Career Narrative — Michael Dear
My academic career reflects a passion for scholarly work and teaching in combination with a commitment to professional practice and public policy-making. The outcome has been a socially-engaged critical theory, teaching, and city planning practice. My experience is based mainly in the USA, Canada, and Europe, but also in South America and Australia.
In a nutshell, my intellectual journey began in the 1970s with a concern for social planning issues relating to people with disabilities, and to homelessness. It broadened organically to incorporate the welfare state and state theory, that is, to examine the institutions that decide how social policy is decided and implemented. From this developed an interest in social theory more broadly, and during the 1980s I began revising theories about cities and urban cultures. In recent years, I have focused on the cultures of cross-border cities along the US-Mexico border, and got caught up in the conflict over the building of border walls along the boundary line. This interest in cross-border cultures led me to formulate a transdisciplinary project in the emerging field of Geohumanities, and to curatorial practice with large and small art institutions.
1974 – 2008
Mental Healthcare & Homelessness
In the mid-1970s, after completing my doctoral degree, I began a systematic research program aimed at understanding the geography and planning of ‘service-dependent’ populations, including mentally disabled and homeless people. This work had three elements: client demand, service delivery, and community opposition (the NIMBY syndrome, for Not-In-My-Back-Yard). In terms of clients, I was the first to demonstrate that ‘patients’ discharged from psychiatric hospitals tended to ‘ghettoize’ in inner city areas close to services designed to assist them. There they were joined by other service-dependent people (including the developmentally disabled, ex-prisoners, the dependent elderly, and so on), drawn by the availability of relatively affordable housing, but also excluded from other neighborhoods through NIMBYism, which explained the absence of services in most other city neighborhoods. In Toronto, I undertook the first large-sample survey of community attitudes toward the mentally disabled, introducing the CAMI scaling instrument (for ‘community attitudes toward mental illness’) which is remains benchmark metric for psychological studies of community attitudes. The results of this project were published as Not on our Street: community attitudes toward mental health care (1982).
By working with the Canadian Mental Health Association, this work was influential in changing zoning laws in the province of Ontario by limiting the clustering of group homes in neighborhoods, and also in the design and implementation of province-wide educational efforts to improve public understanding of and attitudes toward the mentally disabled. My project work based on client needs, service providers, and host community reception was synthesized to provide guidelines for a new approach to land-use planning for human service providers and published as The Service Hub Concept in Human Services Planning (1994).
In the early 1980s, many service-dependent populations were caught up in the widening crisis of homelessness. Over the next decade, I published two books that became academic and policy-making benchmarks in the field. The first, Landscapes of Despair: from deinstitutionalization to homelessness (1987), was an historical account of the origins of homelessness based in the rise of nineteenth-century asylums for the insane, the subsequent evolution of the welfare state, and late-20th century deinstutionalization movement. This was followed by Malign Neglect (1993) which examined homelessness in Los Angeles, then known as the homeless capital of the USA. It explained homelessness and its structural causes (economic restructuring, welfare state reform, and the demise of public housing), but also how homelessness was experienced by individuals at the street level – how ordinary people are marginalized in stressful times (through extreme poverty, mental disability, drug addiction, and domestic violence, etc.) and how their experience of inadequate welfare assistance can perpetuate the condition of homelessness. This research has formed the basis of policy and advocacy work over the next two decades, including the 2008 ‘Report Card on Homelessness in Los Angeles.’ It also formed the basis of two of my fundamental contributions to the Journal of the American Planning Association: ‘Explaining Homelessness’ and ‘Understanding and Overcoming the NIMBY Syndrome.’
The Los Angeles School of Urbanism
In the early 1980s, I took the first tentative steps toward broadening and deepening my understanding of social theory and its relation to public policy and city planning practice. I began with the theory of the state and welfare state, which I believed was essential in explaining the tangle of issues that lay behind issues of mental health care and homelessness. I became the founding editor of an academic journal focused on the society/ space interface, at the same time that I was caught up in the rise of the Los Angeles School of Urbanism. For eight years, I led a think tank devoted to understanding Southern California as a critical lens for developing urban theory and public policy.
My 1981 article, “The State: a research agenda,” was influential in bringing the state back into the planning and geographical literatures. Its insights were more fully developed in State Apparatus: structures and language of legitimacy (1984), which focused on the institutional apparatus of the local state – the place where state practices are made manifest and concretized. The book was noteworthy for its early engagement with notions of power, language and communication, which became core features of urban planning theory during the late-20th century.
The theory of the state was only one element of my search for a broader theory of society. I became increasingly absorbed in social theory, and in 1983 I was appointed founding editor of the academic journal Society and Space: Environment & Planning D, a position I held for ten years. The journal’s goal was to engage the dialectic between society and space, and its connection to social action. The journal quickly established itself as one of the most influential in the field.
The challenges of postmodern thought found fertile soil in my research on Los Angeles. In 1986 a special issue of Society and Space announced the arrival of a ‘Los Angeles School,’ challenging the hegemony of the Chicago School. Soon after, I published a string of ambitious publications challenging conventional wisdoms:
- ‘Postmodernism and Planning’ (1986) was the first published paper linking these two ideas in the same conceptual space.
- “Privatization and the Rhetoric of Planning Practice” (1989) was a deeply critical appraisal of directions in planning theory and practice (which, I believe, remains prescient even now).
- ‘The Postmodern Challenge: Reconstructing Human Geography” (1988) represented a major assault on the conventions of the discipline.
- “Postmodern Urbanism” (1998) was my fully developed presentation of the implications of linking urban thought to postmodernism, turning the dominant logic of urban process away from a single dominant core to a polycentric urban geography conditioned by the urban hinterlands.
- These and other essays culminated in my book The Postmodern Urban Condition (2000), which was selected by CHOICE magazine as an “Outstanding Academic Title” of that year.
From 1995 to 2003, I became founding director of the Southern California Studies Center, concerned with applying new knowledge about LA to understanding the region and devising fresh public policy initiatives. One of my tasks included compiling a trilogy of edited volumes aimed at synthesizing the scattered scholarship in the region: Rethinking Los Angeles (1996), Urban Latino Cultures; la vida latina en LA (1999), and From Chicago to LA: making sense of urban theory (2002). The third volume codified the theoretical break represented by the LA School as well as providing supportive empirical evidence.
The Center had a strong presence in regional and national policy debates, most notably through its report, ‘Sprawl Hits the Wall,’ (2001) published in association with the Brookings Institution. Its recommendations became the foundation of the urban policy platform of the first Latino mayor of the City of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa.
2000 – Present
In 2002 I began traveling the entire length of the US-Mexico border on both sides, from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific Ocean to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of 4,000 miles there and back. What started out as curiosity about the twin cities straddling the borderline was rapidly overtaken by events. I had the good (and bad) fortune to begin my field work before the US began fortifying its southern boundary, and so became an unintentional witness to the border’s closure. My exploration was completed in 2005, but since then I have continued my research into the border fortifications, adding thousands more miles to my travel log. As a consequence, I have come to understand the border as a distinct place, apart from the host countries, perhaps almost a ‘third nation,’ worthy of fuller attention. So I embarked on a trio of related projects: what impact were border walls having on the borderland communities; activism against the border wall; and how border art and culture reflected resistance to the events in the borderlands.
During the final quarter of the 20th century, the border states were among the fastest-growing regions in both countries, in large part because of the rise of the maquiladora industry. They were also the locus of enormous tensions associated with undocumented immigration and drug wars. Neither of these problems originated in the borderlands, but border communities had limited capacity for self-determination in these matters. Residents endure these burdens with little assistance from national and local governments beyond military and police interventions. Borderland residents make whatever adjustments they can to deal with the occupation and its interruptions. What struck me the most was the extent of cross-border cooperation and adaptability in the borderland ‘twin towns,’ such as Tijuana/San Diego, and Ciudad Juarez/El Paso. I began to think of this in-between space joining both nations as a kind of transborder place, a third space, and even a ‘third nation.’
My book, Why Walls Won’t Work, revealed that mutual interdependence was always the hallmark of ‘cross-border’ communities, long before the border even existed. In prehistoric times, regional connectivities extended from the Mesoamerican heartlands in central Mexico to the pueblo lands of the US Southwest. During the Spanish colonial era, a different kind of connectivity was established by a series of settlements established as part of a strategy of conquest and pacification along what would become the US-Mexico border. After the US-Mexico War (1846-48), both countries adopted strategies of urban development to secure the newly-established international boundary, ultimately giving rise to the ‘twin towns’ that formed the foundation for modern economic and demographic growth in the borderlands.
The post-9/11 fortification of the border by the US Department of Homeland Security is unprecedented. The new walls, fences, and checkpoints rudely interrupted the lives and livelihoods of ‘third nation’ dwellers. The border zone has been transformed into an archipelago of law enforcement and justice agencies dedicated to apprehension, detention, prosecution and deportation of undocumented migrants, bolstered by a new industry of corporate security interests. I refer to it as the ‘Border Industrial Complex.’ All evidence that I have assembled (except from partisan sources) concludes that walls will not work to control undocumented migration into the US.
I actively intervened in public debates to prevent further border wall construction. I helped the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in writing briefs to the US Supreme Court, and my work was instrumental in persuading the largest European cement producer not to supply cement for further construction of a US-Mexico border wall.
In cultural terms, I am intrigued by a claim made by many border residents: that they have more in common with each other than with people in the US or Mexico. I have explored this ‘third nation of the mind’ in several projects over the past two decades.
2009 – Present
Geohumanities & Curatorial Work
Geohumanities refers to transdisciplinary scholarship at the intersection of geography and the humanities. Stemming from my interests in social theory and border cultures, it incorporates my most recent explorations in research and teaching, and includes curatorial work in border art and culture. The entire ethos in these transdisciplinary spaces is devoted to crossing boundaries of many kinds: linguistic, geopolitical, artistic, theoretical, phoosophical and methodological. This hybrid milieu has been an exhilarating and mind-opening journey.
The ‘geohumanities’ project grew out of a conference at the University of Virginia, and culminated in the publication of an edited volume entitled GeoHumanities: Art, History & Text at the Edge of Place . From the outset, the collection embraced an epistemological openness and non-exclusionary ontology, deliberately designed to incorporate a wide variety of scholars and non-scholars in conversation: artists, architects, experimental cartographers, community activists, and photographers, among others. A very broad cartography of a burgeoning intellectual terrain emerged from such diversity, outlining studies of geocreativity (or, creative places), geotext (spatial literacies), geoimagery (visual geographies), and geohistory (spatial histories). It was a thrilling experience that provided the first preliminary mapping of an emerging field we now called the ‘Geohumanities.’
In his online review of the GeoHumanities book in the New York Times (June 13, 2011), leading humanities scholar Professor Stanley Fish made particular reference to the wider relevance of the book in current public debates about the future of the humanities. He wrote: “Perhaps administrators still think of the humanities as the province of precious insights that offer little to those who are charged with the task of making sense of the world. Volumes like “GeoHumanities” tell a different story, and it is one that cannot be rehearsed too often.”
A few years after the book’s publication, a new journal entitled ‘GeoHumanities’ was established. I laid out my personal vision for the emerging field in the lead article of the first issue, entitled ‘Practicing Geohumanities.’ Later, I collaborated in the development of a more specific approach to the subject called the ‘Urban Humanities,’ through a multidisciplinary research and teaching effort based at UC Berkeley.
I had entered into the art world in the early 1990s at the invitation of a group of Los Angeles-based Mexican and Chicano artists. They invited me to explain my view of LA urbanism so that they could better situate their art practice in the social context of the region. Soon after that initiation, I began writing about art in the city, advising on exhibition planning, contributing to exhibition catalogues, and undertaking my first curatorial adventures. In 2018, a bilingual exhibition entitled ‘Califas: El arte de la zona frontera Mexico-Estados Unidos‘ / ‘Califas: Art of the US-Mexico Borderlands’ incorporated works of painting, video, installation, architecture and photography. Most recently, I began an inquiry into representations of the US-Mexico border in film.
Posters courtesy of the collection of Norma Iglesias Prieto.