Space, Scale and Global Politics*
Daniel Lambach (University of Frankfurt, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Much of contemporary global politics has spatial dimensions but International Relations (IR) as a
discipline has been remarkably reluctant to properly theorize space. This is due to a historical rejection
of geopolitics, even though critical approaches from Political Geography have long broken with the
geo-determinism of classical geopolitics, instead highlighting the dynamic nature of space. This article
argues that IR has much to gain by taking up critical geographic writings on space, scale and territory.
A spatial turn in IR would allow for a more systematic theorization how the natural and the built
environment, and their respective changes, and the spatial conduct of politics affect each other. It
would also make us more attentive to the spatial dimensions of governance. This article outlines a
practice-oriented approach drawing on structuration theory to show how spaces are produced and
illustrates the potential of this approach by showing how territory is enacted through territorial
* Research funding by the German Research Foundation is gratefully acknowledged. The author also wishes to
thank the editors of this Special Issue for their helpful comments.
Global politics do not just happen in space, they also do things to space. The discipline of International
Relations (IR) largely accepts the first point while mostly ignoring the second.
Too many contributions
readily buy into the notion that the globalization of trade, communication, information and migration
has somehow obliterated space and made it irrelevant. If anything, these processes should make us
more not less attentive to space. But the IR mainstream is afflicted by a voluntary blindness that John
Ruggie, back in 1993, summarized as follows: ‘It is truly astonishing that the concept of territoriality
has been so little studied by students of international politics; its neglect is akin to never looking at the
ground that one is walking on’ (Ruggie 1993: 174). Little has changed since then (Larkins 2010: 2).
Influential IR stock-taking exercises like the European Journal of International Relations’ (EJIR) Special
Issue on the ‘End of IR Theory’ (see Dunne et al. 2013 and the other articles of the issue) barely mention
spatial characteristics of politics at all, except in purely metaphorical terms. For instance, Jackson and
Nexon omit any reference to space, place or scale in their ‘catalog – or map [!] – of the basic substances
and processes that constitute world politics’ (Jackson/Nexon 2013: 550). Academic textbooks rarely, if
ever, mention the spatial dimensions of global politics beyond bland references to globalization (e.g.
Baylis et al. 2008, Mansbach/Rafferty 2008, Mingst 2008).
The spatial concepts most commonly
encountered in IR and Political Science writings are simple Cartesian notions of location, proximity and
distance (e.g. Elazar 1999). In short, most of IR is comfortably ensconced in the ‘territorial trap’ (Agnew
1994) of treating the fixed power container of the state as the fundamental building block of
But this is not how it needs to be. A more explicit theorization of space and scale in global politics
would allow us to relate separate research programs to each other, make us attentive to the spatial
foundations of international relations, and provide us with a vocabulary with which to analyze the
dynamics of space and politics, rather than relying on outdated notions of spatial fixity, geographic
determinism and the ‘container state’ that still inform much of IR thinking. Already, we can find many
works in different subfields of IR that take space, or at least some aspect of it, seriously. Hence, this is
not about starting over from scratch but about critically examining our assumptions, connecting
existing research and improving it. IR does not have to reinvent any wheels to achieve this when the
necessary theoretical tools are already available in Political Geography. To be sure, transdisciplinary
learning can be a vexing and difficult task, especially when disciplines do not share an ontological basis.
This paper follows the standard convention that (upper-case) International Relations (IR) refers to the
academic discipline and (lower-case) international relations to the objects and processes to be studied. For
the sake of consistency, I have applied the same rule to political science and (political) geography.
As the commendable exception that proves the rule, the edited volume by Edkins and Zehfuss (2009) features
an article (Elden 2009) that discusses the territorial division of the world.
Thankfully, there is considerable overlap between many communities in IR and Political Geography. A
substantial slice of Political Geography has read postmodern, poststructuralist, critical realist, feminist
and/or postcolonial scholarship, employs social constructivist theorizing and uses qualitative and
interpretative methods, much like prominent strands in critical, constructivist and post-modern IR
(Murphy 1999: 890). And beyond this critical approach, there are materialist theories of geography
that offer enticing opportunities for an International Relations where such approaches have been
mostly relegated to International Political Economy (IPE) or, in drastically simplified form, Neorealist
approaches to International Security.
My understanding of space draws on these discussions in Political Geography. As I discuss in more
detail below, I view space through a constructivist-materialist lens. In contrast to relational theories
(e.g. Löw 2016, Massey 2005) that define space as ‘orderings of people (living entities) and social
goods’ (Löw 2008: 38), constructivist approaches understand space as a ‘product of social translation,
transformation, and experience‘ (Soja 1989: 80).
Constructing space contains both a definition of its
physical shape and location as well as its meaning, and is expressed through practices of bordering and
inscription. This implies that space is fundamentally malleable, even dynamic, and that the purposes
of a space are never preordained (Massey 2005, Elden 2013). Such processes of social construction are
never independent from physical geography and material structures but evolve in an interdependent
relationship with both (Squire 2015). In the words of Edward Soja, ‘social life is materially constituted
in its historical geography’ (Soja 1989: 127).
This paper presents ways for IR to take a more sophisticated and critical approach to space. While such
a move offers several benefits, my focus is on two improvements in particular. First, a spatial turn in
IR would allow for a more systematic theorization how the natural and the built environment, and
their respective changes, and the spatial conduct of politics affect each other. In other words, how is
global politics inscribed in space, what spatial patterns does it reproduce, and what influence does the
spatial context have on the conduct of politics? This makes it possible to relate materialist and idealist
approaches to politics through their spatial effects. Second, a spatial perspective makes us attentive
to the spatial dimensions of governance. This, too, goes both ways – governance creates or uses
spaces, and space has an impact on governance. I offer a practice-oriented approach drawing on
structuration theory to show how spaces are produced. I then illustrate the potential of this approach
by showing how territory is enacted through territorial practices. But first, I outline how space has
been treated in the historical development of IR as a discipline.
It is also possible to bring together constructivist and relational understandings and look at how relational
spaces (e.g. transnational networks of migrants, virtual spaces on the internet) are constituted.
The Space(s) of IR
In this section I offer a brief history of space as it was and is approached by IR scholars, inasmuch as
we can speak of this discipline as one singular thing. Although the narrative I construct here is of a
discipline branching out, maybe even fragmenting, IR was never as unified as we sometimes pretend
it was (Kristensen 2016). But in spite of the diversity and pluralism within IR, there is one thing all
commentators can agree on: for large parts of its history, continuing into today’s positivist, mostly
Anglo-American mainstream, IR has had a desperately poor understanding of space and territory,
usually operating from simple premises like the identification of territory with sovereignty and a duality
of ‘the national’ and ‘the international’.
These limitations coalesced during the early days of IR theorizing and have never been sufficiently
challenged. The first serious encounter that the nascent discipline of IR had with space was through
classical writings on geopolitics that emerged between the late imperial period and World War I.
the imperial powers divided the globe amongst them, a ‘new order of space’ emerged which changed
the stakes of political competition, leading to the emergence of a distinct ‘genre of geo-power’ that
was called geopolitics (Ó Tuathail 1996: 15). Writers like Halford Mackinder, Friedrich Ratzel and Alfred
Mahan developed theories of geopolitics like the ‘Heartland thesis’ (Mackinder), Lebensraum (Ratzel)
and ‘sea power’ (Mahan) which Rudolf Kjellen, Karl Haushofer and others later synthesized into the
German school of Geopolitik that partially informed Nazi foreign policy (although the extent of its
impact should not be overestimated, see Ó Tuathail 1996).
Even though these writers were political geographers, their ideas became an important source of early
Realist thought. Ashworth situates Mackinder in particular within a ‘pre-paradigmatic realist tradition
of thought’ (Ashworth 2010: 280) that predates the coalescing of Realism into an identifiable school
after World War II. Wu agrees that Mahan and Mackinder ‘share with mainstream realist theories the
same theoretical assumptions concerning international anarchy, the unit of analysis and power
politics’. Their classical geopolitics can therefore ‘be arguably considered an integral part of realist IR
theories’ (Wu 2018: 790). However, there are notable differences as well: classical geopolitics is
This was best expressed by John Agnew, a political geographer, in his notion of the ‘territorial trap’ (Agnew
1994, Agnew 2010). Alexander Murphy calls it the ‘sovereign territorial ideal’ (Murphy 1996: 82) while Jeremy
Larkins refers to it as the ‘territorial a priori‘ (Larkins 2010). Kratochwil (1986), Ruggie (1993) and Walker (1993)
offer the most widely cited critiques of IR’s simplistic approach to space. For more recent critiques see Gazit
(2018) and Kadercan (2015) as well as O'Loughlin (2018) and Jackson (2018).
Classical geopolitics is an interdisciplinary pursuit that ‘is mainly concerned with […] the interaction between
geography and technology, as well as the political and strategic implications of that interaction’ (Wu 2018:
793). See Ó Tuathail (1996), Parker (1998) and Dodds (2005) for an intellectual history of geopolitical thought.
holistic, dynamic and interdisciplinary compared to the reductionist, static and monodisciplinary
theorizing of Realism (Wu 2018: 792-793).
Nicholas Spykman played an important mediating role in this process. As a professor of International
Relations at Yale in the 1930s and 1940s, Spykman is generally considered part of the cadre of early
Realist writers of this time, alongside Reinhold Niebuhr, E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau (Ashworth
2010: 280). He introduced many ideas of earlier geopolitical writers into Realist discourse where they
were picked up, inter alia, by Hans Morgenthau in his seminal Politics Among Nations (Flynn 2016:
1596-1597). Spykman’s ideas have been especially influential in the field of (Anglo-American) Strategic
Studies even though Spykman is largely forgotten as their originator (Gray 2015). To strategic thinkers
and practitioners like Henry Kissinger or Zbiginiew Brzezinski, geopolitics ‘retained great symbolic
significance […] in that geopolitics had the cachet of a coherent materialist approach to international
politics, an approach that named itself in suitably masculinized terms as “hardheaded”. For the Right,
geopolitics was a politically correct, anti-Marxist materialism that had its foundations in the permanent
realities of the earth. It was figuratively rooted in an imagined earth of natural laws, eternal binary
oppositions, and perpetual struggles against dangerous rivals’ (Ó Tuathail 1996: 16-17). In contrast,
Classical Realism was more dismissive of geographic factors even though Realist theories ‘inherited the
colonial characteristics of space management from traditional geopolitics’ (Wisaijorn 2019: 195, see
also Branch 2012). Hans Morgenthau in particular was very critical of Mackinder’s geopolitics which
he viewed as environmentally determinist and incompatible with his ‘first image’ explanation of IR
(Ashworth 2010, Flynn 2016).
In short, Realism has had an ambivalent relationship to geopolitics. On the one hand, it picked up some
of its traits, such as the self-representation as an objective, scientific discipline, a colonialist perspective
on the world that separates people from places, and a readiness to provide policy advice for nationalist
purposes (Dodds 2005). Another common thread was the essentialisation of the state and national
borders that led Realism into the territorial trap (Wisaijorn 2019: 196). On the other hand, Realism for
the most part disavowed this part of its heritage, especially as IR became less of an interdisciplinary
pursuit and more of a subfield of Political Science (Ashworth 2013). As Parker puts it, ‘(g)eopolitics had
a divided parentage – political science and geography – and from the outset both disciplines tended to
regard it as being a sort of illegitimate child of the other’ (Parker 1998: 3). Realism dismissed
geographical and geopolitical approaches as determinist and materialist even as political geographers
themselves were moving beyond geo-determinism (Flynn 2016: 1584-1586). Given the political
association of geopolitics with fascism, there was no one to champion the relevance of space and
geography in international theory.
Later, Neorealist approaches started to re-incorporate geography into their theorizing but only as an
intervening variable (Wu 2018: 788). This coincided with a ‘rediscovery’ of geopolitics in the 1970s by
US military and foreign policy strategists like Kissinger and Brzezinski and by French critical geographers
like Yves Lacoste (Parker 1998: 1). But this rediscovery passed International Relations by, just as the
later emergence of Critical Geopolitics (see below). Neither Realists nor most of the paradigms that
emerged as critiques thereof made a serious effort to theorize space and territory. Most of liberal
institutionalism and social constructivism have little to say about space, roundly rejecting the
materialist connotations of classical geopolitics.
But in recent decades, things have been changing, albeit in fits and starts. There was a brief window of
time in the 1990s and the early 2000s where spatial concerns occupied a prominent place in IR debates.
Following the pioneering but isolated works of writers like Herz (1957), Kratochwil (1986) and Ruggie
(1993), IR began to take an interest in the spatial dimensions of globalization and state reconfiguration.
Landmark volumes (e.g. Albert et al. 2001, Shapiro/Alker 1996) evinced a ‘rapidly multiplying list of
rediscovered geographies’ (Lapid 1999: 897). However, as debates about the state, sovereignty and
globalization wound down without a clear conclusion in the 2000s, interest in territoriality and space
waned as well. But there is evidence of a tiny renaissance, with several IR scholars like Boaz Atzili
(2011), Jordan Branch (2017), Burak Kadercan (2015), Orit Gazit (2018) and Philip Liste (2016) taking a
theoretical interest in space and territory.
Furthermore, as IR has branched out, we find many
examples of IR scholars from a variety of thematic fields taking space seriously, although these
contributions do not add up to a larger and more coherent research programme, at least thus far (see
also Gazit 2018: 224-228).
International Security scholarship has always had some engagement with spatial factors, especially in
the branch of Strategic Studies, despite the fractious prehistory of Realism and geopolitics (Diehl 1991).
Treatments of space frequently refer to geometric measures like proximity within balance-of-threat
theory (Walt 1987). Some more explicitly geopolitical works appropriate concepts from classical
geopolitics like Mackinder’s Eurasian ‘Heartland’ (Gray 2004) and Spykman’s ‘Rimland’ (Jervis/Snyder
1991). The notion of ‘shatterbelts’, i.e. regions that are characterized by political instability and the
Some poststructuralists take space seriously (e.g. Ashley 1987, Walker 1993), as do world-system theories
and postcolonial approaches but this has not led to a widespread reappraisal of spatiality in IR.
Many more IR scholars work on more specific issues such as borders and frontiers (e.g. Simmons 2019, du
Plessis 2017, Lisle 2017) or the historical formation of the territorial state (Branch 2014, Larkins 2010, Schulz
Similar stories could be told for other subfields of Political Science, where space used to be dismissed as an
unimportant contextual variable (King 1996). Theorists have offered political theories of territory (Kolers
2009, Moore 2017, Banai/Moore 2014). For recent developments in comparative politics see Ethington and
McDaniel (2007) and the Symposium on the ‘Politics of Space’ in the 2016 Spring Newsletter of the
Comparative Politics Organized Section of the American Political Science Association (Vol. 26, No. 1,
involvement of extraregional major powers, first developed by Cohen (1963), also enjoyed a brief spell
of attention in the 1980s and 1990s (Hensel/Diehl 1994). Starr (2015) has consistently argued for a
more systematic integration of geopolitical considerations into International Security and IR more
generally. We can also include notions of ‘spheres of influence’ (e.g. Nijman 1991, Hast 2016) and
securitization at different scales (Buzan/Waever 2009) as examples of how International Security
approaches the constructedness of space and multi-scalar embeddedness.
Core-periphery models occupy an important role in IR scholarship (e.g. Goldgeier/McFaul 1992). World-
systems theorists like Wallerstein (2011) popularized core-periphery models and found a broad
reception in IR (Klink 1990). In a similar manner, English School theorists like Buzan and Lawson (2012)
analyze the historical development of core-periphery relationships. Such models have also been
applied to politics in the European Union (Magone et al. 2016) and can even be found in the politics of
the discipline itself (Tickner 2013). Recently, differentiation theories (Buzan/Albert 2010), theories of
Empire (Coward 2005) and the new hierarchy studies (Bially Mattern/Zarakol 2016) have taken a more
general view of how international structures propagate and entrench differences among units, but all
of these focus more on structural inequality among states than on the concrete geographical
expressions and causes thereof.
There are also numerous works that study regions in international politics (Katzenstein 2005,
Buzan/Waever 2003). Many of these works ascribe an ontological status to regions and show some
awareness of their constructed nature. For instance, in his writing on security communities, Adler has
spoken of ‘cognitive regions’ (Adler 1997) and ‘communities of practice’ (Adler 2008). Works on
regional integration – which are too numerous to list here – have also become aware that regions are
not geographically fixed but have to be constructed as Keskitalo (2007) details in her study of
‘international region-building’ in the Arctic. Tarte’s work on competing regionalisms in the South
Pacific is another case in point (Tarte 2014).
In International Political Economy, we can see several approaches with spatial perspectives. The notion
of ‘regulatory spaces’ (Varone et al. 2013) is particularly interesting in that it explicitly theorizes
constructed spaces that transcend and cut across sovereign territorial boundaries. Recent treatments
of supply chain governance deal with spaces constituted through regional and global networks
(Lebaron/Lister 2015). ‘Geoeconomics’ approaches discuss how states use power to advance their
economic interests in space (Mercille 2008). Beck, Gleditsch and Beardsley (2006) propose an
approach to ‘spatial econometrics’ that breaks with geometric measures of distances and instead uses
relative distances, thereby drawing on notions of social, rather than geographical space.
Peace and conflict research may be the subfield that is currently most attuned to issues of political
geography. There has always been a rich tradition of analyzing territorial conflicts between states
(Goertz/Diehl 1992, Altman 2017). Research on civil war has concerned itself with regional patterns of
diffusion (Kathman 2011) and contagion (Buhaug/Gleditsch 2008) as well as the role of physical
geography as a determinant of conflict (Raleigh 2010, Buhaug/Gates 2002). Importantly, this field has
recently shifted towards a more sustained engagement with the local-level dynamics of civil wars,
using event data that is disaggregated to the substate level (Raleigh et al. 2010). Works on
peacebuilding highlight the importance of ‘the local’ (Mac Ginty/Richmond 2013, Jabri 2013) and
discuss the intermingling of local, national and global politics in post-conflict spaces
(Heathershaw/Lambach 2008). Autessere (2014), in her ethnography of ‘peaceland’, portrays
peacebuilding spaces as separate worlds with their own social, political and economic logics.
Works on global governance and globalization have been particularly attentive to issues of scale.
Globalization theorists have explored the emergence of a global space (Scholte 2005, Sassen 2006). At
the same time, scholars of global governance have discussed ways of regulating and managing the
increasing density of transboundary flows. Definitions of global governance refer to ‘all levels of human
activity – from the family to the international organization’ (Rosenau 1995: 13) and collectivities ‘from
the local to the global’ (Ruggie 2014: 5). Governance is typically multi-level in nature, integrating actors
and concerns across scales (Hooghe/Marks 2003). Other works have traced how local spaces have
been integrated into global and transnational networks of trade and governance (Callaghy et al. 2001).
These are but a few impressions of how existing works in IR deal with space. Other honorable mentions
include Lövbrand and Stripple’s (2006) article on how global climate governance territorializes the
carbon cycle, Debrix’ (1998) work on how practices of humanitarian aid deterritorialize sites of crisis,
Herrera’s (2007) notion of state deterritorialization in cyberspace governance, or Salter’s (2013) work
on mobility and circulation across boundaries. Finally, recent attempts to ‘globalize’ IR
(Peters/Wemheuer-Vogelaar 2016) or bring in voices from the global South (Acharya 2014) integrate
spatial criteria into the very act of theory-building.
From this brief survey we can infer that there are many subfields within IR that routinely deal with
some aspect of space. Nevertheless, we cannot say that IR has undergone a ‘spatial turn’ as many other
disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have done (Warf/Arias 2009). The heterogeneity of IR
as a scholarly field makes the notion of ‘turns’ somewhat dubious anyway. But we can still see what a
spatial turn implies and ask what the many research programs in IR that deal with spatial issues can
learn therefrom. First, a spatial turn clarifies the ontological status of space in scientific inquiry. This
might mean according space a separate ontological status, i.e. space not simply as the product of other,
ontologically prior forces. A bit more modestly, spatial configurations may also be analyzed as the
result of other forces (e.g. how Marxist approaches view spatial configurations as being the product of
capitalist dynamics) but are accorded a significant explanatory role in the overall analysis. Second, a
spatial turn advances a social constructionist view of space. Notions of ‘the national homeland’, ‘sacred
sites’, ‘the frontier’ and even ‘globalization’ show how communities inscribe meanings onto spaces
(Gupta/Ferguson 1992). This has been extensively explored in critical approaches to geography (Soja
1989, Massey 2005). However, there are diverging assumptions whether this construction is driven
primarily by material forces (Harvey 2001, Lefebvre 1991) or through ideas and discourse (Elden 2013,
Ó Tuathail 1996). Third, a spatial turn brings attention to scales and how they relate to each other. A
scalar analysis looks at spatial relations at the global, national, regional and local level and how they
are connected and intertwined.
All three dimensions of the spatial turn can be found in various corners of IR. However, the works
surveyed tend to focus on a single of these dimensions rather than taking a more comprehensively
spatial perspective. Strategic Studies and most of International Security are still too enamored with
classical geopolitics. Core-periphery models have been helpful for our understanding of differentiation
and inequality among states but abstract too much from concrete geography. Works on regions rightly
emphasize their constructed nature but could offer more about the scalar embeddedness of region-
building. IPE has produced several sophisticated treatments of space and global politics but has yet to
integrate them into a larger research programme. Peace and conflict research has been particularly
attentive to cross-scalar processes but could think more about how conflict actors advance their
projects spatially. The global governance and globalization literatures have also been very diligent in
their treatment of scales but should pay more attention to how power, governance and space
Even though the works surveyed above cover a lot of ground, I do not wish to imply that a spatial
approach is necessary or even useful for all research questions in IR. Given the diversity and complexity
of IR theorizing, it would be foolish to suggest that all attempts should focus on spatial aspects. While
all political issues have a spatial dimension, this dimension is not equally important in all cases. The
relative importance of space should be determined by whether a spatial perspective improves our
analysis. The problem is that it is hard to judge whether this condition applies prior to actually
researching the issue. The baseline assumption in IR has been that space is unimportant. My
assumption is that the proposition is true in more cases than previously thought. The above list of
research fields is indicative of this difference in positions. I argue that these issues would profit from a
fuller engagement with the spatiality of their object. In the next two sections, I will set out what can
be learned from Political Geography in the pursuit of a more spatially aware IR.
Contrary to an old and overused aphorism, geography is not destiny. Such determinist thinking was
characteristic of classical geopolitics but was falling out of favour in Political Geography as early as the
1940s (Flynn 2016: 1585). It was replaced by a possibilist understanding of geography which Harvey
Starr, a long-time advocate of such a possibilist approach in IR, describes as follows: ‘Although
geography—in terms of topography or the absolute distance between two points, for example—is
relatively stable, technological change or political change […] alters the meaning and impact of
geography on interaction opportunity and the structure of incentives and risks’ (Starr 2013: 433). In
other words: the impact of geography differs depending on political, social or economic circumstances.
However, both determinist and possibilist approaches are based on a fixed unterstanding of space,
thereby making geography little more than a ‘territorial stage’ (Dodds 2005: 38) upon which states
Nowadays, Political Geography emphasizes the dynamic and constructed nature of spaces (see Paasi
2003 for an overview).
This is not to deny that places have geographic and topographical properties
and exist in Cartesian space. For example, a beach is recognizable by its physical properties and can be
located on a grid of longitude and latitude. But in terms of human relations the boundaries and
meanings of a space are not naturally preordained. The aforementioned beach can be a public
recreational area, it can be used to mine sand, maybe a harbour could be built there, or it could be a
site of scientific research or a wildlife refuge. It can also be parcelled up into small tracts of private
beachfront. To put this in constructivist terms: spaces are what people make of them. Spaces are
created and recreated by actors and/or structural forces which generate spatialities. Being able to
delineate space and give it meaning is an expression of power. But by inscribing space with a meaning,
thereby legitimizing and delegitimizing specific activities, control over space is also a source of power.
We might also ask whether Political Geography has anything to learn from Political Science and IR. While I
am not best placed to answer this question, other authors have lamented Political Geography’s privileging of
the case study over the search for generalizations, its lack of a disciplinary core, its limited visibility in public
debates and policy circles, and a relative inattention to issues of replicability and research ethics (Newman
1999, O'Loughlin 2000, O'Loughlin 2018, Jackson 2018, Ó Tuathail 2018).
There are also sociological approaches that focus on ‘social spaces’ which are constituted by relationships
and networks (Löw 2016, Bourdieu 1989). Gazit (2018) discusses how Georg Simmel’s relational sociology of
space can be made useful for IR.
Broadly, there are two major strands of explanations how spaces are constructed, an idealist and a
materialist one. The first mostly comes from early writings from ‘critical geopolitics’ who argue ‘that
geopolitics should be conceptualized both as a form of discourse and as a political practice’ (Dodds
2005: 31). Critical geopolitics focus on the process how space is constructed discursively and examine
the assumptions about space and territory that underpin the international system of states and make
conventional geopolitics possible (Ó Tuathail 1996: 68, Agnew 1998: 2). The second strand draws on
Neomarxist ‘radical geography’ which gives a historical materialist account of changing spatialities.
Drawing on the seminal arguments of Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (2001), these works argue that the
reterritorialisation of spaces is driven by the exigencies of capitalism. In the past, this created an
impetus for colonialism and imperialism; nowadays, it manifests itself in a deterritorialization of
formerly state-centered economies and a reterritorialization at global and local scales (Brenner 1999,
But we should not overstate the differences between idealist and materialist approaches, especially
since there are lines of compromise between the two. Edward Soja, one of the pioneering scholars of
space who drew on both postmodernism and Marxism, offers socially-produced space as the link
between physical, materially constrained space and mental imaginations of space: ‘(B)oth the material
space of physical nature and the ideational space of human nature have to be seen as socially produced
and reproduced. […] Conversely, [social] spatiality cannot be completely separated from physical and
psychological spaces’ (Soja 1989: 120). Stuart Elden highlights the importance of political strategies for
the construction of space. Inspired by Foucault, Elden argues that territory should be understood as a
process and a political technology of control (Elden 2013: 16-17). Gearóid Ó Tuathail, who was
influential in the emergence of critical geopolitics, seeks to combine geopolitics’ discursive focus with
political and economic structures. In his most recent work, he describes geopolitics as being
constituted through ‘geopolitical fields’ (i.e. structures), ‘geopolitical cultures’ (i.e. spatial
imaginations) and the ‘geopolitical condition’ (i.e. technologies and their impact on society) (Ó Tuathail
Spaces can be situated at different scales, i.e. separate levels in a hierarchy. In contrast to IR’s
traditional ‘levels of analysis’, geographic scales are seen as connecting and interacting rather than
separating and distinguishing (Cox 2013). The ‘scalar turn’ in Geography saw moves to analyze how
‘inherited global, national, regional, and local relations were being recalibrated through capitalist
restructuring and state retrenchment’ (Jessop et al. 2008: 390). Works in this tradition problematized
how scales were constituted, how issues and actors move between scales and how these processes
interact with other sociospatial divisions. Scalar perspectives are based on vertical differentiation and
look at nested hierarchies among nodes such as the division of labor along a production chain.
But relating different spatial ontologies to each other is not a trivial problem. For this, the Territory,
Place, Scale, Network (TPSN) framework (Jessop et al. 2008) represents a helpful heuristic that
facilitates dialogue between different approaches. Jessop, Brenner and Jones view territory, place,
scale and network as distinct ontologies for the analysis of sociospatial relations. Advocates of a
particular approach, they argue, tend to overly privilege it in their social ontology, thereby disregarding
the utility of alternative approaches (see also Lapid 1999). This ontological reductionism overlooks ‘the
mutually constitutive relations among those categories and their respective empirical objects’ (Jessop
et al. 2008: 391). Instead, Jessop, Brenner and Jones argue for a form of sociospatial inquiry that is
attentive to the interconnectedness of these dimensions of spatiality. In practical terms this means
that researchers should ask for each dimension how it affects or constitutes the others, and how it is
in turn affected or constituted by them. The tensions emerging between these ontologies should be
seen as productive. Hence, Jessop, Brenner and Jones caution that researchers should refrain from
‘any premature harmonization of contradictions and conflicts through the postulation of a well-
ordered, eternally reproducible configuration of sociospatial relations’ (Jessop et al. 2008: 394). But
where Jessop, Brenner and Jones tend to take a structuralist view, Mayer cautions us to be mindful of
the role of actors, in that ‘(t)he relevance of a particular spatial form either for explaining certain social
processes or for acting on them can be measured only from the perspective of the engaged actors’
(Mayer 2008: 416).
These ways of theorizing should be easily accessible for critical parts of IR, most of whom draw on the
same ontologies and theories as their critical, post-modern and/or Neomarxist brethren in Political
And there are many fields where cross-disciplinary conversations are already happening.
One such field is research on bordering practices (Kadercan 2015) where journals like Territory, Politics,
Governance, the Journal of Borderlands Studies and Political Geography serve as nodes for a free
exchange of ideas between scholars from Geography, IR, and other fields. Similarly, there is plenty of
cross-disciplinary research on migration and drone warfare, to name but two additional examples. I
want to focus on one particular research field, that of Arctic security, to illustrate how such
collaboration works. I choose this example because security has been a traditionally important field
that is central to IR’s identity and history. It also provides ample material from a variety of theoretical
approaches in Geography, IR and other disciplines (see Bruun/Medby 2014).
Given the changes in the Arctic climate and the resulting political-economic challenges and
opportunities, research on the region has increased substantially since about the mid-2000s. The
research displays all three criteria of the spatial turn. First, ‘the Arctic’ is treated as a spatial ontological
But see O’Loughlin’s lament that ‘(p)olitical geographers read, absorb and use the theories, methods and
perspectives of political scientists but the process doesn't seem to work in reverse’ (O'Loughlin 2018: 126).
concept. Many writers emphasize the particular materiality of the Arctic, how it is affected by climate
change, and what such spatial parameters mean for politics in the Arctic (Dittmer et al. 2011). Second,
most research acknowledges the constructedness of the Arctic. Its shape and size is not naturally given.
Instead, different ways of geographically delimiting the Arctic abound, such as the area north of 60°
latitude or 66° latitude (the ‘Arctic Circle’), the tree line, or the 10°C July isotherm (Keskitalo 2007).
Furthermore, there are different ways of inscribing Arcticness into the region. Where the Arctic used
to be a ‘frozen wasteland over which intercontinental missiles might fly’ (Young 1997: 54), it has now
‘become a showcase of how quickly wholesale discursive constructions of a region can change’
(Albert/Vasilache 2017: 4). These changes do not follow a unified trajectory but have produced a
variety of discourses, with Albert and Vasilache (2017) identifying no less than five major competing
representations of the Arctic. Importantly, these representations cannot be invoked in a detached and
purely semantic manner. To have power, such discursive constructions must refer to material
geographic properties (Albert/Vasilache 2017, Dittmer et al. 2011, Keskitalo 2007, Knecht/Keil 2013).
Third, much of Arctic security research takes a multi-scalar perspective. One approach is to situate
Arctic politics into global politics more broadly, e.g. by looking at East-West relations post-Crimea
(Byers 2017). Another is to focus on micro- and meso-level dynamics like international cooperation
among coast guards (Østhagen 2015), the security of indigenous peoples, who make up a substantial
part of the local population (Greaves 2016), and multi-level processes like environmental insecurity
This field is fed by contributions from political scientists and IR scholars like Heather Exner-Pirot, Rob
Huebert and Joël Plouffe, political geographers like Klaus Doods, Heather Nicol and Philip Steinberg,
anthropologists, historians and international lawyers, and scholars who move so seamlessly between
institutions and communities, like Ingrid Medby, Corinne Wood-Donnelly and Kathrin Keil, that their
disciplinary identities have become indiscernable. Together, these scholars publish in interdisciplinary
journals like the Polar Pournal, The Polar Record, The Arctic Review as well as the Arctic Yearbook, but
also in more disciplinary venues like Political Geography, Geopolitics, Cooperation and Conflict, and
the Journal of Borderlands Studies. Scholars (mostly) cite each other’s work and refer to theories across
disciplinary boundaries, such as Dodds (2010), a political geographer, using concepts from IR theory
(like neo-realism and anarchy) in a piece in Political Geography without even providing definitions or
references. From an IR perspective, this has led to a strengthening of voices criticizing and challenging
early forecasts of conflict in the Arctic (e.g. Borgerson 2008, Huebert 2010). Critical geopolitics has
been useful in interrogating the spatial assumptions underpinning such conflict narratives
(Bruun/Medby 2014), leading to more nuanced theories (e.g. Byers 2017, Østhagen 2015), although
Wegge and Keil (2018) find that even a classical geopolitics approach to the Arctic has analytical merit.
Towards a Spatially Aware IR
A critical approach to space would be helpful in advancing discussions in many fields of IR, whether
informed more by idealist or materialist approaches or some combination thereof. Not only would this
move make researchers more attentive to forms of spatiality beyond the territorial state, it would also
create an opportunity to critically engage with the very foundations of global politics, and open new
avenues of research. First, spatial awareness allows us to relate existing works to each other, e.g.
whether the spatial contagion of civil wars contributes to a sense of ‘region-ness’ among the affected
countries and changes dynamics of regional integration, as the Liberian civil war and its spillover into
neighboring countries arguably did for the Economic Community of West African States (Arthur 2010).
Second, a spatial ontology shows that social conflict can be seen as, among other things, contestation
between different spatial projects. In other words, conflict parties articulate spatial projects that
contest those of other parties (Culcasi 2011, Dodds 2010). Third, paying attention to scale makes it
possible to relate objects, processes and actors across scales. In other words, it makes it easier to
connect the micro-level to larger social figurations, seeing the local in the global and the global in the
local (e.g. Schouten 2014).
While each of these points would deserve further elaboration, this article focuses on two other
arguments for a greater spatial awareness in IR. The first is that a spatial approach allows us to theorize
how the natural and the built environment, and their respective changes, and the spatial conduct of
politics affect each other. This is most evident in relation to climate change which has different effects
in different places even as these places are situated in a multi-scalar system and subject to global-local
forms of governance. In such an approach, we could ask how the construction of spaces is subject to
environmentally induced change. For instance, the awareness of global environmental problems like
biodiversity loss, pollution, the hole in the ozone layer and global warming has been instrumental in
constituting a global space of risks and common concern as e.g. the debate about ‘planetary
Such a way of relating global politics to the environment helps us better appreciate the materiality of
space and its impact on politics. Materialist approaches in international politics have typically focused
on material capabilities in either a narrowly military or security sense (Deudney 2000) or a more
general, socio-economic interpretation (Cox 1981).
But the materiality of space itself matters for
This is not to take away from New Materialist approaches, assemblage theory or Actor-Network Theories
who provide very different perspectives on agency, matter and politics. The literature here is too vast for a
brief survey, but see Mac Ginty (2017) for an introduction, and Squire’s (2015) attempt to marry
representational and material aspects by bringing New Materialism into Critical Geopolitics.
politics, too. For instance, the governance of space works differently on land, on the high seas and in
outer space. Capabilities for power projection, communication and surveillance differ dramatically
between physical spaces, social spaces and virtual spaces. This does not mean slipping back into geo-
determinism or geo-possibilism but neither should we act as if the properties of space do not matter
The second argument is that a spatial perspective makes us attentive to the spatial dimensions of
governance. This should be understood as a two-way relationship. On the one hand, every act of
governance has a spatial claim embedded in it: Where is this particular order enacted? Governance
creates spaces or uses (and thus re-creates) existing ones. A recent example is the European Union’s
General Data Protection Regulation which is widely implemented far beyond the EU‘s borders because
its regulatory space is huge (Lambach 2019). On the other hand, space has an impact on governance
as well. Predefined spaces shape forms of governance, with the division of the world into territorial
states being the most glaring example. Similarly, ocean governance heavily relies on the difference
between national waters (territorial waters plus Exclusive Economic Zones) and ‘areas beyond national
jurisdiction’, i.e. the high seas. In the former, governance is exercised by states; in the latter,
governance can only be exercised through agreement between states.
A spatial approach to international relations should resist the urge to pick a side in the
idealist/materialist divide. Instead, a spatial ontology is well-placed to mediate between materialist
and idealist accounts, acknowledging that both forces shape international politics without refighting
ontological battles or trying to resolve all tensions between them. More productively, we can take a
cue from social constructivism and think about the relations of space to politics and political agents in
terms of co-constitution. The simple version of this focuses on the co-constitution of space and politics:
without politics, spaces and boundaries would not be constituted; without spaces and boundaries,
politics cannot take place. As Flint puts it, ‘different spatial structures are the product of politics and
the terrain that mediates those actions. Perhaps most importantly, new forms of political behavior,
and their geographies, are partially constrained by established geographies’ (Flint 2003: 619).
This can be expanded into a structurationist approach more properly (Giddens 1986). The basic
contention of structuration theory is that ‘(a)t the same time as social structures are reproduced or
transformed by human agency, they are also the very medium of this reproduction. This relationship,
then, must be grasped as dynamic, not static, and hence not reductionist in either direction’ (Wight
2006: 210). But even though neither aspect is ontologically prior, there are no social situations without
structure. As Flint speaks of ‘established geographies’, Brown refers to ‘a historical inheritance
composed of the accumulation of past agency’ (Brown 2012: 1899). Such an agent-structure ontology
would be well-placed to appreciate both the constructedness of space as well as its constraining and
facilitating effect on human action. In this approach, space is, on the one hand, constituted by human
action, institutions and technologies, i.e. the spaces that agents construct and the meanings they
ascribe to them. On the other, the materiality of space matters for human action. This includes its
composition and topography (if referring to physical space) and the means through which relationships
are formed and maintained (if referring to relational or social space).
However, structuration theory, at least in its initial formulation by Giddens, does not have a very
developed understanding of space, treating it as little more than the localization of social action (Löw
2008: 33). But to bring the various aspects together we need an understanding of structure that can
integrate both the materiality of space as well as its constitution through ideas and human action.
Therefore, we need to expand our understanding of structure to encompass space. In this approach,
space and social structures affect and constitute each other in manifold and complex ways. Both of
these objects can be further decomposed into their constituting dimensions – see Soja’s account how
socially-produced space mediates between physical and mental space. In her sociology of space,
Martina Löw offers a reinterpretation of structuration theory that is helpful here. She argues that ‘(t)he
spatial cannot be differentiated from the societal since it is a specific form of the societal’ (Löw 2008:
38). Moving beyond Giddens’ interpretation of structures as independent of time and space, Löw
extends the definition of structure ‘to cover not only legal, economic, political, etc. structures but also
spatial and temporal structures’ (Löw 2008: 38). The interaction between these structures forms
societal structure in the aggregate sense. Both societal structure in the abstract and spatial structures
more specifically enable and constrain action by providing meaning or offering (dis-)incentives to
specific acts. Acts constitute spaces and thereby reproduce societal structures through repetition and
routine on the one hand, and through the institutionalization of social processes on the other (Löw
One upshot of such a modified structurationist approach is that space-as-structure does not just enable
or constrain action, it also has an effect on agency itself, understood as the capability of an agent to
act. Space is an integral part of social contexts that determine who is empowered to act in which ways.
For example, the construction of the imperial colony as a political space made it possible (or even
necessary) for agents to identify as anti-colonial activists or resistance fighters. Through their actions,
they were able to push for independence, thereby changing the spatial relations between metropoles
and colonies. To use a different example, WTO negotiations frequently employ the so-called ‘Green
Room’ meeting format, named after the informal designation of the director-general’s conference
room. Although this mechanism is now also used in other places, in its initial form the physical size of
the room limited participation to some 20-40 parties and thereby endowed some delegations with an
agency that was denied to others.
Practice theories have recently emerged as a way of conceptualizing and researching agent-structure
relations. Practices can be understood as the enactment or performance of structure through
routinized behavor. In my understanding of practice I follow the definition offered by Adler and
Pouliot: ‘practices are socially meaningful patterns of action, which, in being performed more or less
competently, simultaneously embody, act out, and possibly reify background knowledge and discourse
in and on the material world’ (Adler/Pouliot 2011: 4). Adler and Pouliot identify five elements of
practice: (1) practices are performative, (2) practices follow regular patterns without determining
behavior, (3) practices are interpreted and understood in terms of social relations, (4) practices depend
on background knowledge that gives them a particular purpose, and (5) practices link discourses with
the material world because the discourses give meaning to the act (Adler/Pouliot 2011: 6-7).
To illustrate how a structurationist approach to space and politics can be put into somewhat more
concrete terms, I offer a brief elaboration how the deterritorializing and reterritorializing effects of
globalization can be reframed in terms of practices. Starting from Elden’s understanding of territory as
a process, my argument can be summarized as follows: deterritorialization and reterritorialization are
the momentary outcome or side effect of social processes. (They may also be the aim of deliberate
strategy although, given the complexity of such an endeavor, the outcomes of such strategies are
uncertain.) Those social processes that produce deterritorialization and reterritorialization are
constituted by practices that act upon territory or that have territorial consequences.
The twin concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization were first elaborated by Deleuze and
Guattari (1987). Even though their argument was less about territories in the geographical sense than
about shifting subjectivities under capitalism, it served as an inspiration for social scientists across
disciplines. In Political Geography and IR, the terms were read as signifying shifts in spatial relations in
the post-Cold War era (Ó Tuathail/Luke 1994, Albert 1998). The geographic debate focused mainly on
challenging the sociological and economic globalization literature and its narrative of globalization as
a great deterritorializing force. In Geography, there was an immediate and clear consensus that
equating globalization with deterritorialization was ‘missing the point’ (Elden 2005). Instead, drawing
on Deleuze and Guattari, many contributors argued that territorialization should be thought of as a
continuous and dialectic process that ‘consists of processes of deterritorialisation on the one hand and
processes of reterritorialisation on the other’ (Albert 1998, 61). Deterritorialization refers to the
dissolution, erosion or destruction of old territorial forms of organizing social relations whereas
reterritorialization means the restructuring or reconstitution of social relations in some other
territorial form (Popescu 2010: 722). These processes are inseparable from each other and occur
simultaneously, rather than sequentially: ‘social relations acquire other territorial configurations and
This approach expands upon an earlier discussion in Lambach (2019).
boundaries even as they lose the previous ones. This means that the new territoriality of social
relations, while being qualitatively different, will include vestiges of the old one’ (Popescu 2010: 724).
Agents play a substantial role in deterritorialization and reterritorialization, especially in how these
processes play in out concrete instances. For example, globalization and the disembedding of
economic and financial relations from their territorial foundations are the results of a multitude of
political choices (Helleiner 1995). We can capture the social process leading to the deterritorialization
and reterritorialization of space best through a practice-oriented approach. Following Brighenti (2010),
the aim is to analyze how actors and technologies produce territory. Thinking about territorial practices
allows us to ask how agents constitute territories through practices and how these territories impact
A territorial practice can be understood as any practice whose performance is aimed at deconstructing
existing territories or (re-)creating new territories. Based on suggestions from Blacksell (2006: 21-27),
Branch (2017) and Vollaard (2009) I suggest a fourfold taxonomy of territorial practices:
1. Reification of a territory, e.g. on maps, as a statistical or administrative category, in art, in
2. Communication of boundaries between inside and outside through symbols, rituals and
3. Regular displays of power, e.g. through patrols, policing, taxation, law-making, surveillance
4. Integration of the territory, i.e. connecting center and periphery within the territory.
Territorial practices can a priori be performed by any actor. However, their exercise requires power so
that not every actor has the same scope for performing territorial practices. In the field of Arctic
security (see above), these practices are all evident – reification through performances of ‘Arcticness’
and visual representations of the Arctic as a separate space, boundary-drawing through institutions
such as the Arctic Council, displays of power through territorial claims, patrols and surveillance, and
an integration of the territory through the development of port infrastructure and search and rescue
It is time for IR to take space seriously. The spatial connotations of transborder migration, the shift
towards a multipolar world, regional (dis-)integration, or the US ‘pivot to Asia’ are too obvious to be
The agent-structure duality could also be fruitfully expanded into a triangle by including technology (Mac
Ginty 2017: 859). As Science and Technology Studies (STS), assemblage theory and actor-network theories
remind us, artifacts have politics, too (Winner 1980), and relate both to spaces and social structures.
ignored. Space is more than just the context or location of politics, and such a container notion of
space, which is still all too prevalent in too many writings, prevents us from grasping the dynamic
nature of space. Territory, as Elden reminds us, is both a process and a political technology. We should
therefore treat space and territory not as something static and exogenously fixed but as something to
be critically examined and historically contingent.
That is not to say that IR is blind to issues of space, just that larger parts of the discipline could profit
from a more sustained and sophisticated engagement with it. This article sketches some ways how this
can be accomplished but the points raised herein would have to be elaborated in more detail to be of
much use to other researchers. My main intention here was to highlight the advantages of a more
spatially aware approach to many IR issues, to show how space, scale and territory are discussed in
Political Geography and what we can learn from that. To this end, I have provided a theoretical
framework of a structurationist approach to space drawing on critical geopolitics, radical geography
and the TPSN framework. I have used the notion of territorial practices as an illustrative example to
show how the abstract theorization of space can be translated into a ‘ground-level’ theory and a more
concrete research framework.
To be sure, this is not the only possible way to theorize space from an IR perspective. While my
approach should be intelligible to scholars from different theoretical paradigms and substantive fields,
there are bound to be disagreements. Given the pluralism of contemporary IR, anything else would be
a surprise (Jackson 2018). But my aim is not to provide a master blueprint for all subsequent works but
to show how space can be fruitfully theorized in a way that is compatible with existing IR ontologies
and theories. If scholars working within other paradigms disagree, they are welcome to elaborate their
own perspectives – it all leads us towards a fuller engagement with space and global politics.
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