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Critical Geographies with the State: The Problem of Social Vulnerability and the Politics of Engaged Research

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Abstract:  State interventions to govern social vulnerability highlight the complexity of contemporary states, marked by neoliberal agenda but also by progressive interventions and the desire for effectiveness. This paper draws on collaborative research with government agencies on social vulnerability in the Hunter region to assess the desirability of undertaking critical geographies with the state. We see states as contested terrains invested with the institutional capacity to mobilise diverse political projects. We argue that critical research in partnership with states is possible, as are mobilisations of the agency of state institutions to promote progressive policy development. The paper explores how we might use engaged research to intersect with the production and circulation of texts, technologies and practices within the state apparatus to achieve desirable change. While critical research with the state involves uncertainties and compromise, with no permanent resolutions, we conclude that states must remain centred in our critical conversations and praxis.

In this paper we advance the case for the critical possibilities of policy‐oriented research with the state. We reflect on experiences of an engaged research project with state government agencies in the NSW Hunter Region involving the production and use of the texts and technologies as state interventions in social vulnerability. Working through the project's reflexive, collaborative methodologies and our use of critical GIS, we highlight the creation of opportunities to change how the components of social vulnerability were conceptualised, contest policymakers’ view of what was “relevant”, and shift framing rationalities and resultant state practices. As such the paper contributes to our knowledge of strategic research practices for pursuing critical, progressive projects with the state. Such engagement involves uncertainties and contingent compromise. Yet, as terrains of contestation wherein diverse political projects are assembled and propelled, states must remain centred in our critical conversations and in our critical praxis.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia; 2: Urban Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, NSW, Australia

Publication date: 2012-09-01

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