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Fuzzy concepts, scanty evidence, policy distance? Debating Ann Markusen's assessment of critical regional studies

During the last twenty years, the field of regional studies and economic geography witnessed a growing polyphony of competing and partially overlapping conceptional approaches. In midst of this frenzied activity that incessantly had been nourished by case-study research, Ann Markusen launched a passionate intervention in which she takes stock of the prevailing research practice in our field. In her sobering diagnosis, published in 1999 in this journal, she laments three undesirable developments that undermine the scientific integrity and societal relevance of regional studies. First, conceptualisation iincreasingly has becomes fuzzy, which means that concepts point at phenomena which have two or more alternative meanings and can therefore not be identified, applied and operationalised by different scholars. Secondly, the standards of evidence are falling: empirical evidence is not only scarce, it is also often collected in a selective and anecdotal way, which is not transparent to others. Thirdly, the fuzziness of concepts and the falling standards of evidence, in turn, increasingly weakens the policy relevance of regional studies.

Markusen’s provocative verdict triggered surprisingly few reactions, at least not in public academia. And yet her sharp intervention, in our observation, resonates with some latently shared views and opinions in the community. First, our and the experience of many of our colleagues in class shows that it has become increasingly intricate to convey differences between genuine conceptual distinctions and mere semantic nuances in contemporary theoretical reasoning to students in regional studies. Recently Moulaert and Sekia (2003) and Lagendijk (2001) opened up promising paths to tackle this problem by developing a pedigree of ‘territorial innovation models’, which include among others industrial districts, the innovative milieu, learning regions, regional innovation systems and new industrial spaces. Secondly, debates of conference papers and research results quite often circle around the wide-spread, not to say notorious complaint that vague definitions seriously limit the scope for empirically exploring and systematically developing further the various concepts in a comparative manner. Thirdly, we have noticed the difficulties of getting across the content of the concepts developed by economic geographers and regional scientists to policy-makers and practitioners, both at the regional and national level. Martin and Sunley (2003, p. 9), for example, recently contrasted the modest influence of geographersis with the stronger policy impact of economists and management scholars à la Porter.

Since Markusen’s pointed critique in our perception, echoed some endorsing concerns and fundamental challenges in our field, we took the initiative to start a public debate and invited Ray Hudson, Jamie Peck and Arnoud Lagendijk to respond in our on-line SECONS (Socio-Economics of Space) Discussion Forum (www.giub.uni-bonn.de/grabher/). Both Hudson and Peck, while explicitly agreeing with Markusen that methodological issues deserve more attention in regional studies, also critically examine her understanding of scientific rigour and the status of replicability in particular. For Hudson, the plea for replicability reflects rather a traditional than a critical conception of theory that, in fact, would increase policy-distance even further. Peck in his contribution also offers constructive suggestions for case-study research that not necessarily has to sacrifice methodological robustness for qualitative depth. Lagendijk's main argument is that the slipping standards in regional studies are not so much due to substantive changes, such as the cultural or institutional turns, but to lacking standards of academic conversation more broadly. In particular the transfer of concepts between different fields that aspires to more than a straight-forward metaphorical transfer puts high demands on the practice of conversation. All three authors express strong reservations with Markusen’s implicit preference for quantitative approaches thus privileging one form of evidence and, more critically, of theory. The comments by Hudson, Peck and Lagendijk are preceded by a reprint of Ann Markusen’s catalysing article in full length and rounded up by her rejoinder to the reactions. In her concluding comment she reflects on the substantial common ground covered by this roundtable and, by way of restating her position, challenges the cogency of a quantitative/qualitative ‘divide’.

With this collection we of course do not intend to bring to a close this debate or, even less so, to ‘settle’ the issue of fuzziness. The current conceptual polyphony, however irritating, is also a loud and clear signal of the reflexivity, creativity and variety in our field - as this spirited debate amply proofs. Moreover, a scientific approach that exclusively insists on concepts that are discretely distinct, ‘arithmomorphic’ in Georgescu-Roegen’s wording (1971), would systematically blind us for the ‘grey areas’ inherent in processes of evolution and change. No process of change can be completely decomposed into arithmomorphic parts which are themselves devoid of change (Whitehead, 1938, p. 131). To be sure, the drawing of boundaries – and analysis is nothing other than that – is a prerequisite for representing and understanding evolution. However, insisting in sharp boundaries that inadequately disjoin interdependencies would run the risk of ‘scientific paralysis’ (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971, p. 206).

Gernot Grabher and Robert Hassink



No. 1
Ray Hudson: "Fuzzy concepts and sloppy thinking: Reflections on recent developments in critical regional studies". Published in Regional Studies, 2003, vol. 37, No. 6/7, pp. 741-746.

No. 2
Jamie Peck: "Fuzzy old world: a response to Markusen". Published in Regional Studies. 2003, vol. 37, No. 6/7, pp. 729-740.

No. 3
Arnoud Lagendijk: "Towards conceptual quality in regional studies: the need for subtle critique - A response to Markusen". Published in Regional Studies, 2003, vol. 37, No. 6/7, pp. 719-727.

No. 4
Ann Markusen: "On conceptualization, evidence, and impact - A response to Hudson, Lagendijk and Peck". Published in Regional Studies, 2003, vol. 37, No. 6/7, pp. 747-751.