Open Eye: Doreen Massey: putting geography on the world map

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The Independent Online
According to Professor Doreen Massey, "Something Open University people are very good at, is taking serious abstract thinking and rooting it in real world issues."

This may be why the recent winner of geography's equivalent of the Nobel Prize has found herself so much at home at the OU.

OU geographers are currently drawing breath following the completion of the new 1999 course, Understanding Cities, and also celebrating the 1999 enrolment figures on the OU's introductory Geography course, The Shape of the World - which are up by a hefty margin on last year. Doreen has been closely involved with both these courses since she joined the OU as Professor of Geography in 1982.

For an academic she's followed an unconventional career path, working for a considerable time outside academia, sometimes very much involved in real world issues, as on one occasion in 1985 when she undertook a research project in Nicaragua on the infrastructural damage caused by the Contra War, which was still raging: "Our vehicle became stuck up to its axles in mud, and the Sandinista Army appeared and told us to get out because the place was full of mines. It took ages to dig ourselves out."

Life at the OU, where she's been Professor of Geography since 1982, has rarely been so dramatic, but in addition to her input into OU teaching Doreen has built up an international reputation, which culminated in her becoming the first woman to receive the prestigious Vautrin Lud International Geography Prize last year (there is no Nobel Prize for Geography: this award was created in 1991 as its equivalent.)

The citation refers to Doreen's prodigious output of research, writing and radio and TV broadcasts as contributing to the revival of geography. Broadcaster and author or editor of more than 18 books and some 100 journal articles, Doreen has done more than most to raise the profile of her subject. It also referred to her evolution of a 'radical' geography that highlights the significance of the geographical organisation of society.

Doreen explains: "Essentially, the way society is organised geographically makes a difference to how it works. For example, in the 1980s there was breakneck economic growth in south-east England, while the north was suffering unemployment and stagnation. It was this regional inequality that brought the growth to an end.

"The economy suffered from over-concentration in the south and under- employment and under-utilisation in the north. People couldn't just move to find work, because costs were too high. Eventually the Chancellor had to put brakes on economic growth to stop the south-east overheating, but these measures wouldn't have been necessary if growth had been evenly spread across the regions."

She has also voiced strong public criticism of global inequalities and the idea that the only way forward is to create a global free market.

"Globalisation is one of the biggest things happening at the moment but the emphasis is on free trade and the flow of vast sums of capital around the world. There is no corresponding freedom of people to migrate to other countries to find work," she says.

Doreen combines a razor-sharp intellect with a powerful conviction that academic debate can and should influence what happens in the real world. But this rather formidable description doesn't do justice to the warmth and humour of her personality, which makes her one of the most approachable of academic high-fliers.

She attributes her radicalism to her background - northern, female and working class.

Born in Manchester to parents who had little formal education but were 'culturally rich', enjoying reading and poetry and encouraging their children's educational achievements, Doreen won a scholarship to Oxford University - an experience which, she says, made her a 'raving socialist' within her first year.