Keeping One Eye on the Bus: A Tribute to Doreen Massey

by Emma Jackson

14 March 2016
Originally published in our Old Blog.

My friend Hannah once handed me a badge with a woman’s face on it, she’d been at a feminist geography workshop. ‘I tried to get you Doreen Massey, but they ran out straight away’. This is one of the many things that have popped into my head since learning of Doreen Massey’s death on Friday. On hearing of her death I discounted it as a rumour. How could someone who is so embedded and such a vital part of things be gone?

Doreen Massey’s influence for me is less like a badge worn and more like a name running through a stick of rock. Her thinking is fundamental to the way I interpret the world. I never met her – I always assumed I would, it never occurred that there might be a time limit on this – and so I have encountered her only through her work. There will be many tributes this week from those who knew Doreen Massey as a teacher, activist, colleague and from those of us whom she has inspired in different ways. This tribute of my own is not exhaustive but just a piece of that jigsaw puzzle of appreciation.

Doreen Massey’s writing on how places are shaped through the movement of capital and people has taught us so much about the macro processes that shape cities for example in ‘World City’ how the movement of capital distorts not only London but also the places around it. Theoretical writing on cities can feel disembodied and detached but Doreen Massey’s work doesn’t feel like that. I think this is about how she also saw things from perspective of the street or the bus and uses this to tell us about power and how people are differentially positioned. Here is an example from ‘Space, Place and Gender’:

‘I can remember very clearly a sight which often used to strike me when I was nine or ten years old. I lived then in the outskirts of Manchester, and ‘Going into Town’ was a relatively big occasion; it took half an hour and we went on the top deck of a bus. On the way into town we would cross the wide shallow valley of the River Mersey, and my memory is of dank, muddy fields spreading away into a cold misty distance. An all of it– all of these areas of Manchester – was divided into football pitches and rugby pitches…

I remember all of this sharply. And I remember, too, it striking me very clearly– even then as a puzzled, slightly thoughtful little girl – that this huge stretch of the Mersey flood plain had been entirely given over to boys.’ (1994, 185)

She uses this one beautifully written example of how ‘spaces are gendered through and through’ and then uses it as a jumping off point for exploring regional policy, employment, and caring as labour. It is hard to imagine more masculinist critical geographers asking questions about mundane gendered experiences of inequality and spatial practices (‘Who goes to the launderette? Who picks the children up from school’ (1994, 190)) when discussing patterns of employment, power and the making of space.

A second related – and much quoted– example comes from Massey’s critique of Harvey’s concept of space-time compression, in questioning the argument that flows of capital and the speeding up of life brought about by new technologies have left us placeless she argues:

‘For amid the Ridley Scott images of world cities, the writing about skyscraper fortresses, the Baudrillard visions of hyperspace … most people actually still live in places like Harlesden or West Brom. Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus-shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes’ (1994, 163)

Here we are, back to the bus again. This time, the experience is linked to what Massey names ‘power geometry’. Who gets to have control over their movement? Who speeds around the world and who is waiting for the bus?

In her much-cited essay ‘A Global Sense of Place’ she imagines zooming out and looking at earth from space and being able to see the flows of technology and aeroplanes but also slower movements, a woman gathering water on foot. But she then zooms back in to Kilburn High Road and takes us for a walk down it in order for us to see how a sense of place, Kilburn, involves links to other places (‘In two shops I notice this week’s lottery winners: in one the name is Teresa Gleeson, in the other, Chouman Hassan’). I think of this essay when I read Zadie Smith’s description of Edgware Road in her novel NW or when I walk down my local high street.

Massey understood how capital shapes and distorts but also how not everything is reducible to capital. Understanding race and gender as axes of power that shape space is important. The ordinary culture of a place, how this links to other places and how these juxtapositions can result in new happenings is important. This is politically vital at a time when politicians present us with an enclosable little England.

What I take from Massey’s work is the need to keep one eye on global capital and another on the bus.

Dr Emma Jackson is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

︎ Image by Rubén G. Herrera under CC 2.0.