Championing original and authoritative research


Legal Geography: New Frontiers

In this article, Tayanah O’Donnell, author of the forthcoming Legal Geographies of Coastal Climate Change Adaptation (2019), discusses the growth of legal geography within the social sciences.

Legal geography is a lens through which we can explore the co-constructed relationship between law and space. In doing so, it is a lens through which the interdependencies within and across networks, materiality, temporality and law (both the letter of the law, and the social inputs and outcomes of law) can be considered spatially. In turn, the spatial also informs those interdependencies. I’ve used a legal geography lens in my own research, which critically engages with various facets of coastal climate change adaptation.

As a sub-field noted for its “interdisciplinary potential” (Braverman et al, 2014, 120), the origins of legal geography can be traced back to the 1970s, where it emerged from two key theoretical categories: socio-legal studies, and critical geography. Because, epistemologically speaking, socio-legal theory draws from the social sciences as it attempts to unravel the ontologies behind its “social view of the nature of law” (Tamanaha, 2013, 2238), its core aim is to “transcend beyond the boundaries of established disciplines such as law, sociology, political science or anthropology” (Banakar and Travers, 2005, xii). Legal scholars have been drawn to socio-legal studies as a way to enrich the context of jurisprudence, incorporating discourse analysis, cultural studies, race, gender, materiality, feminism and affect into legal analysis. Around the same time many social scientists and humanities scholars came to realise that social outcomes are affected by specific legal interpretations, legal institutions and key actors (e.g., judges, or lawyers). While socio-legal research continues to be informed by critical theory and vice versa (Watkins and Burton, 2013), a legal geography lens enables an examination of “the manifestation of law as a manifestation of the broader social context”, and recognition that “law is obviously social and political; but it is not society and politics” (Braverman et al, 2014, 15). Legal geographers therefore examine the influence and impact of law to our understanding of social, cultural, and political processes and outcomes, as they manifest spatially, in particular places, and/or at particular points in time. Legal geographers are often interdisciplinary scholars. They commonly arrive to legal geography from disciplines spanning examples such law, the environmental sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences.

Legal geography is a growing and dynamic field. Its methodological lens enables the deconstruction of the idea that law can be understood in isolation from its material environs (see the work of Australian legal geographer Nicole Graham, 2011, and, generally, the work of Nicholas Blomley; including Blomley, 2011). Scholars in the US and Canada have argued that a singular focus on law or on geography is inherently problematic (Braverman et al, 2014). An (still relevant) focus on property as a concept, regulatory institution, or as legal ‘rights’, and how property influences social outcomes has underpinned much of the earlier theoretical growth in legal geography (Blomley, 1994; Blomley and Clark, 1990). Property, however defined, remains a relevant theme today (Davies, 2007; 2017; Graham, 2011).

Legal geographers in the UK have focussed their attention on considerations of place that are relational and place centred (Layard and Milling, 2015; Trentmann, 2009). According to prominent UK legal geographers Luke Bennett and Antonia Layard, local subjectivities serve a specific purpose in legal geography scholarship. They argue that legal geography is “the best route to explicate the grounded, embodied effects of law in the constitution of the world and to challenge the impression that law aspires to dematerialisation, that it seeks to marginalise specificity (i.e., local distinctiveness) and that law seeks to erase spatiality, or indeed, ever could” (2015, 419). Relationality is increasingly an area of inquiry for legal geographers, following Anderson and Wylie who describe relationality within space, and the relationship of space to materiality, as connections between things (human and non-human) that intersect and contribute to particular knowledge, at a particular scale, at a particular point in time (2009).

Australian legal geographers have demanded that legal geography develop a deeper understanding of ‘place-based knowledge’ (Bartel et al, 2013), to actively and continuously link abstract laws to material places (Graham, 2011). Recent contributions to the field expand on Graham’s important contribution in linking law to material environs in various ways. Empirically, it has been common in Australia to explore connections between law and ‘the spatial’ by examining property, environmental, intellectual property, or land use planning laws’ influence on material space and place(s) (see, for example, the special issue on legal geography by Geographical Research 54(3), 2016, and the works therein). Acknowledging the reciprocal connection between place and abstract laws, Graham observes one (of potentially many) practicalities offered by legal geography scholarship: “the agency of property law in anthropogenic environmental change must be acknowledged and included in the endeavour to better adapt cultural and economic practices to the actual capacities and limits of the physical world” (2011). To this end, my own endeavours exploring coastal climate change adaptation aim to provide both theoretical and pragmatic insights into the legal spatiality of coastal management in a dynamic, ever-changing environment.


Tayanah O’Donnell is Director Future Earth Australia at the Australian Academy of Science and an honorary Senior Lecturer with the Climate Change Institute at the Fenner School for Environment and Society, Australian National University.


Anderson, Ben and John Wylie, ‘On Geography and Materiality’ (2009) 41(2) Environment and Planning A 381

Banakar, Reza and Max Travers (eds), Theory and Method in Socio-Legal Research (Hart, 2005)

Bartel, Robyn, Nicole Graham, Sue Jackson, Jason Hugh Prior, Daniel Francis Robinson, Meg Sherval and Stewart Williams, ‘Legal Geography: An Australian Perspective’ (2013) 51(4) Geographical Research 339

Bennett, Luke and Antonia Layard, ‘Legal Geography: Becoming Spatial Detectives’ (2015) 9 Geography Compass 406

Blomley, Nicholas and Gordan Clark, ‘Law, Theory and Geography’ (1990) 11(5) Urban Geography Special Issue: Law, Regulation, and Geography I 433

Blomley, Nicholas, Law, Space and the Geographies of Power (Guilford Press, 1994)

Blomley, Nicholas, Rights of Passage: Sidewalks and the regulation of public space (Routledge, 2011)

Braverman, Irus, Nicholas Blomley, David Delaney and Alexandre Kedar (eds), The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography (Stanford Law Books, 2014)

Davies, Margaret, Property: Meanings, Histories, Theories (Routledge Cavendish, 2007)

Davies, Margaret, Law Unlimited (Routledge, 2017)

Graham, Nicole, Lawscape: Property, Environment, Law (Routledge, 2011)

Layard, Antonia and Jane Milling, ‘Creative Place-Making: Where Legal Geography meets Legal Consciousness’ in Saskia Warren and Phil Jones (eds), Creative Economies, Creative Communities (Routledge, 2015) 79

Tamanaha, Brian Z, ‘The Third Pillar of Jurisprudence: Social Legal Theory’ (2013) 56(6) William and Mary Law Review 2235

Trentmann, Frank, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices and Politics’ (2009) 48(2) Journal of British Studies 283

Watkins, Dawn and Mandy Burton (eds), Research Methods in Law (Routledge, 2013)