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Torsten Hdgerstrand (1916-2004) 337

Torsten Hiagerstrand and social theory

Nigel Thrift
Division of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Oxford,
Oxford OXI 3PD, UK

I Introduction dimensions. For example, in the 1970s and

I am not sure that Torsten Higerstrand ever 1980s it was taken up for itself as a contri-
thought that he would have a major impact bution to 'spatializing social theory. For those
on social theory. Indeed, he has sometimes at the time who were looking to do social
been painted as an accidental social theorist. theory as something rather more than eth-
But I am equally sure that he made an import- nomethodology and something less than the
ant contribution to the development of social great slab-sided social theory supertankers
theory through being one of the first to hold a like Marxism, it provide a gathering point to
particular view of its powers and possibilities, discuss all manner of issues. Most especially, it
one which wanted to bring it down to earth. made it possible to talk about distinct events
In this, one might well argue, he showed without simply falling back into the unembell-
considerable prescience. ished certainties of the empirical realm (e.g.
I first metTorsten Htigerstrand in the 1970s Giddens, 1979). In that sense, Htigerstrand's
on a visit to Lund. He was, as always, charm- work foreshadowed all the current work on
ing and considerate, sounding more hesitant the push of the event, but did so without
than I had expected for someone who was relapsing into the kinds of romanticism that
already regarded as a global authority, mainly that work is sometimes prone to.
by dint of his work on diffusion. By that time, I think, however, that time-geography
he had already worked out and applied most always offered rather more than was taken
of the elements of 'time-geography'. In doing from it. It promised - and still promises - a
so, he had produced one of the few truly series of boons to social theorists, of which I
home-grown geographical social theories. will mention just five. First, it provides a sense
Yet he certainly had not started from scratch. of concreteness, of the power of'thereness',
As a number of authors have made clear, and it does so in a way - visually - that is still
Htigerstrands work resulted from a number the preserve of too few social theorists. All
of theoretical and practical influences, includ- those intricate diagrams were, in part, an
ing a touch of Heidegger, but Htigerstrand had attempt to describe the pragmatics of events,
certainly used his peripherality to produce a a theme which has now, in the work of writ-
new and extraordinary mix which I want to ers like Deleuze, become fashionable in the
examine in some detail. social sciences and humanities but, at the
time at which Higerstrand was working,
II Time-geography in social theory tended to be restricted to the field of philoso-
Within the history of social theory, time- phy, except for the work of social interaction-
geography has been influential on a number of ists and ethnomethodologists which was
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338 Makers ofmodern humran geography

often very imperfectly understood by other time, I am sure that he meant something
than a relatively small coterie of enthusiasts. broader and more encompassing which it
Secondly, Htigerstrand's work was an attack seems to me to be well worth keeping hold of,
on the Durkheimian idea that space and a kind of democratic ethos of the cardinal
time were social categories, collective repre- dimensions, a conviviality in the use of space
sentations which both derived from society and time (Gilroy, 2004). Fifthly, Higerstrand
and also dictated to society. Quite rightly, provided a language which could register the
Higerstrand was uncomfortable with this world in different ways. Perhaps one way of
view, which arises from Durkheims attempt looking at Higerstrands work is as a means of
to promote sociological analysis to the level of saying 'hello' in a language many can under-
metaphysics by identifjying collective repre- stand: drawing as a kind of visual Esperanto.
sentations of space and time with Kantian In other words, it is possible to argue that
categories. Htgerstrand has often been Htigerstrand was trying to provide a distinct
described as a physicalist because ofhis scep- aesthetic. Aesthetic may seem an odd term
ticism over this move. I prefer to see him as an to use but I think it is the right one. Rather
early critic of social constructionism, produc- like one of Gells famous (1996; 1998) fish
ing a critique of the kind now most often traps, time-geographic diagrams draw you
associated with the work of a rediscovered in through a quietist creativity (in contrast
Tarde and, latterly, Latour. In particular, as to the prevailing Euro-American idea that
Gell (1992) has made clear in a much neg- artistic effort has to be activist to be effec-
lected but extraordinarily significant book, tive), trapping you in their nets. What they
time-geography makes it possible to go represent is a dynamic world in a world,
beyond social constructionism by empha- rather like the computer game The Sims. One
sizing the physical constraints on human of the joys of time-geography is retracing
action and the wider networks of competing the steps by which that world has come
opportunities that they set up which act to into existence, twisting them off course
steer situations. It therefore goes beyond the perhaps. One of the most important aspects
dispositional approaches to social space and of geography as a practice has always been
time that are currently in vogue1 by pointing its use of a wide variety of visual cues, not
to the importance of objects as means of just print but also maps, diagrams and
expanding 'alternative-worldsness', as Gell photographs, a sort of filmic leaf litter. Time-
puts it. Thirdly, and as a directly related point, geography took this trait farther than most;
those time-geographic diagrams did some- Higerstrand's aesthetic seemed to me to
thing else too. They radically lessened the come from the days when many lecturers still
distinction between humans and other drew on boards as they went along, rather
objects. They provided a kind of neutrality of like mathematicians deriving equations. It was
representation, even a democracy of descrip- a dynamical teaching style which is now
tion, of the world. Once again, Htigerstrand nearly lost.2
proved to be before his time in relating a story There is still wonderful work going on in
of how the world is which has now become time-geography as evidenced by, for example,
common as a result of the spread of various Mei-Po Kwans automated graphics of the
approaches gleaned from social studies of life paths of women in space-time (Kwan,
science. 2002). But I would want to look elsewhere
Fourthly, Higerstrands work espoused a for inspiration now. If I was wanting to
geographical ethics, centred on the wise use point to Higerstrands successor, it would
of space and time. Although Htgerstrand be the artist Julie Mehretu who comes most
would often use economic metaphors to readily to mind (Hesanmi, 2003). Why might
describe that wisdom in the use of space and this be?
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Torsten Hdgerstrand (1916-2004) 339

III The long hello rather like a Deleuzian field trip (Bonta and
Higerstrand was brought up in the old Protevi, 2004). Paintings like drawings, draw-
Sweden, still rural, still ethnically relatively ings like paintings. Layers and lines that build
homogeneous, still relatively slow-moving: spaces and paces. A kind of mark-up languae
the Sweden of 'Path and diorama'. Since which, just like a language, is perpetually in
then, however, Sweden has become a much development, perpetually assaying its own
more cosmopolitan country (about one-fifth axioms.
of its population now have 'foreign back- Here, in these paintings, I think we see
grounds'), reaching out to the world through much of the same time-geographical aes-
bridgehead cosmopolitan cities like Malmb,3 thetic of both enormous scale and minute
and, like so many other places, captured by detail taken up and reworked, the big picture
the dictates of automobility (Thrift, 2004). as made up ofsmall narratives that constantly
If there is a sign of this new world, it is pro- disappear into the larger context of the
bably the Oresund bridge opened in 2000. whole. Paintings that insist that you focus on
The bridge' span effectively connects Malmb parts but still see the whole. The air as ground
with Kobenhavn and it seems to encapsulate (Irigaray, 2002). Time-geography in a world
so many themes, all the way from the effort of flows. A new kind of way of saying 'hello'
to produce a new transnational world region to the world, one which, in its own way, is
with the bridge as its symbolic and practical just as organic as that valley in the inner
centre, through the constant drone of flights woodlands of southern Sweden. 'The draw-
making their way into and out of Kobenhavn ing has agency, in a way, as does any natural
airport, to the life paths of couples who have occurrence (Mehretu, 2003).
fallen foul of Denmark's new immigration What I am trying to point to, in other
laws and who have often fetched up in words (and paintings), is the way in which the
Malmb. spirit of Higerstrands work still lives on in a
No doubt, this is a difficult world for some social theory that itself is being transfigured.
older Swedes (and not a few younger ones Htigerstrand has left behind a vibrant legacy
either; see Pred, 2001) to fathom, producing of authors and artists still trying to work out
the kind of regret and nostalgia typified what there is there, still trying to work
by Henning Mankel's glum detective, Kurt out what reach might reach into, still trying
Wallander, who continually bemoans how to work out the ethical dynamics of the
bad things have become in Sweden since cosmopolitan moment, still trying to touch
his youth while moving (mainly by car) the feral beauty of social life.
through a series of encounters into which the
rest of the world constantly and sometimes
violently intrudes, in which a global geogra- Notes
phy is continually coming home to roost, 1. Which, I think it is possible to argue, are still
so to speak. At the same time, Mankel's too often touched by a phenomenological tra-
detective novels also suggest a different kind dition which makes it difficult for them to
of time-geography, one which is less local and appreciate the wider world (see, most
recently, Morris, 2004).
more connected into the world. 2. Torsten Higerstrands aesthetic also came
What, then, of newer Swedes? How out of a Swedish structure of feeling of a par-
might they picture the world? Rather like ticular kind, a sense of order and exactness
Mehretut work, I think. In a series ofvibrant exemplified by the wide availability ofdetailed
paintings, Mehretu has tried to picture the population data which provided a model of
contemporary urban, transnational world as a Swedish population at the micro-scale and in
riot of lines, flows and grids, each in constant the large, and a model of good government
movement, pressing against each other, in which all citizens were registered and
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340 Makers ofmodern humran geography

locatable, a kind of minor key geodemograph- Gilroy, P. 2004: After empire. melancholia or convivial
ics but with the crucial constraint that it was culture? London: Routledge.
considered in bad taste to know it all. Hesanmi, 0. 2003: Julie Mehretu. NewYork: T Walker
3. Which is only a few kilometres from Lund, of Art Center.
Irigaray, L. 2002: Hetideggersforetting of air. London:
course. Continuum.
Kwan, M.--P. 2002: Feminist visualization: re-envisioning
References GIS as a method in feminist geographic research.
Bonta, M. and Protevi, J. 2004: Deleuze andgeophilos- Annals ofthe Associatzbon ofAmerican Ceogmphers 92,
ophy. a guide and glossary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh 645-61.
Urniversity Press. Mehretu, J. 2003: Ethiopian passages. Retrieved 17
Gell, A. 1992: The anthropo/ogy of time. cultural con- February 2005 from
structions of temporal maps and images. Oxford: Berg. exhibits/passages/mehretu-conversation.html
- 1996: Vogel's net: traps as artworks and artworks as Morris, D. 2004: The sense of space. Albany, NY: State
traps. Journa ofMaterial Culture 1, 15-38. Urniversity of New York Press.
- 1998: Art and agency. An anthropological theory. Pred, A. 2001: Only in Sweden. Berkeley, CA:
Oxford: Oxford University Press. Urniversity of California Press.
Giddens, A. 1979: Central problems in social' theory. Thrift, N.J. 2004: Driving in the city. Theory Culture
London: Macmilan. and Society 21, 41-59.

Hagerstrand and the remaking

of Sweden
Sture Oberg
Swedish Institute for Growth Policy Studies,
Box 4, 831 40 Ostersund, Sweden

I Introduction Swedish regional national planning and town

The cultural geographer Torsten Higerstrand and country planning during the 1960s and
was one of the most highly regarded social 1 970s. It does not deal with his major research
scientists of the last century. Anyone who impact, from the early theories on migration
met him or worked with him was invariably and the diffusion of innovations to the later
impressed by the clarity of his vision, the work on time-geography. Nor does it deal
wealth of his ideas and the extent of his with a person who could have been a leading
theoretical breadth. This essay deals with just advocate of governmental control of where
a small part of the traces such a prominent people, industries and infrastructure should
researcher left behind him, specifically the be localized in Sweden. Others had that kind
impact that Htgerstrand had on both of approach to planning during those decades.
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