in these debates have no doubt foregrounded the recent ‘relational turn’ in economic geography. While many recent geographic writings have addressed aspects tangential to the core theoretical categories deployed in a relational economic geography (e.g. Barnett 1998; Thrift 2000; Barnes 2001; Storper 2001), there is surprisingly a lack of systematic evaluation and integration of our knowledge of this growing field. In view of limited space, this paper develops a sympathetic critique and rethinking of the ‘relational turn’ in order to clarify the distinctive contributions of a relational economic geography and to rework some of its conceptual tools. In the next section, I critically examine the nature and emergence of the ‘relational turn’ in economic geography, by revisiting relational thought that existed as an undercurrent before the 1990s and situating the recent ‘relational turn’ in this earlier work in economic geography. Whilst the recent ‘relational turn’ has some of its intellectual antecedents in the earlier debates of the 1980s (particularly the social relations of production framework), its substantive content has been broadened to include social actors and their network relations at different spatial scales. Focusing on recent economicgeographical writings on regional development, embedded networks and geographical scales, I note that much of this large body of recent work is relational only in the thematic sense that relations among actors and structures are an important theme in contemporary economic-geographical enquiry. In particular, the causal nature of relationality and power relations are under-theorized and underspecified. If relational thinking in economic geography is to have a greater impact, we need to rework and deepen its theoretical constructs to go beyond simply a ‘thematic turn’ (Jessop 2001, 1214). The paper moves on to rework some of the most important theoretical insights in the ‘relational turn’ – relationality, power and actors. Dynamic and heterogeneous relations among actors and structures are conceptualized as causal mechanisms of socio-spatial change in economic landscapes. Here, I explore the notion of ‘relational geometries’ constituted through relationality and power . The concept of relational geometries refers to the spatial configurations of heterogeneous relations among actors and structures through which power and identities are played out and become efficacious. These relational geometries are neither actors (e.g. individuals and firms) nor structures (e.g. class, patriarchy and the state), but configurations of relations between and among them – connecting actors and structures through horizontal and vertical power relations. Relational geometries are also not networks per se because the latter refer mainly to horizontal and, mostly, static ties among actors only. Actors in these relational geometries are not static ‘things’ fixed in time and space. They are dynamic and evolving in such relational ways that their differential practices unleash multiple forms of emergent power in relational geometries. Building on the concept of different and emergent forms of causal power as positions in relational geometries and as practice through social action, this relational perspective allows us to avoid the two polarized frameworks in contemporary economic geography – actor networks and institutional structures. This effort to rework relational economic geography thus parallels the recently reinvigorated ‘relational sociology’ that ‘sees relations between terms or units as preeminently dynamic in nature, as unfolding, ongoing processes rather than as static ties among inert substances’ (Emirbayer 1997, 289). To substantiate the relevance of this reworking of conceptual categories, I show how relationality and multiple forms of power can offer vital insights into regional development that go beyond existing relational frameworks in economic geography.



From Geographies of circulation and exchange: Constructions of markets

In the preceding sections we have discussed three heterodox alternatives to the orthodox free market logic.

For socioeconomists, markets are embedded in social structures and are a far cry from the virtual market model celebrated by orthodox economists. It is social relations that underwrite real markets, guaranteeing their functioning in the face of uncertainties. Work un- dertaken in this spirit puts emphasis on social relations and institutions, and analyses how non-economic institutions either enable or constrain efficient market exchange.

Political economists insist that, neoliberal claims to the contrary notwithstanding, capitalism cannot exist without “market imperfections”. In these accounts, the market model is nothing else than a fictitious ideological device to hide from view the underlying dynamics of capitalism. Accordingly, political economic scholars regard it as their task to remove the veil and to lay open the contradictory reality of concrete markets under capitalism.

Cultural economists apply the cultural theoretical concept of performativity towards the market. Rather than reproducing the classical distinction between the abstract market model and real-life markets, protagonists point to the role that the practice of economists widely understood plays in the self-realization of economic thought. It is argued that the model of the perfect market realizes itself in the world in the assembly of far-reaching socio-technical arrangements. Here, markets take on ambivalent form as relational effects of socio-technical networks engaging in the twin processes of framing and overflowing. The latter process includes the proliferation of new social relations, groups and communities which may articulate economic and non-economic alternatives.

In the discipline of economic geography heterodox approaches have managed to break the hegemony of the neoclassical orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the arguments in heterodox debates on the market and on alternative economic geographies more generally are very often taken from entrenched positions, authors apparently finding it very difficult to understand the train of thought followed by the “opposing” camp. While this is true for all positions introduced in this progress report, cultural economy has arguably had a particularly difficult time. With our representation of the performativity approach we hope to have been able to clarify some of the misunderstandings. The strength of the heterodox project lies precisely in the co-existence of competing positions, each challenging the still omnipresent logic of the perfect market in different ways. This is what a vibrant heterodox project should aspire to: A healthy competition of plurivalent and opposing ideas, a competition, however, which at the same time does not prevent conversation across different approaches and is pluralistic enough to gain from the application of different perspectives (see Barnes 2006).



From  Advancing evolutionary economic geography by engaged pluralism



Please see my related post on Relational Sociology.

Boundaries and Relational Sociology



Key People:

  • Harrison White
  • Henry Wai-chung Yeung
  • H. Bathelt
  • J. Gluckler
  • Jeffrey S. Boggs
  • Norma M. Rantisi
  • Christian Berndt
  • Marc Boeckler
  • Robert Hassink
  • Claudia Klaerding


Related Schools of Thoughts:

  • Social Economics
  • Political Economy
  • Cultural Economy
  • Manchester School of Global Production Networks
  • German School of Relational approach


Key Terms:

  • Relational Geometries
  • Actor-Networks
  • Relationality
  • Actor-Structure
  • Global – Regional – National – Local
  • Social Embeddedness
  • Economic-Social-Political-Spatial
  • Cultural Economics
  • Critical Realism
  • Causal Relations
  • Boundaries
  • Institutional Economics
  • Political Economics
  • Spatial relations
  • Scale Structure
  • Regionalism
  • Power Relations



Key Sources of Research:


Geographies of circulation and exchange: Constructions of markets

Christian Berndt

Marc Boeckler



Whither Global Production Networks in Economic Geography? Past, Present and Future

Martin Hess

Henry Wai-chung Yeung



Rethinking relational economic geography

Henry Wai-chung Yeung




Towards a Relational Economic Geography: Old Wine in New Bottles?


Journal of Economic Geography 3 (2003) pp. 117–144



Relational and evolutionary economic geography: competing or complementary paradigms?

Robert Hassink and Claudia Klaerding




Towards an integrated Evolutionary and Relational Economic Geography approach

for analysing the evolution of destinations


Cinta Sanz‐Ibáñez,

Salvador Anton‐Clavé



Chains and networks, territories and scales: towards a relational framework for analysing the global economy




What Really Goes on in Silicon Valley? Spatial Clustering and Dispersal in Modular Production Networks

Timothy J. Sturgeon




Theoretical advancement in economic geography by engaged pluralism

Robert Hassink, Claudia Klaerding






The ‘relational turn’ in economic geography

Jeffrey S. Boggs  and Norma M. Rantisi



Manifesto for a Relational Sociology

Mustafa Emirbayer



Relational Economic Geography: A Partial Understanding
or a New Paradigm?

Peter Sunley



The Relational Economy : Geographies of Knowing and Learning

Harald Bathelt and Johannes Gluckler





Can we learn anything from economic geography proper?

Yes, we can!

Robert Hassink, Huiwen Gong, Fabian Faller





Accepted March 2011



Geographies of Production I:
Relationality revisited and the ‘practice shift’ in economic geography


Andrew Jones




Advancing evolutionary economic geography by engaged pluralism


Robert Hassink, Claudia Klaerding, Pedro Marque




Geographies of Production: Growth Regimes in Spatial Perspective 3 – Toward a Relational View of Economic Action and Policy

Harald Bathelt




Author: Mayank Chaturvedi

You can contact me using this email mchatur at the rate of AOL.COM. My professional profile is on

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