Economic Geography could be a more rigorous version of economics. Unfortunately it is not. Instead it combines and features many of the most trenchant weaknesses of both disciplines: of geography’s methodological individualism and economics’ transhistoricism. Economic geography could be more rigorous than economics were it to derive its interpretive categories immanently from the social and historical landscapes it purports to be interpreting. Instead, it often fluctuates between merely oppositional interpretive frames, on the one hand, and fairly crude base-superstructure economic analysis on the other. An immanent critique invites economic geographers to explore the historically and socially specific ways that the commodity form of capital both supplies the interpretive categories adequate to the capitalist social form while simultaneously pointing beyond them.
Oppositional interpretive frames often successfully identify the tensions within a geographic and/or discursive field, but impose a directionality upon this field transcendentally. Labor/capital is the prototypical oppositional form that invites transcendental adjudication (most often in favor of labor). But geographic and/or discursive fields produce a potentially endless network of oppositions for research: race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, wealth, language, and age offering only the most obvious points of opposition. An immanent critique, by contrast, invites us to explore how these oppositions are themselves composed within a socially and historically differentiated, but nevertheless coherently mediated, totality. So, for example, the labor/capital opposition resolves itself into the commodity form, where both labor and capital may be understood in terms of their two-fold perdurance as abstract value and material form of appearance. Resolving this two-fold form in favor of one or the other sides in this dynamic fails to recognize the immanent, mutually constitutive character of both.
Unfortunately, the traditional Marxist base-superstructure often serves economic geographers both as foundation and foil in the pursuit of research. Whenever spatial or temporal data points are referred back to economic fundamentals, we have, by any other name, a divided field where interpretive categories (but only of the bourgeoisie) are held to be inadequate where generated by bourgeois science, but adequate when generated from the vantage point of the (speculative) proletariat — restored, universal humanity. Or, more often, by contrast (rejecting this productivist frame), economic geographers focus exclusively on the discursive field, in isolation from its practical constitution. An immanent critique would invite economic geographers to recognize the relative historical validity of economic categories, but then to focus their criticism less on the obfuscatory character of these categories than on their historically and socially limited character; not in contrast to supposedly “natural” or “universal” interpretive categories, but with an aim toward specifying their adequacy and contrasting it to other possible ways of mediating social relations.
The specific interpretive frames offered within economic geography are no mystery. Nor is the alternative I am suggesting. They both emerge historically in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are both embedded historically and socially. And, yet, an immanent critique is better able not only to grasp the complexities of economic geography, but also to shed light on a path out of the social totality that continues to plague social scientific research.