PhD Defence Freek de Haan

On Thursday, June 30, 2022, Freek de Haan successfully defended his PhD thesis on ‘Counter-actualizing Gentrification: A study of the problems and practices of displacement in Arnhem, Vienna and Istanbul‘ (click on the picture to download the whole thesis). Gentrification is not a new phenomenon. It has been researched for several decades already and one might wonder what new aspects can be discovered about it. Traditionally there have been two different and opposing opinions of what causes gentrification. On the one hand, there were those scholars who believed it was mainly driven by speculative capitalist interests related to the rent-gap theory. One might label these as the ‘it is the economy stupid’-camp. On the other hand, we had those who believed it was much more driven by the cultural dynamics, which made certain run-down parts of the city attractive again for specific groups of creative and better-to-do people. This might be labelled as the ‘it is the culture stupid’ camp. Much of the research on gentrification did only seem to reproduce those insights and add only marginally to radical new insights. Freek de Haan, however, tried to develop a totally new way of looking at this phenomenon. Instead of looking at gentrification with the usual concepts, he tried to trace down, how these concepts emerged and were actualised in the everyday practices on the ground in gentrifying parts of the city, and how alternative ways of looking and conceptualizing were pushed aside while continuing to loomingly be present. This did not only include the everyday practices of the different groups of inhabitants but also of the related policymakers, the real-estate entrepreneurs and associations, etc. Gentrification seen in this way is not pre-given, and especially also not in the way it performs and is assembled in the many diverse forms in the different cases investigated. This thesis tries to conceptualise the process of gentrification from a perspective mainly inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze, to fully grasp its complexity and contingency. Taking that complexity into account, also implies that there are no simple solutions and quick fixes for the problems and opportunities related to gentrification. This was, both empirically and theoretically a grand endeavour, resulting in a 523 p. long PhD thesis, which excels in how Freek de Haan persistently and consistently applied his approach to re-construct the actualisation, or to retrospectively ‘counter-actualise’, gentrification, to derive a radically new understanding of gentrifcation. A real tour de force… for which he was honoured with a cum laude graduation.

This is not self-evident and also not just a kind of political decision of the supervisors, but a thorough procedure with an extra committee of independent experts reviewing the thesis, and also the panel of opponents judging the public defence itself so that only at the last minute of the deliberations the final decision is made to award the cum laude, so that the diploma without the cum laude was shredded by the beadle (see pictures) and the one with the cum laude signed by the supervisors. In that respect, we are grateful to all the reviewers and panel members (Prof. Ed Vosselman, Prof. Ignacio Farias, Prof. Martin Müller, Prof. Tuna Tasan-Kok, Prof. Willem Schinkel, Prof. Loretta Lees, Prof. Justus Uitermark) to be part of this.

Cum laude PhD graduations are rather seldom, and of course also should be, as proof of extraordinary achievement. Especially also in our faculty, it does not occur very often, and that makes us as supervisors (Huib Ernste, Arnoud Lagendijk and Rianne van Melik) extra proud, that this is already the second in a row, within one month based in the geography department. This also shows that the placemaking of our group, has been successful in making it a breeding ground for great and challenging research.

Making Utopian Places

When we talk about placemaking, we are talking about how to create a ‘better’ place and we immediately get enthusiastic about this prospect, because we indeed experience today’s world and today’s places as subject to improvement. Geographers usually feel very engaged with the world they live in and with the place they directly experience. One of the core motives of every geographer is to be a world-changer, to reimagine our future and to really make difference. Placemaking is therefore closely related to utopian thinking.

This is, however, easier said than done.

What does this utopian place look like? In what way is it different from current places? Is your imagination of this utopian place different from someone’s else imagination? And how do we get there? And once we get there, has the world then come to stand still? is such a place really ‘heaven on earth’ and our final destiny? So, how does utopian thinking drive geographers in their placemaking?

We need to delve a bit deeper into the concept of ‘utopia’. There is a large body of literature on utopian thinking (Claeys, 2020), in which ‘utopia’ is contrasted with ‘dystopia’ and related to what is sometimes also designated as ‘heterotopia’. See my brief overview below. Finally, in this blog entry I also want to distinguish this utopian thinking and these utopian placemaking practices from the way one of my favourite thinkers, Helmuth Plessner, talks about, how human beings reflect on their own situation from a ‘utopian standpoint’ as a condition for the possibility for creating better places.

The idea of utopia finds its roots in the classical ideas of the Golden Age of abundance and social equality, the Platonic notion of the ideal polity or ideal republic and the Christian depiction of the Garden of Eden or paradise. But the term ‘utopia’ was coined by Thomas More in 1516. 
He coined the word utopia from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’ (u or ou, no, not; topos, place) as a pun or parody of the almost identical Greek word eu-topos meaning ‘good place’. Later on the word dystopia was added to the vocabulary implying the opposite, namely a ‘bad place’. So the primary characteristic of utopia is its nonexistence combined with a topos, a location in time and space. At the same time, it is a place which is clearly designated as good. The latter is of course always a rather contested judgement. The eutopias one would describe as good places in the sixteenth century would probably horrify us in the twenty-first century, while the other way around, what we would describe as eutopia today,  would be seen as dys-topia by the people in the times of Thomas More. Important is, that all utopias, consist of a dream of a better place, which is dramatically different from what we know as our current situation.  We know these as mythical places, golden ages, Arcadias, earthly paradises, fortunate isles, or isles of the blest. As Claeys (2020, p. 1) continues, they describe places with respect to different features like e.g. security, immortality, unity, equality and egalitarianism among the people, unity between the people ad God, abundance without effort and labour, no enmity between humans and other living creatures, etc. etc. However, they do not just describe a utopian place, but they describe a radical difference in the practices and places of that age. As such, each utopia comes with its own dystopia as a contrast programme.

As a literary genre, it does not just represent a social dream or a kind of transformative plan or (revolutionary) social reform movement attempting to realise their blueprint for an imagined better future, it was also used to describe what is less utopian in some of our utopian designs, take for example George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s  Brave New World, showing that this kind of utopias easily may turn into totalitarian horrors underscoring at the same time how unrealistic some of these ideal places are. As such they inherently represent a rather conservative tendency, distracting us from attempting to realise a more ideal place.

On the other hand, Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor (1982) in their book on The Politics of Utopia argue that utopia should be regarded as a political theory which allows us to describe an alternative to the here and now, as a frame of reference enabling us to criticise and to change society. A kind of relative utopia, which may not be immediately achievable, but is not intrinsically impossible, in contrast to an absolute utopia, which can never be achieved (Levitas, 2011, p. 203-204).

Have a look at the following extract from a presentation on ‘Utopianism in the twenty-first century’ by Prof. Lucy Sargisson, an expert on utopian thinking, about the basic terminologies in utopian thinking (click on the picture to start the video).

Many attempts have been made to realise utopia.

In each of these cases, utopia indeed is characterised as a place which cannot be, or as a non-place.

The imagination of a single ideal place devoid of tensions and inequalities, to a certain degree, also implies that these utopian places are assumed to be homogeneous and uniform.  This, however, was challenged by Michel Foucault, when he introduced the term heterotopia, which he describes as places of otherness (from the Greek héteros meaning other, another, different). Foucault’s description of heterotopia has always been rather ambiguous and confusing and has provoked more debate than clarity, but was nevertheless broadly picked up and applied in many different ways and contexts (Dehaene & De Cauter, 2008).  Heterotopia, in Foucault’s view, is where things are different, not equal or uniform, but different and possibly even unconnected. In some cases, these heterotopic places can be seen as places where those who are different are isolated, enclosed, put aside and out of sight,  in an attempt to purify that place (Johnson, 2013) as a dystopian side-effect of attempting to create utopian places. In that sense, for Foucault, there is no utopia without dystopia, and meanings are only made through differences. In many cases, Foucault, however, also uses the term for places in which differences are affirmed and excepted and enabled to exist together in a larger whole, as places without dominance and repression of the others in a kind of postmodern imagination.  In this strain  Lefebvre, Soja, Bakhtin, Jameson and others describe alternative heterotopic ‘third spaces’, or better ‘third places’ which tolerate while at the same time retaining these differences to overcome these negative side-effects. But in all cases, these places are always real existing places and never pure and utopian non-places. This way of thinking in terms of real or concrete utopias in contrast to the related dystopic other, or in terms of heterotopias became mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, while utopian thinking became more marginalised. Instead of utopia as a promising totalising ideal, critical thinking with a clear and cursed other became the dominant mode of argumentation. Especially today we notice that critical thinking is not driven by a utopian urge, but is driven by truths and counter-truths, by facts and alternative facts, by one essentialisation in contrast to other essentialisation. We imagine ourselves in a real and concrete, self-justified utopian position, or on the road to such an undisputable ideal place. We do not conceive these places as inherently imagined and unreal, as utopian in the original sense of the word. Even if we think of them as ideal places in which we have overcome hitherto differences, differences between man and women, between nature and culture, between the privileged and the unprivileged, between now and then, between here and there, between us and them, etc. These assumed real and concrete utopias can only be defined and positioned in contrast to the implied and equally real dystopias and therefore create new distinctions, new borders, new differences, and new injustices, they cannot get rid of the heterotopic other. Each inclusion implies another exclusion. We seem to be imprisoned in a heterotopic world, in which, we cannot avoid taking a position and also take a counter-position.

Even though many of these critical positionings intend to overcome old-fashioned categorisations and essentialisations of our human being, it is often forgotten, that in creating imagining and essentialising new real utopias, we neglect the inherent dystopian aspects of each of them. Philosophical anthropology, the discipline specialised in reflecting on what it means to be human – in the guise of the work of Helmuth Plessner, regularly quoted in this blog-site – instead came up with a conceptualisation of our human being which tried to avoid any kind of essentialisation of our specific and real human way of life while at the same time describing our inherently human being as based on the imagination of a utopian position.

According to Plessner the human being is on the one hand historically and geographically, materially and socially positioned in the real world of here and now. Plessner calls this our centric positioning. But, according to Helmuth Plessner, as human beings we are, on the other hand, also already beyond ourself and eccentrically positioned in an abstract, unreal fully inclusive utopian world. It is typically human to be caught in a dialectical relationship between our centric and eccentric position. As such, for Helmuth Plessner, the human being is essentially unessentialisable, or as he denotes it, the human being is homo absconditus. This point of view clearly pertains the difference between diverse forms of life in our world. This implies that also any kind of real utopian positioning of our human being, or human situation or way of life, needs to relativised and is inherently contingent. It needs to be thought of as a continuous becoming and re-positioning in which one can always imagine a different and maybe even ‘better’ or at least ‘different’ situation or place. These concrete positions cannot be described as a real utopia, or as an ideal home, since we as human beings simultaneously have a true eccentric utopian standpoint, beyond any qualities of our current situation. ‘[F]or behind every determination of our being lies dormant the unspoken possibilities of otherness’ (Plessner, 1999, p. 109).

Helmuth Plessner describes this typical human eccentric positionality by means of three fundamental anthropological laws: (1) the law of natural artificiality, (2) the law of mediated immediacy and (3) the law of the utopian standpoint. Through the eccentric positionality of human being he loses its natural position and pre-given relationality with the world which creates the need to enhance ourselves artificially and causes us to lose our direct relationship with our surroundings and with ourselves and experience it only indirectly, mediated through our current bodily existence and expressive positioning which is not necessarily, nor fully, intended or of our own choosing. We experience ourselves from a neutral utopian standpoint as essentially contingent and as inherently ‘deconstructive’ beings, which are in constant need to (re-)construct themselves. But instead of assuming a new real and concrete ideal utopian home, the utopian standpoint is much more radically inclusive as it does NOT attempt to define or concretise this final utopian standpoint, but assumes it as an inherently transcendental point of view without any attributes and without any exclusivity. As such it is a true utopian, non-place, or in-between place, or a place located in the nowhere. It defines a specific human openness to everybody and an openness to everything, or to any kind of ‘other’, irrespective of what kind of nature. As such, this is a strong and radical inclusiveness, which reaches beyond designs of concrete and real utopias, and which is aware of all the inherent dystopias and contingencies related to them. These presumed restricted real utopias always create new dystopian exclusions. In contrast, the utopian standpoint, which Helmuth Plessner describes as typically human, defines an inclusive ‘Mitwelt’ or ‘shared world’, as a condition of the possibility to take the perspective of the other and to adopt the moral principle of including, and recognising others as if they were one-self (de Mul, 2019, pp. 79-80; Heidegren, 2021) and the moral basis for dialogue. In this way it also relativises our own centric positioning and our own autonomy to determine our fate (Lindemann, 2014, pp. 96-104).

At the same time it also brings us further away from what we usually assume to be our ‘home’ and makes us constitutively homeless. Resulting in a utopian hope to transcend this tragic aspect of the human predicament and to find a blissful home (Plessner, IV, p 419, as quoted by de Mul, 2019, p. 81). So, this characteristically human radical inclusive utopian standpoint, does not disqualify the attempts to establish a more inclusive conception of human being in our everyday life. No, it actually conceives these attempts as necessary and unavoidable, and as the other side of the dual aspectivity of our being human. But exactly because the human being dialectically emerges in between our centric and eccentric counterparts, these attempts are both from a centric perspective positive positionings as well as from an eccentric perspective inherent failures. So, they are positive attempts to deconstruct and overcome the hitherto categorisation of our human being and attempts to create a real and more inclusive utopia, while at the same time, they are by necessity also creating new dystopian exclusions, seeking new deconstructions and even more or different kinds of inclusiveness. This kind of philosophical anthropology might serve as enlightening the attempts to create real utopias, while it also makes more explicit our human roots, which take all differences in the diverse forms of being and living in this world seriously, instead of dealing with the world only from a narrow minded real utopian point of view.

This might sound as a piece of heavy philosophising, but it is of fundamental importance for the way we think about our everyday placemaking for the sake of a better world (Schlitte, 2018).



Achterhuis, H. (2016) Koning van Utopia. Nieuw Licht op het Utopisch Denken [King of Utopia. New light on utopian thinking]. Lemniscaat, Rotterdam.

Claeys, G. (2020) Utopia. The history of an idea. Thames & Hudson,  London.

Dehaene, M. & De Cauter, L. (eds.) (2008) Heterotopia and the City. Routledge, London.

Foucault, M. (1986) Of other spaces. Diacritics. Vol. 16, pp. 22-27.

Heidegren, C.-G. (2021). Recognition in Philosophical Anthropology. In: Siep, L., Ikäheimo, H. & Quante, M. (eds.) Handbuch Anerkennung [Handbook Recognition]. Springer, Berlin, pp. 385–389.

Johnson, P.  (2013) The geographies of heterotopia. Geography Compass. Vol. 7, No. 11, pp. 790-803.

Levitas, R. (2011) The Concept of Utopia. Lang, Oxford.

Lindemann, G. (2014) Weltzugänge. Die mehrdimensionale Ordnung des Sozialen [Relations to World. The multidimensional order of the social.]. Velbrück, Weilerwist.

More, T. (2016 [1516]) Utopia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mul, de (2019) The Emergence of Practical Self‑Understanding. Human Agency and Downward Causation in Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology. Human Studies. Vol 42, pp. 65–82.

Plessner, H. (1999)The Limits of Community. A critique of social radicalism. Humanity Books, New York.

Schlitte A. (2018) Place and Positionality – Anthropo(topo)logical Thinking with Helmuth Plessner. In: Hünefeldt Th. & Schlitte, A. (eds.) Situatedness and Place. Multidisciplinary perspectives on the spatio-temporal contingency of human life. Springer, Cham (pp. 137-150).

PhD Defence by Hanna Carlsson

On Wednesday, June 8, 2022, after a Covid-19-related postponement, our PhD candidate Hanna Carlsson, fabulously defended her PhD thesis, on Caring for Older Migrants in Dutch Cities. This thesis and defence were in all respects highly praised, and she graduated with the rarely awarded but well-deserved distinction Cum Laude. This made not just herself but also her daily supervisors Dr Roos Pijpers and Dr Rianne van Melik very proud. I myself as the principal supervisor was also emotionally touched by this achievement, not just of a single person, but of the geography group as a whole, which continuously succeeds in keeping up an inspiring, stimulating and challenging research atmosphere (I referred to this concept of atmosphere in an earlier entry on this blog-site). So it is also the quality of the place which makes the difference.

This specific PhD thesis (if you click on the cover page you can download the thesis) addresses a core issue in the field of Geography, namely, how do we deal with differences and with diversity in our current world. It makes use of a relational approach which is also very topical and vividly debated within our group, assuming that reality cannot be grasped by thinking in a multitude of exclusive categories, containers, or bubbles, but that reality is often much more complex, mixed and interrelated as well as multi-scalar.  So how do we deal with these very diverse and complex situations, in a way that does justice to all objectives and all people involved? Hanna uses Practice Theories of the post-practice-turn kind to conceptualise these processes. If we want to move beyond the essentialisation and beyond the containerisation and beyond the foamy multitude of bubbles of today it is almost self-evident that there cannot be ideal practices, but at best we can try to increase the social justice of our daily caregiving to older migrants in Dutch cities, even though we are aware that this, at best, will be a form of ‘non-ideal’ social justice, as Hanna calls it. This is never finished and will continuously need our critical reflective monitoring. In this respect, this approach indeed goes beyond the woke versions of multicultural idealism and is much more realistic, nuanced and practice-oriented.

This much broader social theoretic approach of how we in practice deal with difference and diversity, and how we can make places, occasions and practices more just or less unjust also clearly shows how this in a more general sense is related to the dynamics of placemaking. A piece of work, we are all proud of…

Thoughts about Distributed Leadership at University

Already some years ago, our university management coined the issue of ‘leadership’ and suggested that each of us, working at our university in the realm of our tasks and formal competencies, could be a  true leader, by taking the lead or taking initiatives without waiting to be asked, adopting responsibility for the results and impacts of what we do, instead of just being satisfied, when we did what we were asked to do, irrespective of if it fulfilled its objectives, and also by being visionary and by looking forward, to anticipate what needs to be done to improve and to formulate ambitious but feasible new objectives. These slogans are, of course, taken from the heart, and represent principles we can easily associate with. Yes, indeed, this is how you expect every professional to operate. This is so obvious, that you cannot be opposed to it.

As a chair of the geography group, we are usually not selected for this job on the basis of our management skills, but rather on the basis of our experience and derived skills in scientific research and teaching and our specific competence in that specific disciplinary field. So developing a conceptual framework for our daily managerial tasks is not our daily business, but acting as a truly academic professional is. From that perspective, it is easy to associate our daily practices with the above-mentioned principles of professional leadership. Yes, this is what we usually do and practice, and also what we would self-evidently expect from our direct colleagues. This is standard academic practice. Certainly, we should also admit that sometimes we perform better and sometimes a bit worse in these respects. It is not always our day… and we — for all kinds of reasons — have our ups and downs.

But being the chair of such a group of great academics certainly makes us aware of what it needs for each group member to perform as ‘a leader’. They should be able to develop themselves further instead of staying put where they are right now. Being agile and ambitious, curious and oriented toward lifelong learning seems to be priority attributes for (young) academics. We should keep on the move…, intellectually, and geographically, always exploring new horizons and following our ambitions to contribute new knowledge for a better future world. Academics grow through different phases, from Bachelor, to Master, to PhD, to Post-Doc, to Assistant Prof., Associate Prof. to Full Professor, etc. etc. This kind of academic career, therefore, is not just a job and also not just for the money or for other rewards, but is about realising individual humanitarian values and about contributing these values as a public service to society.  Being successful in a university career is not about basic job security and bread on the table but is about being part of a movement, of an intellectual debate, of a collaborative team and of a larger academic and societal community. As the chair of the group, you feel happy when all members of the group could at anytime find a job elsewhere. That might sound strange, as every valuable colleague who leaves our group of course also leaves a big void which is never easy to fill again, so why not try to keep them? But on the other hand, it is also one of the best proofs of the high quality of our work to be wanted and needed elsewhere and it is a confirmation that we keep being on the move. I also see myself as a wanderer, and I keep asking ‘what is next’ and ‘where will I be next’, I am always searching for new horizons and always keep hoping to discover new and better worlds. It is therefore also a self-evident task for each of us, to develop a strong, group- and individual profile, to be well geared for the journey. This becomes increasingly important when one moves up the ladder of development of our ‘leadership’. This is therefore also what our leadership as a chair by nature focuses on and attempts to establish for the group: having a sensible distribution of different enhancing competencies within the group, enabling a good team performance in both teaching and research; having a lively, inspiring and stimulating internal and external intellectual debate; positioning each of us in such a way that we can develop our own core competencies and develop our (individual) profile, and also take up (managerial) leadership tasks which suit that profile in that specific stage of development.

One might say that most of this focuses mainly on the enabling input factors of a good academic performance. The other side of the coin is of course that this should also result in a good performance and a good ‘output’, in teaching, research and organisational teamwork. To make sure that we try to keep improving ourselves in these respects, it is self-evidently also needed that we keep assisting and supporting each other and that we also do not shy away from addressing things which are less successful. In a good academic tradition, this should not just come from ‘above’ but should be part of the mutual debates about our daily performance. Also in academia, there is, of course, some kind of hierarchy, but usually not determined by one-sided authoritarian criteria, but rather by different functions and responsibilities. So each of us in our specific realm of responsibility is somehow at the virtual top of a leadership hierarchy. Yes, the chair of the examination board should be able to take well underpinned final decisions on examination and admission issues, and yes, the principal investigator of a research project, should be able to take responsibility for spending the research funding in an appropriate way, and yes, the master-programme coordinator will be responsible for the recruitment of new Ma-students and of developing the Ma-curriculum, and yes, the post-doc should be allowed to develop new research initiatives and take the lead in building consortia and proposal writing, and yes the PhD candidate can also take the initiative to develop their teaching portfolio, and yes the PhD supervisor should take his or her responsibility in supporting the PhD candidates to develop their research project, and yes the chair takes the responsibility to develop and discuss the longs term strategies for personnel decisions, and long term research and teaching programmes, again others are focussing on internationalisation etc. etc. So each of us is somehow a ‘boss’ and leader for our own field of responsibilities, while in total it is a team performance. I do not know, how this would be designated in ‘management-speak’. In other blog entries I have discussed this idea as ‘collegial management’, but one may also denote it in other terms: See my earlier entry on Collegial Leadership

These kinds of routine academic practices can be observed in many places and occasions. In the past decades, universities have suffered from increasing managerialism, in an attempt to transform universities into knowledge factories mainly driven by and organised according to principles of efficiency and fund-raising potential and not by the principles of scientific curiosity or by an endeavour to contribute scientifically to a better society.  See e.g. the Academic Manifesto also mentioned in my vision on research on this blog site:

The newest managerial ideas within our university are inspired by the concept of ‘Distributed Leadership’. Again a leadership model, which in the first instance sounds very sympathetic, but mainly because we have the feeling that we recognise much of our traditional academic practices, and not because we think this is totally different or new in academia. It is always nice that what we daily practice now seems to have gotten a clear name and label. One of the prominent proponents of the concept of distributed leadership is Prof. Alma Harris. For those who are interested in an extended elaboration of the details of this concept, one can have a look at the following YouTube video lecture of 2009 (click on picture to start the video):

When you listen carefully, you will notice that the description of this leadership model positions itself mainly negatively in contrast to certain assumed bad practices which are described as ‘traditional’ and much more ‘hierarchical’. Indeed we know some of these more hierarchical practices from the recent ways universities tried to organise themselves and which were already heavily criticised in the Academic Manifesto of 2015, referred to above. But nowadays we live in 2022 and to a large part, our university, or at least our Department has moved on and has revisited our old liberal academic traditions and progressively attempted to reinstall and practice these in our everyday professional life, sometimes even in resistance against hierarchical demands from above. In that respect, this new call for distributive leadership to a certain degree seems ‘old wine in new bags’. So one might wonder how far, in our department, there currently is an identified problem that this new managerial strategy is supposed to help us solve? Certainly, the way we organise our everyday professional practices needs continuous attention and fine-tuning and can be helped with these ‘not-so-new’ conceptual frameworks, but they certainly do not represent a radical change in our liberal and rather egalitarian academic traditions, even if it is nice that we can now at least give it a name. This qualification might not be valid for all parts of our university, but we are certainly proud of the way we created our own ‘academic place’, our academic agora, within our faculty and university, a placemaking endeavour which is in good hands with geographers.


Bolden, R. (2011) Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research. International Journal of Management Reviews. Vol. 13, pp. 251-269.

Harris, A. (ed.) (2009) Distributed Leadership. Different perspectives. Springer, Amsterdam.

Harris, A. (ed.) (2014) Distributed Leadership Matters: Perspectives, Practicalities and Potential. Sage, London.

Leithwood, K., Mascall, B. & Strauss, T. (eds.) (2009) Distributed Leadership According to the Evidence. Routledge, London.

PhD Defence of Lidya Sitohang

On Tuesday, March 22, Lidya Sitohang (Co-supervised by Dr Lothar Smith and Dr Martin van der Velde) successfully defended her PhD thesis on ‘Cross-border interaction in the context of development in the Indonesian-Malaysian border region’. A thesis in which she nicely shows, that places are more than just ‘bordered’ regions and that in these places, people are making a living and in their everyday cross-border interactions are the source for development of the region. Also, these examples of everyday border crossings show again that we as human beings are always already beyond our own borders. An issue which I regularly refer to also on this blogsite, both in theoretical and philosophical terms as well as in more empirical terms. Especially her subtitle beautifully expresses the embodiment of cross-border interaction: ‘Garuda is on my chest, but my stomach is in Malaysia’.

To quote her summary (click on picture to the right to download the full PhD Thesis): ‘This study investigates the border crossing of Krayan’s locals into Malaysia as a means of meeting their daily needs, which cannot be met in Krayan because of the poor state of development of the region. People living in the more central areas of Indonesia tend to regard the Krayan locals’ border crossing into Malaysia as a sign of decreasing loyalty, and hence a lack of nationalistic pride, towards the State of Indonesia. In contrast, the Krayan locals feel that their sense of nationalism and loyalty to the State of Indonesia is proven through their persistent wish to live in an area at the very edge of the country’s territory, regardless of the lack of development in Krayan. Living on the border with Malaysia, the locals see themselves as guardians of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Indonesia. Another factor is that in Krayan border crossing has long been part of life and existed prior to the formation of the two states. Crossing the border into Malaysia continues to be a matter of visiting family members, where ‘family’ includes all individuals who have a common cultural background and live on either side of the border. Also, as the respondents explained, the poor development in the region forces them to go to Malaysia and this does not compromise their loyalty to the State of Indonesia. The locals mentioned the expression Garuda di dadaku, tapi Malaysia di perutku (Garuda is on our chest, but our stomach is Malaysia), which aptly depict that they hold Indonesia in their hearts even though their livelihoods are supported by Malaysia’ (p. 260).

Even though the Covid-19 crisis slowly but surely does not restrict us in our travelling behaviour and our ‘border crossings’ her defence also showed that this kind of research is still very much needed for the rethinking of the way we deal with borders, as the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) did not grant her the Visum to defend her thesis live at the University in Nijmegen, 🙁
although especially academic research should by principle be borderless.

But we keep working on it…


PhD Defence by Janneke Rutgers

On January 13, 2022 Janneke Rutgers successfully defended her PhD Thesis “from Panacea to Paradox: The internal dynamics of regional cooperation in Dutch demographically shrinking regions”. She was supervised by Prof. Gert-Jan Hospers and Dr Tamara Metze. As we know, places and regions are not ‘made’ by one single actor, but are co-produced by both civil society actors as well as governmental actors, and the success of this ‘placemaking’ process is very much dependent on how well civil society and government chime together. This was also the topic of a number of other PhD research projects in the framework of our human geography group, although each from another angle. Like in many of my other contributions to this blog site, I always tend to be rather critical if it is presupposed that one single actor or one single cause is responsible for the success or failure of ‘placemaking’. In most cases, these kinds of presuppositions are the result of an unjustified reductionism. In the real world, it is always a combination of different causal factors and circumstances and always the results of how the different actors cooperate.  To be successful in placemaking one always needs to take the full complexity of the situation into account, and one always needs to foster cooperation to be successful. The first is resembled in my own tendency to favour ‘practice theories’, while the latter relates to my preference for ‘inter-action’ instead of individual top-down actions and decision making. From this perspective, the PhD thesis of Janneke Rutgers immediately struck the right chord. Using Urban Regime Theory she empirically shows that what started as ambitious and very open civil society initiatives, gradually developed into more regulated and restricted governmental policies in which the original objectives lost focus, while the continuation of the regulatory regime became a target in itself. This is also the essence of the paradox of regional cooperation she describes with the slogan ‘cooperation well organised, urgency of shrinkage approach disrupted’ (in Dutch: ‘samenwerking goed geregeld, urgentie krimpaanpak ontregeld’). She nicely shows how important it is to keep the balance, and she makes extensive practical recommendations on how to do so. A great piece of research where we can learn from. (Click on the picture to the left to download her PhD thesis)


Civil Society Governance

The division between Government, Markets and Civil Society is increasingly blurring, like many other things in society seem to get blurred. At least from the perspective of Science, they are increasingly addressed as complex phenomena, which can not easily be reduced to one single principle, one single actor, or one single perspective. The world cannot easily be categorised or containerised anymore. More and more we become aware that the phenomena in our society are actually a contingent and contextual interplay of many different actors and forces. For Geographers the contextuality and place-specificness of these complex phenomena and developments are a fascinating object of research and of Place Making. This also changes the theoretical and conceptual frameworks we apply while investigating these phenomena and developments. Relational approaches like Practice Theories, Actor-Network Theories, Assemblage Theories and Complexity Theories are very much en vogue, addressing the relationships between the heterodox factors, conditions, intentions, and materialities, involved.

Today, Dr Benny D. Setianto, successfully defended his PhD Thesis on “Civil Society Governance”. This term in the first instance might sound paradoxical, because isn’t “Government” the opposite of “Civil Society”? Well, in the face of the above referred to developments in society as well as in the way we tend to conceptualise society, it comes not as a surprise. The traditional, rather containerised, concept of Government is described by Benny Setianto as “Government by Design” and contrasted to the role of Civil Society in this same field of government actions, as “Government by Accident”, or maybe one should say “bottom-up government”, “emergent governance”, or “government by coincidence” or even as the “government by the spontaneous coming together of different forces, actors, intentions and circumstances”. Benny Sentianto critically describes this interplay between Government and Civil Society in the shaping of Semarang Environmental Governance, and how this historically came about, and thus he also contributed to the reconceptualisation of the above-mentioned complexities in today’s society.

His PhD Thesis was supervised by Prof. Huib Ernste, Prof. Bas Arts and Dr Ton van Naerssen and is another result of the close cooperation between Unika Soegijapranata Catholic University in Semarang Indonesia and our Geography Department at the Radboud University, and there will be more to come…

A passion for teaching

Teaching is much more than just conveying information from the lecturer to students. Nowadays students are anyhow over-fed with information, through a multitude of different channels and media., so that they cannot see the wood for the trees anymore. Real teaching is an experience and a two or multiple way communication process. It is a communal and shared feeling. Especially during the Covid-19 period, when everything was just online and at a distance, we noticed the difference and what was missing. You cannot study the environment and sense of places only from books and from behind the screen. Even though we also embrace the fascinating possibilities of new digital tools in teaching, we are now also very happy to slowly but surely get back to an almost normal teaching situation, where we can feel again the personal engagement of both lecturers and students with each other and with the environment and our joint passion for the geography of places. We very much hope to be able to go into the field with our students again and have excursions together which also creates dense bonds between the learners and the teachers. Since this is certainly also my and our mission in teaching geography, we are also very proud, that one of our appreciated colleagues and Urban geographer, Dr Rianne van Melik, of our Geography Group has now received the well deserved Radboud University Teaching Award (click on the picture to view the short video about Rianne van Melik).

But this is not just about Rianne, but about the passion for teaching, which we try to cherish in our Human Geography group as a whole. The relation to our students is something we take very seriously. So this is not about fulfilling teaching obligations or about following the directives of the educational centre of the university, but about really having a passion for teaching and an engagement with the curiosity of our students.

Our Certainties and Doubts

In our current ego centred society, it seems important to have a strong profile, otherwise, one is not seen nor heard. One needs to be convinced of oneself and maybe even a bit narcissistic to appear front stage. But with 7.8 billion ‘egos’ on this globe in 2021 it is quite an effort to stick your head out, and to be someone and to survive in the struggle for attention. It was already Georg Simmel (1903) in his famous essay on the “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, who noted that on the one side, the dense and anonymous urban life creates the liberty to be who one likes to be and to not be pigeonholed by the rigid structures of a closed community, but that on the other side of that same coin, one needs to put a lot of effort in gaining a recognised position and identity in these same anonymous urban settings. These kinds of urban conditions seem now to have become ‘planetary’, and in our daily life, we seek our own place and identity, our own certainty of who we are and what we stand for,  while at the same time we try to avoid being pinpointed and fixed, and we try to overcome our current situation and envision an alternative future. We thus also question and doubt our current position. We are torn between our assumed certainties and hopeful doubts.

I, myself never had the self-confidence of a strong ego, and always felt the doubts and the struggle for recognition. Having lived at many different places, where one, over and over again, needed to find one’s own position again, and maybe as a side-effect, I also was lacking the expressive eloquence to state the ideas I stand for loud and clear, the constant struggle for who-we-are became very apparent to me. Although science and an academic career was never my pre-set goal, when it by coincidence happened to me, also legitimised my doubts and my continuous search for my own convictions. In science, it is our profession to always ask critical questions and to scrutinise all presupposed certainties. Science is not about finding final answers, but about continuously posing questions. This also resounds in the, for me so inspiring, philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, who states that we cannot essentialise who we as human being, or as a single person are. We are the undetermined being (homo absconditus), and as a consequence, we continuously need to (re-)create ourselves. But of course one cannot profile oneself without an audience. Who we are is, therefore, not the result of a lonely creative act, but of creative inter-actions, it is a social construction, it is ‘teamwork’. Who we are, what we know, and what we stand for is created in interaction and in team-work. We never do this alone. This also coined my vision on the development of scientific knowledge in general. The core of what we do as scientists is to express to our audience what we claim to know and invite others to scrutinise these claims and come up with better and new ideas. Although we are very aware of all the shortcomings of the current scientific institutions and practices in this respect, it is still the core of knowledge production. Based on these ideas, it might not be surprising that also the Theory of Communicative Rationalisation of Jürgen Habermas (1985), and similar later ideas, such as those of Axel Honneth et al. (2017), have been a source for inspiration for me. But since doubt is also inherent in the social construction of knowledge, also the enemies of these ideas became dear to me, and helped me to understand my own position, and to also discover the shortcomings of my own and their tentative ‘truths’. The continuous struggle and partly even conflict is the core of the production of knowledge and wisdom (see also the work of my colleagues at our own Department: Landau, 2019 and van Leeuwen, 2007). This is also well reflected in the following quote of the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung:

But current times are rather refractory to this scientific process of jointly making sense of the world around us. The individualisation in the assessment of our scientific production denies the social- and team efforts involved. The exaggerated celebrity and ‘excellence’ culture around certain ‘stars’ in science suppress the productive force of doubts and critique. The publish or perish culture forces scientists to stay within the comfortable and well-established mainstreams of thought instead of delving into more marginal critical approaches. Of course, being critical is not necessarily better than being mainstream, but it is the debate between them, which should be the core of our scientific endeavours. Relativisation and scrutinisation of our own and other’s position are not appreciated. Being a critical mind, even within an academic setting does not contribute to our career. University administrations rather prefer tame and easy-going functionaries, who do not ask uneasy questions. What is true for academia is also true in general in society and in governance. Also there we do not seem to cherish the doubt and debate, or openness and recognition of others, sufficiently. Simple undisputed truths and ‘leaders’ who forcefully express and apply these truths are called for by many populist movements. Former US President Donald Trump fulfilled that role with fervour, while Barack Obama, as expressed in his latest book, was blamed to be hesitant and doubting. Robert Putnam in his famous book with the title Bowling Alone, addresses how in society one increasingly seems to lose the ability to engage with political inter-action and debate, to engage in the dialectics of certainty and doubt. To reinstall or revive our ability to find wisdom in the social interaction and scientific debate is however more than re-creating a community of equally minded people as an immunised comfort zone, within which we can find confirmation of what we already thought to know.  As Helmuth Plessner argues in his The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism (1999), it demands to actively engage with the ‘other’ with the ‘unknown’ and ‘uncertain’ and to actively position one-self and one’s convictions in between certainty and doubt. Of course we can also interpret the mutual identification and recognition of ourselves and our potential opponents as a kind of ‘knowledge’ community in which also disagreement may persist, but which nevertheless could lead each of us to new insights.


Habermas, J. (1985) The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, and Vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Beacon, Boston.

Honneth, A.,  Rancière, J., Genel, K., & Deranty, J-Ph. (2017) Recognition or Disagreement. A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity. Columbia University Press, New York.

Krüger, H.P. (2019) Homo Absconditus: Helmuth Plessners Philosophische Anthropologie Im Vergleich. [Homo Absconditus: Helmuth Plessners philosophical anthropology in comparison]. de Gruyter, Berlin.

Landau, F. (2019) Agonistic Articulations in the ‘Creative’ City. Routledge, Abingdon.

Leeuwen B. van (2007) A Formal Recognition of Social Attachments: Expanding Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition. Inquiry. Vol. 50, No. 2, pp.  180-205.

Plessner, H. (1999 [1924]) The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism. Humanities Press, Amherst.

Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Shuster, New York.

Simmel, G. (1976 [1903]) The Metropolis and Mental Life. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Free Press, New York.


What Groningen does with us and what we do with Groningen

In 1976 I started studying Geography at the University of Groningen. At that time we did not have a free choice where to study, as geography was a popular study programme, and there were not always sufficient free slots at the university of our preference. An allocation committee decided where you could go. I was sent to Groningen. In hindsight, I did not regret it, as Groningen as one of the more peripheral University Cities, also had a vibrant student life because students could not always afford to go to their parental home in the weekends. The ‘Pakhuis’ (Warehouse) was our favourite student pub for the weekends. Notwithstanding the not so fancy (but cheap) housing accommodation during my studies, we were happy with our newly gained autonomy. My first room somewhere around the Plantsoenstraat, at that time, had rather primitive sanitary facilities, with a separate toilet-building in the back garden. For a shower, we anyhow had to go to the university sports facilities. Soon I moved to downtown, in the red light district. My room was noisy and in the wintertime, I had to go to the university library to keep warm, which by the way, unintendedly was also profitable for my study results. Then we had the opportunity with some extra state subsidies to rent an apartment in a highrise building on the outskirts of the city in Vinkhuizen. For us, this was ‘luxury’, although on the ninth floor when the wind was sweeping over the flat Groninger countryside, the wind howled through the cracks, and the elevator always smelled of piss, and we had to queue up to make a telephone call at the only telephone booth in the street, in these very cheap low-end housing conditions.

Plantsoenstraat                    Lopende Diep                                    Aquamarijnstraat         Barmaheerd

Nevertheless, we had a great time, during which friendships for life were made. And the University also allowed us to discover and develop our interests. Groningen in my experience was and is a great place. A place where our formative years took place became very dear to us, and it still is, although I lived at many other places since then. Not just as a student city, but also in other respects, Groningen can be characterised by its typical atmosphere. It is almost the only bigger urban centre in the whole of the North of the Netherlands, and has the allure of a big city, in a part of the Netherlands, which is rather down to earth, and where people are usually characterised by their no-nonsense attitude. The historic centre with its many street cafés, and markets is iconic. The Grote Markt, where we remember the flower seller, James Squarrosa (Jaap Bloemendaal), nicknamed, ‘the oracle of Andijk’, standing on the back of his truck, yelling that you cannot leave without taking a few of his plants and flowers for almost nothing. And when you believed you were satisfied, he always added another plant to it. He was a weekly returning phenomenon, which you would never again forget. But also the vegetable market where my wife would explore al stands to find where the salad was the cheapest because we had to live with a single student allowance.  And in the city hall on the ‘Grote Markt’ we also married, a bit low profile, in a hippy fashion at those days, having our wedding dinner on the pancake ship in one of the canals of Groningen. Groningen has changed much since then. Many parts of the city have been revitalised and refurbished. Groningen also added to its diverse hipster-like offerings along the Folkingestraat, which in the past had been more or less a  no-go area, and created a totally new atmosphere, which is so nicely described and celebrated in the love song for Groningen by the cabaretier Janneke Jager (click on the picture to hear her song (in Dutch)). And this brings me to the topic I wanted to raise here. Because, what creates an urban atmosphere? What is an urban atmosphere? Is it an attribute of the place or is it an attribute of our subjective experience, infused by our memories, nostalgia and habitus? Who creates or causes these atmospheres?

An urban atmosphere is certainly not just a set of functional properties, which we can rationally appreciate or criticise. An atmosphere is a feeling, an affective aspect of a place. It is the emotion which a place evokes if we think of it or remember it? Or is it the emotion we experience if we immerse in it and are directly encountering it at that moment? Urban atmospheres are a central concept in placemaking and place experience. They refer to ‘a class of experiences that occur before and alongside the formation of subjectivity, across human and non-human materialities, and in-between subject/object distinctions’ (Anderson, 2009, p. 78).

Conceptually and theoretically this concept draws on the new phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz (2019), and on the further development of these ideas by Gernot Böhme (2014), and has been applied also to the city of Groningen by the German Geographer Jürgen Hasse, one of our recent Alexander von Humboldt Lecturers at the Radboud University.

Prof. Jürgen Hasse develops a methodology to investigate urban atmospheres, which he describes as ‘micrology’ but which is sometimes also denoted as ‘phenomenography’ (De Matteis, Bille, Griffero & Jelić, 2019). In a nutshell, Hasse (2012) describes urban atmospheres as belonging ‘to the life of the city like its traffic flows, they come and go with the situational change of the urban. They are different in this location than in any other, they spontaneously emerge out of the presence of things and the dynamics of life or are the object of deliberate production. They have their own significance in the lives of people as well as in the unique character and history of a place. Where they are produced according to a systemic calculation and interest, they fulfil functions as affective dispositions in an ideological, economic or political context’ (pp. 11-12).

Urban atmospheres, therefore, are emotional experiences of the human surroundings; are dependent on how we live these places, and how we actively perform these places. They do not just have passive semiotic meanings which just need to be discovered or ‘read’, but are continuously creating meanings through the performative stream of human dynamics. Urban Atmospheres can not be reduced to specific aspects, but need to be seen as wholes in between subject and object, as ‘in-between spaces’.

Urban Atmospheres are situations, which consist of the things that are, of problematisations of what is, and of programmes for realising what is not yet. In this respect, one can also distinguish between individual personal situations and more collectively shared situations. Atmospheres are not just created by human interventions but as well by the emerging phenomena of nature. Atmospheres have the power of indentedly or unintendedly affecting what happens and what takes place. Atmospheres are not just things, which are there and which might be transformed but cannot really disappear, but are ‘half-things’, which might be linked to things, but which are much more volatile in their performance and in the way they are experienced. Atmospheres are communicated and experiences through our different bodily senses, which then are re-combined into a ‘synesthetic’ holistic impression. The concept of Urban Atmospheres also re-covers the importance of emotions and affects, which in the course of the modernistic and rational project, seems to have gone lost and in this way also allows a critique of one-dimensional economics of aesthetics but also allows access to the constructive dimension of atmospheres.

Usually, Atmospheres are distinguished from Moods. Atmospheres are seen as a-specific and a-personal reality, while moods are seen as personal and individual and therefore also more specific feelings of being in this world, and of being related to this world. Moods create a disposition of the self and create the sensibility for the experience of urban atmospheres. ‘Whether we can and want to feel at home in the urban space of a city is never solely dependent on the urban atmospheres of that city, but also on personal moods, i.e. the affective relationship to living in the city in general and to living in that specific city at that moment in time, in particular’ (Hasse, 2012, p. 20).

In this respect, I see some similarities between the concept of an Urban Atmosphere, and what one could describe with Piere Bourdieu as the affective dimension of a “Field”, while the concept of a Mood could then be parallelled with the affective dimension of our ‘Habitus’, although one might object that Bourdieu sees Habitus as a much more structural personal disposition, while Hasse sees Mood as a much more volatile and momentary personal disposition. But for understanding the difference between Mood and Atmosphere this might nevertheless be helpful, in my view.

Furthermore, Hasse pragmatically describes Urban Atmospheres along several sensible dimensions, like:

  • The built infrastructure
  • The smell
  • The light and shade
  • The soundscape
  • The feeling of the ‘air’
  • The rhythms and movements
  • The looks and sights
  • The habitus and the way people dress
  • The presence of nature and other life forms (animals)
  • The ‘family of things’ as media for distinctions

In this way, he comes up with a lively and very detailed scientific, analytic and synesthetic description of the places Janneke Jager sings about in her above-mentioned love song for Groningen. It shows what geographical science can contribute to understanding the role of the affective dimensions of places in our daily lives.

If you click on the image below, the original text (in German) will appear. In you prefer a (quick and dirty) translation in English, click here.

We sometimes only become aware of the special effects of urban atmospheres, when they abruptly change. Some weeks ago a newspaper article (in Dutch) in NRC-Handelsblad described the Vismarkt in Groningen in Covid-19 lockdown times. This makes us aware of the quality of urban life which is all of the sudden missing, but which we otherwise seemed to take for granted.

The affective and emotional elements of space determine where we feel at home and part of the local community, where we feel attracted and thrilled by the experience of the ‘strange’ places we visit, how we can make places hospitable for ‘strangers’, how places can provoke us to think differently, where ‘diversity’ or an elan for hopeful change is ‘in the air’, what characterises ‘no-go’ places or inspiring and creative places, where we feel the respect for historical and cultural heritage, or where we feel the disgust for evil pasts, and to which places we feel attached, or with which we can identify. These feelings are the hidden but essential drivers of our everyday doings, maybe much more so than our rational thinking.


Anderson, B. (2009) Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society. Vol 2, No. 2, pp. 77-81.

Böhme, G. (2014) The theory of atmospheres and its applications. Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts. pp. 93-100.

De Matteis, F., Bille, M., Griffero, T. & Jelić, A. (2019) Phenomenographies: Describing the plurality of atmospheric worlds. Ambiances. Vol. 5, pp. 1-22.

Hasse, J. (2018) Märkte und ihre Atmosphären. Micrologien räumlichen Erlebens. [Markets and their Atmospheres. Micrologies of spatial experiencing.] Vol. 2, Karl Alber, Freiburg.

Hasse, J. (2012) Atmosphären der Stadt. Aufgespürte Räume. [Atmospheres of the City. Felt spaces.] Jovis, Berlin.

Schmitz, H. (2019) New Phenomenology: A Brief Introduction. Mimesis, Milano.