Richard Powell

Richard was awarded his PhD by the Department of Geography and Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge in May 2004, and moved to Oxford to an Associate Professorship and Tutorial Fellowship at Mansfield College in September 2010 following time at the universities of Cambridge, Manchester & Liverpool.

His research interests encompass geographies of science, political economies of resources and the geopolitics of territory. His work involves questions at the intersection of the social and environmental sciences and utilizes ethnographic and historical methods.

Richard’s ISRF project attempts to recast fundamentally understandings about the legacies of environmental determinism in the structuring and disciplinary practices of the social sciences, and aims to contribute to a major rethinking of the relationship between ideas about environment and political governance.


This research proposed here attempts to recast fundamentally understandings about the legacies of environmental determinism in the structuring and disciplinary practices of the social sciences. It does this in two major ways.

First, the research will delineate the relationships in the second half of the twentieth century and twentyfirst century between International Relations (IR), Geopolitics and political thought. These connections have long been disavowed because of the association between geopolitical thought and Germany in the 1930s. This project will uncover more complicated, North Atlantic imbrications. These were embryonic in the late nineteenth century, but these developed after 1945 in particular sites and networks outside of mainstream theoretical discussions in the social sciences. It is the thesis of this research that these connections and their legacies persist into the present, and that this influences the geopolitical imagination in policy circles today.

Second, the proposal argues that, notwithstanding such attempts at disavowal, geographic determinism is periodically discovered in international affairs, as demonstrated most recently in Robert Kaplan’s (2012) The Revenge of Geography. These apparent recoveries are directly attributable to practices of disciplinary boundary-making, which have impeded understandings in the social sciences. Moreover, this pseudo-conventional, ‘public intellectual’, understanding of geographical determinism continues to resonate across the social and environmental sciences, as evidenced in the rapid growth and popularity of the concept of the Anthropocene and debates about possibilities for geographical engineering in addressing climatic futures.

In order to undertake this project, research will be undertaken at relevant archives and individuals will be interviewed in the UK and the US. Through this, new explanatory frameworks will be developed for the history and present purposes of the social sciences. By supporting this research, the ISRF will contribute to a major rethinking of the relationship between ideas about environment and political governance.

The Research Idea

In 2012, Robert Kaplan argued that Americans had lost their geographical sensitivity following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The end of the Cold war, for Kaplan, signified the commencement of an era of globalisation, one consequence of which was the gradual loss of “our respect for geography” (Kaplan, 2012, p.3). Kaplan’s account could be critiqued on different grounds, but what is most interesting is that it neglects the international, intellectual and disciplinary dimensions of this supposed link between globalisation and political geographical understanding.

Moreover, this recovery of ‘lost geography’ has frequently happened before. In 1998, for example, the Harvard historian David Landes argued that “geography emits a sulfurous odor of heresy”[sic.], that he was obliged to depict in an early attempt at global economic history (Landes, 1998, p.4). In his quaint and hugely popular account from the same year, the biologist Jared Diamond claimed that geographic difference underpinned uneven patterns of global development (Diamond, 1998). Similarly, in Samuel Huntington’s (1996) ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis, there are remnants of a classificatory taxonomy based on an elemental geography. In short, the general idea of environmental, or geographic, determinism remains seductive to ‘public intellectuals’ and, consequently, to public understanding of the social sciences.

This proposal excavates the foundations of geopolitics by focusing on the emergent disciplinary arrangements between political theory, international relations and political geography. Why is it that some scholars continually evangelise geographic arguments that have been seen as intellectually suspect by political geographers and social scientists?

The Focus

David Armitage (2013, p.2) has recently proposed the need for “international intellectual history” and has called for further examination of the emergence of the distinction between the domestic and the international in political thought. The critical question for Armitage, aping Quentin Skinner, becomes “‘How did we – all of us in the world – come to imagine that we inhabit a world of states?’” (Armitage, 2013, p.13). This question cannot be answered, at least for the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, without turning to the unpopular field of geopolitics.

It is the contention here that understandings of IR need to be historicised and spatialised. This project aims to understand relations between geopolitics and IR within a wider European and international intellectual history. It is amnesia over this relationship that has impoverished the history of IR. Moreover, it has allowed the periodic recovering of the work of lost political geographers, especially Halford Mackinder (1904; 1919[1942]).

Armitage (2013, p.4) suggests the need for examination of some of the “foundation myths” of International Relations. Discussions of such epochal moments might include the 1954 Rockefeller conference in Washington, DC and its importance in creating ‘realist’ theories of IR (Guilhot, 2011), or the consolidation of an ‘English School of IR’ at Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE around the writings of Martin Wight, E.H. Carr and Herbert Butterfield (Dunne, 1998).


It is a commonplace that International Relations, as a disciplinary community, has been reluctant to historicise its intellectual roots. Perhaps this neglect can be explained by the emergence of German Geopolitik during the 1930s, what Kaplan terms ‘the Nazi distortion’. This has been a particularly popular narrative amongst American scholars. Indeed, American geographer Isaiah Bowman, writing in 1942, claimed that the assumptions of geopolitics “as developed in Germany are only made up to suit the case for German aggression” (Bowman, 1942, p.646). This common view involves neglect of serious antagonism between proponents of German Geopolitik and the ideologues of National Socialism, especially after 1933 (Bassin, 1987; Murphy, 1997). Nevertheless, through statements like this, the notion of the peculiarly Germanic nature of geopolitics began to suffuse American popular culture during the 1940s (Ó Tuathail, 1996; Atkinson and Dodds, 2000). In turn, these understandings became cornerstones in the discipline-formation of International Relations in the post-1945 period.

Historians of political geography have provided revisionist biographies of Halford Mackinder and Isaiah Bowman (Kearns, 2009; Smith, 2003). However, there has yet to be any corresponding attempt to place the major figures of International Relations and Geopolitics into an international and intellectual comparative framework.

In some ways, this requires a history of discipline-formation, but in deciphering this, the interactions between geopolitics and political geography need to take centre stage. There is a need to examine this, so that students of the social sciences avoid falling “under the spell of our own intellectual heritage” (Skinner, 2002, p.6).

Theory & Evidence Base

At the same time that Martin Wight (1960) was castigating the vacuity of intellectual theory in IR, Ladis Kristof (1960) was attempting to delineate deep roots of geopolitics in Aristotle and Bodin. For Kristof, “Geopolitics is a war casualty; it has been used and misused by strategists and expansionists of all shades” (Kristof, 1960, p.20).

Ashworth (2013) provides some intriguing preliminary thoughts about the relations between IR and Anglo-American political geography. Mackinder’s version of realism, for Ashworth, does not fit neatly within conventional understandings in International Relations (Ashworth, 2011). But disciplinary histories, such as the closure of the Department of Geography at Harvard University in 1948, need to be incorporated (Smith, 1987). This is especially timely, given the 2011 appointment of Neil Brenner to a  Chair of Urban Theory at Harvard, as part of a revivified approach to spatial and political theory. This mirrors attempts to bring into conversation IR theory and political theory (e.g. Schmidt, 2002).

Mackinder is a key figure in the development of geopolitics, as well in the discipline of geography at the University of Oxford. Other important theorists of geopolitics, such as Nicholas Spykman, who developed the Institute for International Studies at Yale University, are less frequently revisited. Derwent Whittlesey, who developed arguments about geopolitics in Geography at Harvard, is almost completely forgotten (Whittlesey, 1939).


The methods would involve archival consultation and, where possible, oral history interviews with protagonists. Much of the work during the tenure of the M-CRF would be undertaken in Oxford, in the Bodleian, and departmental archives and libraries. However, in order to uncover the relationships sketched here, research trips will have to be undertaken to examine material in a number of institutional repositories. This will include the departments of the ‘English School’ of International Relations (namely those at Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Leeds and Aberystwyth). The development of Politics and International Relations at Harvard and Yale will also be investigated. It will also be necessary to examine archives of the former departments of Geography at Harvard and Yale to trace material and personal connections.

Funding is therefore requested for research visits in the UK to consult sources at the National Library of Wales and University of Wales (both Aberystwyth), the University of Leeds, the Cambridge University Library, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (London), the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers, London), and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Overseas research in repositories at Harvard and Yale are also requested as they are critical to the completion of the research.

It is anticipated that the fellowship would be held from 1 October 2015 until 20 September 2016.


The main academic outputs from this project will be three peer-reviewed papers and a scholarly monograph. As befits the interdisciplinary contribution of this research, original papers will be written from this project for journals aimed at the borderlands between the social sciences. Papers would be offered to ‘International Theory’ (on the development of environmental theorisations in international relations), ‘History of the Human Sciences’ (on relations between practitioners of IR and geopolitics) and ‘Geopolitics’ (on the connected scholarly networks across the North Atlantic). The papers would achieve a wide, interdisciplinary readership.

The project will form the body of a major research monograph about the relations between geopolitics, international relations and political geography after 1945. This monograph would cause a major reassessment of the recent history and philosophies of the social sciences. The monograph will be offered, in the first instance, to Princeton University Press.


This project is innovative because it attempts to redefine a number of conventionally accepted disciplinary histories and hagiographies. It examines concepts from across the social sciences that have conventionally been understood separately. Through this, major reassessment of intellectual networks, and their consequences, will be achieved. In doing so, it revisits a key theme of many assumptions about the ordering of the world – why does the idea of the environmental structures beneath the social world remain so persistent? Whose aims are supported? Why are these ideas so seductive to a range of geopolitical thinkers and ideologies?

To undertake this project requires a period of concentrated, uninterrupted research. The project therefore requires the appointment of a replacement lecturer to cover my Departmental and college teaching and administrative duties for October 2015- September 2016. This is the sort of project that can, in reality, only be achieved through a fellowship from the Independent Social Research Foundation, as it would be funded by any other body. Moreover, I do not believe that it could be undertaken successfully by anyone else.

A list of project-related outputs will be added here.