Editorial: The Historical Geography of Canadian Urban Industry

By Lewis, Robert D. | Urban History Review, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Editorial: The Historical Geography of Canadian Urban Industry


Lewis, Robert D., Urban History Review


Manufacturing is of critical importance to the understanding of urban development because it contains many of the clues for deciphering the dynamics, nature and intensity of urban growth, and for interpreting the economic and social geographies of cities. Over the past couple of decades historians have made a concerted effort to widen our vision of the historical development of North American urban manufacturing. In contrast, research on the historical geography of manufacturing has taken a back seat among geographers to studies of regional and international changes. With the exception of some of Allen Scott's work, there have been no recent attempts to theorize the historical dynamics of industrial geography within the city. (1) The historical context of urban industrial geography is still dominated by Weberian notions of transportation cost minimization or by determinist visions of technological change. While the classical approaches to urban industrial location have been roundly criticized, new theoretical directions such as spatial divisions of labour, flexible accumulation, the production of space, and production formats have been applied sparingly to the historical development of Canadian cities. (2) Furthermore, research on the contemporary Canadian city, while addressing some of these theoretical issues, has done so at the expense of historical questions. At the same time, the production of industrial space has been separated from wider causal powers. In particular, the interaction between economic imperatives and the social construction of the built environment are missing. Even where the built environment is considered, it is as an uncontested outcome of capitalist development. This is unfortunate as the impoverished condition of the historical context of the geography of industry urgently needs to be replenished by the new directions of social theory in contemporary urban and industrial research, and social and labour history. Reflecting the lack of importance attached to the historical dynamics of urban industrial geography is the scarce attention paid to the subject in geographic journals. A study of the Journal of Historical Geography showed that only eight of the 174 articles published between 1975 and the mid 1980s were directly concerned with industrial change since the end of the 18th century. (3) Even when historical geographers are explicitly concerned with industrial change, their attention is usually given to cultural considerations and is descriptive, or draws heavily on structuration theory. The latter perspective, despite claims to the constitutional duality of agency and structure, has led most researchers to understand the social and cultural components of society at the expense of the economic. As Dennis and Prince state in their overview of British urban historical geography, "for all the interest in the social geography of cities, there has been little work on their economic geography." (4) This is also true for North America: an analysis of the Urban History Review revealed that of the 106 articles published between 1984 and 1993 only eight focused on industry, while only six out of the 118 articles published in the Journal of Urban History in the same period covered industrial issues. While Richard Dennis, in a recent review of historical geography, can state that "British historical geographers have shown less interest in the location of industry" than their North American colleagues, the latter, in fact, have done very little work on the spatial implications of the radical changes in industrial structure after 1850 that historians have identified. (5) And when they have, it is a broad scale; generalizations abound without substantial, if any, empirical research.

The most significant and challenging research on the historical development of Canadian (and American) urban industry has come from historians who have constructed new research agendas and employed new methodologies. Historians interested in industrial evolution and labour history have escaped from a technologically-based understanding of industrial change and the strait-jacket of institutional and union history to explore the intricate workings of the labour process and technological change, the changing role of women in the workforce, and the different dimensions of the family and industrial change. …

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