PROGRESS IN GEOGRAPHY ›› 2017, Vol. 36 ›› Issue (10): 1185-1195.doi: 10.18306/dlkxjz.2017.10.001

• Reviews •     Next Articles

A review of labor geography research in the West and its implications for China

Gengzhi HUANG1,2(), Hong'ou ZHANG1,2, Yang WANG1,2, Lixia JIN1,2, Kunlun CHEN3   

  1. 1. Guangzhou Institute of Geography, Guangzhou 510070, China
    2. Guangdong Open Laboratory of Geospatial Information Technology and Application, Guangzhou 510070, China
    3. Hubei University, Wuhan 430062, China
  • Online:2017-10-28 Published:2017-10-28
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41771137;Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province, China, No.2015A030313842;The High-level Leading Talent Introduction Program of GDAS, No.2016GDASRC-0101


Labor geography, which conceptualizes workers as social actors with agency rather than as a simple locational factor as seen in the neo-classical location theory, has become a thriving and important subfield of economic geography in the past two decades. However, labor geography received little attention in the literature of domestic economic geography despite the rising capital-labor contradiction having been challenging the marketization development in China. Attempting to provide a conceptual framework for the Chinese labor geography study, this article reviews the labor geography literature and identifies its emerging frontier questions. It first explains what labor geography is by examining the concept of worker agency and its spatiality. It then analyzes the progress of labor geography by focusing on the forms of worker agency and its formation mechanism, expounding their connections with space, place, global production networks, and social upgrading. The analyses show that labor geography has evolved from the narrow focus on collective forms of agency to the expanded one on variegated landscapes of agency that include worker individual social-spatial practices, and from the focus on the forms and influences of worker agency to the structurally territorial conditions that shape the possibilities of worker agency. It is suggested that there are four important issues for the Chinese labor geography study: (1) the variegated landscapes of worker agency in the context of the trade union institution with Chinese characteristics; (2) the potential impacts of labor agency on the restructuring of economic landscapes; (3) the embeddedness of worker agency in places where workers live and work in the context of China with specific institutional, economic, and social conditions; and (4) the institutional arrangements that contribute to social upgrading of workers. This article concludes by calling for the study of labor geography in China, which can provide a geographical perspective for understanding the Polanyian countermovement facing current China and policy implications for the inclusive development in the country.

Key words: labor geography, labor, worker agency, space, global production networks, social upgrading