CFP AAG 2017: The Contact Zone I: Navigating the Contact Zone

Call For Papers
AAG 2017 Boston (April 5-8, 2017)

Session title: The Contact Zone I: Navigating the Contact Zone

Co-organizers: Jenny R. Isaacs (Rutgers University) and Ariel Otruba (Rutgers University)

Mary Louise Pratt introduced the term “contact zone” to refer to spaces wherein “cultures, meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they lived out in many parts of the world today” (1991).The goal of this session is to consider the impacts of various conceptualizations of the “contact zone” within Geography, over time, in the field, and across subfields. Participants may reflect on how this concept (both Pratt’s “Contact Zone” [capital C] and other ideas of a contact zone [lower case c]) has influenced theory and methods across subdisciplines and remains a useful critical tool.

For scholars interested in exchanges at, across, and about (past, present, or potential) sites of uneven, shifting relations between actors of disparate influence, attention to  the contact zone is essential. Pratt’s “Contact Zone,” for instance, focused on how subjects are constituted “in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and ‘travelees,’ not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices” (Pratt 1992:7). Her call for a refining of the “arts of the contact zone” (1991) to help navigate these places of friction, where “the other” is encountered, configured, and made vulnerable, continues to generate debate across various disciplines (Bizell 1994, Cahill 2007, Haraway 2008, Schorch 2013, Collard 2015).

As a term adopted into Geography specifically, we hope to draw out the generative and determinative spatial aspects of these transcultural places of meeting, encounter, and exchange–geopolitical zones, multispecies natural-cultural borderlands, frontiers of exploration and development— in order to focus on the locations, terms, conditions and outcomes of contact. In our discussion we hope to consider:

  • Who is using this term, how does it figure in research, for what purposes, to what effects?
  • How has this concept impacted the work of Geographers? What can/should Geographers (especially) add to discussions of contact zones as spatial entities of investigation? What is it about these liminal and relational places and contexts that determines the conditions and outcomes of exchange? How easily should contact zones mix material and metaphor (Smith and Katz 1993)?
  • In twenty five years, what have we learned about Pratt’s “Contact Zone”/ and its “arts” (capital C)? How might more general or alternative uses of the words “contact zone” (little C) in other fields/subdisciplines (de-colonial studies, political geography–border studies, biogeography) improve upon or cordon off Pratt’s specific usage?
  • How is a “contact zone” distinctive and a more useful term than other geographical terms like border, boundary, frontier, ecotone, edge, attachment site, node, etc.?
  • How have various theoretical “turns” impacted and sharpened the concept of the “contact zone”?
  • How and why is the contact zone an essential/potential site of importance for those critical geographers interested in radical political change and cosmopolitical paradigm shifts? How does the theoretical and methodological framing of research taking place in a “contact zone” rather than “in the field” modify the production of knowledge and potential incorporation of non-western epistemes? Rather, how do “contact zones” offer a site or location of hybridity, a place for destabilizing and disrupting the status quo and binaries?  In what ways does mobilizing the term contact zone support and/or limit decolonial action research? Does the use of the term “contact zone” support the creation of more horizontal relationships between investigators and co-investigators?
  • How does scale and space-time converge/function in the contact zone? Does the contact zone as research site represent or serve as a nexus to study extended networks– for instance, lively commodity chains– or does it problematically reduce/oversimplify complexity and the myriad connections to more distant geographies?
  • Where do we locate contact zones? How does one delimit physical boundaries of a contact zone? How far might the concept extend “the field”? Or are we ever not in a contact zone?

If you are interested in participating in our panel on this subject, please send a short description of how you are thinking about the legacy and continued relevance of “the contact zone” within Geography as well as within the context of your own research, with particular attention to what you might contribute to the conversation. Please send statement of interest to Jenny R. Isaacs ( and Ariel Otruba ( by November 1, 2016.


Ahmed, S. (2004). Collective feelings or, the impressions left by others. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(2), 25-42.

Bizzell, P. (1994). ” Contact Zones” and English Studies. College English,56(2), 163-169.

Cahill, C. (2007). The personal is political: Developing new subjectivities through participatory action research. Gender, place and culture, 14(3), 267-292.

Collard, Rosemary-Claire. (2015). “Ethics in Research Beyond the Human.” In Perreault, Tom, Gavin Bridge, and James McCarthy, eds. The Routledge handbook of political ecology. Routledge. 127-140.

Haraway, Donna, J. (2008). When species meet (Vol. 224). Minneapolis:U of Minnesota Press.

Pratt, M.L.(1991). Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession, 33-40.

Pratt, M. L. (1992). Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation. Routledge, New York.

Schorch, P. (2013). Contact zones, third spaces, and the act of interpretation. Museum and society, 11(1), 68-81.

Smith, Neil and Cindi Katz. (1993). “Grounding Metaphor: Towards a Spatialized Politics.” Place and the Politics of Identity. Eds. Michael Keith and Steve Pile. London: Routledge, 67-83.

Sundberg, Juanita. ( 2006). Conservation encounters: transculturation in the `contact zones’ of empire. Cultural Geographies, SAGE Publications, 13 (2):.239-265.

______________ (2015). “Ethics, Entanglement and Political Ecology” in Perreault, Tom, Gavin Bridge, and James McCarthy, eds. The Routledge handbook of political ecology. Routledge. 127-140.