Edward Soja

1940 - 2015

Edward Soja

Ed Soja, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at UCLA, who made considerable contributions to postmodern political geography and urban theory, passed away on November 2, 2015, at the age of 75, after a long battle with illness.

Edward William Soja was born on May 4, 1940, to a family of Polish immigrants and grew up in the Bronx, New York. He was “nurtured in its dense diversities” and was “a street geographer by the time he was ten” (book jacket of Thirdspace), formative influences that shaped his urban-centric geographic imagination.

Soja attended Syracuse University where, among his teachers, was Eduardo Mondlane, the first Mozambican to hold a PhD and the founder of the Mozambican liberation movement, FRELIMO. At Syracuse, Mondlane developed the East African Studies Program which caught the interest of Soja.

In the early 1960s, Soja went to Kenya to study urban planning as the country underwent a transition from a traditional society to more modern forms of social, economic, and political organization. On return from fieldwork in February 1965 he taught about East Africa, as well as quantitative techniques.

His thesis, entitled “The Geography of Modernization in Kenya: A Spatial Analysis of Social, Economic, and Political Change,” was completed in 1967 and published by Syracuse University Press in 1968 as part of the Syracuse Geographical Series.

Soja took up a position as Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, continuing to specialize in the political geography of modernization and nation-building in Africa. During his seven years at Northwestern he also held visiting appointments at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

In 1972 Soja was recruited to the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) where he remained for the rest of his career. There he began focusing his research on urban restructuring in Los Angeles, as well as the critical study of cities and regions. His interests were wide-ranging, including questions of regional development, planning and governance, and the spatiality of social life.

During his long and distinguished career as a scholar at UCLA, Soja devoted himself to teaching graduate and undergraduate students. He taught courses on regional and international development, urban political economy and planning theory. He also served as academic advisor to numerous doctoral candidates from the department of urban planning. He was twice the department chair and, for nine years, the Associate Dean.

For many years, Soja was also a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, specifically the Cities Program, an international center dedicated to the understanding of contemporary urban society, where he taught on the MSc City Design and Social Sciences course.

Soja was one of the key figures associated with the ‘spatial turn’ in geography. He brought the insights of critical social theory – including political economy, postmodernism, and cultural theory – to create innovative analyses of space and society, especially struggles over control of space in the city and the emergence of new forms of urbanization.

His work focused on Los Angeles, an enormously diverse metropolis with pronounced social and spatial inequalities. He sought to understand different aspects of urban life – its everyday rhythms, the division of labor, public policy, struggles over places, and the relations among distant locals – through the conceptual lens of spatiality.

His canonical paper on “The Socio-Spatial Dialectic” (Annals of the Association of American Geographers, June 1980) drew on the work of French Marxist urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre and other social theorists to argue that society produces, organizes and gives meaning to space, but that these spatialities in turn shape society and the relations of production.

Soja’s book Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (Verso, 1989) and the concurrent work of David Harvey introduced postmodernism as a new kind of problematic of which geographers should take note. Postmodern Geographies drew enormous favourable attention worldwide and established him as one of the discipline’s leading theoreticians.

One of his greatest contributions to spatial theory and the field of cultural geography was his use of Lefebvre, author of The Production of Space (1974). Soja updated Lefebvre’s concept of the ‘spatial triad’ with his own concept of ‘spatial trialectics’ which included ‘thirdspace,’ or spaces that are both real and imagined. These ideas were published in two further works: Thirdspace: Journeys to Real-and-Imagined-Places (Blackwell, 1996) and Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (Blackwell, 2000).

Soja also worked with Allen J. Scott to edit a volume on The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 1996) which brought together a variety of essays by experts in urban planning, architecture, geography, and sociology examining the built environment and human dynamics of Los Angeles, emphasizing dramatic changes that had occurred since 1960.

More recently he wrote Seeking Spatial Justice (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) where he offered new ways of understanding and changing the unjust geographies in which we live, and My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (University of California Press, 2014) which covered more than four decades of urban development in LA and other urban regions.

A characteristic of Soja’s work was his interweaving of theory and practice; his theoretical interpretations of place, location, landscape, city and region were grounded in his inquiry into the shaping of space and society in Los Angeles including the rise of the city region, the revival of inner cities, and social movements for the right to the city.

In 2013, the Association of American Geographers conferred Lifetime Achievement Honors on Soja in recognition of his path-breaking contributions to geographic theory and urban studies, especially his arguments for the importance of space in understanding society and the city, and his insights into postmodernity and the Los Angeles metropolis. It was especially fitting that the award was presented at the Annual Meeting in Los Angeles that year.

In 2015, Soja was awarded the 2015 Vautrin-Lud Prize, considered to be geography’s Nobel Prize. The prize honors the career of a distinguished geographer whose work has been very influential within and beyond the discipline. Unfortunately, Soja was unable to be present at the event in Saint-Dié, France, in October 2015 but his work was explored in a roundtable discussion between many of his international peers.

How to sum up the career and contributions of this remarkable man which started with modernization in Kenya and transitioned to postmodernity in Los Angeles? He was one of human geography’s most passionate and articulate advocates. His work reshaped urban studies. His writings on space, spatial justice, and cities have inspired many. His critical thinking continues to open new research directions for the theoretical and practical understanding of contemporary cities and regions.

Along the way, he motivated and provoked students and colleagues alike through his passion and enthusiasm for theory, criticism, cities, and social justice. Derek Gregory, recalling a sabbatical that Soja spent at Cambridge University, remembered that “Ed enlivened the Department of Geography no end too, and delighted the graduate students with his healthy irreverence, his sense of intellectual adventure – and by his evident happiness at spending time with them.” He will be sorely missed by many friends who knew his warm and generous personality.

Soja is survived by his wife, Maureen, and their children, Christopher and Erika. Following his death, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs decided to establish the Edward Soja Memorial Fellowship in his memory.