Legal geography is a growing field. Cross-disciplinary efforts between geography and law abound, and scholars working at this juncture can now build on the previous work of key thinkers that have elaborated multiple theoretical and methodological foundations for future research. Yet in recent years there have been growing calls to more precisely define legal geography’s theory, methods, and research agendas (O’Donnell et al. 2020; Orzeck and Hae, 2020). Matteo Nicolini’s new book on legal geography answers this call and will be of considerable interest to legal geographers as well as a wide range of critical social scientists, philosophers, and academics in the legal professions.
Nicolini’s book aims to establish legal geography as a unique and distinguishable cross-disciplinary project while bringing together existing contributions under a shared framework. Legal Geography is also ambitious. Nicolini’s attempt to do a lot in one place means that some sections feel rushed and the book’s density does not always bring clarity to the reader. However, the vastness of the material, the impressive bibliography that is reviewed, and the valuable aims of this project will certainly speak to geographers and jurists with a mutual interest across the disciplines.
Legal Geography’s primary focus is the production of space, which is conceptualized as a performative practice and a process where law, space, and power interact with one another—indeed constitute one another—to make places out of space. This general definition allows Nicolini to find legal geographic endeavors in every modern and pre-modern effort of partitioning, organizing, and making space meaningful in the service of a political goal. In this sense, legal geography as a field only constitutes a contemporary state of the intersections between the two disciplines which have shaped one another across human history.
Nicolini surveys part of this history with two goals. First, to highlight the importance of the legal-geographic relation across the establishment of premodern and modern political entities, and to investigate the production of space across various periods and regions. Second, to set up a theoretical background and research agenda. As Nicolini intends it, legal geography should not simply attend to the relation between law and space in general terms; it must also develop its own specific interpretation of it, so as to set up a background to solve legal-geographic problems by using a paradigm that could distinguish it from other cross-disciplinary or disciplinary endeavors. Thus, the analysis of each topic serves as an occasion to test the paradigm and demonstrate the usefulness and specificity of legal geographic research.
The paradigm is developed as a territorial reading of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm concerning the development of a scientific field. Following Kuhn, Nicolini argues that legal geography has reached sufficient maturity to conceptualize problems under its own terms, so as to develop a specific, legal-geographic strategy to solve them. Nicolini adopts Kuhn’s model with a territorial twist. According to him, legal geographers coalesce around the study of the production of space as a process of territorialization, where space is appropriated and rendered meaningful through legal and geographic techniques. It is their job to interpret territoriality as a process of spatial production, whose study can highlight the political and ideological implications as they are reflected in the spatial organizations that are investigated.
These are not entirely novel ideas, but Nicolini’s contribution consists in adopting territoriality not only as an object of study, but also as a method of investigation, and as a concept to simultaneously define a problem and the cross-disciplinary perspective that is needed to approach it. This territorial paradigm is sufficiently general to speak to most, if not all legal geographers, but also specific enough to establish the field as a distinct and structured endeavor. Furthermore, legal geography itself could be conceptualized as a territorial process, which appropriates its object of research and reformulates it under its specific terms to then elaborate problems in need of an answer.
The rest of the book tests this approach across specific topics. Nicolini is especially concerned with the nation-state and colonialism, but he also discusses other cases where spatial production assumes a different shape, such as climate change, the Anthropocene, and contemporary capitalism. As mentioned, this is possibly a weakness of the book, because the material is vast and often underexplored, although the analysis is sound and convincing.
To appreciate this book, it is best to treat it as a proposal. Nicolini could be understood to be reacting to a problem: the necessity to structure legal geography and direct it toward future and current agendas. His solutions are efforts to think of a cross-disciplinary endeavor in a manner that could remain sufficiently open, while also narrow enough to qualify as its own field. Other proposals from different authors are likely to come. The very existence of these proposals testifies to the advancement of legal geographic research, which is now concerned with achieving sufficient autonomy and closure through the adoption of paradigms to guide its trajectory.
As these debates advance, however, it is also necessary to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages that are inherent with the structurization of the field. Mariana Valverde here comes to mind. In her critical take on Delaney’s concept of the nomosphere (2014: 57-58), she argued that to think through neologisms runs the risk of becoming excessively metaphysical in the sense that scholars may confuse their own, newly-named concepts as abstract objects instead of mere contingent perspectives on a problem. But neologisms are also useful. Nicolini makes great use of them, and within the book this practice conveys a specific meaning. In Nicolini’s discussion of the production of space, he stresses how law and geography operate by isolating geographic units, drawing boundaries, and connecting points, but especially naming places, things, and routes to map a place.
Through this analysis, I find that Nicolini territorializes legal geography itself, and his and others’ neologisms work as place names to organize routes and boundaries across the field. This presents several advantages, but it is also risky, as Valverde points out: we must be careful with territorializing things too much, as that could obscure other directions and perspectives that would remain outside of our new map. I am not suggesting that this is a flaw of Nicolini’s book, but only that the existence of this risk must inform current and future efforts to come to terms with the definition and boundaries of what constitutes legal geographic research. The debates to come will have to acknowledge these risks and work around them. This book takes place across that conversation, and it does so well.
Legal Geography: Comparative Law and the Production of Space by Matteo Nicolini is available as a PDF or EPUB format for free from Springer. Click here to see the book.
- O’Donnell T, Robinson DF, Gillespie J (2020) Legal Geography: Perspectives and Methods. New York (NY): Routledge
- Orzeck R and Hae L (2020) Restructuring legal geography. Progress in Human Geography 44(5): 832–851.
- Valverde M (2014) “Time thickens, takes on flesh:” Spatiotemporal dynamics in law. In: Braverman I, Blomley N, Delaney D, and Kedar A (eds.) The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 53-76.