Counterfactual geographies: worlds that might have been

David Gilbert, David Lambert

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This paper argues for a renewed consideration of counterfactuals within geography. Drawing upon Doreen Massey's emphasis on notions of 'possibility', 'chance', 'undecidability' and 'happenstance', we argue for an engagement with approaches in the humanities that have addressed such issues directly. We review previous uses of counterfactual method in historical geography, particularly as related to cliometrics and the 'new economic history' of the 1960s, but argue that a recent upsurge of interest in other disciplines indicates alternative ways that 'what-if' experiments might work in the sub-discipline. Recent counterfactual work outside of geography has had a notably spatial cast, often thinking through the nature of alternative worlds, or using counterfactual strategies that are explicitly concerned with space as well as temporal causality. We set out possible agendas for counterfactual work in historical geography. These include: consideration of the historical geographies within existing counterfactual writings and analyses; suggestions for distinctive ways that historical geographers might think and write counterfactually, including experiments in geographies of happenstance, and the exploration of more-than-human possibilities; analyses of the geography of and in counterfactual writing; and study of the political, ethical and emotional demands that counterfactuals make. This discussion and framework provides an extended introduction to this special feature on counterfactual geographies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)245-252
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Historical Geography
Issue number3
Early online date21 Jan 2010
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2010


  • Counterfactuals
  • Alternative histories
  • Alternative worlds
  • Speculative fiction
  • Doreen Massey
  • History and philosphy of geography

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