Introducing Alasdair Pinkerton
Dr Alasdair Pinkerton is a Lecturer in Geography & Geopolitics in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is particularly interested in issues related to critical geopolitics, the media, and the ‘international relations’ of public diplomacy. He has developed particular interests in the geopolitics of the South Atlantic (Falkland Islands, Argentina and Chile) and South Asia (India and Pakistan).
Dr Pinkerton has recent publications in ‘Political Geography’, the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society’, ‘Twentieth Century British History’, the ‘Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television’. His first book, “Radio”, will be published by Reaktion (and the Science Museum) in 2013.
At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?
On one hand I had an action man toy as a child and my brother and I would frequently spend hours in complex battle scenarios using match-stick firing second world war field guns and Cold War rockets. In that sense, I was just the kind of ‘geopolitical’ child that Tara Woodyer and Fraser Macdonald have written about.
More profoundly, perhaps, during 1992-1993, when I was about 13 years old, my school in Edinburgh sponsored a group of Bosnian Muslim children to come the school for a year or so. I was asked to help show round one of the children, Adi. We talked at length about what was going on in Bosnia, including the religious dimension to the conflict. I remember feeling overwhelmed and unsettled by what he told me was happening to his family, in Europe.
In terms of an academic engagement, I was an undergraduate in Geography at the University of St Andrews and I think it would be fair to say that the term geopolitics was not routinely used during those fours years. That’s not to suggest that geopolitics wasn’t there, it’s just that the intriguing bond between geography and international politics was worked through a variety of courses on imperial/colonialism/postcolonialism, political geography, third world development and even courses on landscape appreciation.
My first formal ‘encounter’ with geopolitics was during a short section of the MA Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway. The sessions were taught by Klaus Dodds, and I remember him talking to us about critical and popular geopolitics and the ways in which geography can inform, and challenge, ideas from international relations and vice versa. This really fired my interest in geopolitics and I was delighted that I had the opportunity to continue that interest through my PhD studies.
Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?
I am really interested in the geopolitics of the media, and I have a long standing interest in radio and international broadcasting, prompted by my own radio listening to the BBC World Service. This became central to my PhD, which studied the emergence of BBC international broadcasting in the form of the Empire Service during the 1930s and it’s evolution into a global broadcaster.
Somewhat unintentionally, this research project also forced me consider geography and geopolitics “beyond the visual”. This has been a challenge, particularly given the dominance of visual representations and methodologies in our discipline over the years.
Prompted by my interest in international radio, and now through my interest in social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, I work with ideas related to public diplomacy and, increasing, the uses and abuses of digital diplomacy, and the potential blurring of everyday and ‘diplomatic life’.
What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?
I think my main contribution so far has been through my teaching at Royal Holloway. Since I joined the department of geography as a lecturer I have taught a very popular course on the evolution of geopolitical ideas and knowledges during the latter half of the 20th century.
One of the biggest joys that I have, personally, is seeing my students really engaging with difficult questions and new ways of thinking about the world around them; whether through maps, films, cartoons, official documents, political speeches or through their own behaviours and performances in places like airports.
This year we have also established a new MSc programme in Geopolitics & Security, which, we hope and anticipate, will be a hub for a new generation of critical geopolitical scholars.
I hope that in the future my research into radio, the non-visual, the everyday and geopolitics as “creative” might be considered of value.
Your geopolitical preferences
What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?
I don’t really have a favourite definition that I regularly turn to—and that’s not because there is a lack of them.
One that I use in my teaching comes from Gerard Toal in 1994 in which he simply states: “Critical Geopolitics promises both a new degree of politicization to understandings of geography and a new degree of geographicalization to the study of global politics.”
Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?
I don’t think he would have ever defined himself as a ‘geopolitical scientist’, but I am indebted to Professor Joe Doherty, former editor of Antipode and Political Geographer at the University of St Andrews. He inspired my interest in ‘the political’ dimensions of geography and the geographical dimensions of international politics.
Professor Klaus Dodds was my PhD supervisor and now colleague at Royal Holloway. I will forever indebted to him for his guidance and intellectual enthusiasm.
More generally, there is an amazing network of young political geographers and ‘geopolitical scientists’ who gather at conferences and pre-conferences in the UK and around the world and I have benefitted enormously from talking with them. Fiona McConnell, Philippa Williams, Drew Foxall, Jason Dittmer, Sean Carter to name but a few.
What is your favourite geopolitical book?
I was recently asked to write a chapter for the “Ashgate Companion to Critical Geopolitics”, which is being edited by Klaus Dodds, Joanne Sharp and Merje Kuus, and is due to be published in 2013. Having recently seen a complete set of proofs, I have to say that this looks to be a really important collection (notwithstanding my own chapter on radio).
The line up of authors is seriously impressive and in many ways charts and reflects the emergence of critical geopolitics as a focus of academic interest. Gerard Toal, John Agnew, Simon Dalby, James Sidaway, Jo Sharp, Aansi Paasi, Alan Ingram and Paul Adams rub shoulders in this collection with a host of emerging geopolitics scholars, like Fiona McConnell (on Sovereinty) and Chi-Yuan Woon (on Global South).
What is your favourite geopolitical website?
One of my real interests at the moment is the interaction between geopolitics, geopolitical knowledges and social media via platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Pinterest, etc.
These platforms are not simply new spaces in which news about world events can be shared and discussed. They are equally spaces and technologies that are conditioning new kinds of popular—and highly creative—engagements with geopolitics, from elite ‘intellectuals of statecraft’ to ‘everyday’ citizens.
The geopolitical future
In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?
While predictions can be dangerous (and have become the stock-and-trade of a certain kind of geopolitical punditry), I can offer some aspirations for the field.
Methodologically, I would really like to see a much more concerted effort among geopolitical scholar to engage with, on one hand, ‘the ethnographic’ and even ‘the anthropological’ and, on the other, quantitative approaches—but also to explore how these might be productively brought into conversation. This aspiration reflects my real admiration for the work of both Nick Megoran and John O’Loughlin.
Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?
Rather than a ‘subject’ per se, I think there is a pressing need for a greater appreciation of non-western and more ‘everyday’ approaches and perspectives in geopolitical scholarship. Nick Megoran has shown us one particular model in this regard through his work on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Ferghana Valley boundary, but I think we must also do more to promote, and listen to, critical scholars from the global south.
What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?
Goodness, a toughy to finish on—tough because there are several that come immediately to mind.
Climate change and its environmental implications is clearly going to continue to be an enormous, and intensifying, concern, particularly when coupled with growing resource scarcity in the post-peak era.
Another (and not unrelated) challenge will come from shifting patters of global power and responsibility, including of course the ‘rise of China’. How will the rising economic powers envision and perform their roles as global superpowers, how will they negotiate the challenges that we might try to anticipate, and those that we can’t?
Lastly, in an era of heightened mobilities, one challenge could come in form of disease and the possibility of pandemic.