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Regions as Loci of Conflict and Change: The Contributions of Ben Harrison to Regional Economic Development

Ann Markusen University of Minnesota

By 1970, the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War legacies had provoked new forms of scholarship and novel approaches to regional and industrial planning. Bennett Harri- son was a key figure in the shift from regional science toward a politically committed scholarship that incorporated new radical and institutionalist theories with creative empirical analyses and links to real world practice in economic development. Harri- son, I argue, saw regions as loci of capitalist conflict and change, not as the rarified analytical units of regional science or as the faceless regional actors of the “new regionalism.” The actions of corporations and labor unions and the conflict between firms and between capital and labor were central to his interpretation of regions, which he approached in an unabashedly inductive manner. In this article, I review Harrison’s regional writings and make the case for the durability of his insights and his path-making contributions to the field.

In the 1970s, a number of freshly minted economists, political scientists, sociologists, and geogra- phers, influenced by the on-campus intellectual ferment of the Vietnam War period, began to ques- tion the narrow and politically disconnected analyses of urban economics and regional science. Graduate students in the late 1960s had begun to complement their class reading with study groups on Marx and the institutionalists, producing new affinity groups and journals—radical political economy (RRPE), radical geography (Antipode), and Kapitalistate, for example. With some varia- tions, they introduced (or reintroduced) concepts of historical materialism, class conflict, and capi- talist crisis tendencies back into urban and regional analysis.

Bennett Harrison was one of a number of economists who began to devote his work to dissident views and interpretations of spatial phenomena. He devoted his doctoral work to urban poverty and prospects for Black inner-city residents. After moving from economics to planning as his academic home, he added regional analyses to his portfolio. In several of his books and in 10 articles, Harri- son sought to interpret the pace and character of regional growth, first in his own adopted New Eng- land, and later in other high visibility regions, Emilia-Romagna in Italy, Silicon Valley, and also in Pittsburgh, where he taught for a number of years in the early 1990s.

In what follows, I remark on several attributes of Harrison’s regional approach, which is pro- foundly inductive and synthetic—that is, built upon theories and evidence from a number of

AUTHOR’S NOTE: My thanks to Ned Hill and John Brennan for excellent comments and to Michael Leary and Gregory Schrock for research assistance.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT QUARTERLY, Vol. 15 No. 4, November 2001 291-298 © 2001 Sage Publications

Ann Markusen is a professor of planning and public affairs and director of the Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the intersection between industries and occupations and regional development.


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