Review, published as:

Batterbury, S.P.J. 2002. Watts, M.J. Struggles over geographyEconomic Geography 78 (1):  96-98.



Struggles over Geography: Violence, freedom and development at the millennium. By M.J. Watts. Hettner Lectures No. 3. Heidelberg: Department of Geography, University of Heidelberg, 2000. 143Pp.


Simon Batterbury


Michael Watts’ ability to make connections - across the local and global, between historical events, and among the theories and arguments of a daunting range of intellectuals and activists - will be well known to most readers. This collection of three essays is built around his Hettner memorial lectures delivered at the University of Heidelberg in 1999. In the first chapter, Geographies of violence and the narcissism of minor difference, he argues convincingly that coercive regimes have persisted in the twentieth century, accompanied by an upsurge of different types of violence on a world scale. Although economic and cultural globalization has generated a “turbo-charged vectoring typified by commonality, confluence and sameness” (p12), violence, social conflict, and fundamentalism have accompanied it. Acts of violence are frequently committed against people hardly dissimilar from each other - as Michael Ignatieff notes, “the Serbs and Croats drive the same cars; they’ve probably worked in the same German factories as gastarbeiters; they long to build exactly the same type of Swiss chalets...” (Watts citing Ignatieff 1999). Nigeria, where Watts has worked since the 1970s, exemplifies one ‘dark side’ of globalization. It has strong links to the global economy through major oil exploitation and its colonial ties, but a variety of fundamentalist and intensely political movements have sprung up to challenge the state and big business, often driven, as least superficially, by minor religious or ethnic grievances. Capitalism, resistance and protest seem go hand in hand.


Watts claims that the Nigerian state is disproportionately harsh in repressing localized and seemingly quite unthreatening social movements because it believes these could challenge its very existence (p16). The Maitatsine Islamic movement in Kano in the 1970s, and the labyrinthine Ogoni struggle against the state and oil companies in the Niger Delta, provoked state violence severe enough to generate social chaos (and even to incur international sanctions in the latter case). State repression was so harsh because these movements threatened Nigeria’s weak sense of national identity, and the fragile hold of its ruling classes over territory and national assets (particularly oil). Local ethnic factionalism unsettles political elites precisely because it exposes a potentially fatal lack of nationhood. In addition, the state is in many regards a ‘private instrument’ of a ruling group, as Mary Kaldor terms it, linked to a network of patronage based on ethnicity. These observations illuminate the harsh responses metered out to separatist movements in weak or fragile states where resources, and the financial wealth they generate, are unequally distributed both geographically and across ethnic lines.


In the second chapter, Watts draws on the ideas of Malthus and Marx, who both wrote on  popular radicalism from different ideological perspectives, to question the persistence of poverty under twentieth century globalization. A smaller share of wealth now accrues to the worlds’ poor, and by many measures, economic polarization and inequality has grown, especially since the 1980s. Two alternatives to increasing poverty and inequality are discussed. Firstly, there are the range of alternative voices and movements resisting an ill-defined set of global institutions and the discourses surrounding them. These alternative voices are “dialectically organized oppositions within the history of modernity” (p44), and are complex social entities - sometimes, as Noreena Hertz argues, themselves violent and exclusionary. Secondly, and drawing on Amarta Sen, Watts outlines the prospects for boosting ‘human capability’ - broadly, this means the satisfaction of human needs but with freedom of human agency, enhanced political participation and political accountability. Watts is sympathetic to Sen. If poverty is a result of ‘capability failure’ and a lack of entitlements, the solution is not only to respond by meeting society’s material needs, but also by developing ‘critical autonomy’ and a strong ‘sense of society’ to enhance freedoms (p57). Following Marx, entitlements are “...both constituted and reproduced through conflict, negotiation and struggle” in the course of the modernization process (p62), while conflict itself disrupts the satisfaction of individual needs. Watts’ own model of human needs satisfaction is multilayered and tantalizingly powerful, although it needed a more detailed elaboration than could be provided in this chapter. The author’s millennial message is that while the prospect of alternative development ideas and actions winning through are dismal, the incompleteness of capitalist globalization - its uneven geography - at least offer the prospect of success for movements that “continue the differentiation began by modernity leading to new forms of rights, forms of self-determination and mutual identification, respect and reciprocity” (p72). Perhaps, then, poverty alleviation will result from some components of globalization, but also from sustained resistance to it.


The third essay takes off at a tangent since it is a foray into art criticism, but as in much of Watt’s work, there is an underlying refrain of support for the underdog. Roy DeCarava is a black artist and photographer raised in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. He experienced the highs and the lows of pre-war Harlem, and began photographing his community after WWII. By 1952 he had become the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim fellowship, but a combination of racism and reactionary responses denied him critical acclaim until late in his career. Watts shows how DeCarava embodies, and promotes, photography that “starts with reality in order to transcend it” (p82). The chapter is illustrated with fifteen of DeCarava’s photographs, including his depictions of African-American jazz musicians from the 1950s. These photos are nicely contextualised and discussed in the text, where geography melds with art criticism.


This is an essential book for collectors of Watts work, and another (daunting) exploration of his ecumenical excavations into cross-cutting ideas and literatures. It raised many questions. The most interesting for me is nothing to do with its implications for academic geography - Watts’s work unfolds on a much larger canvas. For me, the most pressing is ‘what should be done?’.  We learn that globalization is resisted, and Watts supports individuals or organisations that have moral authority, or that retain a commitment to social and environmental justice. In Nigeria, politics carved out between market and state hasn’t worked - Watts shows that morality lies with certain social movements and elements of the rural peasantry, rather than with corrupt and repressive elites, politicians and business interests. This is a clear signal to the shapers of future development policy.  But identifying equitable institutions to work with in places where violence has become ‘structural’ and endemic will be much harder. Where to begin? Post-apartheid land reforms in South Africa are a case in point; despite the ANC’s credentials, current reforms are very uneven and often do not benefit the rural landless. Should ‘development’ seek to refocus state policy formulated by a political party whose record has now been questioned, or channel aid to land rights movements that are highly critical of the state? So, important but unanswered questions of policy emerge from Watts’ first two essays, although these are never stated explicity. In the context of globalization, can policy in developing countries work around state violence, corruption and uneven commitments to poverty alleviation through crafting better state (and perhaps market) institutions, as institutional reformists argue? Or do alternative social and environmental movements (and their often charismatic leaders) provide coherent altenatives worthy of widespread support?


Ignatieff M. Nationalism and the narcissism of minor difference. in Ronald Beiner (ed) Theorising Nationalism. State Univ of New York Press, Albany, 1999, pp91-102.


Simon Batterbury

University of Melbourne