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profile image for Professor David Harvey

Professor David Harvey

Doctor of Science

November 2008

David Harvey is a leading theorist in the field of urban studies, and was referred to as ‘one of the most influential geographers in the twentieth century’ by Library Journal. Born in Gillingham, Kent, he attended Gillingham Grammar School and went on to earn his PhD from Cambridge University in 1962. Today he holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

His reflections on the importance of space and place (and more recently "nature") have attracted considerable attention across the humanities and social sciences. His numerous awards include the Outstanding Contributor Award of the Association of American Geographers and the 2002 Centenary Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding contribution to the field of geographical enquiry and to anthropology’.

The author of numerous books and articles, including Explanation in Geography and Social Justice and the City, Professor Harvey was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007.

Public Oration by Professor Julia Twigg

"David Harvey is one of the leading social theorists of his generation. An academic of international distinction, he transformed the nature of his subject - geography – by bringing to bear on it Marxist theorising, and in doing so almost single handedly created the field of Radical Geography. The impact of his thinking, however, has never been confined to Geography. He is one of the most widely read and cited social theorists of his age. His work has attracted the interest of philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, lawyers.  If one were to go into any university in the world, one would find people engaged with and familiar with his work.

David Harvey’s origins however lie in Kent. He was brought up in Gillingham.  His father worked in the shipyards at Chatham.  He went to Gillingham Grammar School, and thence to Cambridge to study geography. And when asked what drew him to that subject, he recalled the influence of those early years in Kent, in particular the impact of the landscape of North Kent that he got to know intimately as he cycled its roads and lanes in the 1940s, and how this established in his mind the central themes of space and place, and their interaction with histories of industrial and economic development, reaching out from those lanes and shipyards far into the global networks of a capitalist empire. For this was a childhood that was also touched by the remains of imperialism. He remembers his early fascination with colouring in maps and collecting imperial stamps.  Those early influences of landscape and imperialism were to reverberate through his subsequent work.

After Cambridge, where he wrote his doctorate on the hop picking industry in nineteenth century Kent, and a spell at Bristol, he moved to The John Hopkins University in the city of Baltimore. This was to become the background to much of his life and thinking. He arrived in Baltimore in the late sixties, a year after the city had been burnt down in the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was a radical period, the era of civil rights and the anti-war movement, and Harvey became involved with local activist groups, campaigning for fair rents and for social justice in the city. This was also the time when at John Hopkins he set up what were to become a famous series of seminars on Reading Capital.

Intellectually this was a period of great creativity. His book of 1973, Social Justice and the City was a break-through for him, and in this and subsequent work he took geography beyond its classic concerns with detailed empirical exploration of local distinctiveness to engage with systematic analyses at a more structural and theoretical level. In particular he brought Marxist ideas into the field of geography, seeking to show the ways in which space and place are constantly configured and reconfigured through the dynamics of  the capitalist system.

His bestselling book of 1989 The Condition of Postmodernity was a robust assault on the then rising theory of postmodernism. This he interpreted, not as its advocates claimed as marking the demise of Marxism, but as itself a product of the contradictions of capitalism. But it is typical of the sophistication of his work and the openness of his thinking that while he attacked postmodernism as a theory, or set of theories, he recognised the ways in which it also pointed to important developments occurring in global capitalism, particularly in relation to ways in which people lived their lives. The book was particularly insightful in its recognition of the significance of the compression of space/time as a central feature of the condition of post modernity.

The range and scope of his analysis has been formidable. His belief in the value of juxtaposing different bodies of theory – of, as he describes it, rubbing together different conceptual blocks – has resulted in an impressive list of publications addressing an astonishing range of theory. In his works he has engaged with ideas from biology, engineering, ecology, architecture, planning, sociology, history. The breadth of his reading is formidable.  His account of Paris in the period of the Commune is interlaced with literary references to Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens. In his recent books he has addressed questions of utopian movements and the politics of hope, the New Imperialism in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, and the nature of Neo Liberalism as an ideology and an imposed practice.

For him, radicalism has never been simply a theoretical matter. He has always been directly engaged in radical grass roots politics. In the nineties, he was involved in Living Wage campaigns in the States, and more recently he has turned his thoughts to the Right to the City movement.

Over the last thirty years David Harvey has been a load star of the American Left, combining theory and practice in his attempt to understand, but also to change the world."

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