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The Austrian Association for Radical Geography: An interdisciplinary approach towards social and political change

Jurgen Essletzbichler and Christian Rammer
published in: Environment an Planning D, 1999, Vol. 19, pp. 640-644


Similar to Anglo-American geography, Austrian geography fails to engage in public discourse. This does not refer to a lack of important research projects, but to a lack of public accessibility to the research outcome. Academic knowledge produced at universities is increasingly restricted to an ever smaller number of highly specialized scientists. In turn, academia becomes a departmentalized and closed system where research is conducted for research's sake, and publications are produced for publication's sake. Increased specialization leads to extended compartmentalization of already narrow disciplines.

While academics in the 1960s held lectures on street barricades in Paris, Berkeley or Berlin, academics at the turn of the century retreat comfortably from public discourse, protected from external criticism by barriers of scientific jargon and mathematical abstractions. The Austrian Association for Radical Geography (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Kritische Geographie) deviates from this path and continues the legacy of critical discourse with the traditional geography and its conservative contents initiated by Anglo-American and French geographers in the 1960s. The Austrian Association for Radical Geography (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Kritische Geographie) Under the motto "geography is what geographers do", the Austrian Association for Radical Geography understands itself as forum for people with various theoretical and political backgrounds interested in socially relevant topics and engaged in a variety of areas (academia, high school education, adult education, etc.).

As early as 1982 a journal called "Critical Geography" (Kritische Geographie) was founded as basis for unconventional contributions in geography. The establishment of the Austrian Association for Radical Geography ensued in 1984. Since then the association actively participated in shaping social discourse in Austria by organizing symposia, seminars and lectures embracing a variety of topics such as critical urban planning, geography education during Fascism, sustainable development, feminism, the impact of globalization on the "Third World", or the housing situation of foreigners in Austria.

The Austrian Association for Radical Geography neither performs as professional interest group nor as lobbyist for the geographical discipline but as social science platform with strong thematic focus. The central pivot of the association is a critical distance to existing society and prevailing social conditions, and their analysis and interpretation in science, thus including work in geographical research. The topic of critical geographers is not "space", the chosen subject of traditional geography, but society in its entirety. It is thus necessary to overcome narrow disciplinary boundaries and embrace interdisciplinary and international cooperation. The central and overarching theme of this cooperation is social relevance. This requires the choice of topics of broader public interest with repercussions on the field of knowledge and ideology production.

It is understood that the prevailing social logic entails a series of social and spatial inequalities and contradictions. The motivation for the discourse is to unravel the common social causes of these contradictions with the aim to root actual phenomena and conflicts in the network of social relations and processes that constitute them. In this process, postmodern arbitrariness as well as dogmatism have to be avoided.

The contradictions currently emphasized by the Austrian Association for Radical Geography are located in the following areas: Capital accumulation and the destruction of natural resources; Spatial integration and disintegration of societies (North-South-conflict, nationalism, urban segregation); Internationalization and ethnic stratification of labor markets including problems of migration and racism; Economic modernization processes and the social and political response; Patriarchy, sexism and gender relations; Wage labor and social marginalization.

To transcend the boundaries of academic research, these broad themes are translated into a series of publications. Special consideration is given to the didactic presentation of these issues.

ÖGKG Publications

In 1996, the new quarterly, "Materials on Society, Economy and Environment in Education" (Materialien zu Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft und Umwelt im Unterricht), was introduced. Primarily intended for high school teachers, it takes up current social and economic questions and prepares them in a critical way for classroom use. Materials include overhead transparencies, tips for lesson plans, etc. Thus far the following subjects have been addressed: Austria and multinational corporations; sustainable development in the "Third World"; regional planning and politics in Austria; Eastern Europe after the transition; the political-economic reasoning behind the Euro-project; Southeast Asia in the global economy; biological agriculture in Austria; and tourism in the "Third World". More information about this series is provided at http://www.kritische-geographie.at

The second publications series is called "Critical Geography". This series focuses on selected topics and is published annually in book form. The themes addressed include the reorientation of Austrian politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its entry in the European Union. Two books are dedicated to this topic. "Austria on the way to the Third Republic" discusses Austria's search to a new identity framed by two historical themes labeled the "Habsburgian Mythos" and "German Nationalism". The second book, "Auf in die Moderne!" (On to modernity - modernization in Austria from Fascism to the European Union), traces Austria's path from Fascism to its entry in the European Union.

Two contributions will be reviewed in detail. The first contribution addresses the issue of globalization after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The second contribution discusses theoretical and empirical possibilities of sustainable development.

Austrian Association for Radical Geography (ed.) (1994): Alte Ordnung - neue Blöcke? Polarisierung in der kapitalistischen Weltwirtschaft. Promedia, Vienna. (Old order - new blocks? Polarization in the capitalist world economy).

This book discusses the ongoing processes of regional polarization in the capitalist world system. Two major events are identified to increase regional polarization: First, it is argued that the globalization of capital radically transforms existing economic configurations. Second, the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the end of the rivalry between West and East fundamentally reshuffles existing power relations with major repercussions for the economic and political situation of individual countries. Both events have a strong impact on the previous world order and may lead to the formation of a "new world order".

The book examines the consequences of these two events for different geographical regions of the world economy. In the first part of the book, Gerhard Hanappi provides an overview investigating the causes and results of the increasing globalization of capital and shows the path of modern capitalism towards accelerated integration of social, cultural and regional spheres. Peter Fleissner examines the causes of the breakdown of the former Soviet Union and discusses the implications on the new world system in the 1990s and beyond.

In the second part of the book, the relations between the economic core areas, the role of the former socialist countries and the significance of the Third World in a "new world order" is addressed. Christian Bellak emphasizes the influence of transnational corporations (TNC's) to shape the formation of the economic triad USA, the European Union and Japan. His central thesis is that regionalization among the leading capitalist countries into three core regions coincides with the corporate strategies of TNC's to reorganize global production and distribution systems. Hannes Hofbauer describes the economic collapse of the former socialist countries, its implications for the social conditions of their populations and the pattern of integration and peripherization within the world system. Eric Sheppard provides empirical data to reveal that "Third World" countries are largely excluded from economic and political discourse that supposedly characterize a globalized political economy. Among the "Third World", significant differences in the interaction with the core countries of the triad exist. In a final chapter, Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe compare the pattern of globalization today with the international economic system at the beginning of the 20th century and reveal the existence of a similar degree of globalization with similar patterns of inter-center co-operation and confrontation. Despite the enhanced popularity the term "globalization" enjoys in the media, this book argues that the process of globalization results in an increased polarization of the world economy. Within the core countries, the end of cold war confrontation opens new potentials of rivalry enforcing block building and the threat of economic and political confrontation in the longer term. On the other side, former Socialist countries and "Third World" countries face decreasing political and economic power. Their integration within the world economy is strongly selective, including processes of peripherization. This book thus constitutes a very welcome and critical analysis of "globalization" based on empirical facts rather than hollow rhetoric and abstract models with unrealistic assumptions.

The second contribution explores alternatives for "Third World" countries under the umbrella of globalization. Raza, Werner G. and Andreas Novy (eds.) (1997): Nachhaltig reich - nachhaltig arm? Brandes & Aspel, Südwind, Vienna. (Sustainable rich - sustainable poor?).

In this book, an international group of authors tries to unravel the relationship between ecology, sustainability and their implications on the distribution of opportunities, power and resources. The main thrust of the book is launched against the excessive use of "sustainable development" that threatens to empty the term of its meaning. It is argued that various strategies of sustainable development favor certain social groups while they marginalize others, that they highlight certain aspects of reality while obscuring others. The vast majority of work in the field of sustainable development excludes these questions of distributional justice from analysis. Two strategies are commonly pursued to prevent the misuse of the term "sustainable development". The technical-scientific solution suggests a sharper definition of the term. The ethnic-normative approach demands a normative definition of development goals: What are useful forms of living and how are they situated in the prevailing economic and social development path? Both approaches neglect the influence of existing power relations on the discourse of sustainable development and start from an ideal instead of an actually existing communicative situation. The existence of power relations and unequal opportunities to shape discourse and develop organizational concepts is conveniently ignored and results in the exploitation of the term sustainability by conservative forces.

In the first part of the book, Christoph Spehr, Armin Stickler and Sigmar Groeneveld discuss the occupation of the discourse on sustainability from various perspectives and present alternative approaches to sustainable development.

In the second part of the book, case studies reveal the relationship between discourse, power and organizations. Powerful, resourceful organizations pursuing certain interests exert a stronger impact on the content of the discourse on sustainability than weak organizations. Barbara Pusch demonstrates, how Turkish Islamic groups translate the ecological critique into a general criticism of the occidental economic and social system, how the discourse on sustainability is transformed into a discourse against the West. Jacques Demajorovic and Pedro Jacobi reveal the increasing power of Non-govermental organizations (NGO's) collaborating with government agents and international organizations at the expense of NGO's with less powerful partners in Brazil. Andreas Novy reflects critically on a development project in the Brazilian rain forest and exposes the shortcomings of this project. Despite ecological progress, the project fundamentally stabilizes the existing social and political structures of control. Silvia Nossek uses a political district in Vienna to show how organized power structures implement environmental protection at the expense of social necessities of marginalized groups.

In the third part of the book the distribution of the economic, socio-cultural and ecological consequences of the capitalist development process in an era of progressive internationalization is interrogated. Distribution not only refers to the distribution of Gross Domestic Product, but also to the distribution of ecological and social costs and revenues. It is argued that this distribution process is socially and territorially unequal: While a small percentage of people, typically upper income groups, benefits from extensive use of natural resources and suffers little consequences from a decline in environmental quality, a large group of impoverished people, primarily located in the "Third World", has little access to natural resources and bears the major share of environmental costs. Werner Raza tries to theoretically capture the relationship between resource use, capitalist development and distributional consequences to better understand the dynamic interaction between economy, society and nature. Joachim Becker examines various historical development models and concludes that the degree of internationalization is negatively related to the political opportunity of distribute wealth more equally. Kunibert Raffer reveals that losers of free trade are situated in the South even within the dominant models of economic development. Mick Dunford blames the decline of the Fordist accumulation regime and the Keynesian welfare state for an increasing polarization of rich and poor countries. For Chile, Saar von Hauermeiern and Bert de Wel demonstrate that imposed trade liberalization does not constitute the sustainable development option promised, and that the cost of the appropriation of natural resources is generally born by the exporter of these resources not by the importer.

The various contributions in this book demonstrate the complexity to integrate ecological and economic thinking into a common theoretical and practical framework of action. It is argued that the solution of current and future ecological problems requires to shift the focus from "ecological window dressing" to an ecological-economic policy where the distributional question moves to center stage. The problem needs to be tackled on different spatial scales. The needs of social movements have to be addressed to achieve social justice and ecological sustainability on the local level. On the national and international levels binding institutional arrangements have to be created to countervail the socially-economically and ecologically polarizing forces of capitalism. It would be tragic if at the end of all efforts to sustainable development looms the impoverishment of many and the enrichment of few. Thus, the goal of a progressive development policy has to be the prevention of the scenario "sustainable rich - sustainable poor".


The critical contributions of the Austrian Association for Radical Geography demonstrate that academic work can be made accessible to a broader audience and thus employed to engage in socially important debates. Questions of income distribution, globalization or sustainable development are too important to be left uncontested to mass media, World Bank bureaucrats or right wing think tanks dominating public discourse. The Austrian Association for Radical Geography aims to provide alternative viewpoints of socially relevant topics. This work is explicitly catered towards high-school teachers and interested readers without academic background. The interpretation of academic studies and their circulation among a broad audience is the most distinctive attribute of the Austrian Association for Radical Geography that could serve as a model for a radically transformed, socially concerned and publicly engaged academia shifting its emphasis from explanation to action.


ÖAKG (ed.) (1993): Österreich auf dem Weg zur 3. Republik. Zwischen Deutschnationalismus und Habsburgermythos. Promedia, Vienna.

ÖGKG (ed.) (1994): Alter Ordnung - neue Blöcke? Polarisierung in der kapitalistischen Weltwirtschaft. Promedia, Vienna.

ÖGKG (ed.) (1996): Auf in die Moderne! Österreich vom Faschismus bis zum EU-Beitritt. Promedia, Vienna.

Raza, W. G. and A. Novy (eds.) (1997): Nachhaltig reich - nachhaltig arm? Brandes and Apsel / Südwind, Frankfurt a. M. and Vienna.