David Slater, Emeritus Professor of Political Geography at Loughborough University, UK, who was a leading critical development geographer and known for his work on Latin America, passed away on October 20, 2016.
Slater studied for a bachelor’s degree in geography at Durham University in the mid-1960s which was when he first became interested in geopolitics, seeking to understand international relations in a spatial context. He went on to the London School of Economics, where he completed a doctorate in geography in 1972.
His long career saw him teach at universities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, North American and Europe. He was based at CEDLA (the Interuniversity Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation) in The Netherlands for a number of years before moving to the Department of Geography at Loughborough University as Professor of Political Geography from 1994 to 2011. During that time he also served as the editor of Political Geography (1999-2004). In 2011 he became Emeritus Professor at Loughborough University and was also an Associate Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.
During the 1970s Slater emerged as a distinctive voice in radical development geography, critiquing mainstream development concepts, models and theories. He used a Marxist framework to explain the spatial characteristics of development, specifically how underdevelopment in the ‘Third World’ was shaped and perpetuated by relationships with the West. His pair of papers published in Antipode on “Geography and Underdevelopment” (1973 and 1977) were particularly influential and remain widely cited to this day. He wrote them while working in Tanzania at the University of Dar Es Salaam, during which time he was inspired by scholars from Africa, Asia and Latin America who were explaining inequality and underdevelopment in terms of colonial exploitation, political domination and dependency.
During the 1980s, Slater focused much of his attention on Latin America. Among his significant publications during that period was the book Territory and State Power in Latin America: The Peruvian Case (Palgrave Macmillan 1989) which examined the central spatial tendencies of capitalist development and state-society relations in Peru between 1914 and 1984, but with wider applicability to other countries in the region. He also edited Social Movements and Political Change in Latin America (CEDLA 1985), a compilation of papers from a CEDLA workshop held in 1983 on the topic of new social movements and the state in Latin America.
It is difficult to select examples from someone who had such a prolific writing output and published consistently in leading journals of geography, development studies, and political science. Certainly worthy of mention and exemplifying one of the major themes in his work is the article “On the borders of social theory: learning from other regions” (Environment and Planning D 1992) which was a criticism of Western ethnocentrism. He argued that ‘First World’ geographers should examine the West’s relationship with the ‘Third World’ in order to appreciate their own societies. His argument about ‘learning from other regions’ was quite influential as human geography began to grapple with postcolonial thought and remains very relevant today.
A number of Slater’s publications examined US power. The American Century: Consensus and Coercion in the Projection of American Power (Wiley-Blackwell 1999), jointly edited with Loughborough University colleague Peter Taylor, brought together studies of Americanization and American imperialism to assess how far the twentieth century can be seen as the ‘American Century.’ Following this, his much lauded book, entitled Geopolitics and the Post-Colonial: Rethinking North-South Relations (Wiley-Blackwell 2004), focused onUS-Latin American encounters and theorized an alternative postcolonial perspective for understanding contemporary political and economic globalization.
Over many decades, Slater’s work consistently challenged Western hegemony. His critical analyses of North-South relations exposed long-standing, ongoing and acute asymmetries of power and geopolitical injustice. While he was a provocative voice, he was also very highly regarded as a scholar. His complex theoretical work was deftly written and grounded in real examples. He was an inspiration to many students who were drawn to his critical perspectives on development studies and political geography. He will be fondly remembered by many colleagues at Loughborough University and beyond.