Batterbury, S.P.J  2004. Stuart Corbridge.  In P. Hubbard, R. Kitchin and G. Valentine (eds.) Key thinkers on space and place. London: Sage. 78-83.


Stuart E. Corbridge



SIMON BATTERBURY, Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne and ECI, Oxford University

An updated draft of the book chapter, archived at

Biographical Details and Theoretical Context


Stuart Corbridge was born in 1957 and grew up in the West Midlands of Britain, before gaining a place at University of Cambridge to read Geography at Sidney Sussex College, graduating in 1978. Cambridge placed challenging intellectual demands on its undergraduates from the first week (during which David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City was read and discussed) and Corbridge was one of many Sidney geographers of the 1970s and 1980s who later went on to achieve academic recognition (others include Gillian Rose, Tony Bebbington, Chris Philo, Alison Blunt, Nick Fyfe, Dan Clayton and Gerry Kearns). At Cambridge, Corbridge’s earliest influence was Derek Gregory’s theoretically inspired historical geography, and he also benefited from the reworking of key ideas in development studies by other Cambridge academics, among them Polly Hill, Suzy Paine and Ajit Singh. With his classmate Gerry Kearns, he continued at Cambridge to PhD studies, supervised by Bertram Hughes (Ben) Farmer. His PhD combined fieldwork with archival study of a century of tribal politics in Jharkhand, India, paying particular attention to the influence of positive discrimination polices for people labeled as “tribal” (the adivasis). Corbridge began publishing his Indian research in 1982, and his interest in Eastern Indian politics and development issues has been sustained over twenty-five years, moving between questions of agrarian change, development policy, and governance. Other research interests, notably his extensive contributions to geopolitics and development theory, have held sway at certain times. These were often linked to collaborations with colleagues in his successive university positions. Work took him from a lectureship in geography at Huddersfield Polytechnic (UK) where he taught (not by choice!) on the historical geography of China and Japan, to Royal Holloway (London University), and Syracuse University in the USA, before returning to Cambridge as Lecturer in South Asian Ggeography (1988-2000). He then moved briefly to the University of Miami, USA, but internal events there took him back to the UK where is a Professor at the London School of Economics (initially in Geography, now in the Development Studies Institute).


Geographical contributions


In Anglophone geography, aside from his regional work in Eastern India, Corbridge is best known for his sustained analysis of the development process, money, and geopolitics. His first book, Capitalist World Development (1986) was a critical examination of radical perspectives in development thinking, particularly the then-common view among radical theorists wedded to “deterministic models of capitalism” (p10) that theorised an inevitable conflict of interest between “metropolitan capitalism and the development of the periphery of the modern world system” (p3). Now twenty years ago, Corbridge was at an early stage of his thinking on these issues, but the book nonetheless challenged both the theory of underdevelopment, as well as the counterveiling optimism of modernization theorists. His model of development steered a middle course that could best be described as “cautiously optimistic”. Subsequently he has gone on to write widely on the potential for liberatory development theory and its moral basis (1993b), rethinking the colonial experience, the dilemmas faced by postcolonial states in the geopolitics of the Cold War, and debt and the financial system (1993, Corbridge 1994). Some, but not all, of this work is phrased in the language of post-Marxism and even post-Keynesianism (Corbridge 1988, 1990, 1994), while his work on India has recently drawn on the work of Chatterjee and Kaviraj, as well as that of Foucault and Gramsci. He argues frequently, as in his second book, Debt and Development (1993), that the evident contradictions of global capitalism do not in themselves make the case for transcendental forms of politics that would seek to iron out what John Toye (1993) has called the ‘dilemmas of development’.  The idea of development is not, therefore, dismissed out of hand, and indeed “there is…a strong case for a massive expansion in aid budgets to help rescue people from levels of absolute poverty not of their own making…” (Agnew and Corbridge 1995: 216), even though important political battles have to be waged around development’s meanings and practices. Corbridge’s preference for talking about capitalist relations of production and their conditions of existence, and his general support for aid flows, sets his work apart from his Marxist critics, and particularly from the post-development theorists like Arturo Escobar who challenge overtly the hegemonic power of western development discourse (Corbridge 1998b).


The themes raised in Debt and Development  were followed with further work on international debt and monetary policy. For example, Corbridge’s work on inflation follows a Keynesian argument about the need for economic pragmatism and “rigorous eclecticism” in monetary policy (1994:88), and he engages with the geopolitics of monetary transfer and regulation in Money Power and Space, which also traces the imbrications of money with social and cultural networks of power (Corbridge, Martin and Thrift, 1994). This collection was soon followed by a book with John Agnew, Mastering Space (1995), which is an overview of the global political economy of the past two hundred years. In a development of his earlier position, the authors argue that:


"Globalisation is not only a synonym of disempowerment: it creates certain conditions for democratization, de-centralization and empowerment as well as for centralization and standardization. Globalization opens as many doors as it shuts" (Agnew and Corbridge 1995: 219).


As Toal (1995) argues, the book demonstrated this by some deft applications of Henri Lefebvre's arguments, to distinguish between flows of goods and power, the discursive representations that sustain these flows, and the 'imagined geographies' that “inspire the future organization and articulation of spatial practices and representations of space.”  [from his web, no pp]


This nuanced and critical approach to geopolitics suggests the existence of three “geopolitical orders” over time, each operating with distinct arrays of hegemonic authority. The period 1815-1975, termed the Concert of Europe, gave way to seventy years of Inter-Imperial Rivalry until 1945, followed by the Cold War from 1945-90. The book argues that, as of the mid 1990s, the world order was missing a dominant nation state; thus, “there is always hegemony, but there are not always hegemons" (Agnew and Corbridge, 1995: 17). The argument here is prophetic: hegemony, used in a Gramscian sense to describe structures that legitimate dominant practices and organize consent, is creating


“new conditions for 'ordered disorder' by ignoring, tidying away and/or disciplining a group of countries, regions and communities which are not party to a new regime of market-access economics or which threaten it is some way” (Agnew and Corbridge 1995: 193).  


Anew and Corbridge argue that transnational liberalism has emerged as hegemonic, through the breakdown of Keynesian economic policy and the Bretton Woods agreements, as well as though the power of new transnational business and military networks. Consistent with Corbridge’s stand on globalisation more generally, Mastering Space also argues that opposition to hegemonic discourses and practices necessarily accompanies their growth and their increased spatial reach. The millennial anti-globalization movements and protests were anticipated in the book, but perhaps not the turns that some have taken, for example through Islamic militancy, nor the geopolitical repercussions of the post-9/11 events.


A second major contribution is Corbridge’s detailed and sustained interrogation of Indian development as an idea and practice, which reaches a different audience of regional scholars. Particularly since the early 1990s, he has returned to studies of rural issues in the eastern Indian States of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal.  Alongside new interpretations of ethno-regional politics in Jharkhand, he has worked on forest citizenship and forest management, the collection and marketing of non-timber forest products, the impacts of development policy, the politics of compensatory discrimination, and the question of how empowerment and poverty are negotiated in the modern Indian state.  His book with John Harriss, Reinventing India (2000) analyzes economic liberalization and Hindu nationalism as “elite revolts” that resisted a discourse of egalitarianism in India’s early postwar years. Divisive religious and economic practices have replaced the sense of nationhood that guided India at independence and Partition. India’s lack of an effective “developmental state" is traced to the failure of national leaders to assert political control, (particularly under Indira Gandhi), or to slow the rise of heavily bureaucratic planning. Echoing the argument developed in Mastering Space, the depressing and violent “centralising instincts" of Hindu nationalism will, it is suggested, continue to clash with the aspirations and social movements of lower castes and subaltern groupings. A major empirical study of state performance and empowerment issues has recently been completed in five Districts of Bihar and West Bengal, working with geographers Glyn Williams, Manoj Srivastava and Rene Veron, based on substantial fieldwork and hundreds of detailed interviews. The project argues that the upward accountability of the local state (especially to political parties), is as important as downward accountability to communities in this Indian context. Participatory decentralization is not a panacea, because local actors can develop networks of corruption implicating civil society and local state officials (Corbridge et al, 2005).  Corbridge has also worked with Sanjay Kumar on questions of participation and social capital (2002a), and on the links between community, corruption and landscape in Jharkhand (2002b, Corbridge et al, 2004). He has recently completed a jointly edited volume on Indian geographies and new trajectories (Raju et al, 2006).


Thirdly, Corbridge believes geographical research and teaching must draw upon, and contribute to, social sciences and international studies more broadly, and he has made significant contributions to this interface. But while he signals the importance of spatiality, geography, and the “power” of space in explanations of geopolitical change and development, he does not privilege them. “Development geography”, and concepts of space and place that it holds dear, must form part of ecumenical analysis and broader debate across a range of disciplines (and he recently transferred from Geography to Development Studies at the LSE). His conviction that geography forms part of a broader intellectual canvas has attracted him to interdisciplinary work in development studies, where his encyclopedic knowledge of the field is widely acknowledged to be without equal. Aside from the substantive contributions mentioned above, Corbridge has completed a substantial essay on the life and work of Amartya Sen (2002b), edited a Reader in Development Studies (1995), and published a six-volume reference collection of readings entitled Development: Critical Concepts (2000) that spans the entire range of historical and contemporary key works in the field.


Key advances and controversies

In the 1980s, Corbridge’s work on global capitalism and the world economy came to attention at a time when radical geographers like Richard Peet, Neil Smith, and David Harvey dominated the field. Corbridge was uneasy with the core tenets and political ramifications of the Marxist geography of the day, and countered with post-Marxist critiques of determinism, some associated with regulation theorists like Lipietz. As a result, Capitalist World Development attracted several comradely but also vituperative ripostes, notably from Watts (1990), who argued articulately that Marxism offers more to the study of development than Corbridge permits it. In the same vein, Michael Johns (1990: 180) accused him of wielding a “rather dull polemical axe”.


With these debates now over a decade old, and with several of the protagonists occasionally now writing or working together (Corbridge, Thrift & Martin, 1994), Corbridge’s arguments have become broadly accepted in development geography, while he himself has moved between post-marxism and a critical stance on the style and substance of some mainstream development policies. Arguably (and unlike some of his protagonists), his work on the idea and the practice of  “development” is based on many years of grounded field research projects, and this enables him to speak with some authority when questioning its core values and its outcomes in particular places, and when challenging others coming from different viewpoints (notably David Harvey; Corbridge 1998a).


Corbridge’s work has been taken up most directly by several geographers and former students who have worked on India, including Emma Mawdsley, Rene Veron and Sarah Jewitt, resulting in several joint projects (Corbridge et al, 2005).  Since the 1980s, there have been relatively few sustained criticisms of his work in the two domains of world development/geopolitics and Indian development. Mastering Space has made an impact among geographers and international relations scholars (it is heavy on criticism of the latter discipline). In his review, Toal (1995) felt the book steered away from some of the more deconstructive ambitions of critical geopolitics, but a more substantive critique concerns the validity of the concept of “hegemony without hegemons”, and whether the term “ hegemony” masks as much as it reveals, by glossing over significant differences in the aspirations and development paths of nation states lumped together in the new neoliberal world order (Sidaway 1997). These doubts about the absence of hegemonic nations have emerged with renewed force in the early 2000s, as a result of the USA’s aggressive foreign policy, its questionable claims to be acting multilaterally in the ‘war’ on terrorism, and its renewed efforts to assert a world order using both military strength and a revival of Cold-War language and discourse. Could this be heralding a new set of hegemonic practices? In addition Agnew and Corbridge downplay the possibility of severe economic crisis emerging in the international political economy and the real possibilities of catastrophic violence occurring on a global scale. In their framing of the hegemonic order, Toal feels, the power of  “institutions to regulate the power of dictators, ethnic cleansers or fundamentalism is not evident.” Again, viewed from the 2000s, these powers have now shown their colours.


Reinventing India (2001) shares some theories and concepts with Mastering Space, but advances an innovative thesis when it suggests that a new India is being “invented” through elite interests that serve the ends of particular classes (Corbridge also made this argument in his account of the politics of India’s nuclear bomb – 1999), particularly since economic liberalization after 1991 and the rise of Hindu nationalism. While Singh (2001) uncharitably accuses the authors of undue attachment to concepts of class based politics, and Chari (2002) feels the Marxist and Gramscian approach to social change in Reinventing India gives scant attention to gender politics and feminist moments in current economic and political struggles, the book explains current political maneuvers and discourses in a rich language. The concept of failed social revolutions led by elites (“elite revolts”) goes a long way to explain India’s particular crisis of nationalism and violence (Hall, 2002), and shows how good intentions and turn to bad. His recent empirical work on India has received high praise in several reviews (e.g. Robbins, 2005).


In conclusion, Corbridge’s work to date rests on several major contributions. His work on post-Marxist development theory, debt, and the transitions experienced in rural India has anticipated some of the current thinking on globalization made by eminent international relations theorists and sociologists like Tony Giddens, David Held and Fred Halliday, as well as contributing to rethinking these areas in geography. The links between the Indian state and its citizens has been re-conceived, and fleshed out with twenty years of detailed study. The notion of “hegemony without hegemons”, has contributed to the emerging field of critical geopolitics (Dodds 2001), although in the conflict-ridden 2000s we are now hearing strident calls from the new hegemon (the USA) to aggressively assert the ‘rightness’ of democracy across the boundaries of the nation state. However as Corbridge and Harriss (2000) rightly note, the neoliberal world economy has encountered resistance, for example from the subaltern spaces and resistance to “elite revolts”, eloquently described in Reinventing India. Such movements always accompany these hegemonic forces, even if they sometimes lack power. Corbridge shares with Castells, Watts and Escobar an interest in the promotion of alternatives to mainstream development, but some of these alternatives have unfortunately emerged as aggressively fundamentalist or nationalist in their own right (and thus are unpleasant to the sensibilities of Western activists and scholars), and not all have been able to challenge the state or the market with sufficient force. As other biographies in this volume show, development geography will have to remain attentive to the nuances of globalization, and resistance to it.


Corbridge’ s major works 


Corbridge, S.E. 1986. Capitalist world development:  a critique of radical development geography. London: Macmillan


Corbridge, S.E. 1988b. The ideology of tribal economy and society: politics in Jharkhand, 1950-1980   Modern Asian Studies 22 (1) 1-41


Corbridge, S.E. 1990 Post-Marxism and development studies: beyond the impasse.   World Development 18 (5) 623-639


Corbridge, S.E. 1993. Debt and development. Oxford: Blackwell.


Corbridge, S.E. (ed.) 1993a. World Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Corbridge, S.E. 1993b. Marxisms, modernities and moralities: development praxis and the claims of distant strangers  Environment and Planning D Society and Space 11:  449-472


Corbridge, S.E. 1994. Plausible worlds: Friedman, Keynes and the geography of inflation. In Corbridge, S.E., N. Thrift and R. Martin (eds.). 1994. Money, Power and Space. Oxford: Blackwell. 63-90.


Corbridge, S.E., N.Thrift and R.Martin (eds.). 1994. Money, Power and Space. Oxford: Blackwell.


Corbridge, S.E. 1994a. Bretton Woods revisited: hegemony, stability and territory. Environment and Planning A 26 (12) 1829-1859


Agnew, J. and S.E. Corbridge. 1995. Mastering space: hegemony, territory and international political economy. London: Routledge.


Corbridge, S.E. (ed.) 1995. Development Studies: a reader. London: Edward Arnold.


Corbridge, S.E. 1998a Reading David Harvey: entries, voices, loyalties Antipode 30: 43-55


Corbridge, S.E. 1998b. “Beneath the pavement only soil”. The poverty of post-development   Journal of Development Studies 34: 138-48


Corbridge, S.E.  1999  ‘The militarization of all Hindudom’? The Bharatiya Janata Party, the bomb and the political spaces of Hindu nationalism. Economy and Society 28: 222-255


Corbridge, S.E. (ed.) 2000. Development; critical concepts in the social sciences. London: Routledge. [6 Volumes]


Corbridge, S.E.  2000a. Competing inequalities: the Scheduled Tribes and the reservations system in India’s Jharkhand. Journal of Asian Studies  59 (1): 62-85


Corbridge, S.E. and Harriss, J. 2000 (2001). Reinventing India: liberalization, Hindu nationalism and popular democracy. Cambridge: Polity and Delhi: Oxford University Press (2001).


Kumar, S. and Corbridge, S.E.  2002a. Programmed to fail?  Development projects and the politics of participation. Journal of Development Studies 39 (2): 73-103


Corbridge, S.E. and Kumar, S.  2002b. Community, corruption, landscape: tales from the tree trade.  Political Geography 21; 765-88


Corbridge S.E 2002b. Development as freedom: the spaces of Amaryta Sen. Progress in Development Studies 2: 183-217.


Corbridge S.E., S. Jewitt and S. Kumar. 2004. Jharkhand: environment, development, politics. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Corbridge S.E., G. Williams, M. Srivastava and R.Veron. 2005. Seeing the State: how poor people experience governance and democracy in rural India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Raju, S, M. S. Kumar and S.E. Corbridge (eds.). 2006.  Colonial and Post-Colonial Geographies of India. New Delhi: Sage.



Secondary sources and references


Chari, S. 2002 Review of Reinventing India. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (2) 349-351.


Dodds, K. 2001. Political geography III: critical geopolitics after ten years. Progress in Human Geography 25(3): 469-484.


Hall, J. 2002. Review of Reinventing India. Canadian Journal of Sociology Online. July – August.


Robbins, P. 2005. review of  Jharkhand: Environment, Development, Ethnicity. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95 (4), 902–903.


Johns, M. 1990. Review of Capitalist World Development. Antipode, 22(2): 168-174.


Singh G. 2001 Review of Reinventing India. Journal of Development Studies 38 (1)


Toal, G. 1995 Political Geography I: Theorizing history, gender and world order amidst crises of global governance. Progress in Human Geography 19, 260-272.


Muralidharan, S. 2001. Review of Reinventing India. Frontline 18 (19) online


Sidaway, J.D. 1997. Review of Mastering Space. Trans. IBG NS 22: 130-132.


Toye, J. 1993. Dilemmas of Development: Reflections on the Counter-Revolution in Development Theory and Policy. Second edition. Oxford Blackwell,


Watts, M.J. 1990 Deconstructing Determinism: Marxism's development theory and a comradely critique of Stuart Corbridge. Antipode, 20 (2) 142-170.