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.

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.

Conspiracy Theory and Science

Lately ‘Fake News’ and ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are the talk of the day. We believe that their followers are ridiculously stupid. and unknowledgeable. Some of them even believe that the result of the presidential election in the USA is a hoax which was deliberately set up by the democrats. Of course, sheer nonsense. And, Yes, we need to fiercely stand up against it. Especially science, as the rational counter programme should provide the ‘fact checks’ and propagate the truth.

But this is where it becomes complicated: Already ages ago, in the 1950’s the expert in cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster, wrote that knowledge or on other words: that epistemology is politics. Later on, it was Michel Foucault who linked the discourse about knowledge with the geometry of power in our society. The distinction between political opinions and scientific knowledge blurs. And yes, indeed, it is generally accepted in the social sciences that science is highly political. In our research, we focus on the most urgent societal problems and try to contribute to their solution, and therefore make science highly relevant but also highly political. It is difficult to see the societal relevance of investigating black holes, but it is evident that we should find solutions for the Covid-19 pandemic, and we should try to overcome racism and poverty. But if our science is so political, what makes it different from any other political opinions? The main difference is of course that we have the better arguments. As Jürgen Habermas wrote, it is the power of the better argument, which should be convincing in a rational communicative debate. Having different opinions is not the problem, as long as we are debating with each other, as long as we exchange arguments, and are willing to put our arguments to the test, and as long as we find the words to convince the others. This is where good science can stand out; in the way, it can provide empirical evidence, in the way it can logically derive conclusions, and in the way it may underpin certain interpretations. Combined with an effective translation into everyday language, science can be a main political force and a real contribution to society. People will also listen to it. Take for example the currently popular crossovers between different media like in the DWDD University on Dutch Television or take the scientists who become celebrity guests in talk shows during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, we as scientists, we should be at the front stage in many topical societal debates. We should shout out loud. This performative stage work is certainly not my personal talent (there are others in our geography group who are more talented in this respect), but we do try to raise the critical awareness of our students and we try to mobilise their societal engagement and stimulate their communicative skills to fulfil this responsible role in civil society.

However, in science one also needs to guard for being too much taken away be certain political ideals, and for not being open to alternatives ideals, ideas and arguments. Ideals are often rather simplistic categorisations of supposed ‘goods’ and ‘evils’. Idealists can easily become as autistic as many conspiracy theorists and negators of real facts. Not the difference in opinions, ideals or convictions, but the lack of scientific debate is then the problem. And each debate starts with listening, with taking the other seriously and with meeting each other at eye level. Populism is fed by classes of neglected and not-listened-to people. They feel like the famous comic chick Calimero, who always feels as a marginalised minority confronted with a large overbearing majority. ‘They are big and I am small…’  Constructing and blaming some strawmen has always been an easy way of self-justification. But that goes in both directions. In the same way, one cannot counter populism by ridiculing it, by not taking it seriously and by not starting a discourse. This is, however, easier said than done…

Thinking of the current political situation, it seems as if science is a big exception, and is much more rational and communicative. Scientists seem to play the role of the wiser and more reasonable ones. But some critical self-reflection might be justified here. Because being at the politically correct side sometimes also gives us the illusion of truth. If we engage against racism, against colonialism, against inequality, against injustice, against climate change, or whatever, the enemy, the evil other, is easily identified and blamed. A Calimero-like reflex. But a second look can disguise this view as partly ‘fake’ and as another ‘conspiracy theory’. A closer look often shows that we, ourselves, are the so-called ‘evil others’. Such imaginary contradictions are not that uncommon in science. Science is not separate from society and its populistic tendencies. Science is always in danger of becoming a playball of the political economy of academia and of scientific populism. Also in science one sometimes observes such self recursive and self-emphasising bubbles like we also see in social media, with their own ‘truths’ and their own ‘enemies’, their own journals, their own conferences and their own fan clubs of followers and Maecenas. Science is not different from everyday life.

In this situation, scientific doubt becomes a precious virtue. The willingness to recognise and not prejudice the other and to express openness for alternatives without apriori enciphering away one’s own arguments and judgements. We need to ask who (and why) is the other and we should try to understand them. A difficult dilemma, between clearly positioning oneself while also being ready to move on to new insights and understandings, between clearly communicating what we really believe to know and interaction for the sake of gaining better knowledge. Like in society also in science the debate around this dilemma is reviving. The dilemma, however, is not just the problem, but also the solution. We should not be tied to fixed positions, to fixed categorisations, of fixed conceptualisation and essentialising judgements, but we should always be in between, on the move, in transgression, crossing borders, in a state of change. Although this blog-site has placemaking as title, scientific placemaking in this line of reasoning should focus on creating spaces for change, change of knowledge, change of understanding, change of position and change of place. Only in this way we can fight prejudice, conspiracy and populism, not just in science but also in society.

Not so long ago, one of my favourite columnists wrote a background article on this issue in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which I share with you here in my own freely translated version.

PhD Defence by Rodrigo Bueno Lacy

Friday, November 13, for many a curious date, one of our members of the Geography Group, Rodrigo Bueno Lacy, successfully defended his PhD Thesis entitled ‘In the image of Kronos – or how Europe is devouring itself. The iconological construction of EUropean identity, its geopolitical implications for the project of European integration and why it needs to be re-imagined ‘. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the opponents and audience needed to follow the defence at a distance via the live stream connection.

In his thesis he addresses how consciously or unconsciously the European identity and implicitly of course what is excluded from being ‘European’ is socially constructed also by means of cartographic images. The relation to the title of my personal website is obvious. This is a prominent form of Placemaking. Rodrigo strongly criticises how this European identity is superimposed and enforced upon others and how many are also excluded in this way. In his thesis, he develops a ‘critical cartography’. In this defence, he was generally praised for his emancipatory engagement. On the other hand, the opponents almost jointly addressed in how far the imagination of an evil top-down power superimposing a specific conceptualisation of a European identity, does justice to the diversity and layered identities of Europe. In the same way, one could ask who the ‘other’ in this case is? From this discussion, one might also wonder in how far this very engaged view, is maybe also contributing to, instead of emancipating from an ‘us’-‘them’ thinking, which he, in the first instance, intended to criticise.  Reality in this sense might be much more complex and probably needs to be looked at much more from a relational perspective starting with a flat ontology. Nevertheless, addressing this issue in the way Rodrigo did, already contributes to a critical debate about how identity is not naturally given but continuously is part of identity politics and the politics of placemaking. This cannot be stressed too much.

It is again fascinating to see that the basic issues addressed and the theories mobilised in this analysis are very generally applicable in many different fields of Human Geography, Spatial Planning and Environmental Politics, irrespective if it is about borders, migration, integration, tourism, diversity, urban development, mobility, place experiences, economic relationships, armed conflicts or whatever. Especially in human geography, we tend to look for local contexts and the situational aspects of many phenomena and want to unveil the small stories of everyday life, but these more general aspects also show that there are also larger stories to be told. Looking into these general mechanisms of placemaking is also an essential aspect of doing fundamental research in academia. In that respect, Rodrigo’s contribution to the debate is a very valuable one.

First MOOC of Radboud University

On the second of November, with a few months delay, because of Covid-19 pandemic situation, we finally launched our MOOC on Qualitative Research Methods, in close cooperation with the Geography Department of the University of Zurich. This is the first MOOC of the Radboud University and therefore a first step bringing our university into the 21st century of online teaching. The Radboud University can be very proud of its beautiful green campus, especially also in this autumn season, and for a long time has seen this as their competitive edge, and therefore was very reluctant in developing off-campus online education. In the meantime, the university has become aware that one needs both, a beautiful campus for in-person and on-location teaching as well as an online presence reaching out and accessible for a worldwide audience. And I am proud that with our MOOC we could contribute to both, as our online course is combined with on-campus teaching in a real blended way.

But our course is more than just an online presence of our university. It is as well a dynamic platform in which different universities can share their expertise in Qualitative Research Methods with their own students as well as with a larger audience. It is therefore also a platform on which we openly try to bring together the best one can get in this field from wherever in the world. As such it is also an attempt to ‘de-border’ our university in particular and academia in general, and a contribution to a sharing society. Our course will therefore also for certain develop further and offer a spectrum of different modules for a diversity of needs.

If you are interested you can peek into our online course:

In the current times of the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, the emergence of all kinds of quick-and-dirty online teaching modes are ubiquitous. This MOOC, however, is very different as we started this project well before the pandemic hit us. We developed this not for pandemic reasons but to get the best out of both online and on-campus teaching. We also wanted to move beyond many free online courses which for reasons of accessibility also lowered the standards for academic teaching. We really wanted to keep up our high academic ambitions. At the same time we also did not want to turn everything academia has to offer into an endless sequence of brief video’s, no, we know that it is the mix of different modes of teaching (watching, reading, doing, discussing, presenting, reviewing, engaging, reflecting, assessing, practising, etc. etc.) which stimulates the learning experience. Many features of online teaching can help us in doing that. It is also this, which is the big challenge for me in developing this MOOC and in developing it further. I learned a lot as I usually do from teaching and interacting with students. These kinds of intellectual challenges make scientists ticking.

Especially now, under the current pandemic situation, we became again aware of how important it is to not just academically reflect at a distance (at least 1.5 m), but also to be physically and personally confronted with the topics we investigate and we teach about. The direct exchange, the touch, the feeling, the engaging and experiencing is central in our learning, not just in relation to the objects and subjects of our study, but also in relation to each other, to the (fellow) students and to the lecturers. In the current on-campus meetings with students, which enhance our MOOC, I experience the more, how important it is to really experience that both lecturers, tutors and students need to be in a collaborative and friendship relationship to jointly discover and learn. Under the current difficult pandemic conditions teaching sometimes really sucks, but on the other hand, it is still a big privilege… as this cartoon, which I found on the pinboard at our department next to the xerox machine, expresses.