David Harvey’s contribution to geography

Most researchers and academics have a list of favourites: favourite researchers, writers, and teachers. Overtime, I hope to discuss a few of these people and the contributions they have made to various fields of research. I want to begin by discussing a scholar whose work has been influential to many people including myself – David Harvey.

In order to fully appreciate Harvey’s contribution to Geography and Urban Studies, it is important to understand the context from which he was writing. Presently, Harvey is a Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York (CUNY), however, he received his PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge (one of the founding departments of academic Geography) (Carducci, 2003 and Castree & Gregory, 2006). Through his PhD and in the early years of his career, he positioned his work within the quantitative paradigm of spatial science, publishing his first book in 1969-Explanation in Geography (Castree & Gregory, 2006). At the time, this was an incredible text that illustrated the different methods, philosophies and approaches of Geography. However, soon afterwards Harvey began to focus his work on issues regarding social justice and capitalism, which have become hallmark themes of his career, often being contextualised within urban spaces.


From the late 1970s, the spatial science paradigm was heavily critiqued by Humanist and Radical Geographers, who argued that studying a phenomenon, only in terms of space and through a set of assumptions and models, resulted in the inequalities of society being ignored (Rose, 1993). During this shift in Geography, Harvey moved from the UK to John Hopkins University in Baltimore. A move that would greatly influence his later work as it allowed him to position himself in the emerging radical field of Marxist Geography and his observation of different social and urban processes of Baltimore contributed to the vast amount of his future theoretical thinking and writing (Castree & Gregory, 2006).


It was from here that many of his books concerning social justice, the city and capitalism emerged, for example, Social Justice and the City (1973). During the 1980s, he moved back to Oxford, only to return to Baltimore in the 1990s and eventually in 2001 moved to CUNY.

Throughout these periods, his books reflected his audience as academics and he further developed thoughts and ideas of earlier books and papers. To date he has published over 57 books, papers, lectures and interviews (Harvey, 2015).

Interestingly, his later books, since his move to CUNY, have become less academic and more populace in style as they discuss contemporary urban “ubiquitous” issues and processes in a less theoretical and more open and approachable manner with his focus being centred on ideas of imperialism, anti-globalisation, capitalism, urban forms and anti-capitalist movements. He conceptualises and captures, our global and contemporary world using identifiable examples such as the Zapatista and the Occupy movement (Lorimer, 2012). Essentially, he has made his work accessible and relevant while also unravelling the underlying and terrifying processes that lead to these examples.

In order to illustrate the power and genius behind his work I am going to provide a brief overview of three of his most popular books: The New Imperialism, A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Rebel Cities.

In The New Imperialism (NI), he analyses the actions of the Bush Administration after 9/11. Harvey understands that territory and capitalism are separate but that at times they merge due to the effects of capitalism in the real world, which is highly different than theoretical capitalism (Permanentrevolution, 2007). He argues that it is the merging of territories and capitalism that gives rise to imperialism and that America is the new imperialist. He suggests that the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was not so much a direct war on terror but an opportunity for America to ensure its political and economic superiority. Oil, especially in the Middle East was critical to this. However, Harvey defends this stance by explaining these small decisions within the context of a number of events dating back to the 1970s, focusing primarily on the shift from accumulation by expanded reproduction towards accumulation by dispossession. These terms are reflective of the shift from welfare states towards neoliberal states after 1973. What is interesting is that the conversation on the neoliberal processes that drive America’s new imperialism are indeed characteristic of pure neoliberal theory; privatisation etc. However, the role of the state has never been more important as they defend the invasion as an attempt at spreading democracy to Iraq, through neoliberal processes.

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism (BHON), the story of neoliberalism is told dating back to the 1970s and specifically, the Wall Street crash and the dictatorship of Chile. This book is an excellent start for anyone new to the ideas and processes of neoliberalism as Harvey does not refrain himself in the telling of the story as he not only includes the normal G-7 countries but encompasses the whole world (Holmes, 2005). It is this distinction that allows for the powerful telling of the process and impact of neoliberalism in the creation of uneven geographies, particularly in cities.

In Rebel Cities, Harvey discusses how neoliberal urbanisation provides the conditions for exploitation under capitalism (Holborow, 2012). He provides an overview of the workings of capital and how it can drive a vast array of urbanisation projects, doing so through a discussion on fictitious capital within property. Through all of this, Harvey continually reminds us of the urban-class struggles that accompany revolts against the structures of capitalism, such as the Paris Commune and most recently the Occupy movement. These movements, he argues, can be used to bring together an array of struggles using the example that “class power is organised around living as well as around working” (Harvey, 2012; 129). Further, he rejects the idea of horizontality and non-hierarchy in social movements as he argues that they are only practical for small movements not global scale movements. Harvey argues that any alternative to capitalism must abolish the social structure of class, which underpins the mode of production. It is not always clear who the agency of change should be and perhaps he is unsure himself but the message is clear- it is the dispossessed that are in the majority and there is potential for an anti-capitalist movement, in an organised manner within cities, which could have strong and powerful consequences (Holborow, 2012).

These three books are representative of how vast Harvey’s work is as he covers a lot of different material regarding capitalism, the city and urban struggles. I find it difficult to critique and disagree with Harvey on most points but there are 3 critiques that I struggle with:

  1. At times, I find that Harvey expects an overnight shift to a new type of social organisation that will begin within urban centres through a range of organised global anti-capitalist movements.
  2. Harvey while discussing the economic mechanisms behind the development of urban processes and spaces fails, quite often, to recognise other contributing features such as, policy, culture, historical antecedents and the role of local government and differing governing structures.
  3. Harvey is certainly not classed as a vulnerable member of society and, to a certain extent, it seems somewhat disingenuous that he should be seeking this utopian alternative to capitalism, when he is one of society’s few that actually benefits from capital accumulation. I am not suggesting that he should be attempting to live outside of the capitalist system simply because his work focuses on the negatives of it, but that there should be some acknowledgment that he is writing from an outsiders perspective.

Despite these critiques, Harvey’s contribution to Urban Studies (and Geography in general), has undeniably changed how we study and understand urbanisation and urban forms, through exposing the relationship between the urban commons and capitalism and he will be a critical theorist within my work.



Carducci, V. (2003) The New Imperialism by David Harvey. [Online]. Available at: http://www.popmatters.com/review/new-imperialism/ (Accessed 3 February 2016).

Castree, N. And Gregory, D. (2006) A critical reader: David Harvey. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Harvey, D. (2003) The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution. London: Verso.

Harvey, D. (2015) Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey. [Online]. Available at: http://davidharvey.org/books/ (Accessed 3 February 2016).

Holborow, M. (2013) Review: David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution. Irish Marxist Review. 2(5), 83-88. Available at: http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/61 (Accessed 3 February 2016).

Holmes, B. (2005) A review of David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism: The Scandal of the word “class”. [Online]. Available at: http://www.turbulence.org/blog/archives/001529.html ((Accessed 3 February 2016).).

Lorimer, R. (2012) Rebel Cities. [Online]. Available at: http://socialistreview.org.uk/369/rebel-cities (Accessed 3 February 2016).

Permanentrevlution (2007) David Harvey: The New Imperialism: Review. [Online]. Available at: http://www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/1170 (Accessed 3 February 2016).



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