Why Scale Theorising Matters?

A Critical Review of Different Approaches to Scale

Aidin Torkameh

PhD Student in Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada


1. Introduction:


The 1990s witnessed the growth of an extensive literature on scale. Since then, different concepts have been developed in dealing with the scale question: “politics of scale”, “scale jumping” etc. Each represents a particular epistemological perspective which is associated with a particular ontology. Existing theoretical approaches on scale and related themes including globalization and neoliberalism, are categorized into two major classes: poststructuralist approaches (which are mainly manifested in non-dialectical feminist and postcolonial approaches) which have been defined in contrast to Marxist (political-economic) approaches. In a more philosophically charged manner, we can name these two strands as an epistemological approach versus an ontological one. Poststructuralists, in contrast to a political-economic approach, consider scale as an epistemological construct fundamentally, rather than something that has an ontological existence. The political-economic approaches are mainly materialist, and the poststructuralist approaches are largely idealist in nature. The political-economic approach states that scale is socially “produced”, however the poststructuralist approach contends that scale is socially “constructed”.

Interestingly, ontological and epistemological strands are mainly associated with the concept of the production of scale and the construction of scale respectively. For the purpose of this paper, I will limit my focus to address the core of political-economic (largely Marxist) approaches on the one hand, and the poststructuralist approaches on the other. Apart from Lefebvre, that is the main figure in scale theorizing, other key figures of the Marxist approaches include Taylor (1981), Smith (1984), Swyngedouw (1997). On the other side, poststructuralist scholars include Marston (2000, 2001), Cox (1998) (he is a Marxist scholar but his dealing with the scale comes mainly from a hybrid/combinatory standpoint that places him on the poststructuralist side), Latham (2002) (based on Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Bruno Latour) and Buckley and Strauss (2016) (a mix of feminism and post-colonialism).

It seems that certain theoretical confusions have become prevalent within major strands of the existing literature on the scale. In this paper, the most central question is as follows: Is scale, in the final analysis, as an epistemological device or an ontological entity? There is an interrelated question here too: What are the political consequences of these representations? In the following, based on such a classification, the political-economic and poststructuralist approaches to scale are explained concisely. It should be noted that such a classification is not rigid and inflexible. As we will see, there are overlaps between the different perspectives.


To begin with, since it seems that scale conceptualizing is fundamentally related to space theorizing, I will briefly outline Lefebvre’s conceptualization of the production of space. According to Lefebvre, contemporary capitalism has produced an abstract space which is a reflection of the world and of the power of money and the state. (Lefebvre, 2009, p.187) Space as a whole is utilized to produce surplus value. The ground, the underground, the air, and even light enter into both the productive forces and the products. The city and its various installations (ports, train stations, etc.) are part of capital. (Ibid, p.187) “We have passed from the production of things in space to the production of space itself.” (Elden, 2007, p.108) The globalization of capitalism has entailed an epochal transformation from the production of individual commodities in space to the production of space itself, a “second nature” of territorial infrastructures, spatial configurations and institutions through which capital is valorized (Lefebvre, 1991, pp.26, 36–37, 89, quoted in Brenner, 1997, p.142.)


Space is a social product. In order to understand this fundamental thesis we must break with the prevalent understanding of space as an independent material entity existing “in itself.” Lefebvre, in contrast, using the above concept of the production of space, theoretically explains that space “in itself” can never serve as an epistemological starting point. Space does not exist “in itself”; rather it is produced. (Schmid, 2008, p.28)


The Lefebvrian schema sees a unity between physical, mental, and social space. Space is constituted of three moments: perceived, conceived, and lived. As Elden (2007, p.110-111) elucidates, the first of these takes space as physical form. The second is the space of formal knowledge and logic, of maps and mathematics; that is to say, the instrumental space of social engineers and urban planners. In fact, this space is a mental construct. The third is space as produced and modified over time and through its use, spaces full of symbolism and meaning, the space of less formal or more local forms of knowledge. Space is a totality of these distinct but interrelated moments/elements. Here, the stratified and multi-layered nature of Lefebvre’s ontology – manifested in his concept of the production of space – is apparent. This is where Lefebvre and Bhaskar mutually reinforce one another. There is an implicit correspondence between Lefebvre’s space and Bhaskar’s reality. Stressing the need to retain both the subjective, epistemological or 'transitive' side of knowledge and the objective, ontological or 'intransitive' side, Bhaskar developed a theory of social science which would sustain the reality of the objects of science, and their knowability. What emerged was a marriage of ontological realism with epistemological relativism, forming an objectivist theory of knowledge. Bhaskar's main strategy was to argue that reality has depth, and that knowledge can penetrate deeply into reality, without ever reaching the bottom. Bhaskar has said that he was arguing for an ontology of stratified emergence and differentiated structure, which supported the ontological reality of causal powers independent of their empirical effects; such a move opened up the possibility for a non-positivistic account of causal explanation in the social domain. Bhaskar’s critical realism and Lefebvre’s production of space have something in common in terms of ontology. Both emphasize a stratified and multi-level world. Their ontologies demonstrate the necessity of the levels of analysis based on the stratified nature of the world.

2. Different approaches to scale:

2.1. Political-economic approach:

Political-economic approaches are mainly concerned with the social production of scales as material entities, emerging from the Marxist and specifically Lefebvrian project of uncovering the social production of space under capitalism. According to Lefebvre’s ‘principle of superimposition and interpenetration of social spaces’ (cited in Brenner, 2000, p.369), geographical scales cannot be understood in isolation from one another, as mutually exclusive or additive containers; rather they constitute deeply intertwined moments and levels of a single worldwide sociospatial totality. Geographical scale thus must be recognized as one crucially important dimension of geographical differentiation, a hierarchically ordered system of provisionally bounded ‘space envelopes’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p.351) that are in turn situated within a broader, polymorphic and multifaceted geographical field. (Brenner, 2001, p.604) Within contemporary capitalism, traditional Euclidian, Cartesian and Westphalian notions of geographical scale as a fixed, bounded, and pre-given container or platform for geographical processes, are no longer relevant. (Ibid, p.592)


Drawing upon world-systems analysis, Taylor (1981) for example, argued that particular scales take on certain roles under capitalism. Specifically, he maintained that the global scale is the “scale of reality,” on which capitalism is organized; the national scale is the “scale of ideology,” on which the capitalist class primarily promulgates class-dividing ideologies (such as nationalism); and the urban scale is the “scale of experience,” where everyday life is primarily lived. (Herod, 2011, p.7) Neil Smith (1990, p.172) has introduced the highly processual concepts of the ‘politics of scale’, and ‘scale jumping’. Whereas Smith (1984) had previously analyzed geographical scales as platforms for capital circulation, since the early 1990s he began to broaden his approach in order to theorize the role of geographical scales as a framework for a broad range of phenomena, from capital accumulation and state regulation to social reproduction, gender relations, oppositional mobilization and subjective identity. The notion of the ‘politics of scale’ has subsequently been deployed by other radical geographers with reference to an immense range of concrete sociopolitical processes, strategies and struggles. (Brenner, 2001, p.599)


Whilst writers such as Taylor and Smith were arguing for a materialist understanding of scale, the 1980s also witnessed a growth of a language of spatial metaphor in the humanities and social sciences – the growth associated with the influence of postmodernism and, especially, feminism – in which themes of “subject positionality,” “marginal spaces,” “sites of identity,” and others became popular in discussing both identities and potential political strategies. (Herod, 2011, p.13) (See for example Marston (2000, 2001), Latham (2002), and Buckley and Strauss (2016)) The growing debate stems from these early discussions, largely between materialists and idealists, about spatial scales’ ontological status.

2.2. Poststructuralist approach:

In response to criticism that much theorizing had been capital-centric and seemed to suggest that it would be possible to “read off” various scales’ production simply by understanding the logic of capital dynamics (Herod, 2011, p.16), there was some significant consideration given to how a more nuanced understanding of scale-making might be developed. Much of this reassessment focused on what Delaney and Leitner (1997) called “the construction of scale,” in contrast to “the production of scale,” with the term “construction” being used largely to refer to a “non-capital-centric” approach to scale-making, in contradistinction to approaches which saw scales as being produced out of the internal machinations of capital itself. (Ibid)

Poststructuralist approaches accordingly view scale as fundamentally an epistemological construct, rather than as something that has an ontological existence. Based on such an interpretation, scale theory is reduced to an arbitrary selection between different metaphors. Jonas (2006, p.402) points out that, paradoxically, short of a world in which no concepts or points of view are privileged and all are equally valued, Marston et al.’s somehow postmodernist position could be interpreted as simply privileging different concepts from those hitherto allegedly privileged. (Herod, 2011, p.34) The importance of different scalar representations, then, is not that they are necessarily reflective of some underlying material reality but, rather, that they provide an entry point for engaging with the material world. (Ibid, p.46)

3. Epistemological and ontological assumptions:

Poststructuralists, as Mackinnon (2010, p.26) states, view scale only as a representational device or discursive frame deployed by different actors and groups as they seek to gain particular forms of recognition and advantage. As is evident, scale theorizing in this sense has been reduced and limited to an arbitrariness. In this sense, the distinction between theory and practice is eliminated, the stratified nature of the world overlooked, and theory loses its meaning. This superficial understanding is best embodied in Marston’s ‘flat ontologies’ (Marston et al., 2005) which reject all kinds of scalar thinking.

It seems that the poststructuralist approach to scale has emanated from a superficial reading of the political-economic approach. For example, as Kaiser and Nikiforova (2008) and Moore (2008) said, the political-economy literature ultimately tends to reify and essentialize scales. Physical size is still privileged over social institutions and state jurisdictions, heralding a return of spatial fetishism. (Cited in Mackinnon, 2010, p.23). However, it seems that such a criticism is not meaningful. As Brenner (cited in MacKinnon, 2010, p.26) emphasizes, this charge is based upon a rather selective reading of the political-economic literature which dissolves the tension between fluidity and fixity in favor of the latter, equating the use of terms such as ‘material’ and ‘real’ with reification. (Ibid, p.24) In other words, according to their somehow ideological and therefore unrealistic opposition to the Marxist camp, they have introduced and expanded an ideological account of scale which, because of its non-scientific nature, has turned out reductionist. To put it more precisely, the poststructuralist approach is an exact representative of an arbitrary way of theorizing which imposes mentality to the reality. By doing so, the poststructuralist approach paralyzes itself at the outset because it is unable to gain an appropriate knowledge of scale as its subject matter.

As mentioned, despite some conceptual overlaps between political-economic and poststructuralist approaches there is a fundamental difference between them in terms of their ontology. Political-economic approaches understand scale first and foremost as an ontological phenomenon which in some accounts – especially Lefebvrian – is internally connected with the logic of capital. As a result, their epistemology is rooted in a particular ontology which recognizes scale not merely as a mental construction but rather as a social reality which exists ontologically. This social being/phenomenon necessarily entails a particular epistemology. In fact, the political-economic approaches, specifically the Lefebvrian approach, in contrast to the poststructuralist approaches, which consider scale just as a mental construct, demonstrate that conceptualizing scale cannot be only a subjective process. Scale in this account, has a social reality which is not reducible to human mentality and discourse and has a structural reality. Methodologically speaking, it can be argued that the political-economic approaches, in a sharp contrast to the poststructuralist ones, are mainly dialectical.


4. Political consequences:

The establishment and reorganization of scalar hierarchies creates geographies of inclusion/exclusion and domination/subordination which empower some actors, alliances, and organizations at the expense of others, according to class, gender, race/ethnicity and nationality. Such scalar hierarchies may operate not merely as arenas of social power struggles but also as their very objects. As Swyngedouw (1997, p.141) has suggested, ‘the continuous reorganization of spatial scales is an integral part of social strategies and struggles for control and empowerment.’ Concomitantly, Smith (1993, p.101, cited in Brenner, 2001, p.607-8), said ‘The scale of struggle and the struggle over scale are two sides of the same coin.’


Swyngedouw, like poststructuralists, argues (1997, p.11) that scale is not ontologically given, but is socio-environmentally mobilized through socio-spatial power struggles. Scale in this sense can never be the starting point for sociospatial theory because it is always under contestation. (Herod, 2011, p.19, 44) Poststructuralist visions on scale may have some “seemingly” progressive political consequences. But the problem is that poststructuralist approaches, although emphasize on the “process-based-ness” of the scale, may lead to a reductionist understanding of the real structural process of scale producing. Poststructuralist approaches are suffering from a shortsightedness. To put it more precisely, they fall into an epistemic fallacy that, as Collier (2003, p.2) said, is the tendency to reduce questions about what is – here, scale as a being – to questions about what can be known – here, our knowledge about scale. According to Bhaskar (2008, p.5) this epistemic fallacy means that statements about being can always be transposed and reduced into or analyzed in terms of statements about our knowledge of being. As ontology cannot be reduced to epistemology, this mistake merely covers the generation of an implicit ontology based on the category of experience; and an implicit realism based on the presumed characteristics of the objects of experience, viz. atomistic events.


What is important here is that the epistemic fallacy regarding the scale question can lead to a situation in which the researcher/agent cannot see the structural levels and logics of reality which are independent of human existence. Such an approach is based on an anthropocentrism which tries to understand the world only through a mental and epistemological lens. Accordingly, this poststructuralist approach tends to flatten the world and disregard different levels of reality. By reducing and limiting the world’s levels into a simple one-dimensional flattened caricature, it is obvious that we cannot achieve a progressive theory and practice. To develop a progressive and emancipatory theory and practice, first of all we need to be able to grasp an adequate and precise/rigorous knowledge about our subject matter. It is necessary to draw attention to the world as it is. In this sense, the historical geography of the last decades - which is known under different titles including the geo-economic project of neoliberalism, global restructuring, or planetary urbanization - is of most importance. This reality should be the main object of understanding, conceptualizing and analysis in scale studies. Otherwise, by understanding theory only as a metaphorical/mental construct, our understanding of social phenomena like scale will be based on one-sided and reductionist representations of the world which can be easily used to reproduce the current undemocratic condition.

Accordingly, as has been noted, although capitalism has long been differentiated into scalar hierarchies, it can be argued that the current period of global restructuring, which some called it the geo-economic project of neoliberalism, originated in the global economic crises of the early 1970s. I think that it can be best conceptualized and explained under ‘planetary urbanization’ and is marked by particularly profound transformations of scalar organization. These transformations have led to a rescaling and/or reterritorialization of global space. Following this tendency, new scalar hierarchies are formed in which unrestricted capital mobility, unfettered market relations, intensified commodification are to be permanently institutionalized, consolidated and reproduced. These are all reminiscent of Lefebvre’s concept of production of space in newly emergent urban conditions.

Lefebvre (cited in Brenner, 1997, p.143) conceives of social space as a scaffolding of spatial scales (global, national, urban) upon which capitalism has been continually territorialized, de-territorialized, and reterritorialized. He insists that contemporary capitalism, as a mode of production of space, can only be understood adequately on a global scale, the final spatial frontier for capital. The concept of the world is always already inherent to capital; and thus it is capital that globalizes/spatializes, or “worlds”. One of Lefebvre’s central arguments in De l’État (cited in Brenner, 1997, p.150) is that the process of globalization – which is essentially a rescaling process in the course of the capitalist production of space, and which we can call the dominant mode of spatialization – cannot be reliably grasped independently of the role of the state in producing and organizing the spatial scales on which capital accumulation occurs. In other words, globalization is mainly a rescaling process. Hence, the globalization of capital and the re-scaling of state territorial power are viewed as two intrinsically related processes. Urbanization constitutes a third fundamental dimension of globalization (Brenner, 1997, p.139). Then it is reasonable and necessary that we conceptualize scale in this ontological/relational context. As we can see, scale is an ontological moment of the current mode of production of space. And, since the current mode of production of space is rooted in the capital logic, conceptualizing scale on the basis of such an ontological foundation is inevitable. It is in this sense that I insist on the ontological relation of space and scale. Given this argument, scale theorizing is principally related to the production of space as its ontological context.

Explicitly defending a flat ontology, poststructuralist approaches, put aside these aforementioned ontological realities and thus are unable to grasp the material/ontological existence of scale. They fail to conceptualize scale in its totality namely in its interrelatedness with capital and state. In this way, these approaches can lead to a flattened image of the world in which all elements, events, process, phenomenon have equal importance. In other words, all social phenomena have one and the same ontological status. It is then possible that by referring to and employing a flat ontology, some powerful groups try to promote and justify the existing spatial inequalities in the world at the expense of the poor. They argue that there is not a hierarchical order of power and therefore, it is not necessary to draw attention to nor conceptualize this issue. Such an ideological line of thinking is very widespread in mainstream discourse. Just for example, some so-called participatory ways of planning, by using a similar theoretical framework, reduce planning to a mere abstract dialogue between fictitiously equal individuals. They are unable to understand the hierarchies of power relations and consequently render any planning and or decision-making processes completely devoid of meaning.

According to the political-economic approach, there is a fundamental geographical tension at play within the very structure of capital itself which leads to the production of various geographical scales. (Herod, 2011, p.8) As Brenner (1997, p.152) said, the reconfiguration of social space on all scales becomes a fundamental prerequisite for all forms of transformative politics, the geographical basis on which the possibilities latent within capitalism could be actualized in everyday praxis. The principle function of the state is no longer simply to secure growth, but to reproduce the relations of domination which is performed through the production of scale. In a Lefebvrian term, through the organization of space, the territorial state becomes a crucial “pivot” mediating between global capital accumulation, urbanization, and everyday life. Insofar as the isomorphic link between territory and state sovereignty is today being unbundled, emergent political geographies can no longer be represented adequately through the traditional Westphalian image of a single sovereign state apparatus that is identical in both size and form with society. (Brenner, 1997, p.156). It shows that we need to critically theorize scale in accordance with the new emergent social condition. To critically theorize scale and consequently to produce new political geographies – geographies which are more democratic and more emancipatory – it is needed to first of all, to demolish the prevalent concepts and definitions of scale. Since as we discussed, scale is internally – i.e. ontologically – related to capitalistic production of space, its theorizing should be based on this ontology of space. Then, first and foremost, we need to understand that social space as Lefebvre emphasized, is a social product. In order to understand this fundamental thesis it is necessary to eliminate the predominant understanding of space as an independent material entity existing “in itself.” Using the concept of the production of space, we can demonstrate that space “in itself” can never function as an epistemological starting point. Space does not exist “in itself”; it is produced. Because of their flattened and thus fictitious ontology, prevalent poststructuralist-inspired approaches to scale prevent us from proceeding with this essential task.

5. Conclusion:

What is scale in the final analysis? Employing Lefebvre’s insights, it is argued that scale is fully understandable only on an ontological basis and in association with some internally related concepts, most importantly capital, urbanization, state, and space. In a poststructuralist approach to scale, which is philosophically rooted in a Kantian conception of space, space and consequently scale are considered only as epistemological devices. In other words, scale is a social and subjective construction which human minds create intentionally as conceptual instruments. Therefore, there is not any material equivalence for these categories in the real world. On the other side, Lefebvre’s three-dimensional approach to space states that space has a processual and relational existence on an ontological level. For Lefebvre, space is simultaneously material, mental and social. In fact, Lefebvre’s approach to space which is also manifested in his conceptualization of scale encompasses both so-called constructivist and materialist conceptions in a dialectical way. Lefebvre’s ‘production of space’ thus transcends mainstream constructed/mental divisions between production and construction. As he insists, space is a whole which is comprised of three dialectically interrelated moments. Accordingly, any separation between production and construction – which is dominant in scale literature – is non-dialectical and reductionist. Lefebvre’s production of space, reinforced by Bhaskar’s understanding of layered ontology, provides an appropriate theoretical basis for a unitary theory of scale which simultaneously comprises the epistemological/mental and ontological/material elements or moments in their internal relations.



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