Ryan  Burns, phd
November 6, 2011

Inequality, poverty, and the geoweb – positioning inequality

My dissertation research borrows ideas from the poverty & inequality literatures to understand the societal impacts of the geoweb. For this research I will look specifically at the moment of crisis mapping, and how the growth of geoweb modes of mapping (e.g., OSM and Ushahidi) influences the planning and decision-making processes leading to urban redevelopment after a disaster. This context was chosen because it represents such a clear and consequential moment of intervention, but also because it involves power relations and flows of information and capital.

This blog post will first position what I call “inequality”, and then identify a few threads that connect this concept with the geoweb. The next post will discuss crisis mapping and the ways it entails many inequalities that are best theorized through the literatures on inequality and poverty.

“…yet, however impressive its data or sophisticated its models, poverty knowledge has proved unable to provide an analysis or, equally important, a convincing narrative to counter the powerful, albeit simplistic story of welfare state failure and moral decline - a narrative that, with the help of well-organized conservative analysts, has come to inform policy discourse to a degree hardly imaginable twenty years ago.” -Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, 5

“The corporatization, commodification and privatization of hitherto public assets has been a signal feature of the neo-liberal project. Its primary aim has been to open up new fields for capital accumulation in domains hitherto regarded off-limits to the calculus of profitability.” -David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, 44

“The just city needs to be seen, not only as a space of economic activity, but as a set of resources that can enable a broad spectrum of engaged citizenship. In order to further this, however, there needs to be wider recognition of inequities in resource distribution and the constraints that impede impoverished people from having access to those resources. … The unjust city is one of impediments: lack of adequate welfare rates, lack of affordable and secure housing, lack of childcare, impoverished social networks and food insecurity that impedes women’s ability to provide for themselves and their children.” - Gurstein & Vilches, “The Just City for Whom? Re-conceiving active citizenship for lone mothers in Canada”, 431-2

The three quotes above represent distinct - yet closely intertwined- approaches to poverty and inequality. The first points to the ways “poverty” is a contested idea (here I’ll use “discourse” to borrow from Foucault) that operates separately from any kind of political economy. While poverty as a condition results from political economy, the discourses and accepted forms of evidence about poverty influence the ways we think and talk about it. The second quote represents the opposite approach, in that it seeks to explain inequality relationally in terms of political economy. Harvey goes on to use theories of capitalism to explain why some places are “developed” and others are not. The third quote is a hybrid and extension of the first two, noting that both political discourse and political economy have strong implications for the everyday lived experiences and political expressions of the poor. Goode & Maskovsky (2001, 4) pick up on this tripartite, characterizing the “new poverty” as caused by “economic polarization, political demobilization, and market triumphalism”. It is at the confluence of these three approaches that I find most productive for my own work.

Lawson, Jarosz & Bonds (2008) provide a wonderful empirical case at this confluence. Reporting on a research project in rural Washington, Idaho, and Montana, they note the tension between political economic causes of poverty and the contradictory representations and knowledges of it. They first document multiple scales of economic restructuring experienced by these communities. For instance, NAFTA resulted in decreased produce prices and thus slashed profits, national- and state-level welfare reform plummeted many poor people further into poverty, and a “large food-processing company closed its manufacturing operation, … eliminat[ing] 1,000 jobs in a town of 10,000 and creat[ing] huge revenue and livelihood shifts in its wake” (ibid., 741). Yet many leaders in these areas (e.g., commissioners, mayors, and job service coordinators) rely on discourses of choice, arguing that those in poverty have made a conscious decision to remain so. These ‘undeserving poor’ are implicitly - and often explicitly - “contrasted with the ‘upstanding citizen and enterprising individual’” (ibid., 750). The tensions uncovered by this project are exemplified quite widely in the popular press (see footnotes 1 and 2).

Like Goode & Maskovsky and Lawson, Jarosz & Bonds, in my work I position inequality as both political-economic and discursive. Since these have distinct intellectual histories, they should be described separately.

By ‘political economy’ in my research I refer to spatial economics and its (their? Gibson-Graham, 2006) relation to political systems. Practically speaking, this includes resource distribution, uneven development, economic restructuring, and flows of capital. Since the contemporary expression of capitalism is of the neoliberal variety (Peck & Tickell, 2002; Harvey, 2005a), understanding political economy means first understanding capitalism and then understanding neoliberalism. For this task the theorization of capitalism advanced by Marx (1977) and adapted by Harvey (1982) is most helpful. According to Marx, capitalism is a mode of production in which workers produce surplus value for the owners of the means of production. This surplus value is in turn converted back into re-invested capital. The drive toward this accumulation of capital forms the backbone of capitalist relations (see footnote 3). Harvey (1982, 2009) has adapted these ideas and formulated three ideas important to my dissertation. First, Harvey notes that space itself can be commodified. Rent, for instance, can be conceptualized as a lease on the use-value of land. Second, the drive toward accumulation leads to a phenomenon called * over-accumulation * manifesting in crises and economic restructurings; Harvey notes that over-accumulated capital can be put into the built environment to avoid crises (read: prolong the time until the next crisis), which Harvey calls a spatial fix. In other words, absolute physical space can be a dumping ground for over-accumulated capital, due to its commodifiable nature. Third, to make sense of the neoliberalism which began unfolding with Reaganism and Thatcherism, Harvey (2005b, 2006) develops the concept of accumulation by dispossession, in which means of production are released from the public sphere to the sphere of capital accumulation. Examples are the privatization of war, social provisions, and utilities.

The term ‘discourse’ I borrow from Foucault (1972, 1978) to mean the sets of ideas, practices, and expressions that both 1)become the benchmarks for legitimization, and 2)produce subjectivities. Discourses set the terms to which other ideas and practices must adhere in order to be considered legitimate (Fraser 1988; Hall 1996); at the same time, discourses are always transgressed, and they are productive as well as limiting. Discourses, like power, are actions - an exercise - and thus constantly (re)produced. Discourses are, for instance, the ways we think and talk about, and act on, “poverty”. By considering poverty a discourse, important questions are raised, such as, “how do certain actors talk about poverty, and what kinds of subjectivities are produced (e.g., who, then, are the ‘poor’)”? What kinds of knowledges are excluded from these discourses, and who is enabled to shape these discourses?

Fraser (1988; 1997) has theorized two discursive challenges that have informed my dissertation research. First, rather than talking about needs as if they are an a priori ontic category, it is important to first consider what is meant by “needs” and specifically, investigate the politics involved in need-interpretation (Fraser 1988). For Fraser, “[t]he reason for focusing on discourses and interpretation is to bring into view the contextual and contested character of needs claims” (1988, 41). Fraser detects five political moments often obscured in needs claims: 1) the politics of need-interpretation, 2) the politics of who interprets the needs, 3) the socially-sanctioned discourses available for voicing and interpreting needs, and 4) the politics of the structural and institutional logic behind need-interpretation. The second major contribution of Fraser’s is her insistence that social justice entails not just redistribution of resources, but of shifted frames of recognition. In other words, in/justice is, in addition to political-economic, both cultural and symbolic. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex idea, let’s take an everyday example: representations of “us” as Americans oftentimes are racially diverse (a HUGE shift from earlier decades), but are lacking in terms of religion, class, and geography; we’ll see black businessmen in the city, an east Asian female schoolteacher (are they still middle-class these days?), and so on. We might even see a turban if we’re lucky. But we would not likely see a homeless family, a muslim praying toward Mecca, and so on. If you don’t think Fraser’s redistribution-recognition dilemma is a significant issue, think about how religion plays a role in presidential elections, or in the ways NYC politicians (and others) discussed the Islamic community center near the former World Trade Center site.

Of interest to me are two ways technology factors into this discussion: technology-as-metaphor and technology-extending-inequality. First, and most related to previous paragraphs, technology has become somewhat of a cultural metaphor for understanding poverty and the impoverished. Watkins (1993) has argued that technological development is now equated with socioeconomic “development”, and that those who fail to keep up with it are “behind-the-times”, or “technological throwaways”. Social or state assistance can do nothing to remedy these social cripples, since poverty is a symptom of personal failures to stay “up to date”. Second, technology can be conceptualized in complex relations with inequality, in some ways perpetuating existing inequalities, in other ways opening new sites for inequality to worsen, or even perhaps decreasing overall inequality. This final conceptualization is arguably the most common in discourses of the geoweb, and is the one I hope to nuance in my dissertation.

The tension between representations, multiple ways of knowing, political economy, and agency has been a concern within science and technology studies for decades, and is reflected in the early “GIScience & Society” debates of the 1990s. Research agenda at the time encouraged scholars to think about the ways people, problems, and places are represented in GIS and thus the epistemic (what can be known) limitations of the technology (Sheppard 1995; UCGIS 1998). Critical GIS scholars rose to the challenge of addressing the inequalities that can be perpetuated in GIS. For instance, since GIS typically requires a strong computer skillset - to say nothing of acquiring the software itself - that few people have access to, the benefits of GIS are often only shared by few. The recent interest in qualitative GIS (QGIS) puts this notion at the heart of its motivations (Cope and Elwood 2009). Quantitative data presents an analytically useful picture of people, problems, and people, but can be a foggy lens into understanding other concerns such as local knowledges (Longino 1990). QGIS seeks to enable the representation of qualitative knowledges, such as emotions, memories, histories, visualizations, and audio data types (Jung and Elwood 2010).While QGIS thus enables multiple ways of communicating needs claims, it says little of Fraser’s need-interpretation. The geoweb is faced with the same conundrum: who sets the terms on which knowledge is communicated in the geoweb? In what kinds of social and institutional frameworks does geoweb development and diffusion occur (e.g., ‘app stores’, global North-South relations, etc.)? These are beyond the descriptive concerns of who has access to begin with (Gilbert 2010).

Thus, in summary, inequality for me is both political-economic and discursive, and its effects reach beyond material needs to representation, political marginalization, and everyday lived experience. Technology is used as a metaphor for the social relations of poverty, but it also reconfigures processes that produce inequality. The critical GIS field was aware of this dynamic, and has provided an interesting analysis of technology and inequality. Geoweb scholars will need to move beyond tropes of “empowerment”, “democracy”, and “egalitarianism” in order to understand the ways inequalities are (re)produced in technology contexts. My next blog post will speak to a specific manifestation of these inequalities - crisis mapping - because it is such a profoundly salient moment impacting inequalities.


  1. The Heritage Foundation (HF) released a report this year (2011) that provides a prime example of the struggle for poverty knowledge. Noting that “the typical poor American lives in an air-conditioned house or apartment that is in good repair and has cable TV, a car, multiple color TVs, a DVD player, a VCR, and many other appliances. Half of the poor have computers, and one-third have wide-screen plasma TVs,” they conclude that “the War on Poverty has been a colossal failure”. In a practical struggle for poverty knowledge (i.e., partisan politics - not what this blog post is about per se) it is important to combat influential institutions such as the HF; so let me spend a bit of time talking about this report before returning to the point at hand. First, the report displays an interpretation of quantitative data that is questionable at best. Quantitative data are incredibly useful when used appropriately, but have a strong potential to be misinterpreted. For instance, these statistics do not tell us how these appliances were brought into immediate access - was the plasma TV purchased when one was employed in a “dependable” job? was the X-Box passed on from a relative who pities the family and particularly the kids who cannot enjoy “being a kid”? is the DVD player a $10 machine they found in an online discount/clearance store? These are contexts that cannot be communicated in the simple statistics reported by the HF.

Second, the report implies that one’s poverty is measurable by the appliances within one’s immediate access. Note that I do not say “own”, because certain amenities highlighted by the HF - microwaves, refrigerators, ceiling fans, A/C - often come with an apartment one rents. For instance, there is a refrigerator in my apartment that I may use, but I do not “own” it since it was here when I moved in. But more importantly, we have to ask why access to appliances is the measure of poverty accentuated by the HF. Beyond its descriptive facade, representing poverty in terms of appliances purports a proper subject: the middle-class consumer. A poor person is thus someone who would buy things left-and-right if they had enough money (and since, the argument goes, they do have enough money, they buy, buy buy). Measuring poverty in this way is also not without its shortcomings - if I do not have A/C, a plasma TV, cable, or multiple color TVs, according to the HF, I am living as if I were in “proper” poverty. This is a stretch.

Third, the HF makes feeble attempts to relativize “American poverty”, only exposing their deep misunderstanding of core concepts such as relation itself, scale, nation-state, and lived experience. For instance, they do not engage the question of poor vs rich in America in relation to poor vs rich in the world in relation to poor in America vs. poor in the world. They only use two cross-country comparisons. The first is a comparison between children’s stunted growth in America vs. in “developing countries” (i.e., soon-to-be-hyperconsumers) across regions (Table 2). So, what’s being compared here is poor American children and entire populations of “developing” countries. The second comparison is between square feet of living space in poor America vs. entire populations of each European country (Table 5). One can see in the table that the average American living space is almost triple that of Europe, so the focus is on poor households, which are, not surprisingly, larger than most average European living space. If each of those comparative leaps there don’t make your head spin, you should read that again. One more relational point with regard to the HF’s statistic “Some 96 percent of poor parents report their children were never hungry at any time in the prior year” (with the caveat that I don’t know whether “poor parents” considers each parent separately or as a pair - a very considerable overlook on their part). My suggestion, and I could elaborate on this if needed, is that 4% of poor children going hungry is too much, and that NOBODY should be poor in a country as wealthy as America.

  1. Philly.com posted an article that reports on the ways the poor in America are victimized in political discourse. Not only does the political discourse disregard any political-economic causes of poverty, but it also derides poor people’s “behavior” - equating poverty with a disease or biological impediment.

  2. Some, including Harvey (1982), have rightly noted that Marx was purely focused on production; in Marx’s conceptualization of capitalism, production forms the social relations. In contrast, I think history has shown that surplus value is not always turned into reinvested capital, but instead places the capitalist in distinct consumer classes, or, to put it another way, consumption also is important for class relations. I’m sure other Marxist philosophers have touched on this, but I’m not widely read enough in the field to list specific names/books. I’d welcome recommendations.

It’s also very important to note that this is a gross over-simplification of Marx’s writings - it took Marx (& Engels) several thousand pages to flesh out their ideas. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I don’t have this much time/space, so I’m taking the important bits.

Works Cited

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Foucault, M. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon books.

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Fraser, N. 1988. Talking About Needs. Public Culture 1 (1):39.

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Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press.

Goode, J., and J. Maskovsky. 2001. The New Poverty Studies: The Ethnography of Power, Politics, and Impoverished People in the United States. New York: NYU Press.

Gurstein, P., and S. Vilches. 2010. The Just City for Whom? Re-conceiving Active Citizenship for Lone Mothers in Canada. Gender, Place & Culture 17 (4):421-436.

Hall, S. 1996. The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. In Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, eds. S. Hall et al. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Harvey, D. 1982. The Limits to Capital. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Jung, J.-K., and S. Elwood. 2010. Extending the Qualitative Capabilities of GIS: Computer-Aided Qualitative GIS. Transactions in GIS 14 (1):63-87.

Lawson, V., L. Jarosz, and A. Bonds. 2008. Building economies from the bottom up: (mis)representations of poverty in the rural American Northwest. Social & Cultural Geography 9 (7):737-753.

Longino, H. 1990. Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Marx, K. 1977. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vintage Books Edition). New York: Random House, Inc.

O’Connor, A. 2002. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-century US History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press.

Peck, J., and A. Tickell. 2002. Neoliberalizing space. Antipode 34 (3):380-404.

Sheppard, E. 1995. GIS and society: towards a research agenda. Cartography and Geographic Information Science 22 (1):5-16.

UCGIS. 1998. GIS and Society. UCGIS 1998 Research White Papers. http://www.ucgis.org/priorities/research/research_white/1998 Papers/soc2.pdf (last accessed 2 November 2011).

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