Thursday, 21 July 2011

Geography: a different sort of discipline

I remember when, as a 14 year old student, I was faced with my first academic dilemma in deciding what option subject to take at GCSE: Geography or Spanish.  I plumped for Geography (I already had decided upon History and Latin). Why did I decide to do Geography? Why was History an obvious choice? And how could Latin help me read Law at university? – questions I still struggle to answer. 

Nevertheless, Geography became my favourite subject over the A-level course and I soon found myself writing my personal statement; discussing the merits of the multi–faceted discipline in relation to the working world. Over the course of my school career, notably when I was older, I distinctly remember being asked the following questions:

“Why Geography…where is that going to get you?”  

“What is the point of Geography, it is just colouring in maps?” 

And so a number of years down the line, as a Geography teacher who has taught in both sectors, I feel it is the right time to try and explain (albeit briefly) why Geography matters and why it is indeed a different sort of discipline. N.B. This is not a scholarly article; more of a layman’s guide to why I think Geography is important. I hope it makes you think, and re-consider Geography as a discipline in a new light.

The problem with Geography - Perception
In my opinion and the in the opinion of my contemporaries Geography has always had a bit of an image problem, and in the mind-set of many parents that I teach, and have taught, it is a subject with no definedm purpose or outcome; rooted in river studies, oxbow lakes and China’s One Child Policy – oh and of course, colouring in maps!  In schools over the past 40 years to some extent it has seen its’ status as an academically rigorous subject decline; out-competed by History, the hard Sciences, and increasingly the more work orientated subjects such as Economics.   Within Higher Education too, Geography has eternally struggled to place itself between the Sciences and the Arts - often finely balancing itself in the grey area of the Social Sciences. Therefore, the very nature of geography as a discipline in it's own right has (and will) always been contested e.g. are geographers explorers or academics; are geographers either human or physical geographers (or both?) etc.  Furthermore, in a post-modernist age, disciplines as broad and all-encompassing as Geography have become increasingly specialised and re-defined/re-branded: Oceanographers, Geologists, Cartographers, Environmental Scientists, Geomorphologists (the list is endless) –all with their own society ti signify and justify to some degree their status as a unique discipline. It would appear then that the word Geography has been removed, erased and become unfamiliar – the discipline has lost it' way - I mean when was the last time you saw a news report speaking to a geographer?

Geography it would appear has lost out as the grand experiment to keep nature and culture under one conceptual umbrella appears to have run it's course (Livingstone, 1992: 177).

If the latter is the case then: What is the point of Geography?

Firstly, it is important to understand that no one definition of Geography is sufficient (and here possibly lies one of the biggest problems - but that is another article!).  Intrinsically, Geography is a discipline which is subjective by its’ very nature and each geographer will have their own philosophical background guiding their opinion and ultimately influence how they define the subject. However, for the purposes of this non-scholarly article I will use the following definition from the RGS as a starting point for further discussion:

“Geography is the study of the earth’s landscapes, peoples, places and environments…it is unique in bridging the social sciences (human geography) with the natural sciences (physical geography). Geography provides an ideal framework for relating to other fields of knowledge” (RGS website, 2011).

As Linda McDowell, a prominent academic at Oxford University, talks about in her introductory talk to prospective students geographers are unique in their ability to look at the connections and flows between space and place. She argues that Geography is a synthetic discipline – synthesising the human, physical, social and economic worlds – which makes it a different discipline when compared to the more object/outcome focused disciplines of Mathematics and Economics.

Secondly, geographic knowledge is not one-dimensional – there is no one type of knowledge as there is no one singular answer. For instance Taylor (1986) argues that geographic knowledge can be broken down into 4 distinct areas:

  • Geography a necessary knowledge (daily life, local geography).
  • Geography as professional knowledge (academic geography). 
  • Geography as popular knowledge (traveler/explorer tales).
  • Geography as gainful knowledge (knowledge useful for commerce and business)

The synthetic nature of the discipline provides geographers with not only a unique set of transferable skills including: the ability to collect and analyse information and identify spatial trends and patterns; the ability to write concise, clearly argued essays; the ability to focus on global to local issues and assess priorities and the ability to assess work output critically.  But in my opinion, what truly defines a geographer is their unique perspective and outlook on the world, which can then relate to other disciplines – it is the latter (the synthesising) that makes geographers so special and employable in today’s modern world.  In addition Professor Viles of Oxford University emphasises a skill that is often forgotten, but one which defines us as geographers: “one of our greatest skills is to get into the environment and get to the bottom of what is going on” - in other words, we like getting our hands dirty.

Another over-looked aspect of Geography is how it encourages one to travel and explore the world.  My passion for Geography was first catalysed by a trip to the Mathare Valley slums in Nairobi, Kenya at the tender age of 16. Since this seminal moment my study of Geography both as student, researcher and teacher has enabled me to: live in a rainforest studying local communities in Honduras; walk China’s Great wall; and study the stunning glaciated valley of Yosemite National Park in California. Therefore, I believe that geographers have a genuine interest in the world around them and an enquiring mind that is willing to ask questions.

A different discipline – YES indeed!
In a time-space compressed world that is increasingly becoming over-populated and hazardous it seems that Geography (quintessentially the study of place and space) has never been more relevant. Geographers not only are well-equipped to understand the causes of the problem(s) but also have the ability to find solutions; recently seen in the area of Biodiversity and conservation management. 

Also, Geography over recent years has indeed seen an increase in popularity and credibility – the Geography Matters campaign, the new curriculum from the Geographical Association and the plethora of TV programmes on geographic topics such as the centre of the earth, megacities, the Blue Planet and the Human Planet all touch upon key geographic themes explored in more depth at GCSE and A-level. It is also clear that without knowing most of us use one (if not more) of Taylor’s types of geographic knowledge in our daily lives – and for all those parents whose children want to study Geography at university – do not worry as it would appear that geography as gainful knowledge within the major city firms is highly valued and very employable!

Most importantly Geography has the ability to build the bridge over the abyss and link the two bodies of the physical and human world, which have (and will always) come into conflict. The discipline provides us with an overview of the local, regional, national and global spatial processes that define and govern the world we live in.  It is a contested discipline, but one which is constantly evolving as there is always something new to research: new nation states being created or a new natural disaster affecting a vulnerable population. As geographers we aim to synthesise and explore the connections and flows between space and place and this is what makes it a different sort of discipline, well-placed to make a difference as we move towards the new paradigm of sustainability science.

Further reading/links:

Alternative career pathways (other than a weatherman or teacher!):

Transport logistics manager
Land use planner
CEO of Green Economics Institute 
GIS Industry manager
Work for Google
Water resources engineer
Founder of a renewable energy company
Environmental consultant in Africa

1 comment:

  1. A very fine summation of the situation JSB. It reminded me of some of the things I contemplated whilst writing my Masters work- I recommend you read it should you ever be looking for a cure to insomnia!

    I find it interesting that as Geographers we always seem to be looking to justifying our status and direction in a way that Mathematicians, Physicists Linguist and so forth don't. A bit like a sub contractor resubmitting for a renewal we have to justify to our clientele that the service we provide is worthy. You stated the reasons why this is the case as other disciplines do cover certain aspects of our work, yet none of them do so with a holistic view that embraces the human and physical worlds at the same time. I actually see this regular self assessment as a strength and would wager that a few other subjects may benefit from a little more introspection.

    In a previous life before I began educating young minds I had a brief and disastrous career as an Auditor for a large accounting firm. This work was terribly boring but it did show me the benefits that companies gained from annually monitoring and assessing the value of their processes and systems. By questioning what and how we teach and gathering an appreciation of where it fits in too the bigger picture we are, in turn, improving our value.

    The future is bright for Geographers, one look at a Daily broadsheet throws up som nany links to the curriculum.

    Stu Turner (written pool side in Chiang Mai!)