Geography Histories of Protest and Social Movements
Carl Griffin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0263


It has become something of a truism that whenever and wherever power is exercised and manifest it is always met with contestation and resistance. It was arguably not until the late 1970s, though, that historical geography began to take the study of protest seriously. The spurs to action were several. Armed decolonial struggles in Africa and parts of South Asia, a wave of violence in American ghettos in the late 1960s, and the concurrent student uprising in Paris (and other cities) in 1968 all brought social protest into the public consciousness in newly stark ways. Against the pressing problems that such conflicts highlighted, and against the need to understand the politics and the place of such powerful movements, human geographers’ obsession with the abstract numerical modeling of spatial science lacked meaningful answers. The founding of the radical geography journal Antipode in 1969 and the concurrent publication of David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City arguably opened the intellectual space in geography to study the impact of economic (and political) change on those who had to labor to get by. Likewise, the intellectual influence of “history from below” approaches, not least the work of E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, offered a model to historical geographers of how to analyze the geographies of both everyday life and exceptional moments of contention. Similarly, the emergent body of work in the Subaltern Studies movement, with its foundational emphasis on everyday forms of peasant resistance, provided encouragement to geographers to think about the impact of not just capitalism but also imperialism on the poor. Research on protest at first was dominated by dramatic moments and (loosely organized) movements. A reflection of these influences, such work was, and remains to this day, highly interdisciplinary, with geographers often working closely with those from other disciplines on spatially sensitive studies of protests past in asking where did protest happen, why did it happen there, and how did space and place shape protest. Further, such analyses have proven to be remarkably temporally diverse, ranging from the medieval to the recent past. Work on social movements—as opposed to protest movements—has taken a different trajectory. Drawing upon a different set of influences, notably from political science and sociology, geographers were slower to take the study of social movements seriously. This worked both ways: social movement studies was also slow to consider space as something more than the isotropic backdrop to the real stuff of politics and activism. Indeed, Bryon Miller’s landmark monograph Geography and Social Movements could meaningfully note the “missing geography” in the study of social movements, to which one might also add the missing geographers. As Hannah Awcock has noted in an important recent review of the field, scholars of the spaces and spatiality of past protest and social movements have tended to overlook critical contributions on feminist, gay, and black movements from beyond the discipline.

General Overviews

There is no one overview of the field, a reflection in part of the complex temporalities and the lack of overlap between studies of popular protest on the one hand and social movements on the other. Awcock 2020 does a fine job of reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the work of geographers on the histories of protest. Griffin 2014 offers a synthesis of the evolution of the field and the multiple approaches and foci of work on the foundational context of rural England. Arnold, et al. 2000 represents a fine overview and analysis of the Subaltern Studies movement, both on Southeast Asia and beyond. Featherstone 2011 offers a critical approach to analyzing the networked, transnational nature of many forms of resistance, pulling together historical analysis with treatments of the here-and-now. Tilly, et al. 2020, a fourth edition of the 2004 book, represents a genuinely global account of the emergence and subsequent history of social movement, and has proved hugely influential and shows the impress of geographical thinking and approaches.

  • Arnold, David, Chris Bayly, Tom Brass, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, eds. Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. London: Verso Books, 2000.

    Landmark collection of essays exploring the geographical and conceptual settings of the pioneering Subaltern Studies movement—thought sought to write a new history of Southeast Asia—as well its influence beyond its initial settings. Includes contributions from key founding thinkers, including Ranajit Guha’s—the editor of the initial Subaltern Studies volumes—and Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gayatri Spivak.

  • Awcock, Hannah. “New Protest History: Exploring the Historical Geographies and Geographical Histories of Resistance through Gender, Practice, and Materiality.” Geography Compass 14.6 (2020): e12491.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12491

    Pithy analysis of the state of protest studies. As well as identifying key approaches, innovations, and strengths, argues for protest scholars to more generously adopt other intersectional approaches and embrace other voices.

  • Featherstone, David. Resistance, Space and Political Identities: The Making of Counter-Global Networks. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2011.

    Pioneering account of the global nature (and reach) of resistance to forms of capitalist practice and politics. Offers a fine overview of geographies of resistance and offers a model for how studying protest beyond spatial bounds can work.

  • Griffin, Carl. Protest, Politics and Work in Rural England, 1700–1850. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-37301-4

    At once an overview of the state of knowledge of protest in the foundational context of rural England and an account that suggests several new approaches and foci for future study. Also outlines of the origins of the field and reviews the influence of key thinkers.

  • Tilly, Charles, Ernesto Castañeda, and Lesley J. Wood. Social Movements 1768–2082. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2020.

    Useful survey of the emergence, history, and evolution of social movements. In this fourth edition, Tilly builds upon the Eurocentric focus on early editions and offers a genuinely global account.

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