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Joe Painter 'The International Critical Geography Group' (draft) published by the Department of Geography,
Last modified: 10/03/2003
Remarks to the Opening Plenary
Third International Conference of Critical Geography
Békéscsaba, Hungary, June 25 2002
(Revised and updated for publication March 2003)
In this short article I briefly outline the development of the International Critical Geography Group and describe its activities to date. The International Critical Geography Group (ICGG) is a network of geographers and others who are committed to the development of critical and radical geography within and beyond the academy. Through research, scholarship, teaching and other forms of activism critical geographers seek to develop knowledge and understanding that can contribute to struggles against exploitation and oppression and promote social change.
The immediate origins of the ICGG lie in a conference held in Vancouver, Canada in August 1997. This Inaugural International Conference of Critical Geography was organised by geographers working at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University supported by an informal group of international contacts from Australasia, Europe, India, Japan and South Africa. The conference in Vancouver culminated in an open meeting to discuss the future. Volunteers from among the conference participants were invited to take forward the development of an international network of critical geographers and to plan further activities. A steering committee was formed with representatives from a dozen countries and five continents. Membership of the steering committee is reviewed periodically and has been expanded to include a number of additional members. In 1999 the steering committee drafted a Statement of Purpose for the International Critical Geography Group. The Statement was published in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (International Critical Geography Group 1999) with an accompanying editorial by two members of the steering committee, Caroline Desbiens and Neil Smith setting out describing the rationale and the political aspirations of the ICGG (Desbiens & Smith 1999). A website for the ICGG was established which includes links to the text of Statement of Purpose in several languages and to the editorial. There is also a mailing list for the exchange of ideas and information about the ICGG. To join the mailing list follow the instructions on the ICGG website.
The main activities associate with the ICGG so far have been two further conferences, in Taegu, South Korea in 2000 and in Békéscsaba, Hungary in 2002. The Taegu conference attracted many geographers from east Asia as well as elsewhere and featured excellent discussions of the Asian political and economic context, including sessions on the impact of the recent ‘IMF crisis’ in Korea and the geopolitics of the partition of the Korean peninsula. A report of the Taegu conference is available on the ICGG website. The Békéscsaba conference drew 180 participants from 40 countries and was the most diverse ICCG so far in terms of the participants’ national backgrounds. An account of the Békéscsaba conference by one of the organisers has recently been published in the journal Antipode (Bialasiewicz 2003). A further conference, in Mexico in 2005 is now being planned.
The ICGG is a network, not a formal organisation. At present it has no membership, no formal structures, no constitution and no financial resources. The steering committee is an informal body that undertakes various activities for the network on a voluntary basis. The group has no house journal, but it has a loose association with Acme, the on-line journal of critical geography. It has also worked with the journal Antipode which generously provided financial support for the Third ICCG in the form of travel scholarships.
Discussions at the conferences have raised a series of issues for the development of international critical geography. First, it has become clear that the meaning of ‘critical geography’ varies from place to place – in other words there is a geography to critical geography. Long before the ICGG there were well established traditions of critical geography in Canada, France, Japan, Latin America, Scandinavia, the UK and the USA, among others. The ICGG respects and supports these traditions. It in no way seeks to take them over or replace them, nor is it in any position to do so. In many other places critical geography is more weakly developed. It is also clear that the political issues that motivate critical geographers vary according to the context. One challenge for the ICGG therefore is to work to develop links between critical geographers in different places and to promote a shared project without erasing the political and contextual differences between us. Related to this challenge is the issue of language. So far the ICGG conferences have been dominated by English as the primary medium of communication. For many participants and would-be participants this practice is inevitably exclusionary. There is no simple solution to the problem, especially since the ICGG has no financial resources of its own, but it is one that we must continue to work at.
Finally, there are vital questions about the political project(s) of the ICGG. On the one hand there is a concern that the conferences must not become merely an academic forum indistinguishable from other international geography meetings. On the other there is a recognition that for some critical geographers working in difficult circumstances simply the possibility of meeting like-minded colleagues for an open discussion is a major benefit. ICGG participants have always been concerned to work against the isolation of academic work from other political activities and struggles. In many cases this involves working or collaborating directly with political campaigns and social movements, though the potential range of politically engaged geographical praxis is very wide and the possibilities will vary according to context. At the heart of debates over the future of critical geography is the question of what it means to be ‘critical’. What is it, in other words, that we have in common as critical geographers? There are no easy answers, but we look to the next conference in Mexico to take the discussion forward.
ICGG website: http://internationalcriticalgeography.org/
Statement of Purpose: http://internationalcriticalgeography.org/statement-of-purpose/
ICGG mailing list: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/ICGG
Environment and Planning D editorial: http://www.envplan.com/html/d1704ed.html
Bialasiewicz L. 2003. The many wor(l)ds of difference and dissent. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 35: 14-23
Desbiens C, Smith N. 1999. The International Critical Geography Group: forbidden optimism? Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 17: 379-81
International Critical Geography Group. 1999. Statement of purpose. Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 17: 382