A subdiscipline of geography that seeks to describe and explain the absolute and relative location of economic activities, and the flows of information, raw materials, goods, and people that connect otherwise separate local, regional, and national economies. It originated in the late 19th century but, unlike its academic cousin, economics, did not initially favour theory. In the form of commercial geography, it tended to be highly empirical, attending to the relations between a location’s natural and human resource base and the character of its economy. The geography of the production of specific commodities was thus based on observation, not deductions from first economic principles. However, this changed from the mid-1950s. Economic geography was, along with urban geography, at the leading edge of the Quantitative and Scientific Revolution in Anglophone human geography. Partly inspired by the earlier research of Alfred Weber and Walter Christaller, a new generation of economic geographers began to look for consistent patterns in the economic landscape that could be explained with reference to producers acting rationally on the basis of their existing resources, the location of their markets, the transportation costs of moving inputs and finished goods, and so on. Location theory in various forms became a major preoccupation, with economic geographers gathering and analysing quantitative data about all manner of commodity producers in order to identity spatial regularities and departures therefrom. There was an emphasis on describing and seeking to explain spatial decision-making by firms, commuters, labour migrants, and so on. This approach bled into what was called ‘*regional science’, which was linked to government planning and problem-solving.
However, from the early 1970s a new generation of economic geographers began to question quantitative economic geography. As part of the radical geography movement inspired by the worldwide political protests of 1968, these geographers offered four criticisms of the research pursued by an older generation. First, it was accused of a naive objectivism, or belief that the ‘facts’ could provide a value-free, unbiased test of a theory. Second, it was criticized for its theoretical assumptions, notably the assumption that economic actors are governed by a universal form of reason (homo economicus). Third, it was accused of focusing on phenomenal forms not underlying economic processes. Fourth, it was criticized for treating the world’s economic geography as if it should (or would) display a spatial order, such that place and regional differences were mere ‘noise’ to be filtered out in the search for general patterns.
Out of these criticisms emerged a new kind of economic geography indebted to political economy, especially Marxism. This research focused on how economic actors had their spatial decision-making structured by the logics of capitalism, a historically specific system that created its own signature geographies. According to David Harvey in The Limits to Capital (1982), capitalism rests on a geographical tension between fixity and motion, concentration and dispersal, producing inter-place competition and the compulsion for firms and investors to seek out new opportunities in other regions. Like his spatial science predecessors, Harvey believed economic activity had a certain spatial order to it, but unlike them, saw this order as fluid and unstable.
Political economic geographers like Harvey saw spatial decision-making by economic actors as structured by definite ‘rules’ and pressures specific to capitalism, and they also saw economic decision-making as not purely ‘rational’, but the result of a combination of imperfect reasoning, guess work, and other distinctively human characteristics. They also focused on large firms in order to highlight their considerable importance for jobs, income, taxation, and wider local and national economies. Doreen Massey’s Spatial Divisions of Labour (1984) and Peter Dicken’s Global Shift (1986) were two important contributions here during the 1980s. Dicken’s book was among several works that analysed the decline of old industrial regions in North America and Europe and the rise of ‘newly industrializing economies’ in the Far East and elsewhere. Much of this work was inspired by the neo-Marxist Regulation Theory of political economy. Aside from examining firm behaviour within a wider capitalist context, there were also important early attempts to understand the geographical concentrations and flows of money, notably loans by Western banks to developing countries that ended with a debt crisis by the mid-1980s. Stuart Corbridge’s Debt and Development (1993) is an exemplar of this work. Still other political economic research analysed the connections between national states and economic activity, with a particular focus on the attempt of hegemonic countries to maintain their relative economic prowess. John Agnew and Stuart Corbridge’s Mastering Space (1995) is an exemplar of this attempt to link economic and political geography together. Agnew has gone on to explore the economic underpinnings of America’s waning political hegemony (in Hegemony 2005).
Much of this research was theoretically innovative and sophisticated, but it tended to avoid quantitative approaches, favouring more qualitative ones. One justification for this was that it is important to understand how and why economic actors do what they do on their own terms. However, quantitative approaches to describing and explaining the changing patterns of economic growth remain important, with certain university geography departments making this a signature of their research (such as the London School of Economics). In California, Michael Storper and Allen Scott have used secondary quantitative data sets in their explorations of the roots of sustained regional economic growth. These approaches rarely extend to forecasting economic geographies, remaining focused on current and past patterns of investment and production. Economic geography’s relation to mainstream economics has grown closer since the creation of the Journal of Economic Geography in 2000. However, the subdiscipline is far more politically left-wing than fifty years ago and today it draws much intellectual inspiration from the critical wings of economic sociology, business studies, the sociology of work, and management studies. The effects of the 1970s critique of location theory endure. Leading economic geographers have been critics of neoliberalism and have analysed capitalism from the perspective of ordinary working people (see labour geography), in the process highlighting the key links between production and social reproduction. Many have also explored how economic geographies are implicated in culture in various complex ways, thus challenging economists’ belief that ‘the economy’ is something separate in kind. In sum, economic geography today is plural and dominated by no one approach. This makes it a rich environment for practitioners but threatens to weaken the field’s external visibility and impact in academia and the wider society.