Understanding the Geographical Imagination

This remains my most popular blog post(!) even though I wrote it over nine years ago. For those interested in my current and more comprehensive thinking on the geographical imagination, check out 2016 my encyclopedia entry on this topic which is available here.

The “geographical imagination” is a popular catchphrase in the geographical literature with multiple, often unclear definitions and framings. The concept of the geographical imagination developed from C. Wright Mills’ (1961) “sociological imagination,” a conceptual tool for use by individuals to compare their personal biographies to larger social structures within their specific historical era. David Harvey (1973) coined the “geographical imagination” as he built upon the sociological imagination by also examining politics and geographies at individual and structural levels of multiple scales. As such, Harvey argued it is a tool he developed for social and spatial justice that people could use to compare themselves not only to larger social structures but to see the similarities and differences across spaces and times to fight various forms of oppression. The geographical imagination had grown substantially by the time Derek Gregory (1993) formally re-defined it as the spatialized cultural and historical knowledge that characterizes social groups. Overall, I find that scholars often depend on some combination of three definitions of the term: Harvey’s definition, Gregory’s definition, and/or a simple and literal understanding of the term as how people—often geographers, specifically—imagine and render space.

I framed my investigation of the geographical imagination in three veins: major relevant theoretical framings/imaginings of space which were discussed above; its portrayal in physical images of spaces; and its role in promoting or preventing social justice. Examining the theories, methods, and ethics associated with the geographical imagination proved enlightening. Maps, mapping processes, and images of space are literal and figurative physical representations of the geographical imagination that portray–which provides another side to Gregory’s specifically social framing of the geographical imagination–both individual and shared spatial minds’ eyes. The effects of maps and spatial images on creating, sustaining, or ideas of perceived, conceived, and lived experiences and spaces were a fundamental framework or argument in all of the manuscripts. This reading shows the pervasiveness and powerful impact of the mental forms of spaces.

As the geographical imagination plays a role in producing notions of social and spatial reality, it necessarily plays a role in fighting oppression and sustaining justice, specifically by labeling injustice or helping to enact justice. Virginia Woolf’s (1929/2000) story of being denied access to the Oxford library for being a woman is an instance of labeling injustice. Read within its historic context and applied to other spaces to which people are denied access, her text is a revolutionary reframing of space to consider the possibility that she should be allowed entrance. Geographies were also re-imagined so that spaces or places are altered mentally and/or physically to enact different social and spatial possibilities. A vivid example is the Fed Up Honeys work of hanging stereotype stickers about and providing educational workshops on their limiting, stereotyped status as poor, urban women of color in New York City’s Lower East Side (Cahill 2006). From these readings it is evident that the geographical imagination can be used to understand power dynamics through formulations of space, and it is through interactions with real and imagined spaces that framings of space and overall consciousness are altered.

In my work and readings in other feminist/queer research, I find it is necessary to consider both the “imagined” and “real” elements of space as equally important in characterizing spaces and for relaying individual’s own self-definition related to spaces. Therefore, from these readings and research experiences, I define the geographical imagination as not only the conceptual spatial frame of the mind’s eye and minds’ eyes that can be used to understand power dynamics, connections between identity and space, and the production of meanings and myths of spaces and those individuals within them, but it is also individuals’ and group’s tool for determining their literal and metaphoric place(s) in the world. It is a personal, sometimes shared, portrayal of both imagined and real spaces and places that encompass the logic, emotion, power dynamics, and meaning of spaces in their specific time and era. It is consciously and unconsciously produced, reproduced, and reworked by the individual or social group through reiterated actions within the cultural, economic, political, and historical context of that person or group, and, in doing so, this process is formed by and forms individuals and shared identities. Lastly, it is my position that the geographical imagination is both a concept and tool that encompasses the three major definitions which, in my opinion, comprehensively describe the use of the geographical imagination today as well as fulfill its efforts as a tool for social and spatial justice.

This is only my initial framework for the geographical imagination which is the major framework for my research projects and cultural analysis.  My ideas around and definition of the geographical imagination will continue to grow through future work in order to make this conceptual tool more robust and useful for society at large as well as the discipline of geography.