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  • Critical Theory for Geography Students I:Foucault and "Questions on Geography"
  • Michael W. Pesses (bio)


This is the first in a series of essays I want to write to assist students in understanding some key critical theory that I see as being immensely beneficial to our field. My goal is not to just work through an essay or book, but also to advocate for theory's place in the discipline of geography. I have long seen how critical theory can be a bad word amongst some geographers as well as produce anxiety in students the first time they try to make sense of a foundational text. My first experiences with post-structuralist thought as a grad student were a mess, but through encouragement from professors and fellow students I eventually understood and benefited from some of these intellectual giants. And even if you don't see a need for theory in your own work or academic aspirations, you should at least understand that which you are disregarding.

I want to use this first essay to explore Michel Foucault's work, using the interview "Questions on Geography" as a gateway to his larger oeuvre1. While I want to use plain language whenever possible to make Foucault's concepts accessible, there are some repeated terms in the literature of which a knowledge will help.

I am focusing on Foucault and this specific essay for two reasons. First, Foucauldian concepts are of incredible importance to my own work as well as my own outlook on the world. Even if I am not directly citing Foucault in my research, his ideas infiltrate everything I write. My thoughts on whatever subject I am researching—typically the environment, automobiles, or popular media—begin from a Foucauldian conception of power and knowledge as well as what questions ought to be asked. This is not to say that Foucault holds every answer, nor is he even liked by all geographers (see Harvey 2007 and Thrift 2007 for examples of the latter). [End Page 148]

Second, this interview was one of the first things I read when I decided to switch from anthropology to geography (thankfully!) as I began graduate school. Upon the first read, I was confused, which I now see was due to a lack of contextual knowledge. I also was disturbed by what I have always read as a bit of neediness on the part of the interviewers that I think our small discipline should work to eradicate. So often being the smallest discipline within the social sciences at most universities seems to produce a little sibling vibe that we should resist. Rather than complain that we are ignored, we geographers should work to show that when other disciplines ignore our spatial reasoning, their own work suffers.


Before I begin on Foucault, I want to share some things I picked up when I began working through theory in general. I was initially resistant to a lot of it during my undergraduate days, mainly because I felt like these writers wrote unintelligibly to seem smart. I now know that, with maybe a few exceptions, it wasn't so much bad writing as it was me not knowing how to properly read this stuff. Despite being an eighteen-year-old who thought he had all the answers, it turned out that what I mainly needed to grasp theory was to simply open up my mind.

Understanding theory is a process. I hope it has become clear to you in your undergraduate careers that grasping academic writing or concepts does not happen on the first read. We must read slowly and deliberately, going back to the beginning as needed and always paying attention to subtle word choices, such as the difference between "or" and "and." You might be impatient and want to get through the chapter or article you have been assigned for a class or you need to help write a paper, but a little patience will help tremendously.

I will say that at a certain point, after much struggle, I could suddenly pick up a new essay or book and it quickly made sense! A lot of it has to do with building...