Geography Geography of Justice
Alex Jeffrey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0055


The term “geography of justice” can be interpreted in a number of ways. One reading of the term relates to the spatial aspects of claims to justice. This interpretation is often related to questions of social justice, work that examines fundamental questions of inequality and the uneven distribution of resources or harm. The roots of this scholarship are diverse, inspired by anticapitalist, anticolonial, and feminist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the diversity of these approaches, they all express an interest in addressing questions of spatial justice, where the organization of space is understood as a crucial aspect of the entrenchment of injustice within society. At the heart of much of this work is a philosophical question of how justice is interpreted, most crucially whether justice is a universal human condition (perhaps structured around certain human rights) or should be understood as a more localized set of solidarities. These concerns become particularly apparent when questions of spatial justice are considered within structures of power relations. A second interpretation of “geography of justice” relates to the mechanisms used to address injustice and resolve conflict. Alongside reflections of the spatial qualities of injustice, legal geographers have examined the relationship between law and space. On the one hand, this work has encouraged scholarly reflection on the spatial nature of legal concepts, such as jurisdiction and sovereignty. On the other, it has explored the spatial aspects of trial processes, from the architecture of courtrooms to the spatiality of prisons and internment. A third interpretation of “geography of justice” turns critical attention to the nature of scholarly inquiry, posing the question, what is a just form of geographical discipline? Much of the work examining forms of spatial justice and legal geographies has reflected on the nature of knowledge production within geography, and the subsequent ways in which certain viewpoints, topics, or voices have been marginalized. Emerging in particular from the fields of feminist, postcolonial, and antiracist scholarship, these reflections have sought to challenge injustices within the discipline of geography. These perspectives have advanced forms of qualitative methodology that focus on positionality: the implications of the researcher’s identity, geography, and history for the nature of knowledge production. Reflecting these three aspects of the “geography of justice,” the review below does not chart the emergence of a single, coherent body of scholarship. Instead, it seeks to sketch the implications of this fragmentation and diversification, as geographers and others have explored the complex intersection between geography and justice.

General Overviews

Two books published in the early 1990s illustrate the diversity of geographies of justice. The first, Smith 1994, explores how social theory, in particular that of Marxist human geography, has led to a reconsideration of the relationship between geography and different theorizations of justice. This book not only provides an overview of varying theoretical traditions, it also explores relationships between justice, morality, and law through a range of empirical examples. Smith seems to illustrate that substantive questions of spatial justice defy a purely theoretical (that is, reflective) model, and require consideration in their geographical specificity. It is through specific case studies, Smith writes in the conclusion, “where aspiring universals, such as the principle of justice as equalization or the need for place, must be refined in the experience of practice” (p. 297). The second, Blomley 1994, provides the most comprehensive theoretical introduction to the relationship between law and space. Set within the context of an emerging field (or fields) of critical geography, this work explores the implications of space and spatial imaginaries on the workings of law. These ideas are picked up in more instrumental terms in the edited books Holder and Harrison 2003 and Taylor 2006, collections that emerge from a legal perspective to examine the spaces inhabited and produced through law. A similar sense of surveying the field is conveyed in Blomley, et al. 2001, where the editors “want to suggest that much of social space represents a materialization of power, and much of law consists in highly significant and specialized descriptions and prescriptions of the same power” (p. xix). The contributions review how changes in the geographical discipline are allowing greater exploration of the spatiality of law, while also examining how processes of globalization are eroding the jurisdiction of law’s most prominent territoriality: the nation-state. While these texts are providing overviews of existing scholarship (with sightlines for future research) it is Delaney 2010 that seeks to retheorize this relationship by introducing the rubric of the “nomosphere” to explore the dialectic between law and space, where each is partially constitutive of the other.

  • Blomley, N. Law, Space, and the Geographies of Power. New York: Guilford, 1994.

    Blomley explores how developments in social theory can help understand the co-constitution of law and space. The book examines how representations of space are enrolled in legal decision making, illuminating how all areas of life are infused with legal categories and practices. But the arguments extend beyond a theoretical reflection to draw on a range of case studies to examine how legal practices shape both formal and informal political struggles.

  • Blomley, N., D. Delaney, and R. T. Ford. The Legal Geographies Reader: Law, Power, and Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    This influential edited collection brings together geographers and legal scholars to explore the spatiality of law. The collection is divided into three parts, the first examining “legal places” (for example, city planning, zoning, and regional law), the second “national legalities” (for example, analyzing territorializations of state power, property rights, and national jurisdictions), and the third “globalization and law” (for example, the institutions and norms of international law).

  • Delaney, D. The Spatial, the Legal and the Pragmatics of World-Making: Nomospheric Investigations. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    David Delaney has been a key figure in geographical reflections on legal processes and institutions. In this ambitious text, Delaney seeks to bridge the legal studies of changing jurisdictions and critical geographical work on the power-laden and constitutive nature of legal regulation. He coins the term “nomosphere” to capture the material consequences of the complex relationship between materialization of law and legal signification of space.

  • Holder, J., and C. Harrison, eds. Law and Geography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199260744.001.0001

    This volume is reflecting on the implications of the erosion of state sovereignty for the ideas and institutions of law. A series of concepts (such as “boundaries,” “land,” and “property”) structure the chapters. As this structure may suggest, this text is emerging from a more legalistic than geographical framework, also reflected in the volume’s position within the Current Legal Issues series of Oxford University Press.

  • Smith, D. M. Geography and Social Justice. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    This book provides a comprehensive overview of the key debates concerning geography and justice in the early 1990s. The introduction situates the text in the changing nature of the geographical discipline, charting the adoption of Marxist critiques in the 1970s—see Harvey 2009 (cited under Historical Perspectives)—and the subsequent adoption of postmodern perspectives that potentially challenged the metanarratives of historical materialism.

  • Taylor, W., ed. The Geography of Law: Landscape, Identity and Regulation. Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart, 2006.

    This is an interdisciplinary and rather eclectic volume that explores law and space from a broad range of perspectives. The contributors explore how ideas of law relate to established geographical themes such as territory, landscape, and place. The essays provide a range of empirical examples, including the Basque region, New Zealand, and New York City.

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