Professor David Harvey

Doctor of Science Professor David Harvey

Wednesday 18 July 2012 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Wendy Larner

Madam Chancellor,

It is with great pleasure that we welcome back to the University of Bristol Professor David Harvey, on whom we bestow an honorary Doctor of Science today.  David Harvey is quite simply the most influential human geographer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, and probably the most eminent social scientist ever to be associated with the University of Bristol.  David Harvey’s work has helped to radically transform practically every area of the social sciences with which he has engaged: from epistemology to urban analysis, from cultural theory to global political economy, from social movements to international relations.  His work has also contributed to broader social and political debate; he is a leading proponent of the idea of 'The Right to the City’, and in recent years he has become a internationally recognised public intellectual in part due to the success of his superb and very popular online lectures on Marx’s Capital

We are very proud of the fact that David Harvey’s first regular academic post was at the University of Bristol between 1961 and 1968, and his first book, Explanation in Geography, was written while he worked here.   Prior to the 1960s the discipline of Geography was characterised by a very traditional approach focused on describing the physical and human characteristics of geographical regions.  Bristol was one of a very small number of key universities in Europe and North America where during the 1960s a largely descriptive discipline was remade in the likeness of the natural sciences.  The so-called ‘quantitative revolution’ marked a move away from the traditional regional geography towards a more theoretical spatial science.   As a graduate student David was a teaching assistant on one of the very first courses in the world to introduce geography students to statistical methods.  The use of these new forms of enquiry in his 1962 doctoral dissertation on agricultural and rural change in Kent marked him out as one of the influential group known as the ‘space cadets’ who subsequently developed quantitative human geography.  David himself has described the excitement of these years, and how he got caught up in this wider intellectual development despite his earlier humanities background.  Explanation in Geography, based on five years of research and teaching these new philosophical and methodological approaches to Bristol undergraduate students, was to subsequently become a landmark text, applying principles drawn from the philosophy of science in an effort to establish a ‘standard model for scientific explanation’ in which geographical transformations were central. 

Explanation in Geography was also written against a background of the political ferment of the late 1960s, with civil rights and student movements convulsing many countries during that period.  While these events find no echoes in the pages of this particular book, following his move to Baltimore in 1969 the ethical and political dimensions of geographical inquiry became more explicit in his work.  In a bibliographical account David describes how Baltimore had ‘gone up in flames’ the year before he arrived, and the formative experience of sleeping outside the Black Panther’s Baltimore headquarters to prevent potential violence after the police had killed their leader.  The transition in his thinking was marked by the publication of another landmark text Social Justice and the City.   This book signalled the beginnings of David’s shift from being a ‘space cadet’ to being a Marxist human geographer.  Again, this was a collaborative affair, with the initiative to read Marx coming from a group of graduate students who encouraged him to join them in a reading group.  In his next book, Limits to Capital, published in 1982, he codified his new arguments through a rewriting of Marx’s critique of political economy that highlighted the production of space.  This book has been required reading for geography theory classes ever since, and I suspect many of those graduating with geography degrees today will be familiar with the work.  If not, there have been twenty-two other highly influential books, including, to name just a few: The Urbanization of Capital; The Condition of Postmodernity; Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference; Spaces of Hope; Spaces of Capital; The New Imperialism and, most recently, Rebel Cities.  This rich body of work, developed through his engagement with empirical cases that range from Paris to Iraq, has given rise to concepts such as ‘space-time compression’ and ‘accumulation by dispossession’ that are now pervasive across the social sciences. 

Those of you who are not social scientists may be wondering how such apparently arcane concepts have found such traction.  Any of you who have had the privilege of hearing David Harvey speak, or watched his hugely popular YouTube clips, will already know the answer to this.  I’ve never seen him read from a prepared text, yet he always has his audience completely engrossed in the passion and persuasion of his arguments.  He consistently packs out rooms wherever he goes, including last night in his former department here at the University of Bristol, and his work has inspired scholars and activists around the world.  But David Harvey is no rhetorician; harking back to his early days as a quantitative human geographer he has always upheld clarity and rigour as his theoretical goals.   These goals also help us understand the continuity in his work across the apparently opposed fields of positivist quantitative geography and Marxist theory.  In both terrains David has been concerned to identify the universal processes at work underneath apparent diversity and difference, and offered us novel conceptual tools with which to analyse these processes. 

His work now spans over fifty years and, according to one commentator, has traversed more than forty disciplines.  In this context it is not surprising to discover that he has received numerous awards including, amongst others, the Outstanding Contributor Award of the Association of American Geographers, the Centenary Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the Retzius Gold Medal from Sweden, the Patron's Medal of the UK Royal Geographical Society and the Vautrin Lud International Prize from France.   He is also a Fellow of the British Academy and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He already holds honorary degrees from a range of international universities including the Universities of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Roskilde in Denmark, Lund and Uppsala in Sweden, Ohio State University and the University of Kent – shortly he will be adding Bristol to this list.

It is this lifetime of innovative and internationally recognised intellectual work that has convinced the University of Bristol to offer Professor Harvey an honorary degree.   To quote David himself, in the opening of what we like to think of as his Bristol book Explanation in Geography, ‘by our theories you shall know us’.  David Harvey has always been keenly aware of the potential for ideas to shape our worlds and, as he has repeatedly said, ‘Geography is too important to be left to geographers’.  Today it is the new spaces of urban struggle that he focuses on; from Occupy Wall Street to the London Riots, David Harvey continues to offer us compelling theorisations of our changing world.   Late in his career, at a time when many others are slowing down, David Harvey has built on a lifetime of scholarly contributions by becoming a deeply engaged and politically committed public intellectual who continues to provide rigorous analytical tools through which we can rethink our collective futures.  

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Professor David Harvey as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa


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