The current increase in spatial inequalities in Europe, and particularly in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), has led to the reconsideration and revival of concepts like “polarisation” and “convergence” in regional economics, economic geography and spatial planning. In contrast to the classical view of these concepts, determined by functionalism and topology, new theoretical and empirical perspectives propose a multidimensional approach to regional polarization, which comprises processes of convergence and divergence, growth and mobility in economic and social dimensions. Views on the intensity and direction of regional inequalities differ widely from one author to another, depending on the scale, timeframe and methodology of their analysis. In CEE, authors agree that while inequalities between CEE countries and the EU-average have decreased in the last decades, sub-national economic inequalities have increased, fuelled by the rapidly growing metropolises and national capitals and the simultaneous peripheralisation of rural and old industrial regions. European Commission (EC) Cohesion Reports clearly demonstrate these polarization and peripheralisation tendencies at sub-national level, and propose the strengthening of territorial cohesion by allocating one third of the EU budget to the reduction of economic and social disparities in 2014-2020.
However, despite this consensus being reached, there remains some confusion when comparing the different concepts used in mainstream economics or regional science (convergence/divergence) and the more contextualised approach of economic geography, regional studies, or sociology (centralization/peripheralization, polarization, marginalization). The RegPol2 project (https://www.regpol2.eu) “Socio-economic and Political Responses to Regional Polarisation in Central and Eastern Europe”, financed by the EC, offers an excellent opportunity for scholars, researchers and practitioners from CEE to work together on these issues. More precisely, the research project focuses on broadening our understanding of spatial inequalities and on finding alternative ways to deal with rising inequalities.
Part of this work seeks to combine different theoretical and methodological positions. In a recent study (Benedek and Moldovan, 2015) we have focused on the similarities between the concepts of polarisation and convergence/divergence to argue for a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach. We have assumed that processes like convergence, divergence, economic growth, spatial mobility and innovation are strongly interrelated. The concept of polarisation describes the spatial concentration of economic activities and population. At a high intensity of concentration, core-periphery structures are reinforced, with the core regions attracting more capital and population, while peripheries shrink in both economic and demographic terms. This means that polarisation leads to increasing divergence, and therefore to increasing regional inequalities. The process is reversed when capital and population are spread to peripheries, leading to convergence and diminishing regional inequalities, a process which can be termed as “depolarization”, as opposed to polarisation.
Like polarisation, the concept of convergence can be viewed as a multi-dimensional process that can be properly understood as a combination of social and economic dimensions, reflecting the interrelatedness of social and economic factors which determine regional development. A new approach could combine the concepts of polarisation and convergence/divergence and its operationalization for the empirical research using the tools offered by spatial analysis. In other recent studies (Benedek J. and Kocziszky GY. 2015; Benedek J., Cristea M. and Szendi D. 2015) we have found new evidence that spatial dependence of economic and social development in CEE is going hand in hand with growing regional inequalities and polarisation. In addition, at sub-national levels the peripheral regions of the CEE seem to be trapped at a lower development level, converging in so called “convergence clubs” but diverging from more developed clubs. We think that further research in this field could contribute to the more comprehensive understanding of polarization and peripheralisation from a quantitative perspective.
This approach would enable a more efficient operationalization of technological factors, taking into account the fact that the reduction of the technological gap requires not only proper imitation strategies, but also the development of social capabilities. In addition, a multidimensional approach could properly integrate the contributions of sociology, which focus on the question of social inequalities and social polarisation at the micro scale.
In the same time, our evidence suggests that economic growth and convergence are not necessarily interrelated, since one can occur without the other. The links between these processes merit further attention in future research. Growth increases economic output and decreases income inequality, but we don’t know if growth in poorer and high-inequality economies will lead to them catching up with the richer and low-inequality ones.
Increasing social and economic inequalities at regional and local level within CEE has led to the need to develop new strategies with a strong spatial focus, in order to effectively deal with and respond to challenges. The RSA CEE Conference “Regional polarisation and unequal development in CEE: challenges for innovative place-based policies, 10-13 September 2017, Cluj-Napoca provides an excellent opportunity for researchers, policy-makers and practitioners working in all areas of regional development and policy to initiate a multidisciplinary dialogue.
The conference focuses on questions such as: how can we deal with increasing polarisation and peripheralisation? What are the challenges for future place-based policies? What new approaches should be developed to deal with growing regional imbalances? There will be specific sessions in the conference relating to some major development priorities in CEE:
- smart specialization (plenary speaker: Dominique Foray)
- regional policy (plenary speakers: John Bachtler, Peter Berkowitz)
- sustaining the regional resilience (plenary speaker: Jennifer Clark).
In addition, the conference will launch the new RSA CEE territorial division, which aims to enhance cooperation between CEE institutions in the field of regional studies. There are already good examples of cooperation, such as the recent EU-financed project on spatial polarisation and peripheralisation in CEE (RegPol2), which has brought together several universities (Slovakia, Estonia, Romania), research institutions (Germany, Hungary) and companies (Germany, Estonia, Czech Republic) to broaden our understanding on inequalities and the political, economic and social solutions to rising polarisation in CEE. I am convinced that the planned RSA CEE Division can provide an excellent forum for further research cooperation in CEE.
Finally, the conference location, the city of Cluj (Kolozsvár in Hungarian, Klausenburg in German) will provide an excellent opportunity to visit a vibrant place with the high economic dynamic (creative industries, ITC) and a functional multicultural environment, with its historical communities of Romanians, Hungarians, Germans and Jews.
For more information about the conference please visit:
Prof. Jozsef Benedek
Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania
We are pleased to let you know that, due to popular demand, we have extended the submission deadline for abstracts for the RSA Central and Eastern European Conference 2017.
Benedek J., Moldovan A. (2015) Economic convergence and polarisation: towards a multi-dimensional approach. Hungarian Geographical Bulletin, 64:3, 187-203.
Benedek J., Cristea M., Szendi D. (2015) Catching up or falling behind? Economic convergence and regional development trajectories in Romania. Romanian Review of Regional Studies, 11:1, 15-34.
Benedek J., Kocziszky Gy. (2015) Paths of convergence and polarization in the Visegrád countries. In: Lang, T., Henn, S., Sgibnev, W., Ehrlich, K., (eds.): Understanding Geographies of Polarization and Peripheralization. Perspectives from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Palgrave/MacMillan, Basingstoke. 352 p., 217-234.