John Agnew is a scholar of political and urban geography, Italian and the Mediterranean world. He has been at UCLA for more than 20 years, and is currently a distinguished professor of geography and Italian.
In July, Agnew was awarded the Vautrin Lud Prize, one of the highest honors in the field of geography. First presented in 1991, this award is bestowed annually at the International Geography Festival in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France. This year’s festival will run from October 4–6, and the theme of the festival will center around migrations.
A fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Geographic Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Agnew has written several books, including “Globalization and Sovereignty: Beyond the Territorial Trap,” “Hegemony: The New Shape of Global Power” and “Making Political Geography.”
Agnew recently discussed this award and his career in geography.
You are an accomplished professor of both geography and Italian. What inspired you to pursue these two fields?
My background is in geography and politics, but as a result of my education in Latin and ancient history and living in Italy for periods of time, I became fascinated with the landscapes and politics of the country. Over the years, much of my research has focused on Italy. I moved to UCLA geography in 1996 from Syracuse University in New York. I have held a joint appointment in Italian at UCLA since 2011.
The Vautrin Lud Prize is colloquially known as the “Nobel Prize for Geography.” What does this recognition mean for your research?
The recognition from Vautrin Lud is really about a career rather than a single discovery or publication. The “Nobel” designation is a bit misleading because apart from the Nobel in economics, the others are all about specific discoveries. This prize is more like those in political science or the earth sciences that recognize impacts in terms of thinking in a given field. In my case, I think it is about recognition of my contribution to rethinking some basic concepts in geography such as place, geopolitics and territory and how this has led to new streams of empirical research including my own on, for example, the nature of state sovereignty and understanding electoral politics. I am pleased to see recognition for research that is more empirical than speculative.
Your fields of study include politics, geography and the international economy. Why do you believe it is important to understand how these factors intersect?
Geography to me provides a set of concepts and an overall global perspective that provide the tools for seeing the world somewhat differently from the other social and physical sciences. First of all, it involves questioning self-evident assumptions about how we divide up and understand the world, such as the presumed centrality of a world of bordered states being singularly significant for explaining world politics or how national demographic categories are more important than the lived experiences of people in different places. As a result, geographical relationships between states, cities, regions and localities are seen as mediating how economic and political processes produce different outcomes for people across the globe. There is not a priori assumption that everything is framed at one geographical scale (typically the national) or that the political and the economic, for example, are ever effectively separate realms.
You’ve been a UCLA faculty member for more than 20 years. How has teaching at this university impacted your research?
I came to UCLA from Syracuse University, where I tended to spend much of my time outside the classroom associating with a group of historians, sociologists, political scientists and some colleagues in geography whose thinking had a profound effect on, for example, my approach to state sovereignty. Since coming to UCLA, I found a similar group, particularly in sociology, anthropology and history, but more particularly in my own primary department. Colleagues such as Allen Scott and Nick Entrikin (both now emeriti) and David Rigby, Michael Shin and Glen MacDonald, to name just a few, have pushed me to expand my intellectual sources and engage once more in the statistical/quantitative methods that I was trained in as graduate student but had largely abandoned by the early 1990s.
I have also found teaching graduate and undergraduate students at UCLA very stimulating in terms of questioning my previous positions and exploring alternative viewpoints, particularly taking more seriously questions about social-political identities than just the rational-interest focus that has long dominated in political studies such as the ones I have worked on. My most recent book (co-authored with Michael Shin) “Mapping Populism: Taking Politics to the People” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), takes this more catholic approach in comparing the explosion of populist politics across the U.S. and Western Europe in recent years. Being at UCLA has undoubtedly been an important part of the academic career for which this prize is a recognition.