Non-representational theory

Non-representational theory is a theory developed in human geography, largely through the work of Nigel Thrift (Warwick University),[1][2] and his colleagues such as J.D. Dewsbury (University of Bristol) and Derek McCormack (University of Oxford), and later by their respective graduate students. It challenges those using social theory and conducting geographical research to "go beyond representation"[3] and focus on embodied experience.[4] Thus, Dewsbury describes practices of "witnessing" that produce "knowledge without contemplation".[5]

Emphasis on practice

Instead of studying and representing social relationships, non-representational theory focuses upon practices – how human and nonhuman formations are enacted or performed – not simply on what is produced.[6] "First, it valorizes those processes that operate before … conscious, reflective thought … [and] second, it insists on the necessity of not prioritizing representations as the primary epistemological vehicles through which knowledge is extracted from the world".[7] Recent studies have examined a wide range of activities including dance,[6][8] musical performance,[9] walking,[10] gardening,[11] rave,[12] listening to music[13] and children's play.[14]

Post-structuralist origins

This is a post-structuralist theory inspired in part by the ideas of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Bruno Latour and Michel Serres, and by phenomenonologists such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.[15] More recently it considers views from political science (including ideas about radical democracy) and anthropological discussions of the material dimensions of human life. It parallels the conception of "hybrid geographies" developed by Sarah Whatmore.[16]


Critics have suggested that Thrift's use of the term "non-representational theory" is problematic, and that other non-representational theories could be developed. Richard G. Smith said that Baudrillard's work could be considered a "non-representational theory", for example,[15] which has fostered some debate. In 2005, Hayden Lorimer (Glasgow University) said that the term "more-than-representational" was preferable.[17]


  1. Thrift, N. 2000. "Non-representational theory" in RJ Johnston, D Gregory, G Pratt and M Watts (eds) The Dictionary of Human Geography (Blackwell, Oxford)
  2. Thrift, N. 2007. Non-representational theory: Space, Politics, Affect (Routledge, London)
  3. Thrift, Nigel; 1996; Spatial Formations; Sage
  4. McCormack, D.P., 2017. The circumstances of post‐phenomenological life worlds. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 42(1), pp.2-13.
  5. Dewsbury, J.D., 2003; "Witnessing space: 'knowledge without contemplation'" Environment and Planning A", volume 35, pp. 1907–1932
  6. Thrift, Nigel; 1997; 'The still point: expressive embodiment and dance', in Pile, S and Keith, M (eds.), Geographies of Resistance; (Routledge) pp 124–151
  7. McCormack, Derek (2005). "Diagramming Practice and Performance". Society and Planning. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  8. Derek, McCormack; 2003; 'Geographies for Moving Bodies: Thinking, Dancing, Spaces'; (Sage)
  9. Morton, Frances; 2005; 'Performing ethnography: Irish traditional music sessions and new methodological spaces' (Taylor and Frances)
  10. Wylie, John; 2005' A single day's walking: narrating self and landscape on the South West Coast Path' (Transactions of the British Geographers)
  11. Crouch, David; 2003; 'Performances and constitutions of natures: a consideration of the performance of lay geographies'
  12. Saldanha; 2005; 'Trance and visibility at dawn: racial dynamics in Goa's rave scene' 2005
  13. Anderson; 2004; 'A Principle of Hope: Recorded Music, Listening Practices and the Immanence of Utopia'
  14. Harker; 'Playing and affective time-spaces'
  15. Smith, Richard G., 2003; "Baudrillard's nonrepresentational theory: burn the signs and journey without maps" in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21; pp 67–84
  16. Whatmore, S. 2002. Hybrid Geographies (Sage)
  17. Lorimer, H., 2005; "Cultural geography: the busyness of being 'more-than-representational'", Progress in Human Geography 29, 1 (2005) pp. 83–94
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