In This Article Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections and Readers
  • Postmodernism as Approach

Geography Postmodernism and Poststructuralism
Martin Phillips
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0144


In academic geography, the terms “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” appeared respectively in the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s, although circulated in other disciplines and professions somewhat earlier. Although both have been widely described as philosophical approaches, postmodernism has also been used to characterize features or objects. Both postmodern philosophy and objects exhibit complexity and fluidity that is contrasted with the seeming simplicity and stability of earlier, so-called modern forms. Postmodern philosophy, for example, expresses skepticism over the value of “metanarratives” or “grand theories” that organize phenomena, events, or statements around some central principle, concept, or process. It is argued that such modernist approaches lead to a neglect of difference and the specificity of processes existing within particular localities and contexts, as well as reinforcing the position, interests, and power of their exponents. By contrast, postmodernists seek to highlight the presence and consequences of difference. Advocates of postmodernist philosophy and analysts of postmodern objects often emphasize temporal transitions, although the degree to which the emergence of postmodern objects or perspectives signal breaks from earlier forms has been the subject of much debate. Poststructuralism shares many features with postmodernism, including complex relations with temporal continuities and transitions. It originated as a means to differentiate itself from, and show its connections to, so-called structuralist perspectives that influenced linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, and, from the late 1960s to early 1970s, much of cultural and social studies, including human geography. Poststructuralism transformed the concept of structure, viewing it as quite fragile and unstable accomplishments produced more as a consequence of actions rather than an overall controlling influence, and employed these ideas in its accounts of academic concepts, arguing for examination of their relational connections and generative consequences. It has been argued that poststructuralist influences can now be identified in almost all areas of human geography, a claim that highlights its significance and raises questions as to the value of the term. A range of quite divergent writings and practices have been characterized as poststructuralist and described using a range of other terms, including not only postmodernism but also many reviewed in other entries within Oxford Bibliographies: Geography (e.g., “Actor-Network Theory,” “Assemblage,” “Gender and Geography,” and “Non-representational Theory”). This article, however, focuses on writings framed explicitly in relation to postmodernism and/or poststructuralism and on accounts created by those who are identifiably geographers.

General Overviews

Although postmodernism and poststructuralism have become widely used terms within human geography, there are relatively few overviews of their meaning, in part perhaps because their advocates have often been highly critical of attempts to codify knowledge and understanding. Such concerns are mentioned in the introductory guides to poststructuralism provided by Harrison 2006 and Wylie 2006, although both also outline some of the features that they feel are significant in enacting such a perspective. Less apologetic overviews are provided by Cloke, et al. 1991; Clarke 2006; Phillips 2010; Cresswell 2013; Warf 1990; and Woodward, et al. 2009, whereas a more explicitly advocatory overview is provided by Murdoch 2006.

  • Clarke, David B. “Postmodern Geographies and the Ruins of Modernity.” In Approaches to Human Geography. Edited by Stuart Aitken and Gill Valentine, 107–122. London: SAGE, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446215432.n9E-mail Citation »

    Charts postmodernism as approached through the work of Lyotard and a condition of postmodernity through the work of Harvey and Soja, highlighting how these reflect a modernist rather than postmodernist approach. Ends by outlining the work of Doel, arguing that its turn to poststructuralism reflects a postmodernism as attitude.

  • Cloke, Paul, Chris Philo, and David Sadler. Approaching Human Geography. London: Paul Chapman, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important text in the emergence of postmodernism within geography, with its final chapter containing a clear and accessible outline of many of its important arguments and distinctions. The latter includes the differentiation of postmodernism as object and approach, terms coined in that chapter and used to structure its discussion.

  • Cresswell, Tim. Geographical Thought: A Critical Introduction. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chapter 9 on postmodernism describes architectural exemplars of modernism and postmodernism, plus postmodern films, television programs, and literature from the 1980s. The character of postmodern philosophy is outlined, along with illustrations of its adoption within geography. Chapter 10 on poststructuralism highlights its differentiation from structuralism, illustrating this primarily through the work of Foucault.

  • Harrison, Paul. “Poststructuralist Theories.” In Approaches to Human Geography. Edited by Stuart Aitken and Gill Valentine, 122–136. London: SAGE, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446215432.n10E-mail Citation »

    This account of poststructuralist theories exhibits skepticism over providing such accounts. It develops these arguments drawing particularly on the work of Nietzsche and Foucault, prior to discussing Derrida’s notion of deconstruction and work on geography that might be viewed as poststructuralist, written by geographers and others beyond the field of geography.

  • Murdoch, Jonathan. Post-structuralist Geography. London: SAGE, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides an accessible outline of poststructuralism, outlining its relationship to structuralism, its variant forms, and its development within geography. Focusing principally on materiality and space, the poststructuralist work of Foucault, Deleuze, and Serres is outlined, although considerable emphasis is given to the actor-network perspectives of Callon, Latour, and Law.

  • Phillips, M. “Postmodernism.” In Encyclopedia of Geography. Vol. 5. Edited by Barney Warf, 2264–2269. London: SAGE, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Draws on the distinction between postmodernism as object and postmodernism as approach (see Cloke, et al. 1991) to explore the incorporation of postmodernism into geography. Uses the distinction to examine the work of Harvey and Dear and also outlines three alternative assessments of the impact of postmodernism in human geography.

  • Warf, B. “Can the Region Survive Post-Modernism?” In Special Issue: Law, Regulation, and Geography II. Edited by Nicholas Blomley and Gordon Clark. Urban Geography 11.6 (1990): 586–593.

    DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.11.6.586E-mail Citation »

    Presents an accessible overview of postmodernism, outlining both its philosophical characteristics and its application within geographical studies. Provides succinct summarizations of Soja 1989 (cited under Postmodernism as Approach) and Harvey 1989 (cited under the Postmodern City), before considering the implications of postmodernism on the studies of regions and the localities debate of the late 1980s.

  • Woodward, Keith, Deborah P. Dixon, and John Paul Jones III. “Poststructuralism/Poststructuralist Geographies.” In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Vol. 8. Edited by Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, 396–407. Oxford: Elsevier, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a clear overview of poststructuralism, its incorporation into human geography, and different foci that have emerged during geographers’ engagements with poststructuralist thought.

  • Wylie, John. “Poststructuralist Theories, Critical Methods and Experimentation.” In Approaches to Human Geography. Edited by Stuart Aitken and Gill Valentine, 298–311. London: SAGE, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446215432.n28E-mail Citation »

    Another review text that exhibits skepticism over the value and possibility of providing an overview with respect to poststructuralism. Ostensibly focusing on issues of method, this chapter explores Derrida’s notion of deconstruction and Foucault’s work on discourse, illustrating a range of ways in which they have been employed within geography.

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