Joe Painter: Cold War, state-centrism, world hunger, rich-poor, anthropology

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Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (January 2010) Tags: Cold War state-centrism world hunger rich-poor anthropology humanities social sciences

picture Joe Painter

Joe Painter

Book cover Joe Painter

Joe Painter (London, 1965) is Professor of Geography at Durham University. In 1987, he obtained a BA in Geography at University of Cambridge, followed by a PhD in Geography at The Open University in 1991.

Professor Painter’s research interests include political geography, geographies of the state and citizenship, urban and regional theory, urban politics and governance and regionalism and regionality in Europe.

For more information, please visit his personal web page:

Personal page of Joe Painter

In this interview, professor Painter discusses among other topics North-South and East-West relations, socio-technical networks and political anthropology.

The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines. The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?

My relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

I was introduced to geopolitics as an undergraduate student at Cambridge in the mid-1980s. Graham Smith taught a very popular second year course on Political Geography. At the height of the Reagan/Thatcher era, academic geopolitics was concerned principally with the cold war and relations between the USA and the USSR.

I remember Graham Smith’s pithy summary that geopolitics comprised East-West relations while imperialism involved North-South relations. It would not make much sense today to draw such a straightforward contrast between the two – one reason why the study of geopolitics is such a source of fascination.

Which geopolitical topics do you focus on and why have you chosen especially these?

My own primary research has been concerned less with inter-state relations than with the nature of statehood itself. I have a particular interest in the mundane practices through which what we call ‘the state’ is actualized. I feel that in the past political geography often focussed on the more spectacular and more formal aspects of politics neglecting the prosaic ways in which political relations are constituted in everyday life.

Another topic that I have worked on recently is the concept of territory. Rather than seeing the idea of ‘territory’ as fundamentally at odds with currently popular ways of thinking in terms of networks, I have tried to develop an understanding of territory that sees it as constituted through socio-technical networks. This links to my concern with the role of the everyday as such networked relations often comprise just such prosaic activities and practices.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics

My 1995 book on Politics, Geography and ‘Political Geography’ was one of the first to try to develop an approach to political geography informed by a sensitivity to socio-cultural relations.

My geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics

I’m not sure that stock definitions, even the imaginative ones, can quite capture the changing significance of geopolitics over time. We also have to attend to the differences between geopolitics as an academic endeavour (the study of geopolitics) and geopolitics as a political activity (the practice of geopolitics) as well as to the continuous interaction between the two. Geopolitics is concerned with the difference space makes to politics.

For me the work of Doreen Massey provides some of the best insights into why space matters politically. Massey points to the simultaneity of different trajectories in different places. She rejects the tendency to collapse spatial differences into temporal ones. For example she challenge the false assumption that so-called ‘less developed’ countries are ‘backward’ or are ‘behind’ richer or ‘more developed’ ones. They are not further back on the same path – rather they are on different paths. For sure, those paths are intimately entwined with the histories and geographies of the wealthier parts of the world, but they are not reducible to them. Massey’s apparently simple yet remarkably profound insight that differences across space cannot be assimilated to sequences in time speaks to the very condition of possibility of geopolitics. Space allows for the possibility of multiplicity and thus is the sine qua non of politics – from this perspective all politics is geopolitics.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most

It is invidious to nominate one individual because intellectual work is so interdependent, but if I had to pick one person it would probably be Graham Smith, for the quality of his scholarship and his unwavering commitment to social justice. With Graham’s untimely death we lost a great talent and a wonderful human being.

What is your favourite geopolitical book

So many great books have been published and it is difficult to pick a favourite, but a book that made a great impression on me as a student and which (unfortunately) remains all too relevant today is Susan George’s “How the other half dies: the real reasons for world hunger” (Penguin Books, 1976). I remember being particularly struck by George’s injunction to study the rich and powerful, not the poor and powerless – her argument being that research that lays bare the lives of the poor risks being used against them, whereas understanding how the rich manage their affairs offers resources to challenge embedded inequalities.

The book is now available as a free download from the Transnational Institute:

PDF file of “How the other half dies: the real reasons for world hunger”

What is your favourite geopolitical website

Iraqbodycount, for insisting that the life of an Iraqui is no less valuable than that of an American or a Briton:

Iraqbodycount website

The geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

Prediction is a dangerous game in the humanities and social sciences, but it seems virtually certain that the geopolitics of global climate change will be at the forefront of research for years to come. Hopefully arguments around climate justice will become more prominent, with a recognition that the current stock of anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is largely the result of past economic activity in the wealthiest countries in the world.

The growing influence of Asian countries on world politics, especially China and India, coupled with a reconfiguring of the role of the USA will clearly be another key topic.

In terms of conceptual questions, I hope that state-centrism will continue to be challenged, even as state formation remains a vital matter of concern.

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

It is a difficult thing to study, but I’d like to see more attention to the backstage areas of politics – the hidden worlds of political institutions.

For example, there is really interesting work going on in political anthropology: a more sustained dialogue between political anthropology and geopolitics could generate important insights.

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

Ecological survival.

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