Doreen Massey

65, is professor of geography at the Open University (OU) and has authored nearly 30 books and published numerous research papers
Focuses of her work have ranged from industrial location and regional inequality to globalisation and understanding space, place and politics. As she prepares to step down from her 27-year post at the OU, she talks to Natalie Hoare about bridging the divide between human and physical geography, and her recent work with in Venezuela.

I was born in Manchester and spent most of my childhood in Wythenshawe, which, at the time, was the biggest council estate in the world. Being born there absolutely influenced my career, as it meant that I was brought up with a strong consciousness about industrial location, regional inequalities and the unfairness of it all.

I chose to study geography at A-level even though it was by no means my best subject. I had a great teacher and there was something about geography that I had hooked into from an early age. I was lucky because we always had an atlas and a small globe in the house, which helped me develop a real appreciation of the variety of the world, which I’ve never lost.

I was tempted to do physical geography [at university], and I still retain a great interest in it. It disappoints me that geography has not, as yet, involved as much crossover between human and physical as it might. Every now and then, I try to think across that divide in the things that I write. It should be one of geography’s trump cards that we have both sides within one discipline and, increasingly, we’re trying to talk across the divide, which is great.

I was somewhat put off being an academic at an early age. I left university without doing any postgraduate work at all, even though I got a first. As a working-class girl, I hadn’t liked what I had seen of the academy: it seemed so elitist, male and comfortable in its assumptions. So, I joined a research institute [the Centre for Environmental Studies] and worked there from 1968 until it was abolished by the newly arrived Margaret Thatcher [in 1979], who thought it was far too left wing.

I became very critical of the dominant industrial location theory of that day for its basis in neoclassical economics. But, I hadn’t done neoclassical economics. So on the basis of ‘know what you think is your enemy’, I went to the University of Pennsylvania and did an MA in regional science, which included a lot of mathematical neoclassical economics. I came back and wrote a critique of industrial location theory that kick-started a long career.

During the late 1960s and early ’70s, I was very much influenced by left-wing theorising. I wanted to be an intellectual who had lots of publicly and politically important things to say from a geographical perspective. But it’s difficult to get paid for that! Then, a job came up at the Open University (OU), which solved my problems. It allows one to be an intellectual, of course, and its mission is progressive in a general sense. Also, it was just a lot less snooty – so it was perfect.

I’ve never done a PhD, which is unusual, and I’m not even sure whether you could get away with it now. Today what we have is a kind of Fordist production line of academics. But the irony now is that, in my dotage, I’m beginning to get honorary doctorates!

I’ve recently been involved with the revolution in Venezuela, where [President] Hugo Chávez had taken up my concept of power geometries to try to reinvigorate and redesign democracy. In the period since he came to power, there has been a huge experiment with different ways of giving people a voice and altering the geography of power.

I have spent a little time there and written academic papers, done TV interviews  and spoken at popular meetings at night under palm trees. I wrote a pamphlet to explain to ordinary Venezuelans what power geometry is about, how space is imbued with power, and about how power has geographies. It’s incredible to think that what I was struggling to say at that time caught the imagination of Chávez and the group of people around him.

There is still the perception among some people that geography is boys conquering the world by various strange means. TV programmes can give this image. It does make me despair, partly because it’s so laddish, and completely misses what geography has to offer, but also because it’s such a disrespectful view of the planet – not only to the people already there, but also because it resonates with that imperialist view that we have a right to go anywhere and treat the world as our playground. That really worries me.

CV

1944 Born in Manchester
1966 First-class BA (Hons) in geography, University of Oxford
1968–80 Principal scientific officer, Centre for Environmental Studies
1972 Master’s degree in regional science, University of Pennsylvania
1982–present Professor of geography, Open University
1980–83 Fellow of Social Science Research Council
1982–87 Member of Greater London Enterprise Board
1989–93, 2008–present Honorary vice president, Geographical Association
1994 Awarded Victoria Medal by the Royal Geographical Society
1998 Awarded Lauréat Prix International de Géographie Vautrin Lud
2003 Awarded Anders Retzius Gold Medal by the Swedish Society
for Anthropology and Geography; awarded Centenary Medal by
the Royal Scottish Geographical Society
2006 Awarded honorary DSc by the University of Edinburgh

December 2009

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