Theorizing Socio-Spatial Relations

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Theorizing socio-spatial relations’ (B. Jessop, N. Brenner and M.R. Jones), Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 26 (3), 389-401, 2008.


This essay seeks to reframe recent debates on sociospatial theory through the introduction of an approach that can grasp the inherently polymorphic, multidimensional character of sociospatial relations. As previous advocates of a scalar turn, we now question the privileging, in any form, of a single dimension of sociospatial processes, scalar or otherwise. We consider several recent sophisti- cated `turns’ within critical social science; explore their methodological limitations; and highlight several important strands of sociospatial theory that seek to transcend the latter. On this basis, we argue for a more systematic recognition of polymorphyöthe organization of sociospatial relations in multiple formsöwithin sociospatial theory. Specifically, we suggest that territories (T), places (P), scales (S), and networks (N) must be viewed as mutually constitutive and relationally intertwined dimensions of sociospatial relations. We present this proposition as an extension of recent contribu- tions to the spatialization of the strategic-relational approach (SRA), and we explore some of its methodological implications. We conclude by briefly illustrating the applicability of the `TPSN framework’ to several realms of inquiry into sociospatial processes under contemporary capitalism.


Lively debates on the spatiality of social relations occur regularly in the social sciences. However, these debates often run their course without major impact on empirical inquiries into matters spatial, especially where they appear too abstract, abstruse, or one-dimensional to bear on concrete research. This essay seeks to reframe these debates. As previous advocates of a scalar turn, we now question the privileging, in any form, of a single dimension of socio-spatial relations, scalar or otherwise.[1] We believe that this contributes to an unreflexive ‘churning’ of spatial turns, leading to short intellectual product life cycles for key socio-spatial concepts, limiting opportunities for learning through theoretical debate, empirical analysis, and critical evaluation of such concepts. The limits of one-dimensionalism are also reflected in several methodological tendencies in contemporary socio-spatial theory, including: theoretical amnesia and exaggerated claims to conceptual innovation; the use of chaotic concepts rather than rational abstractions; overextension of concepts and their imprecise application; concept-refinement to the neglect of empirical evaluation; and an appeal to loosely defined metaphors over rigorously demarcated research strategies.[2] After sketching these problems and their reflection in more or less one-sided analyses, we argue for a more systematic recognition of polymorphy – the organization of socio-spatial relations in multiple forms and dimensions – in socio-spatial theory.

Successive Socio-Spatial ‘Turns’ and their Limitations

Several explicit spatial turns have occurred during the last 30 years across various disciplines. Each has attempted to reveal the unstated, and often problematic, spatial assumptions underpinning social scientific inquiries; and to elaborate a more adequate account of socio-spatial relations. In particular, four distinct spatial lexicons have been developed by social scientists over the last 30 years: territory, place, scale, and network (Dicken et al., 2001; Paasi 2004; Sheppard 2002). These are associated with specific spatial turns and, although they problematize different issues, they are actually closely intertwined theoretically and empirically. Whatever the substantive, methodological and political differences among contemporary theorists of territory, place, scale and networks, interest in these issues has been tightly linked to efforts to decipher large-scale transformations of socio-spatial organization, particularly those associated with the crisis of North Atlantic Fordism, the intensification of ‘globalization’, and the concomitant restructuring of inherited geographies of capital accumulation, state regulation, urbanization, social reproduction and socio-political struggle.[3]

Initially, in conjunction with studies of spatial divisions of labor and local and regional economic restructuring during the 1980s, inherited views of place as a fixed, areal, self-contained, and more or less unique unit of socio-spatial organization were rejected. Instead, places were increasingly understood as relationally constituted, polyvalent processes embedded in broader sets of social relations (Cresswell 2004; Hudson 2002; Massey 1994, 1984).

Attention then turned to the implicit assumption that the territorialization of political power was established around national boundaries by national states and also served to define societies as nationally bounded. This was reflected in growing interest, from the late 1980s, in the now familiar claim that the Westphalian nexus between national territory and sovereignty has been subject to ‘unbundling’ (Agnew and Corbridge 1994; Taylor 1994). Contentious but productive discussions regarding the changing territorialities – and, more generally, the spatialities – of statehood followed (Brenner et al., 2003).

The 1990s saw a more controversial turn to scale, provoked through efforts to decipher how inherited global, national, regional and local relations were being recalibrated through capitalist restructuring and state retrenchment. It addressed the (potentially tangled and non-convergent) processes of scale-making and scale-jumping, and their impact on the hierarchical (re-)differentiation among various intertwined forms of socio-spatial organization such as capitalist economies, state institutions, citizenship regimes and urban systems (Collinge 1999; Smith 1995; Swyngedouw 1997). This helped generate a new lexicon of geographical scale with which scholars could investigate diverse rescaling processes and scale jumping practices in historical and contemporary perspective (Keil and Mahon 2008; Sheppard and McMaster 2004).

Most recently, scholars have focused on networks, stressing transversal, ‘rhizomatic’ forms of interspatial interconnectivity (Castells 1996; Amin 2002; Taylor 2004). Research on the geographies of networks has become robust in various social-scientific fields, with specific reference to investigations, for example, of commodity chains, inter-firm interdependencies, governance systems, inter-urban relations and social movements (Grabher 2006). This has fed into broader theoretical debates regarding the conceptualization of emergent network geographies and their relation to inherited territorial, place-based and scalar formations (Amin 2004; Marston et al. 2005).

In part, the succession of relatively distinct debates on territory, place, scale and networks reflects differences in research object, shifts in their relative importance in different research fields and historical contexts, and, to some extent, intellectual fashion cycles. While we recognize this, it is surprising, from our present perspective, how far work in socio-spatial theory is concerned with fine-tuning and applying conceptual tools associated with one or another ‘turn’ rather than with exploring the mutually constitutive relations among those categories and their respective empirical objects. As noted, the four strands of socio-spatial research have endeavored to question inherited, unreflexive geographical assumptions, to criticize earlier spatial turns, or to decipher major structural transformations and strategic reorientations of economic, political, and socio-cultural geographies. Unfortunately, however, advocates of a given turn are often tempted to focus on one dimension of spatial relations, neglecting the role of other forms of socio-spatial organization as presuppositions, arenas and products of social action.  Worse still, some scholars ontologically privilege a single dimension, presenting it as the essential feature of a (current or historical) socio-spatial landscape. In most cases this over-ontologizes questions that are best resolved in more concrete-complex terms. Such attempts to establish the primacy of a given socio-spatial dimension tend to expand its analytical and empirical scope to encompass an ever broadening range of phenomena. The carefully defined abstractions of territory, place, scale and network are thus rendered increasingly imprecise, and may even be transformed into chaotic conceptions.[4]

One-dimensionalism is evident in all four socio-spatial lexicons, albeit in different forms and to different degrees. Each falls into the trap of conflating a part (territory, place, scale or networks) with the whole (the totality of sociospatial organization), whether due to conceptual imprecision, an overly narrow analytical focus, or the embrace of an untenable ontological (quasi-)reductionism. This trap is notoriously present in methodological territorialism, which subsumes all aspects of socio-spatial relations under the rubric of territoriality. This is manifested, for instance, in state-centric approaches to globalization studies and in narrowly territorialist understandings of cities, states and the world economy (for critiques, see Brenner 2004; and Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002). An equivalent fallacy is place-centrism, which treats places as discrete, more or less self-contained, more or less self-identical ensembles of social-ecological interactions and/or conceives socio-spatial relations principally through the lexicon of place. It thereby fails to consider how processes of place-production are constitutively intertwined with the territorial, scalar and networked dimensions of socio-spatial relations (see, critically, Massey 1994). Concomitantly, scale-centrism treats scale as the primary basis around which other dimensions of socio-spatial relations are organized, or alternatively, focuses one-sidedly on scale, even in the context of analyses that seek to extend and complexify this particular concept (see, for example, Marston 2000; Marston and Smith 2001; for a critique see Brenner 2001). Finally, network-centrism entails a one-sided focus on horizontal, rhizomatic, topological and transversal interconnections of networks, frictionless spaces of flows and accelerating mobilities (Castells 1996; Sheller and Urry 2006). Of course, networks, flows and mobilities matter, and they may also have become more important during the last three decades of restructuring. But where this is the case, it would not justify the adoption of a ‘flat ontology’ as the exclusive basis for socio-spatial investigations (Jones et al., 2007; Marston et al., 2005).

For us, socio-spatial theory is most powerful when it (a) refers to historically specific geographies of social relations; and (b) explores contextual and historical variation in the structural coupling, strategic coordination and forms of interconnection among the different dimensions of the latter (Brenner 2008; Jessop 2008; Jones and MacLeod 2004; MacLeod and Jones 2007). Focusing on a single dimension may be justified as a simple entry point into a more complex inquiry but this requires reflexive attention to combining different dimensions of socio-spatial analysis with other features of the research object in question. Indeed, as one moves towards increasingly ‘thick description’ and/or tries to provide spatially sensitive explanations of more concrete-complex phenomena, analyses should involve the dynamic articulation of at least two or more among the four dimensions.

Acknowledgment of this is reflected in two theoretical and methodological counter-trends that have emerged at the margins of recent socio-spatial debates and have recently begun to acquire greater prominence. First, a number of scholars have begun actively and reflexively to investigate two or more dimensions of socio-spatial relations. Examples of this trend include: Sheppard’s (2002) analysis of positionality within places, scales and networks under conditions of globalization; Dicken et al.’s (2001) demonstration that global commodity chains and inter-firm networks are simultaneously scaled and territorialized; Paasi’s (2002) account of how regional identities are institutionalized through interaction among place-making, scaling and territorialization processes; and Bulkeley’s (2005) investigation of environmental governance as an ensemble of scaling and networking strategies. Second, there is a growing use of neologisms that imply the mutual imbrication of two or more socio-spatial dimensions. Examples include: glocalization, glurbanization, neo-medievalism, territorial networks, scaled places, virtual regions, polynucleated cities, graduated sovereignty, network states, multi-level governance, global city hierarchies, ‘networked glocal enclaves’ (Bunnell and Coe 2005: 834), and ‘a network-archipelago of grand poles’ (Veltz 1996: 6). These counter-trends take up the challenge of developing complex-concrete analyses that are systematically, reflexively attuned to the polymorphy of socio-spatial relations.

The TPSN Framework

Our own starting point for theorizing polymorphy in socio-spatial relations is a heuristic perspective that, due to its focus on territory (T), place (P), scale (S) and networks (N), may be termed the TPSN framework. These are not the only four (or only important) spatial dimensions of social relations, but they are arguably the most salient in work on contemporary political-economic restructuring.[5] Adopting this perspective cannot, in itself, resolve the problems associated with one-dimensionalism – it is merely the first step in confronting them. Figure1 presents the principles associated with each dimension of socio-spatial relations and specifies their consequences for the patterning of those relations.

E-2008c TPSN-Final Figure2

Figure 1. Four Key Dimensions of Sociospatial Relations

This figure mainly serves definitional and pedagogic purposes. Figure 2 indicates how one-dimensionalism arises from taking an abstract-simple entry-point and then, through conflation, essentialism, or fetishism, remaining on this terrain. Accordingly, however concrete the analysis may have become, it remains confined within a one-dimensional framework.

Such problems can be avoided through more systematic, reflexive investigations of the interconnections among the aforementioned spatial dimensions of social relations – i.e., the mutually constitutive relations among their respective structuring principles and the specific practices associated with each of the latter. This would enable movement towards a multidimensional, polymorphous account based on (a) the elaboration of sufficiently rich concepts for each of the dimensions of socio-spatial relations; and (b) their deployment in a manner that permits researchers to explore more precisely their differential weighting and articulation in a given spatio-temporal context. Failure to pursue this strategy can lead to two distinct but symmetrical types of quasi-reduction to one-dimensional analyses. Both types occur when the conceptual and theoretical framework for exploring one aspect of a complex phenomenon has greater precision, depth and breadth than the frameworks developed for other aspects.

E-2008c TPSN-Final Figure1

Figure 2. The Sites of One-Dimensionalism

In the first type, the relative descriptive and explanatory power of the more differentiated, comprehensive framework ‘crowds out’ a proper concern with details and mechanisms linked to other dimensions. In this situation, even when scholars recognize two or more spatial dimensions of social relations, they lack the theoretical and empirical tools required to examine their respective contributions to a given object of inquiry. The second type of error occurs when the one-dimensional character of a socio-spatial analysis compromises understanding even of that aspect of socio-spatial relations which is most differentiated and fully elaborated. In such cases, the complexities of this latter dimension are reduced to mere details or mediations of one of the less well-specified dimensions.[6]

Both types of one-dimensionalism are theoretically questionable. While, as some contemporary socio-spatial theorists have appropriately insisted, there can be no privileged God’s eye perspective on social dynamics, this claim does not preclude and, indeed, underscores the need for, the development of appropriately rich – and commensurable – vocabularies for each of the four dimensions of socio-spatial relations. It also suggests the importance of developing more complex categories reflecting different types of articulation and disarticulation among these four dimensions, with the goal of producing thick descriptions and more concrete-complex explanations for given research objects.[7]

This is a counsel of perfection that requires a spiral movement as first one and then another moment of the spatiality of social relations is stressed. Investigators could thereby explore the social world from different entry points whilst still ending with complex-concrete analyses in which each moment finds its appropriate descriptive-cum-explanatory weight (for some methodological foundations, see Bertramsen et al., 1991: 122-141; Jessop 2007: 225-233; Sayer 2000: 86-96, 108-130). This spiral movement from the abstract-simple to the concrete-complex would also need to consider the logic and dynamics of historically feasible TSPN combinations, understood with reference to (a) the landscapes of territory, place, scale and networks inherited from earlier socio-spatial relations; and (b) emergent strategies oriented towards the transformation of such landscapes – whether through new forms of territorialization, place-making, scaling and networking, or through new combinations thereof. In short, the actualization of specific socio-spatial possibilities, in any TPSN combination, involves material interactions among different structures and strategies that draw upon these principles of socio-spatial organization in differential, historically and geographically specific ways. This structuration process imposes determinate limits on the form, shape and trajectory of present and future TPSN combinations and on the socio-spatial relations through which they are mediated, produced and transformed. Our approach also rejects any premature harmonization of contradictions and conflicts through the postulation of a well-ordered, eternally reproducible configuration of socio-spatial relations. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of contradictions, conflicts, dilemmas, marginalization, exclusion and volatility, at once within and among each of these socio-spatial forms.

A Strategic-Relational Approach to TPSN configurations

These considerations are grounded upon, and also extend, the strategic-relational approach (or SRA) that has underpinned much of our previous work (on which see Jessop 2007, 2001). In its regulation- and state-theoretical guises, the SRA highlights (a) the contradictions, dilemmas, and conflicts that characterize capitalist social formations in specific periods, stages, and conjunctures; and (b) attempts to resolve or, at least, displace the latter, and thus to regularize and govern capital accumulation and political domination (Jessop and Sum 2006). During the last decade, the SRA has been applied to the analysis of various forms of socio-spatial restructuring, and some of its foundational categories – such as strategic selectivity, accumulation strategies, state projects, state strategies and hegemonic projects – have in turn been spatialized (Brenner 2004; Jessop 2001; Jones 1997; MacLeod 2001; MacLeod and Goodwin 1999). From this point of view, socio-spatial relations must be considered in terms of a path-dependent, path-shaping dialectic of strategically selective structural constraints and structurally-attuned strategic action.

A key concept here is ‘spatio-temporal fix’ (Jessop 2006), which builds, on earlier work on spatial fixes and scalar fixes (Harvey 1982; Smith 1995). The preceding discussion takes further efforts to spatialize the SRA by underscoring the importance of (a) including all four structuring principles and their associated strategies and practices in the analysis of such fixes and (b) exploring their historically and geographically specific combinations (with some being more important than others in securing the fix, for instance by displacing or deferring contradictions and crisis-tendencies). We also want to encourage a more systematic investigation of how socio-spatial relations, understood as strategically selective TPSN ensembles, interact in specific historical-geographical contexts to produce distinctive orderings and reorderings of the socio-spatial landscape, including new geographies of accumulation, state power and hegemony.

Figure 3 provides an initial conceptual orientation for such an investigation; it presents some coordinates of analysis associated with the TPSN framework rather than concrete applications of the latter. Sixteen cells have been generated by cross-tabulating each socio-spatial dimension considered as a structuring principle with all four socio-spatial dimensions considered as fields of operation of that structuring principle. This matrix indicates that structuring principles do not just apply to themselves – the route to mutually isolated forms of one-dimensionalism – and that more complex concepts can be developed by considering how different structuring principles impact other fields of socio-spatial relations. This table should not be seen as the product of taxonomic folly or as a formalistic exercise in populating cells – it has a definite heuristic purpose. Specifically, each socio-spatial concept can be deployed in three ways within this matrix. For example, territory can be explored:

  • in itself as a product of bordering strategies (territory-territory);
  • as a structuring principle (or causal mechanism) that impacts other fields of socio-spatial relations (reading the matrix horizontally, hence: territory à place;

     territory à scale; territory à network), and;

  • as a structured field, produced in part through the impact of other socio-spatial structuring principles on territorial dynamics (now reading the matrix vertically, focusing on the territory column and considering linkages between: place à territory; scale à territory; and network à territory).

E-2008c TPSN-Final Figure 3

Figure 3. Beyond One-Dimensionalism:  Conceptual Orientations

Recognizing the several ways in which the four dimensions of socio-spatial relations can be analyzed, in self-referential terms and in terms of their interactions, is crucial to avoiding one-sided, reductionist analyses. In addition, consistent with a spatialized SRA, the various interactions among the dimensions depicted in Table 3 may be understood as expressions of diverse attempts at strategic coordination and structural coupling within specific spatio-temporal contexts (Jessop 2001). To argue otherwise – by treating the dimensions as existing outside of their production in and through social agency – would risk falling into new forms of structuralism, functionalism, or socio-spatial fetishism.[8]

The concepts included in each cell are merely illustrative and by no means exhaustive. We invite readers to add other examples and to criticize those already included. A major heuristic purpose behind Table 3 is to encourage debate on what methodological strategies might be appropriate for investigating the polymorphy of socio-spatial relations.

Transcending one-dimensionalism is no more than a first step towards the development of a genuinely polymorphic mode of socio-spatial analysis. Tables 2 and 3 remain stubbornly two-dimensional, and a genuinely polymorphic approach must overcome this limitation. It would also need to specify more explicitly the historically and geographically specific, strategically selective modes of territorialization, place-making, scaling and networking that underpin the concrete-complex geographical landscapes within which particular TPSN combinations emerge. Thus, the three tables above serve mainly to indicate the general direction of our thinking rather than to present a fully polymorphic account of the concepts and methods in question. As indicated, three dimensional concepts already exist and major work on socio-spatial relations is now being undertaken using three-dimensional perspectives. Four-dimensional concepts and methods could also be developed, although their diagrammatic representation and practical operationalization remain serious challenges.

Towards a TPSN Research Agenda 

Our arguments are primarily concerned with conceptual clarification. While initially triggered by recent disputes over the ‘scalar turn’, they are intended to intervene into broader debates on socio-spatial relations. At a minimum, we hope to have established that (a) one-dimensional analyses are misleading and unproductive; and (b) thinking in multi-dimensional terms can help to clarify contemporary debates within socio-spatial theory (for instance, on the possibilities and limits of ‘scale’ or ‘network’ as geographic concepts) as well as disclose the heuristic power of polymorphic modes of analysis. But we also believe, on the basis of our own previous and ongoing work, that the TSPN framework can be used to generate more precise, substantial and substantive analyses of some of the ‘big questions’ within geographical political economy.

For example, we would argue that the TPSN approach has significant implications for analyzing and, especially, for periodizing, the historical geographies of capitalist development. It suggests: (a) that the relative significance of territory, place, scale and networks as structuring principles for socio-spatial relations varies with different types of spatio-temporal fix – in other words, their relative roles in securing the overall coherence of spatio-temporal relations in capitalist (and other) social formations may vary historically and contextually; (b) that crises of accumulation and regulation can be explored in terms of the growing disjunction among historically specific institutional manifestations of these four socio-spatial dimensions as a basis for the structured coherence of capitalism; (c) that strategies of crisis-resolution entail attempts to reorder the relative importance of the four dimensions and their associated institutional expressions in relation to circuits of capital and modes of regulation; and (d) that crises, attempts at crisis-resolution, and the emergence of new spatio-temporal fixes may be associated with shifts in the most effective socio-spatial basing points, organizational structures and strategies for counter-hegemonic projects.

From this viewpoint, much of our own previous individual and collaborative work, as well as many other writings on geographical political economy, could be re-interpreted as showing how territory, place, scale and networks were sutured in historically and geographically specific configurations to forge the Fordist-Keynesian spatio-temporal fix; and that, after a period of trial-and-error searching, experimentation and contestation, new TPSN combinations seem to be emerging that are more suited to a post-national, unevenly developing global economy. Whether or not these newly emergent TPSN combinations can or will be consolidated to the same extent as the dominant spatio-temporal fix associated with Atlantic Fordism, and whether or not they will encounter more effective forms of resistance, are matters for future theoretical interrogation and concrete inquiry.

Similarly, we would suggest that the TPSN schema can fruitfully inform the field of ‘contentious politics’, which examines different forms of contestation, resistance, mobilization and struggle ‘from below’, regardless of their social bases, identities, interests, or objectives. Interest in the geographies of contention has intensified in recent years as spatialized categories and methods have been integrated more systematically into studies of social mobilization (Leitner and Sheppard 2008; Miller 2000; Routledge 2003; Sewell 2001; Tilly 2000). In this emerging research field, the TPSN schema could have at least three types of applications.

First, it could be deployed to classify different social-scientific accounts of contentious politics. Using the matrix presented in Tables 2 and 3 above, this would emphasize the limits of various types of one-dimensional analysis that have been advanced in this field. Examples include: (a) the celebration of nomadism (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) as the quintessential form of de-territorialized resistance to the territorializing and re-territorializing power of the state (territory-territory); (b) the conception of ‘Multitude’ (Hardt and Negri 2000) as a networked oppositional force to the flat ontological space allegedly formed by Empire (network-network); (c) the reduction of contentious politics to strategies of scale-jumping in a hierarchical scalar order (criticized by Marston 2000) without regard to the socio-spatial polymorphy that such politics generally entail (scale-scale); and (d) observers’ accounts of social struggles in exclusively localist terms (place-place) (criticized by Escobar 2001; Purcell 2006). This analytical strategy could then be extended to cover other accounts of socio-spatial sites, strategies, or objectives that involve two or more dimensions of socio-spatial relations, eventually leading to still more sophisticated, three- or even four-dimensional analyses, such as that recently presented by Leitner and Sheppard (2008) to analyze the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride. In this manner, the TPSN schema could provide methodological orientation to those seeking to develop more adequate geographical categories for the investigation of contentious politics.

A second application of the TPSN schema in this field would entail using it to decipher the strategies and tactics of individual and collective agents, organizations and institutions that are engaged in contentious politics, as they perceive them as participants. In this manner, the TPSN schema could provide a basis for deciphering the variegated, polymorphic spaces of contention that have been produced through different types of social mobilization in different historical-geographical contexts. Third, this schema can be deployed to pose new questions regarding the interplay between the spaces of contentious politics and the geohistorical periodization of capital accumulation and state power. For, given the emphasis on the dialectic of path-dependency and path-shaping within the spatialized SRA, we would expect the relative importance and effectiveness of different geographies of contentious politics to be systemically intertwined with evolving TPSN configurations associated with the changing historical geographies of capitalism and the state, their crisis-tendencies and their contradictions. We present these ideas as stimuli to future research agendas in geographical political economy rather than as fully elaborated hypotheses or as polished conclusions.


Almost two decades ago, Soja (1989) famously declared the ‘reassertion of space in critical social theory.’ Our current reflections suggest a reinterpretation of his declaration. First, we have argued that spatial assumptions have always been present in the social sciences, but that recent decades have witnessed a more critical and reflexive engagement with such assumptions and their methodological implications. Second, we have suggested that this engagement has not focused on socio-spatial relations as such, but rather, on a succession of related yet distinct dimensions, including territory, place, scale and networks, each of which has in turn been embraced as a focal point for socio-spatial theory. Third, while we have acknowledged the significant contributions of such analyses, we argue that many have often been too narrowly focused and have neglected to explore the interconnections among the various dimensions of socio-spatial relations, leading in turn to a variety of theoretical deficits, methodological hazards and empirical blind-spots. Finally, we have proposed several concepts and analytical procedures through which a polymorphous, strategic-relational analysis of socio-spatial processes might be pursued.

In the present context, we have not attempted to concretize our framework, let alone to legislate for one specific research programme. But we do believe that the TPSN schema may prove fruitful not only for the further refinement of socio-spatial theory, but also, most importantly, for the analysis of both historical and contemporary transformations of socio-spatial relations. In our own future work, for example, we will be using this framework to reconceptualize issues such as the urban question; the regional question; uneven spatial development; state spatial restructuring; spatio-temporal fixes; the socio-spatial specificities of the European Union; and multi-scalar meta-governance.


[1] This paper derives from many years of intermittent and frequently intense discussion among its authors beginning at the 2000 IBG/RGS conference in Brighton. From initial agreement on the need for a scalar turn and a new political economy of scale, we gradually recognized the limitations of too sharp a socio-spatial turn (of any kind) and the need for a multidimensional account of socio-spatial relations.

[2] On metaphors in general and in the scale debate in particular, see Howitt 1998.

[3] For overviews of spatialized approaches to these issues since the early 1980s, see Cox 1997; Dear and Scott 1981; Gregory and Urry 1985; Lee and Wills 1997; and Wolch and Dear 1989.

[4] Sayer (1992: 138) defines the difference between rational abstractions and “bad abstractions” or chaotic conceptions as follows:  “A rational abstraction is one which isolates a significant element of the world which has some unity and autonomous force, such as a structure.  A bad abstraction arbitrarily divides the indivisible and/or lumps together the unrelated and the inessential, thereby ‘carving up’ the object of study with little or no regard for its structure and form.”

[5] Two additional candidates for inclusion in this list might be environment/nature and, as argued by Sheppard (2002), “positionality.”

[6]  Harvey’s (2003) analysis of imperialism illustrates this problem. Because his analysis of the territorial logic of statehood is insufficiently rich conceptually, the spatial logic of capitalism provides far stronger explanations. This is countered by a crude geo-political explanation of imperialism in terms of political motives or the expansionism of states or state managers qua subjects (Jessop 2006).

[7] This suggestion does not require an equal number of concepts for each dimension – this would entail a numeric conceptual fetishism. It is, rather, a call for a broad array of concepts, of different degrees of abstraction-concreteness and simplicity-complexity, which can decipher the polymorphy of socio-spatial relations.

[8] Sayer cautions against abstracting spatial relations from their substantive relata and thereby attributing causal powers to space (or certain of its features like geometry, distance, location, movement) regardless of the causal powers of the substantive relata characterized by these features. Such procedures, Sayer suggests, lead to spatial fetishism (2000: 109-121).  Indeed, it is due to our concern to avoid spatial fetishism that we have, throughout this paper, generally eschewed the standard terminology of “spatiality” and “socio-spatiality,” which imply fixity and stasis, in favor of the more explicitly processual, fluid notion of “socio-spatial relations.” Theoretical foundations for this relational conceptualization are elaborated in several important strands of socio-spatial analysis, including Sayer’s (2000) critical realist account, Massey’s (2005) analysis of space as a form of “emergence” and Lefebvre’s (1991) investigation of the “production” of space.


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