GaWC Research Bulletin 213

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Reconstructing New Regionalist Geographies

J. Harrison



At the end of the twentieth century the scholarly writers and political implementers of the ‘new regionalism' held a magnetic hold over the way we conceptualised regions. Yet a decade later the memory of these halcyon days has long-since faded with the intervening years seeing a series of conceptual weaknesses have been pinpointed. The challenge to reconstruct new regionalist geographies has now begun in earnest, with academics developing the theoretical tools necessary to navigate the new regionalism to safer conceptual ground. I argue that work on reconstructing new regionalist geographies has been strong on theoretical conjecture but weak on linking this to empirical demonstration and amendment. Drawing on recent methodological developments in the study of regions, and supported by on the ground events in England, the paper seeks to address this by unpacking the mechanics of ‘doing' regional regulation. The paper concludes by speculating on the capacity for reconstructed new regionalist geographies to develop new knowledge of contemporary capitalism and its spatial form.

Keywords: New regionalism, New institutionalism, Methodology, England


Introduction: the need for 'new' regionalist geographies

At the end of the twentieth century the scholarly writers and political implementers of the ‘new regionalism' held a magnetic hold over the way we conceptualised regions. The buzz word for regional enthusiasts, the new regionalist scholar was seen to be at the forefront of dynamic research debates on the geography of contemporary capitalism and its spatial form. Convinced by accounts of how regions like Baden Württemberg, Emilia-Romagna, and Silicon Valley were ‘winning' in the era of capitalism after Fordism, academics, political leaders, and practitioners increasingly believed that we were living in a ‘regional world' with regional economies the building blocks for a globally networked society (Storper, 1997). At one level, regions represented the focal point for knowledge creation, learning, and innovation (Cooke and Morgan, 1998; Scott, 1998; Storper, 1997). At another, they were deemed a crucial site for promoting a plural society, centred on participatory democracy, active citizenship, and civic pride (Keating, 1998). Yet a decade later, the memory of these halcyon days has long-since faded.

Shaking its very foundations, the zenith of new regionalist inquiry was checked by a series of pertinent critiques. The first, and most openly critical, saw the new regionalism berated for running so far ahead of sustained rational theorisation and rigorous empirical testing that its orthodoxy could not be upheld (Lovering, 1999). Undermining its theoretical standing, it was argued that the new regionalist orthodoxy was secured against the backdrop of four undesirable features: that it was, first, a highly selective amalgam of ‘all things good' in the regional economies of the world; second, new regionalist case-studies told an ‘attractive and persuasive story' based on carefully selected exemplar regions; third, the new regionalism became a fashionable banner offering both a convincing theoretical explanation and for its followers the best approach to policy formation; and, relating to the points above, the most eye-catching of allegations was that “the policy tail is wagging the analytical dog and wagging it so hard that indeed much of the theory is shaken out” (ibid., 390).

More than simply a list of accusations, Lovering's critique paved the way for further questioning of the new regionalism (MacLeod, 2001a; Harrison, 2006a), from which a series of critical points of weakness were highlighted. Bundling together too many diverse theories for it to be considered a coherent body of work, the chaotic nature of the new regionalism firstly served to distance new regionalists from explicitly engaging with their object of inquiry – the region. Second, and barring a few exceptions, the new regionalism either “disregarded the changing role of the state or implied that, amid the current round of globalisation-regionalisation, it was inevitably in terminal decline” (MacLeod, 2001a: 806). Third, the new regionalism had become enmeshed in multifaceted scalar politics and tangled policy hierarchies. And finally, Lovering's (1999) catchy metaphor of the policy tail wagging the analytical dog highlighted the dangers of ‘soft institutionalism' and quick-fix ‘policy transfer' (MacLeod, 2001b).

Highly cited by academics, Lovering's critique attracted little response from the new regionalist architects responsible for its ascent to orthodoxy. Instead, the move beyond the new regionalism has been driven by a new generation of scholars (Jones, 2001; MacLeod, 2001a; 2001b; MacLeod and Jones, 2001). Indeed, while Lovering's critique will be long regarded as the watershed moment for new regionalist inquiry, I would argue that MacLeod's (2001a) rejoinder has proved equally important. Sympathetic to the tenor of Lovering's critique, MacLeod's approach reaffirmed the weaknesses identified, but also took up the challenge to develop the theoretical and conceptual tools necessary to reconstruct new regionalist geographies. Reflecting a long-held scholarly interest with the Regulation Approach (RA), MacLeod forwarded Jessop's (2001) ‘strategic-relational approach' as the theoretical tool most capable of steering the new regionalism away from its points of weakness. Yet for all that MacLeod offered in directing the new regionalism to safer conceptual ground, there appeared to be a missing element to his work.

Adopting a theoretical approach, MacLeod naturally distanced himself from questions of methodology and empirically researching regional regulation. With theoretical speculation running ahead of sustained empirical testing a feature which characterises much social science research, this is not unusual, but given the theoretical and conceptual development of the new regionalism from in-depth empirical case-studies of regions across North America and Western Europe, by moving away from a new regionalism derived from on the ground realities it could be argued that MacLeod shifted the goalposts. Indeed, while much conceptual profit can be gained from theoretical conjecture, without empirical demonstration and amendment, it will remain conjecture. And herein lies the problem. For all that MacLeod and others have achieved in theoretically reconstructing the new regionalism, there remains a noticeable lack of endeavour to overcome the points of weakness in the new regionalism by dovetailing theoretical conjecture with empirically generated knowledge. In her critique, Christopherson highlights this exact point:

“We have the beginnings of a new framework in the critiques that have been launched against the ‘new regionalism', its normative values and economic assumptions. What we require now is more systematic analyses of the realities on the ground.”

(2003: 415)

To some extent, this has happened with new empirically-thick accounts of regions and regional change filtering into the literature. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) Devolution and Constitutional Change programme (2000-05) and the Leverhulme Trust's Nations and Regions programme (1999-2005) saw major investment into social science research to explore the regionalisation of the UK 's territorial space. Yet despite producing inordinate amounts of empirical research, the link between empirical analyses of the realities on the ground and theoretical frameworks often remained missing1. As one political commentator noted, the research suffered a “lamentable lack of theoretical and conceptual grounding” (Nash, 2002). So while Christopherson was right to argue for grounded empirical research, what has remained absent are questions focusing on how regionalists dovetail theoretical conjecture with empirical demonstration to overcome the points of weakness in the new regionalism. Indeed it appears that in reconstructing new regionalist geographies the three pillars of theory building – empirical research, theoretical conjecture, and methodological debate – have taken place through their own ‘islands of practice' (Purcell, 2003). The aim of this paper is to take the first step in pulling together the three pillars of research to uncover the capacity for overcoming the new regionalist points of weakness through new forms of theoretically informed, empirically demonstrated research.

To achieve this, section 2 explores two methodological debates containing important pointers for conducting theoretically informed empirical studies. The first relates to the institutional turn in economic geography (Environment and Planning A, 2001) while the second brings to the fore questions regarding the lack of substantive clarity in concepts deployed within regional studies as a result of new institutional geographies (Regional Studies, 2003). Drawing upon recent work on the development of Blair's ‘New Regional Policy' (NRP) in England, section 3 addresses the mechanics of ‘doing' regional regulation. Not seeking to publish research findings à la conventional research papers, this section uncovers the mechanics through which empirically-thick, yet theoretically grounded research can overcome the weaknesses of new regionalist research. The paper concludes by speculating on the potential for uncovering new regionalist geographies and developing new knowledge about the geography of contemporary capitalism and its spatial form.

Reconstructing New Regionalist Geographies

Institutions in Geography and Regional Institutionalisation

The mid-1990's witnessed the emergence of a strong institutionalist literature in political-economic geography. Not only were political-economists seeking connection between the new politics of economic development and transitions in the regulation and governance of contemporary capitalism and its spatial form (Jones, 2001), but “the erosion of post-World War II institutions ha[d] accelerated and addressed a key question: what other economic institutions should replace the configuration of post-war regulatory regimes and Keynesian strategies?” (Boyer and Hollingsworth, 1997: 438). With the rise of the regional state and the ‘institutional turn' proceeding hand-in-hand, changes to the way political-economists went about their work were also taking place.

Editing a special edition on rethinking institutions and the governance of local and regional economies, Wood and Valler (2001) identified five methodological developments. First, a diverse literature problematised what is meant by, and how we define, institutions. Yet in spite of the broad spectrum of ontological approaches to institutional analysis, the term had traditionally centred on processes of hard institutionalism, but this focus was slowly shaken by raised awareness of ‘additional ordering structures' that viewed economic practices and forms as embedded in broader social and cultural relations. Diverging from narrow economic readings of formal concrete organisations, the importance of extra-economic structures and institutions through processes of soft institutionalism were increasingly deployed analytically as exploratory tools in accounting for economic change (Amin and Thrift, 1994; Storper, 1997). Complementing traditional concerns with individual organisations/institutions, the second development saw political-economists investigate particular institutional geographies within more complex institutional ensembles and regulatory networks (Cooke and Morgan, 1998). This concern with institutional ensembles was coupled with a third development, focused on questions of governance (the coordination and collibration of different governance mechanisms) and metagovernance (managing the complexity, plurality, and tangled hierarchies found in prevailing modes of coordination)(Jessop, 2002). Moving away from questions of institutional form and configuration, the fourth development identified a concern with processes of institutionalisation within subnational sociospatial forms. Most clearly articulated through their metaphor for developing ‘institutional thickness', the institutional framework required to embed global processes in place, Amin and Thrift encapsulated these ideas when stressing that “what is of importance here is not only the presence of a network on institutions per se, but rather the processes of institutionalisation: that is, the institutionalising processes that both underpin and stimulate a diffused entrepreneurship” (1995: 103). The final development saw an appreciation that examining processes of institutionalisation required a new approach to institutional geographies, one that moved beyond traditional studies that distance their objects of analysis from the processes and practices to which they relate. Contributing authors were thus ‘supportive' of ‘plural and open institutionalism' (Amin, 2001).

A significant advance in institutional understanding, these political-economists were also beginning to address the points of weakness in the new regionalism (MacLeod, 2001b; MacLeod and Goodwin, 1999). But as institutional geographers grappled with the challenge of developing new theoretical and conceptual tools for situating their object of inquiry within an analytical framework that acknowledged the role of the state in shaping the urban-regional fabric and the ‘politics of scale' (Swyngedouw, 1997) a new debate emerged from within regional studies, speaking up against the prevailing research practices being adopted by these new institutional geographers.

Fuzzy Concepts, Scanty Evidence, and Policy Distance

At the height of the new regionalist orthodoxy Ann Markusen (1999) spoke out against the prevailing research practices being adopted by those working in regional studies. Markusen argued that while the cross-fertilisation of ideas from geographers, anthropologists, economists, and political scientists had enriched the development of regional studies, it had been accompanied by a steady slippage in the rigours of evidence and the quality of conceptualisation. In particular, Markusen lamented three undesirable developments that were undermining the scientific integrity and societal relevance of regional studies. That regional studies had, first, become swamped with ‘fuzzy concepts' that posited an entity, phenomenon, or process, with two or more alternative meanings; second, standards of empirical evidence had slipped and were lacking rigour; and, third, that points one and two had steadily weakened the policy relevance of regional studies. For Markusen,

“Regional studies is in need of a soul-searching about the quality of its theorizing, the rigour of its research methods and the policy and political implications of its work. All three are connected. Insulation from policy pressures invites fuzzier concepts. Fuzzy concepts make the job of coming up with evidence much more difficult. Poverty of evidence results in toleration of fuzzy concepts and misguided policy.”

(1999: 880)

Picking up on Markusen's first point, the ‘fuzzy concepts' metaphor contributed to a growing academic literature surrounding the engagement of geographers in public policy research (Martin, 2001). It was suggested that the distinct lack of rigour was fuelled by an over-reliance on cherry-picked quotations/concepts from a handful of favourable geographical locations. Given the new regionalist tendency to invoke conceptual terminology in a more or less interchangeable fashion, the accusation was that concepts such as ‘institutional milieu', ‘regional innovation networks', ‘associational regions', ‘intelligent regions', ‘social capital', all developed through new approaches to institutional geography and through the new regionalism, collapsed under any serious form of scrutiny2. All of which raised serious questions, for these accusations struck at the very cornerstone of new regionalist inquiry. But it also prompts us now to confront issues about the way regional geographers undertake empirical research and how this conspired to weaken the new regionalism.

The crux of Markusen's argument lay in recognising that not only would a more rigorous approach to conceptualisation stand up to greater theoretical challenges, but avoiding ‘fuzzy concepts' would engender policy relevance with academics and policymakers able to talk the same language. Calling for empirical testing to sample whether concepts are understood and deployed in the same way, Markusen argues that regional geographers should be obliged to ask/answer the question, ‘how do I know it when I see it?' (1999: 871). By asking the question time and again, Markusen argues that regional geographers can produce a checklist of characteristics – be they institutional, organisational, networked, agency-based, structural – that can be used to identify individual concepts. The result, a regional geography founded on ‘original conceptualisations' with “characteristics that could be unequivocally posited in the same way by all readers” meeting the demands of sound academic research (ibid., 870). All very well, but it remained contentious whether Markusen, like Lovering, provided the tools necessary to navigate the new regionalism beyond its points of weakness.

While the obligation for regional geographers to answer the question ‘how do I know it when I see it?' has undoubted merit given the proliferation of ‘fuzzy concepts' dominant in new regionalist writings, it could also be argued that in the drive for policy relevance, the policy tail is wagging the methodological dog. Replies written by Jamie Peck, Arnoud Lagendijk, and Ray Hudson, imply, to lesser or greater extent, that this Lovering-esque metaphor shapes their concerns (Regional Studies, 2003). Though sympathetic to Markusen's three strikes against the prevailing research practices in regional studies, each express strong reservations with her implicit alliance with quantitative methods; a point which Markusen refutes in her rejoinder (Markusen, 2003). Situated within the context of their own research – Lagendijk on territorial innovation models, Peck on labour market segmentation, and Hudson on Marxian political-economy – each respond by fighting the corner of qualitative research methods.

In the most openly critical response, Peck became ‘irritated' by what he saw as Markusen's apparent implication that regionalists using interviews and other qualitative methods “were somehow taking it easy”, “avoiding the hard work”, and pursuing “flashy-but-insubstantial theory construction” (2003: 730). Far from rejecting case-study research, Peck argued that there remained scope for extending case-study research, so long as the challenge was met “to develop rigorous research designs and validity checks, to set the bar high in terms of standards of corroboration and triangulation, in a fashion that is consistent with the methods and modes that are being employed” (ibid., 736). One could argue that just as MacLeod sought to overcome the points of weakness in the new regionalism by distancing himself from case-study research and its problems, Markusen executes a similar play by distancing herself from engaging with the problem of conceptual material derived from case-studies. To this end, I believe that Peck was right to assert that just because an approach has been pinpointed for its weaknesses, this is not a signal to abandon ship.

Despite feeling empathy with Peck's defence of interviews, case-studies, and qualitative research more broadly, by opposing Markusen at every stage his argument becomes increasingly bogged down, inward looking, and situated in the past-tense. Following Markusen's highly personal attack of his work, Peck's response focussed on deconstructing the arguments levelled against his own work, rather than addressing what Martin (2001) argues is always the difficult part, ‘suggesting what needs to be done' and ‘how we should move forward'. Thus Peck's (2003: 738) assertion that “this ought to be a time for consolidation and extension” of existing techniques implies more of the same and not a new way forward. That said, if you delve into Peck's comments there do appear to be significant pointers for moving case-study research forward.

Peck's defence is premised upon what he views as Markusen's distorted understanding of the proper value and place for interview-based case-study research. Markusen's observations are supported by the increased emphasis on process, evidenced by the proliferation of terms which were once nouns or adjectives, but have been transformed into adjectives, process verbs and again into process nouns with ‘ization' endings. This is an argument with undoubted merit, but picking up on Markusen's ‘how would I know it when I see it?' test, Peck is right to argue (with respect to his own work) that:

“You can't see labour market segmentation, or at least I can't…Markusen would apparently push such concerns out of bounds for critical regional studies, because they are insufficiently concrete. This then, is strike one on her fuzziness test, failing on ‘how would I know it when I see it?'”

(2003: 732 original emphasis)

But let us think about the region itself for one moment, for it appears that although concepts ranging from ‘learning regions' to ‘labour market segmentation' have a central role to play in contextualising this debate, the fundamental concept of regional studies – the region – is overlooked. Albeit briefly, only Hudson makes mention of ‘the region', arguing that “proponents of relational conceptions in the social sciences would challenge any suggestion that there is a single ‘essential' definition of a concept, since its meaning is defined by its relational context (consider, for example, the different and multiple meanings of the concept ‘region', which deny that there is a single ‘essential' definition of regions)” (2003: 746; cf. Allen et al., 1998). Regions thus possess more than one definition, are insufficiently concrete, and clearly fall foul of Markusen's ‘fuzzy concept' test. But surely this cannot be reason enough to jettison the regional concept from regional studies, nor presuppose the need to put qualitative research methods back in their box. As anyone working with the regional concept will tell you, it is a complex issue, and yes, by definition it is a fuzzy concept, but the way to tackle this is not to shy away as may be implied by Markusen. The challenge is to steer through the complexity and bring clarity of conceptual understanding to understand the strategic interplay of flows, processes, connections, structures, networks, agencies and institutions (re)producing the region as a key site/scale in the geography of contemporary capitalism. Here it is argued that case-study research has an important role to play. But nevertheless there are issues which need addressing.

It would be an easy argument to make, to suggest that advocating more case-study research is oxymoronic. But like others, I retain the belief that case-study research remains an important methodological tool in the armoury of regional geographers, with “the validity of any attendant theoretical claims…based not on the representativeness of the sample case, nor from statistical inferences based on empirical regularities and patterns, but on issues of theoretical necessity and analytical plausibility” (Peck, 2003: 731). For me, the problem lay not with the case-study approach itself, as implied by Markusen, but in the way that much case-study research fails to meet the high standards of rigour required. Take this following example from work undertaken on regional competitiveness for instance:

“[The research will use] case studies of successful regions to assess the importance of more qualitative factors, e.g. regional governance, and the ability to transfer the factors driving success to those areas which are currently less competitive.”

Gardiner (2003: 20)

Note how the case-studies are only of ‘successful regions' and that the driving force behind their methodology is to determine the ‘ability to transfer the factors driving success to those areas which are currently less competitive'. Alas the problem here and elsewhere is not the case-study itself, but the application of it, failing as it does to meet the high standards of rigour required, and learn from the experiences/weaknesses highlighted in the new regionalism. Indeed, the policy tail continues to wag the methodological dog, and this surely cannot be good in for a critical regional studies.

This being true, the case-study should not be rendered inappropriate, but can, will, indeed should, remain a key methodological tool in the armoury of regional geographers. The challenge then is to be more rigorous, with the starting point “not less but better forms of case study” (Lagendijk, 2003: 725 original emphasis). But this still leaves the difficult task of ‘suggesting what needs to be done' and ‘how to move forward' to achieve high standards of rigour for developing new regionalist case-study research (Martin, 2001). Drawing upon recent work on the development of England 's NRP the next section attempts to address this by unpicking the mechanics of ‘doing' regional regulation.

Regions in Focus: A 'New Regionalist' Interpretation of England 's Northwest3

The new regionalism was particularly important given the close links between academic conjecture and on-the-ground developments, whereby political praxis witnessed the decentralisation of responsibilities to subnational institutional frameworks in pursuit of increased wealth and accountability. The United Kingdom (and especially England through the implementation of Blair's NRP) was no exception to this. But while it has been widely accepted that England sought a greater engagement with new regionalist assumptions, critics believe that a ‘thin' approach is being adopted, with policymakers rescaling rather than resolving the economic and democratic deficit (Jones, 2001). The Regions in Focus project thus sought to investigate four normatively charged academic/policy assumptions regarding the institutionalisation of regions in England, and the new regionalism more broadly. That, first, a necessary link exists between economic competitiveness and the regional scale; second, a necessary link exists between regions and increased social participation, accountability and stakeholder democracy; third, all regions can benefit from having sub-national frameworks and supports, raising their productivity/competitiveness; and finally, that points one and two can be secured through new subnational organisations and institutions such as Development Agencies and Regional Assemblies.

Seeking to contribute to debates on the conceptualisation of regions, this project sought to go above-and-beyond MacLeod's (2001a) theoretical reconstruction of the new regionalism to discover how empirically-derived knowledge could add value to the intellectual pursuit of understanding why some regions experience rapid growth while others lag behind. In what follows, I seek to uncover the mechanics of ‘doing' regional regulation, by tackling each of the four points of weakness in conceptualising the new regionalism. The first, and perhaps most damaging, was the new regionalist failure to get a hold on its foundational term. Again the work of MacLeod is instrumental.

The Region in Focus

Having sought to theoretically reconstruct new regionalist geographies, MacLeod, together with fellow regulationist Martin Jones, complemented this scholarly endeavour with a related line of inquiry devoted to ‘renewing the geography of regions' (Jones and MacLeod, 2004; MacLeod and Jones, 2001). They argue that while the ‘new regionalism' in economic development and territorial representation, in parallel with the constitutional restructuring of certain nation-states, has done much to revive a widespread debate about regional change, this has concealed fundamental questions relating to political struggles and the contested social and cultural practices through which societies assume their regional shape. Drawing inspiration from the new regional geography of the 1980s, and in particular the work of Anssi Paasi, Jones and MacLeod reinvigorated debates on the geography of regions by conceptualising regions as relational processes that are (re)produced through various forms of agency, rather than as fixed territorial entities. For them, Paasi's process-based explanation of regional institutionalisation, where the purpose “is precisely to progress from a ‘thing' to a process, to look behind the region itself to the practices through which the region was finally realised and attained its status on the spatial system and the consciousness of society” (1986: 14), proved a fruitful source of inspiration.

A forerunner to the ‘institutional turn', Paasi (1986) deconstructed the process of regional institutionalisation by abstracting four stages: the constitution of territorial shape; the formation of the conceptual or symbolic shape; the emergence of institutions; and, the formal establishment of the region in the social consciousness of society. Not sequential or linear in nature, these four stages were “mutually constituting, reciprocal and recursive processes of structuration only distinguishable from each other analytically for the purposes of grounded research” (MacLeod and Jones, 2001: 679).

The importance attached to the work of Paasi is twofold. His approach firstly sketches out the multifarious properties of regional institutionalisation and advances the intellectual pursuit and political understanding of regional (trans)formation; and second, the framework can be easily replicated from region to region – a point on which Markusen would no doubt approve4. But in the English context, two further points are noteworthy. First, the desire of Blair's government to institutionalise a new regionalist inspired tier of governance in England has seen them attempt to achieve the final stage of Paasi's model, the formal establishment of regions in the social consciousness of society, without stages one, two, or three being in place5. Second, and in contrast to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where devolution was achieved through a mandate of political legitimation, the regional mandate in England has been driven primarily by demands to increase economic growth, productivity, and competitiveness. Much stronger on uncovering how regions become fully institutionalised spaces within the political and cultural landscape, Paasi's model is thus less well equipped to understand the economic mandate for institutionalising regions. It is here that work conducted by Allen et al (1998) is important in enabling greater understanding of the regional concept.

Through an in-depth case-study of south east England, Allen et al offered a vision of regions as open and discontinuous spaces, constituted by social relationships stretched across regions in a variety of ways. More than statistically or administratively convenient constructs, they suggested that there was “no essential south east” but that regions “take shape in particular contexts and from specific perspectives” (ibid., 34). The authors analyzed four different mechanisms of growth – finance, consumption and debt, high technology, and state policies – to demonstrate how the boundaries of the south east region varied depending upon which mechanism of growth you analysed, and moreover, how none coincided with the administrative boundary of the region. Rejecting notions that regions were territorially fixed, Allen et al's study proved to be a launch pad for those advocating a ‘relational' approach to space in political-economic geography (Geografiska Annaler, 2004). The result has been the emergence of a new ‘spatial grammar', with suggestions that we are living in a ‘regional world' (Storper, 1997) put into the shadows by the recognition that emerging spatial configurations (e.g. regions) are not necessarily or purposively territorial or scalar, but constituted through the spatiality of flow, porosity, and relational connectivity associated with globalization. Thus,

“In a relationally constituted modern world in which it has become normal to conduct business – economic, cultural, political – through everyday trans-territorial organisation and flow, local advocacy, it seems to me, must be increasingly about exercising nodal power and aligning networks at large in one's own interests, rather than about exercising territorial power…There is no definable regional territory to rule over.”

Amin (2004: 36)

Challenging territorial conceptualisations of spatiality, the ‘relational turn' presents a real challenge for analysing regions in a reconstructed new regionalist geography. But could it be that just like the new regionalism made the mistake of equating the rise of the regional state with a decline in the role of the nation-state – as if it was a zero-sum game – that the kudos afforded to relational perspectives is bending the stick too far in the direction of networked conceptualisations of spatiality? Clearly there are those who think the answer to this is yes:

“There is no doubt that networks do matter, but so do ‘geography', boundaries and scales as expressions of social practice, discourse and power. Geography, boundaries and scales are not ‘intuitive fictions' and their rejection/acceptance can hardly be ‘written away' or erased in our offices but have to be reconceptualised perpetually in order to understand their material/discursive meaning in the transforming world.”

Paasi (2004: 541-2)

As Allen et al's study demonstrated, conceptualising the spatiality of regions depends upon what you choose to analyse. Recently, this has led Jones and MacLeod (2004) to distinguish between what they term ‘new regional spaces' and ‘new spaces of regionalism'. Promoted primarily by economic geographers, the former recognises the increasing importance of connectivity such that what is important is not that which is stationary in cities/regions, but that which flows through them (e.g. finance, knowledge). Simply put, the most competitive cities and/or regions in the global economy are those, like the global cities of London and New York, which are the most connected, networked, and thus, act as key nodes in the global economy.

By way of contrast, the latter emerge from political geography and “features the (re-)assertion of national and regional claims to citizenship, insurgent forms of political mobilization and cultural expression and the formation of new contours of territorial government” (ibid., 435). If the emergence of new regional ‘economic' spaces has emphasised how competitiveness is harnessed by exercising nodal power in the globally interconnected and networked society, new spaces of ‘political' regionalism are seen to be mobilised territorially (cf. Amin et al., 2003). So rather than adopting a territorial or networked conceptualisation of spatiality, Jones and MacLeod argue for “a retaining of territorially oriented readings of political economy and when appropriate their conjoining with non-territorial and/or relational socio-economic and political strategies” (2004: 448). Moreover, if economic processes are seen to be less territorially bounded, more open, and thus conform more to relational conceptualisation than political processes, then only by analysing the multiple factors, drivers, contradictions and tensions across the economic, political, social, and cultural domains can we begin to conceptualize contemporary economic and political spatialities as relational, networked, and/or territorial. This, it is argued, is the way to get closer to understanding the regional concept. But how does this work in practice?

As noted above, England 's NRP was premised on a number of normative assumptions and contained a number of important policy tensions and political contradictions. But despite widespread criticism towards the NRP at the outset, there was a growing political recognition that regions were increasingly important for implementing many of the Labour Government's core economic, social and public policies, and also empowering local communities therein. Consequently, the region was mobilised into many of Labour's policies – through initiatives as varied as enterprise and business support, inward investment, rural policy, urban policy, skills training and industrial productivity, land management and regeneration, and various competitiveness indicators – and was the site for a large number of what appeared to be differently scaled and territorialised agendas. Indicative of this, regions found themselves squeezed from above by Westminster and Whitehall, with targets and calls for more joined-up territorial thinking, and from below by local stakeholders wanting more integrated economic and social development. Of these tensions, four stood out: balancing urban and rural territorial concerns in the pursuit of integrated territorial development; managing the balance between economic competitiveness and social inclusion; tackling national and regional policy constraints; balancing the need for regional accountability with the prevailing trend of centralisation.

Although these four strands were variously documented within the academic literature, they remained fragmented and seemingly diverse tensions within the English regional agenda. Recognising that only by analysing multiple factors, drivers, contradictions and tensions in relation to each other can we conceptualize contemporary economic and political spatialities, a multidimensional approach is vital for enabling greater understanding of regions and their various roles as incubators of knowledge, learning, democracy and economic growth within an increasingly complex territorial, networked, and relational world. A fruitful starting point for overcoming the first point of weakness in the new regionalism, it also opens up reconstructed new regionalist geographies to be an arena in and through which to raise critical questions about the conceptualisation of regions as territorial and/or networked and/or relational spaces. Relatedly, it throws into question the role that the state enacts in the production and articulation of existing, or new and emerging, sites, scales, arenas, and channels of political-economic governance.

The State in Focus

Establishing territorial control through the creation and enforcement of boundaries has long enabled states to govern society. Part and parcel of the state architecture, administratively bounded regions have long enabled the state to govern. Yet as noted above, those advocating relational approaches to spatiality contend that “in principle the conception [of regions] as bounded and undisturbed is incorrect” (Massey, 1995: 64) and that “an adequate understanding of the region and its futures can only come through a conception of places as open, discontinuous, relational and internally diverse” (Allen et al. 1998: 143). Logical extension of this argument suggests that not only are emerging state spaces “increasingly free from regulatory supervision on the part of nation-states” (Scott, 2001: 4) but analysing regions as unbounded, open, and porous challenges the ideals and practices of citizenship, political representation and democracy – that have been bound up with the achievement of statehood – as economic, cultural, social and informational flows permeate/straddle the boundaries of individual nation-states. So why, in an age of relational thinking, when the shackles of the state are seemingly cast aside is it argued by critics of the new regionalism that the role of the state remains underplayed? Once more the answer lies in interpreting the balance between conceptualising space territorially and/or relationally.

Through most of the twentieth century the English space economy was described in regional terms to inform policy needs that were essentially territorialist in nature – in Castells (1996) terminology, seeing the ‘national economy' as a ‘space of places' – and yet, over the past few years the emphasis has moved much more towards conceptualising the national economy as a ‘space of flows'. Departure from explanations emphasising the importance of regions within social redistributional national policy and political frameworks to being more open and unbounded has been associated with regions obtaining partial territorial autonomy (through programmed devolution of powers, authority, and legitimacy) from the state, and a degree of independent authority over local economic decision-making. But this should not be read as an attempt to replace, operate at a tangent to, or flank the national economy. Instead the rescaling of state functions and the assembling of institutions can be seen as a deliberate orchestration on the part of the state to the changing geographical logic of capitalism (cf. Marston, 2000).

Noted above, state restructuring in the UK saw the institutionalisation of territorially bounded regions at the end of the twentieth century. Today though, in line with relational thinking and its rekindling of research on cities as key nodes in the space economy, the focus has shifted towards the networked geographies of core cities and their regional hinterlands (Harrison, 2007a). But this should not be read as the decline of the state as a rescaling agent, for just as relational thinking is not replacing territorial conceptualisations of spatiality, and conceptualising the national economy as a ‘space of flows' is not replacing conceptualising it as a ‘space of places', city-regions should not be seen as a direct replacement for regions. For we are not talking of a zero-sum game here. Instead, the emergence of new state spaces points to the fact that articulating the role of the state in orchestrating the rescaling and repositioning of powers, functions, authority and legitimacy across space remains important, but also, it points to the importance of understanding the geographies of other sites, spaces, and scales (be they emerging, re-emerging, transforming, or in decline) that to lesser or greater extent, impact upon the institutionalisation of regions.

The Region: A Scale Amongst Many

Just as traditional notions of geographical space being defined territorially have been superseded by relational perspectives, traditional notions of geographical scale as ontologically pre-given have been superseded by a “highly productive emphasis on process, evolution, dynamism and socio-political contestation” (Brenner, 2001: 603) and the premise that geographic scales are not merely the settings for political conflicts but are “themselves implicated in the constitution of social, economic and political processes” (Delaney and Leitner, 1997: 93). Scales, such as England's newly revived regional scale which dates back to the 1940s and the management of a pre-Fordist economy, become both the ‘object' of state policy and ‘active progenitors' in shaping, channelling, even limiting the horizons of delivering political-economic change. Not that this should imply a concrete reality where there is an ordered hierarchical layering of territorial spaces/levels, each containing a discrete and well-defined array of political powers and competencies, for p olitical strategies and policy endeavours explicitly tangle and confound scales, such that:

“We now see a proliferation of discursively constituted and institutionally materialised and embedded spatial scales (whether terrestrial, territorial or telematic), that are related in increasingly complex tangled hierarchies rather than being simply nested one within the other, with different temporalities as well as spatialities…There is no pre-given set of places, spaces or scales that are simply being reordered. For in addition to the changing significance of old places, spaces, scales and horizons, new places are emerging, new spaces are being created, new scales of organisation are being developed and new horizons of action are being imagined.”

Jessop (2000: 343)

Approaching the conceptualisation of spatiality through this theoretical vocabulary on the ‘politics of scalar structuration' can uncover how the rescaling of functions and the institutionalisation of new state spaces reveals the extent to which the territorial development of regions is intricately bound up with the redefinition of state intervention (Brenner, 2004). And yet, just as this theoretical canon of work begins to bed into social-scientific inquiry, the merits of scalar/territorial approaches have been the subject of a vigorous attack, again, though not exclusively, by those advocating a relational approach to understanding sociospatiality.

For its proponents a relationally constituted world means that “ emerging spatial configurations are not necessarily or purposively territorial or scalar but are constituted through the spatiality of flow, porosity, and relational connectivity associated with globalization” (Amin, 2004: 36). Thus, s pace is “no longer seen as a nested hierarchy moving from ‘global' to ‘local'. This absurd scale-dependent notion is replaced by the notion that what counts is connectivity” (Thrift, 2004: 59). Critiquing the political-economy of scale, relationalists argue that networks are not scalar but topological, with some critics arguing that scale should be eliminated as a spatial category and replaced with ‘flattened' metaphors of ‘sites' (Marston et al., 2005; Jones et al., 2007). Accused of becoming enmeshed in multifaceted scalar politics and tangled policy hierarchies, as the hierarchy of scales were reshuffled through state restructuring under contemporary capitalism, the ongoing debate surrounding territorial/scalar and/or relational approaches to space/scale clearly raise challenging questions for reconstructing new regionalist geographies.

At one level, the advent of relational thinking has seen non-territorial and topological perspectives challenge the traditional coupling of the rescaling of state spatiality and territorial restructuring. But what if networks are themselves scaled? This is the argument made recently by Bulkeley, who suggests that “once the concept of scale is freed from notions of contained and contiguous territories, it is clear that networks have a scalar dimension, both in terms of the ways in which they operate and the ways in which they are framed and configured by other networks/coalitions or actors” (2005: 897). So what impact would this have on reconstructing new regionalist geographies?

The answer, for me, lies in empirically extending MacLeod's theoretical reconstruction of the new regionalism. For MacLeod, the RA would profit from a multiscalar perspective so as to reveal how particular regulatory factors are scaled at particular levels. All of which suggests that research of this nature helps to unpack the state and its tendency to privilege certain spaces and/or scales at different times and for different regulatory practices; what Jones (1997) has termed the spatial and scalar selectivity of the state. But more than this, in revealing the state in its manifestation as a multidimensional and multiscalar set of regulatory sites, research of this nature enables greater understanding of the region in relation to other spaces and scales of regulation. Not only can this be seen to enable regionalists to overcome the second and third points of weakness in the new regionalism, but in so doing, it enables us to further develop knowledge of the region.

Rather than view the multidimensional institutionalisation of regions through a single scalar lens like Allen et al (1998), and then build-in the critical role of the state in steering this, my argument is that reconstructed new regionalist geographies require a much greater empirically demonstrated on the ground understanding of how the dimensions of focus are variously “institutionalised, defended, attacked, upscaled, and downscaled in the course of political-economic struggle” (Peck, 2002: 340). This requires multiple scalar lenses. Thus I advocate the framing of new regionalist geographies through a series of rational abstractions – or what I would term ‘scalar cuts' – through space in order to demonstrate and amend theoretical advances in light of empirically-informed analysis. Not that this should imply a concrete reality where scales are out there waiting to be discovered, each containing a discrete and well-defined array of political powers and competencies, for as we know political strategies and policy endeavours explicitly tangle and confound scales, but which are distinguishable from each other analytically for the purposes of grounded research. Let me illustrate this through the English case.

English regional policy has been historically dominated by attempts to marry-up ‘economic regionalisation' with ‘political regionalism', but never the twain has met. That is until the arrival of Blair's New Labour government and their desire to embark upon a comprehensive programme of constitutional modernisation, which for England included attempts to unite these politically distinct ideologies through the creation of directly-elected regional assemblies (ERAs) to complement the ‘economic powerhouses' that were the RDAs (DTLR/Cabinet Office, 2002). Following defeat of proposals to create ERAs in the first of a series of planned referenda in November 2004, the plans were shelved. As the policy lay in tatters, it has been argued that the role of the state was critical to the project's failure, with the policy undermined by the centrally orchestrated nature of regionalism in England (Harrison, 2006b). It was argued that analysts needed to adopt a thick political-economy approach, one which recognised the critical role of the state and the asymmetries of power, to understand the processes involved in the institutionalisation of English regions because where institutionalising regions as economic spheres of influence had succeeded, the institutionalisation of regions as a political space had failed. But this is not the end to this story, for in the years since, political praxis can highlight the importance of adopting the ‘scalar cuts' methodology.

Despite the success of institutionalising regions as a space of economic activity, following the collapse of the ERA proposals, the spatial focus of subnational economic policy shifted. Where we once read of ‘regions', we now read that ‘city-regions' were the spatial manifestations of economic activity. Inextricably linked to notions of connectivity, flow, and boundless space, city-regions were quickly assimilated with the theoretical development of relational approaches to spatiality and vice versa. Three points are worth noting here. First, it is worth reiterating that although the switch from ‘regions' to ‘city-regions' happened almost instantaneously following the collapse of the NRP, it is not a zero-sum game which sees regions disappear; second, although the institutionalisation of city-regions had been slowly bubbling along for a number of years, it was only following the collapse of the NRP in November 2004 that city-regions were thrust to the forefront of political praxis in England, a direct result of the state's new found conviction that city-regions, and not regions, were the way forward; and finally, though it could be argued that the shift from administratively bounded regions to unbounded city-regions maps onto the shift from territorial to relational approaches, and from seeing the national economy as a ‘space of places' to a ‘space of flows', regional institutions and actors – especially the RDAs and their leaders – have been critical partners in pushing the city-regional agenda (Harrison, 2007a). Thus the state and the regions are promoting territorial and networked approaches to political-economic governance. Just one example of how understanding the institutionalisation of scales other than the region can concede greater knowledge and understanding of regions and their (trans)formation, we can see many of the same tensions and contradictions – the difficulty of political representation, accountability, and local autonomy under an historically centralising state – are played out at the city-regional level, and moreover, how they are variously institutionalised, attacked, defended, upscaled, and downscaled in the course of political-economy struggle (Peck, 2002).

If we expand our horizons to look beyond the state-region axis, a second example can illustrate the benefits of the ‘scalar cuts' methodology. If the relationship between the state and the regions has been one dominated by the trend of ‘centrally orchestrated regionalism', it has been argued that to compensate for the lack of devolved powers, authority, and legitimacy from the state, regional institutions such as the RDAs are adopting an approach best described as ‘regionally orchestrated centralism', reversing the rhetoric of devolution and drawing back powers to the centre (Harrison, 2007b). The strength of the ‘scalar cuts' methodology is that not only does it generate new knowledge about the geography of regions, but it can help uncover how regions evolve relationally within tangled hierarchies and dispersed interscalar networks. However, this still leaves one point of weakness to overcome; the tendency to read off institutional developments from exemplar regional economies for policy transfer to lagging regions.

Soft Institutionalism and Policy Transfer

While the new regionalist message appealed to the policy community, it's broad appeal contributed to its decline. For Markusen (1999), this weakness was simply the result of a reliance on ‘fuzzy concepts' and a lack of methodological rigour. Markusen, however, raises a further point of note. Having chastised those working with interview-based case-studies for ‘taking it easy' and ‘avoiding the hard work', she proceeded to criticise the same scholars for taking what she saw as the easy option of ‘researching in their own backyard'. The problem, researchers promoting proximal locations at the expense of more distant locations contribute to a ‘provincial boosterism' which ultimately weakens policy relevance.

In locating this project in England I admit to an element of Markusen's ‘provincial boosterism', but I disagree with her summation that ‘proximity research' is necessarily a bad thing. For me it is not the proximity of the location that is the issue, but the lack of supporting evidence and explanation in published research findings as to why that location was chosen which erodes credibility. As with the application of case-study research, it is the failure to achieve high standards of justification for the chosen location rather than the location itself which is the problem here. Indeed many studies attempt to circumvent this by retrospectively justifying their choice of location through the concepts that they develop from it, but this is neither rigorous, nor a practice worthy of support. It should be remembered that “cases are selected for their explanatory power” with “absolutely no advantage in going to the trouble to find a ‘typical' case'” (Mitchell, 1983: 204). Clearly not a typical case, and despite its proximal location there was a compelling case for situating the Regions in Focus project in England 's Northwest.

Most research into English regionalism has focused on two regions – the South East for reasons associated with London as a priori global city, and the North East, de facto home of English regionalism. So why England 's Northwest? With a regional population of 7 million outstripping that of Scotland and Wales respectively and an economy grossing £106 billion per annum, equivalent to that of Denmark, Norway, and Portugal, it is clear why commentators have argued that “the North West region is a country within a country” (Watts, 2007). Just as impressive, the Greater Manchester subregion – one of five that make up the region – has a population equivalent to that of the entire North East region, while the geographical area of another – Cumbria – also compares favourably. Despite this, the region faces many difficulties. Not only is England 's Northwest a politically fragmented region but the region has consistently underperformed the UK economy in the post-war era. Despite a raft of government initiatives, England's Northwest has consistently underperformed the UK economy in the contemporary capitalist era, with the region's Gross Value Added per capita remaining 11% below that of the UK average. If further illustration is needed, of the fifty most deprived districts in England, the North West contains fifteen (30%)(ODPM, 2004). Simply put, England 's Northwest had the most to gain from a new regionalist tier of governance, but it also had the most to lose if the promise of economic and democratic dividends did not accrue.

Not that this suggests that paradigmatic status is being afforded to the institutionalisation of England 's Northwest. The region clearly has its own idiosyncrasies. It is in no way typical, neither of regions in England or across advanced capitalist nations. But lest we forget that Allen et al's (1998) study of south east England focused on a unique region. How many regions can be said to be so heavily dependent/dominated by a city of London 's stature? Yet can we say that the knowledge developed was any weaker for it? Could we say that the theoretical contribution was any weaker for it? I would say not. So long as sound reasoning and logic are applied, cases selected for their explanatory power should remain the bedrock for empirically demonstrating and amending theoretical conjecture in the new regionalism.

Concluding Comments

In this paper I have sought to offer a critical appraisal of the new regionalism. Following a series of critiques, I argue that work on reconstructing new regionalist geographies has been strong on theoretical conjecture but weak on linking this to empirical demonstration and amendment. Taking up the baton from MacLeod (2001a), this paper takes the first step in bringing together theoretical conjecture, empirical demonstration, and methodological debate in reconstructing new regionalist geographies. Like MacLeod (2001b) I agree that the points of weakness can be overcome by adopting a multidimensional and multiscalar approach to empirically-thick yet theoretically-grounded new regionalist research.

In making these claims, I recognise that a lot of this goes against the grain of currently in vogue relational and topological thinking. Yet my argument here is that recovering the ground covered by the new regionalists following the relational turn and the scale debate is important, not just for reconstructing new regionalist geographies, but actually, that debates centred on these new regionalist geographies can be a profitable arena in and through which to develop new knowledge's to contribute to ongoing debates between scalar/territorial and relational/networked/topological perspectives. As a result, this paper should not be seen as definitive, but rather, a first step along what may appear at first sight a difficult road ahead, but one that is potentially fruitful.



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1. For a notable exception see Goodwin et al (2005).

2. For Lagendijk (2003) this results from scholars invoking new concepts to reflect a specific contribution that marks their approach as different from others. Can we say that we know a ‘cluster' from a ‘spatial agglomeration', an ‘intelligent region' from an ‘innovative region', a ‘regional innovation network' from an ‘institutional milieu', or for that matter, a ‘network of untraded interdependencies' from an ‘associational economy'?

3. ‘Regions in Focus' was a 3-year project (2003-2006) funded by the ESRC (Grant Number PTA-030-2002-01629).

4. Markusen would take issue with Paasi's advocacy of a process-based approach to understanding regions and regional formation through the use of institutionalisation (process noun) rather than institutions (noun).

5. By way of illustration, Jones and MacLeod have argued that stage one was not addressed because there were “ no meaningful attempts made to debate the ‘geographical basis of regions': indicative of the staggering lack of imagination punctuating New Labour's thinking over the territorial representation of England” (2004: 434).


Edited and posted on the web on 21st November 2006; last update 1st October 2007