Importance Of Institutional Thickness Cultural Studies Essay

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Four years after gaining his PhD in 1979, Thrift (1983) presented a revolutionary notion of a region as, "made of a number of different but connected settings - a particular intersection of different locales - which help to structure and specify interaction" (Gilbert, 1988). Gilbert (1988), states that geographers like Thrift (1983) Thrift (1983: 38) interpreted the region as the `actively passive' "... meeting place of social structure and human agency'' (MacLeod and Jones, 2001). In 'seeing social constructions as constraints and individuals as actors' within regions, Gilbert (1988) describes Thrift (1983) as a structuration-theorist finding a balance between the role of the cultural system in creating an individual's consciousness and sense of self within society, his sense of unity with other people, and the actions of individuals inside the system that accounts for the cohesiveness of regions. This work may have been Thrift's largest contribution to the intellectual development of regions, by proposing the notion that later came to be called 'new regional geography'. In 1990, Thrift described a now mature concept of 'new regional geography' as, "devoted to understanding regions as constituted out of wider (multiple and overlapping (see Appendix A)) processes, rather than in their own terms" (Thrift, 1990). In the broader context of a new atmosphere in human geography that required the study of the social, cultural and identity, the 'new regional geography' was hailed as successful, winning what Thrift (1990: 274) described as four-skirmishes. MacLeod and Jones (2001) summarise the importance of Thrift's call to a new regional geography, in that "to comprehensively unravel the disparate practices, metaphorical orderings of space, as well as the economising behaviours and political strategies that are themselves constitutive of regions and nations - regions as lived through as well as in (Thrift, 1983) - we need to practice a new geography of regions."

MacLeod and Jones (2001) and Paasi (2002: 802) called the new regional geography non-definitive and ambiguous. Where Thrift (1983) saw 'region' and 'place' as forever changing, few other writers noted the need to to investigate how regions and places "are produced and reproduced as part of the broader social production of space" (Paasi, 2002: 802). Paasi also states that "many researchers have tended to conceptualise phenomena and processes occurring in and between regions rather than theorising over regions as parts of these processes" (2002: 806). Thrift himself (1990: 274) believes the 'new regional geography' concept is unstable and non-definitive due to the "ambiguity of lived experience", and speaks of his 'unease' with the concept stating that we "still have far to go". Thrift originally called for a 'reconstructed regional geography' (Harrison, 2008) because "...grouped around the practice of doing regional geography can be found most of the important problems that human geography faces today" (Thrift, 2004: 200). A 'new regional geography' did subsequently arrive and Thrift was credited for it, but whether Thrift simply identified a wider trend before it reached regional geography, or whether he personally injected it into the discipline, and whether this reconstruction was necessary, all remains debated. In an attempt to stabilize it, Thrift continued to shape this 'new regional geography' through his review pieces in 1990, 1991, and 1993. According to MacLeod and Jones (2001), Thrift (1991) "explicitly places the subject at the heart of the new regional geography" and calls for more serious consideration of five areas of contested representation and subjectivities (see appendix) to "help to advance a thorough reconsideration of how regions are formed and are subsequently to develop unevenly." (MacLeod & Jones, 2001).

In further attempt to explain uneven regional development, Thrift joined with Amin (1992), and identified characteristically structured 'neo-Marshallian nodes'. These could explain processes within 'regional spaces', such as place-centeredness and the emergence of new localised industrial complexes within the context of expanding global corporate networks. It was in the context of the popular concept of globalisation that this developed, and Amin & Thrift (1992; 1994; 1995) argued that globalisation revalidated and reconstituted place and locality, because if a region could hold down global interdependencies, it could foster economic development (McLeod, 1997). Particular emphasis was also given to the role of certain institutional conditions in regions, "ranging from strong local institutional presence through to the strength of shared rules, conventions and knowledge" (Amin & Thrift, 1994: 2) which "support and embed the economic life of firms and markets" (Amin & Thrift, 1995b: 104), - this forms the basis for Amin & Thrift's notion of 'institutional thickness'. It was the identification that other than economic factors, there are aspects of the social and political, which lead to uneven geographic development, summarised by the phase " is to claim that social and cultural factors also lie at the heart of success and that those factors are best summed up by the phrase 'institutional thickness'." (Amin & Thrift, 1995b: 101).

Harrison (2008) describes the work of Amin & Thrift (1994) on 'institutional thickness', as being "on the cusp of 'new regionalism'", which describes the significance of the region as the location for the institutions of post-Fordist economic governance (MacLeod, 2001: 807). Amin & Thrift's contribution is seen to be a genuine innovation into this "ceaseless endeavor to examine how and why certain regions have experienced the creation of sustainable forms of economic integrity and political capacity" (MacLeod, 2001: 822). MacLeod (1997) summarises Amin & Thrift's contribution as "highlight[ing] the institutional and socio-cultural factors underpinning instances of sustained economic success". Amin & Thrift identify four key factors that contribute to institutional thickness, forming around a "widely held common project which serves to mobilise the region with speed and efficiency" (Amin & Thrift, 1994: 15). Henry and Pinch (1997: 1174) find six possible outcomes for regional development from this 'thickness'.

However, the importance of institutional thickness is contested. Macleod (1997) provides a sympathetic critique, reading the 'institutional thickness' concept in a less "one-dimensional" way, stating, "...what is of most significance here is not the presence of a network of institutions per se, but rather the process of institutionalization (Amin & Thrift, 1995, 102-103)." Also, the harnessing of local economic success within the global economy will increasingly depend upon the balance between institutional thickness and "economic variables that make it worthwhile for an industry to remain in a locality" (Amin & Thrift, 1994: 16)." Henry and Pinch (2001: 1169) continue this and argue that when considering economic development, it "is not whether economically successful regions contain sources of institutional thickness, but rather the precise nature of the institutions in the area and their relationship with economic growth." However, Amin & Thrift (1994: 17) identified this themselves, "The need to problematise the relationship between institutional 'thickness' and economic development is particularly essential because of the uneven geography of local economic development prospects and possibilities".

MacLeod and Goodwin (1999) acknowledge that Amin & Thrift themselves understand the modest explanatory capacity of 'thickness' as Amin & Thrift state that there is "...clearly some way to go before the ultimate power of the new institutional paradigm can be assessed as an explanation of geographically uneven development." (1994: 19). Amin & Thrift highlight a second caveat in that 'institutional thickness' is not equal to functionality in economic terms (Henry and Pinch, 2001), and there is ambiguity in this, in that it could refer to either 'all neo-Marshallian contexts' or 'all configurations of uneven development' (Henry and Pinch, 2001). Amin & Thrift do suggest that the relationship between institutional thickness and regional development is not given or straight forward, and holds an array of prospects and possibilities (Henry and Pinch, 2001: 1174).In further critique of 'institutional thickness', MacLeod (1997) does not believe that institutions are the key driver for regional innovation, and believes that there are "fundamental questions about the extent to which the 'institution thickness' framework can actually be applied or translated towards an understanding of less-favoured regions generally". A researcher may experience "problems in 'measuring' the 'softer' institutional elements (or 'social capital') that form some of the key aspects of Amin & Thrift's argument" (MacLeod, 1997).

MacLeod and Goodwin (1999) critique 'thickness' further by drawing similarities between it and Lipietz's (1994) idea of a 'regional armature' as "the institutional expression of a subnational space [that is] able to act for itself"; and Cox and Mair's (1991) theorization of "a locality operating as an agent courtesy of an alliance formed out of the interest mediation of locally 'dependent' actors", questioning who instigates it. Regions are considered as 'key nodes within global economic circuits', "but not as constituted (and constitutive) elements of a national state project" (MacLeod & Goodwin, 1999), and the ways national-level policy can dominate over construction of institutional thickness at a local or regional scale are not considered (MacLeod &Goodwin, 1999). Previously the region was understood as a given scale between the state and the local in 'nested hierarchy'. Thrift (2004: 3) discredits this old notion of space calling it an "absurd scale-dependent notion", and stating that this has been "replaced by connectivity". Amin & Thrift (1995: 107, 108) do refer to scale in that institutional thickness may ascend concepts of scale, stating that "...the case for the need for locally based institutional thickness as a precondition for urban economic regeneration is not proven" and "The experience of the known industrial agglomerations suggests that what has mattered in having access to institutional thickness". Henry and Pinch (2001: 1178) believe that this argument suggests "that localised conditions might be accessible through institutional processes operating at a greater spatial sale." This may become ever more relevant in a world where in the building of cultural and social or institutional bonds, geographic location is less important due to greater inter-regional communication. This is contribution to the intellectual development of regions as networked, relational and unbound, but moves away from Thrift's usual focus on political and cultural structure.

Thrift "transformed the terrain of political economy with his account of 'Knowing Capitalism' (2005)" (Larner, 2010), but his focus on the 'political' first came during collaboration with Amin and Massey (2003) and a study of the spatial grammar of British politics found an enforced concept of 'regions', a strong rhetoric of recovering and protecting old regional identities (Amin, 2004), and contained a strong argument for 'cosmopolitan regionalism'. Amin, Massey and Thrift (2003) argued that devolution and local institution-building had come without an actual shift in powers away from the defining others such as central government. Amin, Massey and Thrift (2003) continued to argue against Londoncentrism, presenting proposals to disperse British politics across the UK, promising a multi-nodal nation, challenging the "conventional conceptualisations of regions, regionalisation and regionalism" (Jones and MacLeod, 2004) in an era of spatial of flows and networks. Thrift's background of urban geography, coupled with the global environment of rapid urbanisation, led to his work on cities from 2000 onwards (see appendix). However, it is thanks to Thrift's work (1999) that Amin (2004) is able to produce his most famous notion of cities and regions as unbound spatial formations, temporary, ever moving, products of networks, and affected by 'hauntings' of things that have moved on but left their mark, preceding Brenner's (2002) idea of 'no blank slate'. It may therefore be argued that not only does Thrift make an individual intellectual contribution to regions in his initial suggestion of a 'new regional geography', which was subsequently built upon by other academics, but inclusive of works of collaboration, Thrift has added a key notion to 'new regionalism' in the form of the concept of 'institutional thickness', and has ignited political debate in the study of regions that may offer "new ways of thinking about how England's regional 'problem' can be … tackled" (Jones & MacLeod , 2004).

Finally, looking to the future, it is in Thrifts' (1998) summarising piece on the 'New new regional geography', that something experimental and radical initially began to develop, later to be known as 'non-representational theory' (Thrift, 2007). Thrift believes that we are, or should be, moving away from what has been a long period of providing fixed written answers as models of human action. In the context of regions, but also applicable to academia more widely, Thrift sees a move towards a sharing of the open-ended relational experience of event, such as the living through places not just in them, with practices and tactile issues such as sensations, affects, passions and dreaming (Paasi, 2002), and in fact is interested in the representation (Simpson, 2011) of what has been hard to present and perform (Thrift, 1996) thus far. Now, through the use of more artistic methods to "inject a note of wonder back into a social science which, too often, assumes that it must explain everything" (Thrift 2007: 12), the study of regions may be about to experience another paradigm shift.