Geographies, Spatial Concepts and Mediating Imaginations: On Justification of Translation in Ex-Centric Human Geography

By Sepp, Veiko | Trames, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Geographies, Spatial Concepts and Mediating Imaginations: On Justification of Translation in Ex-Centric Human Geography


Sepp, Veiko, Trames


1. Introduction

The contemporary scholars of geographical knowledge have proposed to "think of geography as a tradition that evolves like a species over time" (Livingstone 1992:30). The task has been to suspend the idea of "the essential nature of geography", and replace it by that of "situated messiness" (p. 28). The arguments developed in the article are initiated by David Livingstone's thesis--based on the works of sociologists of scientific knowledge (e.g. Bloor 1976, Barnes and Shapin 1979)--that geography, like any other social practice, is situated in social contexts, and that geographical "texts and contexts are constituted reciprocally" (Livingstone 1992:29, also e.g. Shapin 1998). Unlike his central empirical concern about historical contexts in which the geographies have been evolving, my concern here is their contemporary societal and cultural contexts that "make a difference to the tradition's cognitive claims, subjects of scrutiny, and methods deployed" (Livingstone 1995b:28).

The peculiar discursive position of "peripheral" geographers in relation to the Anglophone core has been brought to the fore in several recent editorials (e.g. Minca 2000, Olds 2001, Yeung 2001, Desbiens 2002, Braun 2003, Minca 2003, Timar 2003, Vaiou 2003, Yiftachel 2003) and analytical papers (e.g. Gregson et al. 2003). Similarly to these authors, my argumentation derives from the actual experiences, namely from the problems encountered during the empirical studies of Estonian "provinces" (1) within the theoretical constructions of the central Anglophone geographies. I will elaborate on the argument that the eccentric--or more literally, ex-centric--character of these research practices in relation to the dominating Anglo-American geography should be taken seriously into account. My main intention is to determine the conditions for the proper application of the academic resources from the "international" tradition to the research of peripheral societies such as Estonia. Thus, throughout this paper I am seeking a position that could provide some rational justification to the usual practice of applying theories and concepts of Anglophone geographical tradition to the studies of peripheral social worlds, in the current case--Estonian provinces. In other words, I am concerned with the epistemological aspect of the translation between different geographical discourses--epistemological in the sense that the paper deals with the status of "knowledge and the justification of belief" (see Dancy 1985:1). In this search Donald Davidson's empirical theory of truth (see Davidson 1990b, 1996, 2001a, 2001b) is used as a pivot for establishing a position from which the translation into ex-centric geography can be rationally defended.

From the social point of view, the arguments presented here derive from the pragmatic considerations, most forcefully propounded during the recent decades by philosopher Richard Rorty (1980, 1989, 1991, 1995). The question of proper (justified) translation has a practical bearing. For example, while considering a reasonable academic communication of empirical findings in regional geography across different regional systems, and more instrumentally in the attempts to compose translation manuals of planning terms used in the countries of European Union--in order to facilitate co-operation and control in EU regional and administrative policy. The "metaphysical activism" (Rorty 1995:300) deployed in the paper, aimed at using the particular truth theory in providing rational account of translation, which is at odds with Rorty's own project, is motivated by my belief that it could provide us with more equal common ground in the communication between different geographical discourses than Rorty's communicative liberalism allows us to do. By reversing the ideological impulse in Rorty's thesis that in pragmatic terms "assessment of truth and assessment of justification are, when the question is about what I should believe now, the same activity" (ibid:281), I look for the sameness of truth conditions in order to justify translations between central and peripheral geographies.

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