• Salzburg / Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
  • Salzburg at night / License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

What social geography reveals..

In his remarkable book "Generative Social Science – Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling" Joshua Epstein (2006: 5) posed the Generativist’s Question:

"How could the decentralized local interactions of heterogeneous agents generate the given regularity?"

The stimulating question and the quest of appropriate answers imply a couple of complementary and relational topics social geography is dealing with. One is the range of social units between individual and collective – be it local communities or regional, national or global societies. Another is (de-)cen-tralization: a plurality of scopes of freedom is embedded into centralized frames, bounded by social and legal norms, cultural ideologies, and economic patterns of behavior. Furthermore, heterogeneous agents at the micro level undergo a metamorphosis through aggregation leading to more or less homogeneous social-spatial entities, covering de facto inequalities of income, societal and economic participation, belongingness, recognition, and access to all kinds of markets. And regularity is, at least partly, associated with the perception of patterns – perceived not necessarily by the agents themselves, but from a second-order observation plateau.
All these notions, concepts and imaginations are part of a social geography which considers the relations or ties between society and space. In so doing, it oscillates theoretically and epistemologically from the very abstract – how to perceive, imagine, or reflect upon things which cannot be sensed directly – to the very concrete – how do poor immigrants live in an urban district of, say, London? According to Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social, 2005: 174) we are applying an infra-language, “… such as the weak terms of ‘group’, ‘actor’, ‘agency’, ‘translation’, and ‘fluid’. Like the notion of network, they don’t designate "what" is being mapped, but "how" it is possible to map anything from such a territory. They are part of the equipment lying on the geographer’s desk to allow him to project shapes on a sheet of paper”.
Thus, social geography should keep in mind some overarching assumptions we are persuaded of being relevant for scientific reasons: (1) a consequent model theoretical thinking. There is no such thing like ‘reality’; we are always dealing with models which refer to other models representing an original but no absolute truth or reality. (2) Context(ualization) is relevant even if we cannot redraw a holistic network of relationships. An action, an association, a global debate: each time we achieve a good understanding if we create contexts between and among entities. (3) Scale matters! And: draw a distinction! Contexts, entities, relations, and interdependencies change by a variation of scale – and scale is meant as a threefold unification of spatial, temporal and social differences.

To put it in a nutshell: “Geography is intrinsically a hermeneutic science; it makes relationships visible. What geography reveals, it does so in a context” (Elmar Holenstein in his Philosophie-Atlas, 2004 (in German)).

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