Anything but flat: A book review

The Power of Place_Harm de BlijThe Lancet’s recent commission on the effects of climate change on health[i] is a reliable diagnosis of pertinent contemporary issues on a global scale. One of the conclusions of this report is that “The most urgent need is to empower poor countries, and local government and local communities everywhere” (Costello et al.  2009:1728).  It is a conclusion to which Human geographer Harm de Blij also leads his readers in his  recent book, The Power of Place [ii] .

For provocative thought, scope, and endeavour, the book is unquestionably comparable to the works of Jared Diamond, Tim Flannery and James Lovelock. De Blij successfully, cleverly and effectively covers matters of politics, economics, climate, religion, education, human languages, natural disasters, health, gender issues, urbanization and globalization. He integrates these issues into a digestible and relevant description of contemporary cultural landscapes.

De Blij demonstrates an acute awareness of the historical context of his subject matter whilst developing his arguments. His approach to contentious issues and sensitive polemics at times may seem brash; however the treatment is conscientiously balanced, with biases explicit.  It is hard to tackle these subjects dispassionately. To de Blij’s merit, he rarely extends further than an evenhanded evaluation of the data that leaves the reader reflecting if the judgment calls are not indeed fair. His ability to impartially juggle with the contingencies of cultural geography without resorting to simplified cause-and-effect rationalisations, may in fact be de Blij’s genius.

I give the book 4.5 neurons.

Full neuronFull neuronFull neuronFull neuron    Half Neuron

The following post is my first draft of a book review that has been published by Anthropology and Medicine. It includes points and viewpoints that are not necessarily academic in style, but that I would nonetheless like to share with you on this blog. I strongly reccomend readers to read both the published book review and the book, “The Power of Place”.

 

De Blij appears driven by a sincere concern and motivation to improve the condition of the less fortunate. His weighted concentration on the activities of particular communities may disappoint or frustrate some readers and is perhaps a reflection of fractured worldwide politics.

My colleagues in Anthropology could suggest faults in de Blij’s generalisations and regard them as over-simplifications; however, I commend him on his penetratingly simple insights into collective human behaviour. His categorization of locals, mobals and globals, might undermine certain concepts of individual agency, but they are also tools to understand ourselves with respect to our place of birth and the birthplace of others. It would be inequitable to take issue with the representation of any single piece of data, without extolling de Blij’s ability to synthesize these parts together.

De Blij demonstrates an acute awareness of the historical context of his subject matter whilst developing his arguments. His approach to contentious issues and sensitive polemics at times may seem brash; however the treatment is conscientiously balanced, with biases explicit.  It is hard to tackle these subjects dispassionately. To de Blij’s merit, he rarely extends further than an evenhanded evaluation of the data that leaves the reader reflecting if the judgment calls are not indeed fair. His ability to impartially juggle with the contingencies of cultural geography without resorting to simplified cause-and-effect rationalisations, may in fact be de Blij’s genius.

De Blij appears driven by a sincere concern and motivation to improve the condition of the less fortunate. His weighted concentration on the activities of particular communities may disappoint or frustrate some readers and is perhaps a reflection of fractured worldwide politics.

a view from inside an airport

An advertising billboard inside an international airport. Photo:  P.H. Mason (2009)

The book’s thematic question: “Is the world flat?” is applied extensively throughout the book. The concept is more complex than it appears. When applied to an array of issues, the question possibly oversimplifies intricate arguments about the interconnectivity, inequality and spatial distinctiveness of socio-cultural terrains.

Querying whether or not the World is flat in regards to human health is an evocation of issues that differ from asking if the world is flat in regards to economics, communication or education. To ask if the world is flat with respect to human health, we are exploring among many things the spread of accessibility to resources. To ask if the world is flat with respect to economics and we are asking if all babies are born with equal opportunities. And then, to ask if the world is flat with respect to communication, we wander into problems of integration and interconnectivity. De Blij doesn’t make it clear if he is applying the central question as a multifarious and a pluripotential metaphor as I suspect he is. Nonetheless, the answers de Blij provides contrast convincingly with Thomas Friedman’s pioneering 2005 book, The World is Flat.

After reading The Power of Place, it is explicit that the world is flat, but shockingly only for a minority of the global population born in very specific circumstances. But, there I go, subscribing to the very same metaphor as de Blij. Despite subtle obstacles of presentation, de Blij presents a well-rounded argument of environmental determinism complemented by the best theory and methods from the social and medical sciences.

Specialists might find the book superficial in their particular area of expertise. However, the point of the book is to bring together multi-disciplinary themes. As a researcher, I found it refreshing to step out of current projects and absorb de Blij’s ideas. The Power of Place demonstrates the acumen, diplomacy and perspicacity it takes to integrate widespread research. The book can be regarded as an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship. After publishing more than 30 books, de Blij clearly understands his audience and is indubitably aware that he will leave fresh fans seeking more detail.

For those unafraid to read a colleague’s unabashed opinions without resorting to myopic criticism, the book can be seen in a constructive and informative light. At times, the book is a little under-referenced. However, it is clear that de Blij’s intention is to fit the data he presents into a common bank of knowledge. The data presented is delivered with just enough room for the astute reader to develop their personal viewpoints. 

I give the book 4.5 neurons.

Full neuronFull neuronFull neuronFull neuron    Half Neuron

After finishing this book, the next intriguing read on my shelf is How Rich Countries Got Rich…And why Poor countries stay poor… by Erik S. Reinert (2007) published by Constable & Robinson.

Other reviews:

Mason, P.H. (2009) Book review of The power of place: geography, destiny, and globalization’s rough landscape, by Harm de Blij, Oxford University Press, 2008. Anthropology & Medicine, 16(3), 333–334.


[i] Costello A, Abbas M, Allen A, et al. Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change, The Lancet, 2009; 373:1693-1733.

[ii] de Blij H, The Power of Place, Oxford University Press, 2009.

5 thoughts on “Anything but flat: A book review

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