Call for Papers RGS-IBG Annual Conference September 1-4, 2020, London, U.K.



Aligning theory and method in economic geography


Organizers: Huiwen Gong1, Roel Rutten2, Robert Hassink1


1 Kiel University, Department of Geography, Kiel, Germany; email:

2 Tilburg University, School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Tilburg,
The Netherlands; email:  <>


Related to a panel session on "Theorizing in Economic Geography" (organized
by Huiwen Gong & Robert Hassink), in this paper session, we discuss the
(mis)alignment of theory and method in economic geography. Economic
geography is a field vibrant in developing new topics and ideas. However,
the diversity of approaches, methods and methodologies, philosophical
foundations, and practices has led to a situation where economic geographers
are often talking past each other because researchers' (implicit)
assumptions on how social reality works and the nature of causality do not
match. As correctly observed by Barnes and Christophers (2018) in a recent
book, this phenomenon can largely be attributed to a "don't ask, and don't
tell" (ibid, p.132) culture in economic geography. In order to counter this
"don't-ask-don't-tell" culture, we argue that researchers must be explicit
about the assumptions they buy into when they are making causal claims. The
reluctance of economic geographers to explicitly align theorizing and method
creates two important problems. (1) A misalignment of (implicit) assumptions
on the nature of social reality and causality makes it very difficult for
researchers to effectively communicate their results across research
projects. (2) As argued, theorizing in economic geography is very diverse
but empirical research most often still follows the mainstream approach of
identifying net-effects of independent variable. This produces a
misalignment between the theorizing and methods within a research project.
We further observe that, in economic geography, theorizing has become a
task/interest of a small group of scholars who often fail to explain the
methodological implications of their theorizing, while much empirical work
uncritically follows mainstream, variable-based method regardless of whether
they fit the theory used.


Theory and method must be aligned for theory to sensibly inform empirical
research and for empirical research to sensibly inform theory development.
To achieve this alignment in economic geography and to prevent economic
geographers from "talking past each other", our discipline needs to
explicitly engage with the philosophical underpinnings of the theories and
the methods that we use. Additionally, extra care needs to be paid to the
role of the specific context and conditions in which researchers are doing
research on. Instead of following the dominant "don't ask, and don't tell"
theorizing culture, in this session, we encourage scholars to talk openly
about the methodologies and philosophies that make their work what they are,
the key concepts and notions that are used in their research, as well as to
reflect upon the way in which they theorize in general. As an example, we
point at the renewed interested in critical realism in economic geography
(Yeung 2019) and the introduction of QCA (Qualitative Comparative Analysis)
(Rutten 2019). Put differently, in order to align theory and method,
economic geography needs a discussion about the different ontologies
underlying our discipline and their epistemological implications.


Specifically, we welcome empirical and theoretical contributions that deal
with, but are not necessarily constrained to the following questions:

1.       What is the role of context (space-time- contingent) in theorizing
regional economic development outcomes? How do economic geographers navigate
between the divergent appeals of particularity and generality? To what
extent has the emphasis on empirical generalizations disconnected theorizing
and explanation from context? (

2.       What kind of concepts and theories are popular in economic
geography? What are the pros and cons of importing theories and concepts
from neighboring disciplines?  How do economic geographers contribute to the
theorizing and re-theorizing of such concepts/theories?

3.     What are the philosophical underpinnings of different research
perspectives (e.g., evolutionary, institutional, geographical political
economy, relational, feminism, alternative economy perspectives, etc.) in
economic geography? How do each stream's ontology, epistemology,
methodology, and methods interrelate? 

4.     What kind of new methods are currently developed in or introduced to
economic geography (e.g., Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), big data,
Discourse Network Analysis DNA, etc.)? How do the philosophical/ ontological
assumptions of these methods differ from mainstream, variable-based methods,
how do these new methods contribute to our understanding of divergent
economic development outcomes in space, and how can they contribute to
aligning theory and method in economic geography? 

Please send abstracts to  <> by Feb 7th 2020 (notification of abstract
acceptance: Feb 10th 2020)



Barnes, T. and Christophers, B. (2018). Economic geography: A critical
introduction, Chichester: Wiley

Rutten, R. (2019). Openness values and regional innovation: A set-analysis,
Journal of Economic Geography, 19(6): 1211-1232.

Yeung, H. (2019). Rethinking mechanism and process in the geographical
analysis of uneven development, Dialogues in Human Geography, 9(3): 226-255.


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