On the Abolition of the Geography Department

I’ve been working on the ‘online pivot‘ a lot just recently, thinking about the challenges of adjusting teaching and learning provision for the forthcoming academic year, starting in September, in the context of an ongoing situation in which ‘face-to-face’ forms of education will continue to be constrained and subject to ongoing disruptions. Thinking about teaching and learning at a distance, which is what all this is about, is a particular challenge for academic fields like geography, which are so heavily invested in forms of embodied, experiential learning not only in the form of ‘wet’ or ‘muddy’ labs, but especially perhaps that diffuse range of activities bundled under the name ‘the field’. At the same time as all of this, I also find myself sitting in university level meetings in which issues of equality, diversity, racism, harassment, and hate crime in UK higher education are increasingly described by reference to the idea of ‘decolonialising’ universities and curricula. This vocabulary has quickly found its way into the vernacular of senior management and into institutional initiatives around these issues. It’s an interesting example of how theoretical ideas make their way into worldly contexts. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a connection between these two strands of current debate in and around higher education.

In Geography, there has been a series of recent interventions around the theme of decolonising the discipline (see for example, pieces by Pat Noxolo, Sarah Radcliffe, and Tariq Jazeel). In these debates, connections are often posited between the current profiles of academic staff and student bodies in university-level geography departments (very white); the substance of curricula and research agendas; and the ‘origins’ of academic geography in practices of exploration and scientific analysis closely associated with colonialism and imperialism (Don’t tell anyone, but before he was a proponent of eugenics, Francis Galton was publishing accounts of his travels in Africa in The Geographical Journal).

It’s not at all clear that Geography, as it is currently institutionalised in British higher education, does actually have its origins in nineteenth-century colonial exploration and imperial science, nor by what mechanism any such putative origin is still meant to be active today. It might be better to think of Geography as it exists now being formed through a series of quite deliberate breaks with traditions of gentlemanly science. That’s what the formation of the Institute of British Geographers was about. It’s what in no small part the ‘quantitative revolution’ was about too. That’s an old argument, it’s not mine. It’s also notable that the historiography of geography in North America has paid much more attention to the post-war contexts of contemporary Geography than is the case in the UK (after all, who cares about the rise and fall of town and country planning?).

I argued long ago that there is a dynamic whereby Geography’s grubby histories are occasionally rediscovered and re-animated in order to provide scope to engage, in different ways, with theoretical ideas drawn from other disciplines (most usually from the humanities). Invoking the history of a discipline is, of course, one of the obvious ways in which the coherence of such a thing as Geography – as a singular field that can be surveyed and evaluated – is discursively constructed. Debates about decoloniality are in part examples of that pattern, in which a coherent discipline called Geography comes into view as a necessary projection that is required for the articulation of a critical perspective of some sort. Geography has a kind of fantasy coherence, conjured into existence on those plenary occasions, in print and in person, when it is necessary to ponder ‘what is to be done (with Geography)’.

The idea of decoloniality is, of course, a highly theoretical one, part of series of distinctive intellectual traditions. There is a geography to ‘decolonial’ ideas, too. As suggested, there is also a heavy inflection towards intellectual imaginaries drawn from the humanities in discussions of decoloniality. These discussions in part overlap with, in part challenge, in part support a broader family of intellectual debates, including postcolonial theory, arguments about southern theory, theory from the south, southern epistemologies, and forms of post-development thinking.

The different strands of thought that make up the emergent canon of decolonial theory certainly deserve more attention, and, one hopes, also deserve the same sort of critical scrutiny one would expect any other academic paradigm to be subjected to. For example, one might explore the degree to which decolonial theory relies upon and reproduces strongly culturalist accounts of the exercise of ‘power’. One might explore the difficult question of how ideas that emerge in relation to particular historical-geographical variations of ‘colonialism’ (associated with particular experiences of slavery, violence, revolution, and independence, for example) translate to places with different colonial histories (places, for example, where concepts of indigeneity might resonate very differently, if at all, or where very precise meanings of ‘settler colonialism’ might not be easily applicable without a certain loss of geographical and historical sensitivity). This is a well rehearsed theme in this field, for example in considerations of the extent to which Edward Said’s influential account of orientalist discourse could be applied to histories of European encounters with ‘Africa‘. It’s an issue that has a certain self-reflexive quality to it, in so far as the question of how well ideas of decoloniality translate across contexts entrain deeper issues about the ‘colonial’ legacies of practices of comparativism and concepts of diffusion. One might also consider the degree to which the recent interest in decolonial ideas reiterates a style of inter-generational trumping that is central to conventions of critique in the humanities.

What perhaps distinguishes discussions of decoloniality from previous discussions of, for example, postcolonialism, is the more assertive claims concerning institutional transformation. In this respect, it’s worth considering the lesson of perhaps the most famous example of a systematic effort at decolonizing a university curriculum – the move led by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s. This was part of an explicit programme, the significance of which still resonates, to displace a Eurocentric canon and associated pedagogy, and to institutionalise African-centred literature and language programmes (as well as finding different exemplars for postcolonial African modernity, involving for example, reading lots of Japanese literature).

I wonder if this couldn’t be the model for Geography to follow. I say this because I suspect a large part of the problem with Geography, from a decolonising perspective, might be integral to the sense of vocation that might well be what most defines Geography as an academic discipline. To a considerable extent, Geography now exists institutionally in UK higher education as a clearing house for a disparate set of fields of research, some traditional ‘Geography’ fields (such as research into urban and regional issues), some re-framed fields (such as work on disease, or the re-badging of ‘physical geography’ in terms of Earth Systems Science or even Global Systems Science), and some novel fields (research on animal geographies or elemental geographies, for example). There’s nothing that really holds these fields together intellectually. While there might actually be some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields of Geography, the distinctive thing about twenty-first century ‘Geography’ is that there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis. Geography departments exist (sometimes really big ones) because of the saliency of the research undertaken therein to increasingly ‘challenge-led’ research agendas, and because they look like good models for that much vaunted value, ‘interdisciplinarity’. It’s easy enough to imagine quite a lot of what is currently collected under the label of Geography in British universities being distributed differently. In any given university, after all, one will likely find all the urbanists in Planning, or all the economic geographers in Business Schools, or soil scientists in free-standing research centres). None of this is a great problem, necessarily. It is not to say that geography has neither existence or future. Far from it. It does, however, raise the question of the type of existence and future Geography might have.

Geography does have a coherence at school level, as a popular subject for both GCSE and A Level study, but this coherence is not so much intellectual as it is related to a certain image of utilitarian value associated with Geography, not least as a subject that bridges the divide between school and university. Geography at schools has, no doubt, some intellectual substance to it – lots of sustainability, for example, and an implicit if not explicit sense of good (global) citizen-liness. It’s all too common for academic geographers to fall into clichés about the stereotypical Geography undergraduate student. But it is true that there is a specific sense of what Geography is good for, as a school subject and undergraduate degree, which sustains the relative strength of student recruitment to undergraduate Geography degrees in the UK. It’s that relative strength that in turn underwrites a great deal of the intellectual creativity of research undertaken in Geography departments in the UK (i.e. it’s because of a steady and predictable stream of undergraduates coming to university to do Geography degrees that the content of Geography degrees turns out to be such a surprise to those same students – all that Marxism, all that chemistry, all that politics, all those statistics).

The utilitarianism associated with Geography – the sheer weight of the idea that it’s a useful subject, beneficial to those who study it and, through them, to everyone else too – is deeply ingrained in the culture of the field at school and at university (and utilitarianism has impeccable colonialist credentials of course). And I am even inclined to hypothesise that it’s here that one would find the only significant line of continuity between geography’s ‘origins’ in Western colonial and imperial projects and Geography as a university discipline today. The continuity lies in a resilient image of what a geographical education is good for. It’s an image that is not necessarily formalised in print, but it is widely taken for granted, and very often explicitly celebrated. It is an image embedded in the centrality of the idea of ‘the field’ and of ‘fieldwork’ to geographical education at all levels; in a pervasive empiricism in even the most ‘theoretical’ looking areas of human geography research; in the willing embrace of the most instrumental aspects of the ‘impact agenda’; and in the overwhelming, inescapable concern with demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of geography – to policy, to public life, to advocacy, to activism. It’s in this related set of ideas of a Geographers’ vocation that links Geography at schools to Geography at university; it’s not necessarily reflected at all in the content of degree curricula (but it often is). It is reproduced through a set of embodied practices through which a certain sort of intellectual personae is cultivated.

In short, if there is a legacy that links Geography now, in British universities, to Geography as it emerged as an academic and school subject some 150 years ago, then it lies in the practices that reproduce the idea that knowing about other people and other places is a way of sloughing off one’s own prejudices, as well as those of one’s students, all for the benefit of those other people and those other places. In short, it is the idea of a geographical education as an edifying project, aimed at transforming the very sense of self of its subjects, that remains a constant, and which remains central to even the most radical looking strands of contemporary geography, from self-consciously activist geographies to advocacy around climate change. It’s that sense of edification that perhaps also accounts for the attraction to humanities-sourced styles of critical distinction (which are misleading in so far as they suggest that debates about pedagogy centred on a canon of texts are relevant to the varied pedagogies found in Geography departments. They’re not really). It’s an idea expressed most clearly in the recurring fascination with writing about ‘responsibility’, not as an object of analysis, but as the second-order genre through which a particular intellectual self-concept that underwrites the practices of a properly geographical personae is problematized as a work of self-cultivation. The ‘Geography and Responsibility’ genre is the primary way in which a plenary sense of Geography is now conjured into existence.

In so far as discussions about decolonizing Geography focus not just on the content of Geography teaching and research, but on the social profile of Geography student bodies and staffing, and in so far as those patterns might be strongly related to the utilitarian identity of Geography at schools and universities, and more broadly to the overwhelming emphasis on ‘relevance’ and ‘responsibility’ that shapes undergraduate recruitment as well as progression in the discipline after undergraduate level, then perhaps the most significant contribution that could be made to the project envisaged by proponents of decolonising the discipline would be, in the spirit of Ngũgĩ, to imagine the abolition of university Geography departments. In order, you understand, to see if it’s possible to re-imagine creative ways of redistributing all those things that currently fall under that label around different formations of intellectual personae. This is not, as far as I am aware, and despite the impeccably decolonial credentials of this proposal, something that has so far been entertained in debates about these issues.

And if that sounds facetious, well, I guess the only morally serious alternative would be to try to picture what a geographical education that abandoned the image of an edifying, responsible vocation could possibly look like.




Ron Johnston

I was sad to hear of the death of Ron Johnston, whose work has been so important in shaping the sense of professional identity of so many ‘Anglo-American geographers’ for many years. One of my prouder claims to fame is to have once taught a Political Geography course with Ron – when I worked at Bristol, responsibility for a Year 2 course on that sub-discipline fell to me (my take on cultural things wasn’t quite of the right sort). I was keen to cover electoral geography as part of the course, because it’s an important field of course, but also because Ron’s work with Charles Pattie and others is amongst the very best examples of why ‘geography matters’, in both senses of the phrase. I could have prepared and presented lectures on that topic myself, but it seemed a missed opportunity to not have the man himself do them. Ron wasn’t much involved in undergraduate teaching at that stage, but I asked him if he would ‘guest’ for a couple of weeks, and he said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. I’ve always thought of it as a little like the Marshall McLuhan moment in Annie Hall – “And here is the actual Ron Johnston”. As I recall, Ron’s lectures – clear and lucid and passionate about understanding political processes – focussed on the ways in which Labour in the 1990s had mastered the art of winning elections (and engaging effectively with the politics of boundary drawing). And, obviously, he talked to the students about Swindon (back then, with two Labour MPs – there won’t be another Labour government until they can win at least one of those seats back).

Ron occasionally sent me emails about a post on this blog, when it touched upon the recent history of geography for example, or on Swindon. I dare say that Ron was a little bit more ambivalent about the place than he let on – the last time I talked properly to him, about 4 years ago, we talked about places he remembered from growing up which were, then, for me places I lived around the corner from. I seem to remember him admitting that he actually grew up in Chiseldon, which is a small village on the outskirts of Swindon on the way to Marlborough, having been born and initially living slap bang in the middle of ‘new town’ Swindon, by the Town Hall. Most recently, he got in touch after I wrote about Swindon’s place in the history of post-war social science research, with an additional reference I had not mentioned, a fact about the political power wielded about David Murray-John (I’m not sure if this was the focus of his undergraduate dissertation), and ending with a recollection of hearing Howard Newby “on Radio 4 in the 1990s misquoting Johnson – ‘If you are tired of London you are tired of life, if you are tired of Swindon you have been there ten minutes’.”

Late last year, I found myself in a meeting of WEA tutors from across the South West, talking to a man from Tiverton, who amongst other things was actively involved in local associations of Ringers – so I asked, and Yes, he was referring to bellringers, and Yes, of course he knew who Ron Johnston was. Ron will be widely missed across many worlds I suspect.

Partial Reading

As I mentioned the other day, there seems to have been a feeling about that being in lockdown is an occasion to catch up on lots of reading. It’s an interesting genre, the ‘what to read while socially distancing’, because it implicitly acknowledges a kind of constitutive anxiety about not having read enough (of the right things) that certain sorts of people, people like me, suffer from. It’s a weird anxiety to have, not least because to a large extent, reading it what I do for a living – even the kind of writing I do is often a form of commentary on other texts, on things I’ve read (about).

Reading is a many-sided thing in my corner of the academic world. I read lots of emails, on very different topics and of different genres; I read minutes of meetings and agendas and drafts of policy documents and exam papers; I read student essays, and more specifically, I mark them, which is a very specific kind of reading; I read letters of recommendation; and I also re-read things I have written, things like student handbooks, exam questions, carefully crafted e-mails to colleagues.

Then there is the strange world of reading academic literature, the very crux of what people like me do. Reading academic papers and books is a rather odd form of reading, sometimes more intense than the kind of reading you do on holiday on the beach, but very often a lot more superficial. Reading of this sort can be very physical (you do it with a pen or pencil in hand, sitting up straight). It involves annotating, underlining; I write all over the things I read (much to my mothers’ enduring distaste), cross-referencing, inferring, remembering. I often read academic literature out loud, quietly, and much to the amusement of my children, because only by sounding things out do certain sorts of arguments make sense. These aren’t necessarily very effective ways of learning, it should be said. Much of this sort of reading is done for a purpose – to cite, to elaborate, to gloss what has been said. Academic reading can take the form of systematically superficial speed-reading (a large part of teaching undergraduate students in a ‘research intensive’ university involves teaching a set of implicit, poorly formulated, often unacknowledged skills of skimming texts). This sort of reading tells us something about the ways in which lots of academic writing takes the form of reporting things – how experiments were designed, evidence generated, results analysed, conclusions justified.

And sometimes, in academic worlds, reading is something myself and others do to each other.

There are, in turn, a whole set of ways of reading which are themselves forms of getting to know things. This may include various ‘methodologies’: discourse analysis, textual analysis; or more precise variants of these catch-all terms: deconstruction, or reader-response criticism, or generalised semiotics (much disdained these days, but oddly pervasive in those fields which most loudly disclaim ‘textualism’ or ‘the discursive’ yet continue to suppose that ‘non-human’ agency is best affirmed by imagining that the whole world is structured like a grammatically correct sentence).

And then there is the strange world of TheoryLand, a field of work which relies on a whole set of practices of reading (and writing about one’s reading), which are in large part at odds with the assumptions about reporting that define ‘normal’ academic reading. TheoryLand is a world defined perhaps above all by a certain sort of pomposity about proper reading, of close, immersive reading – it’s a pomposity that has its clearest expression in discussions of the ‘ethics of reading’ by writers such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. In TheoryLand, you are meant to have read loads of things, but also to have read them really, really carefully, so that all texts worthy of this sort of reading (and who decides that?) are read as carefully, sequentially, as their authors assume they are going to be read when they are writing them. It’s a world shaped by assumptions about about being taken over by the text that underwrite formal and informal ideas about the virtues of ‘difficulty’ as a marker of value. The pleasures of the text, in this sort of reading, are oddly disembodied, apart perhaps when people are doing criticism, which often takes the form of saying that someone else hasn’t read things as well, as carefully, as faithfully, as the critic.


Reading Assignments

In my world, a large part of the process of induction into professional academic life works through books, in particular, in the form of telling students that ‘you should read this‘. Knowing what to tell a student to read is pretty much the only talent I have, although just to be clear, knowing what they should read is not quite the same thing as having read what you are recommending (and that’s neither as shameless or shameful as it might sound): one of the requirements of academic seniority is learning that it’s OK to get other people to read the things you haven’t had time to read yourself.

This idea that there are some things one just must read brings to mind, perhaps, the idea that there is a canon to master. That might be the case in some fields, in the humanities. It’s not an idea that makes much sense in GeographyLand, although there are people who think it should. I once tried to invent a very sad after-dinner party-game for Geographers, in which each person tried to admit to the books that they hadn’t read that it seemed to them that everyone else thinks that one really should have done. But it turns out, in GeograpyLand, that few if any of the things that you haven’t read actually rise to the level of generating professional shame. Anyone you are likely to play this game with, by virtue of being a professional academic in GeographyLand, is living proof that the canon arrived at in this way isn’t really canonical anyway – on the basis of my sample, it turns out that it’s possible to get along fine without ever having read Explanation in Geography, or Traces on the Rhodian Shore, or Topophilia, or Uneven Development, or Pivot of the Four Quarters, or Birds in Egg/Eggs in Bird (or is it the other way around? Oh, it doesn’t matter).

I mentioned this ‘game’ to a graduate student (without a first degree in Geography), who said it reminded them of the Humiliation game in David Lodge’s Changing Places (not read it myself), where admitting to not having read Hamlet leads to professional disgrace for one character. Of course, this model of canonical knowledge, and the image of reading associated with it, does not travel well to fields where command of a textual field is not so central. In fact, I am inclined to think that the break out of Theory in GeographyLand over the last four decades or so (and it is worth remembering that the single most important work of geographical theory produced in that period is a singularly scholarly exercise in critical exegesis) has led to an interesting internal cleavage that mirrors, at one remove, the succinct definition of the division between ‘Continental Philosophy’ and analytical philosophy provided by Stanley Cavell (don’t ask me where). He suggests that ‘Continental Philosophy’ is a genre recognisable because writers in that tradition perform as if they have read everything there is worth reading (which it turns out might not be very much, if you’re Heidegger), whereas analytical philosophers profess to focus on problems as if they haven’t read anything at all (apart perhaps from Wittgenstein, who is often read as if he’d never read anything himself). There is a dizzying dynamic of knowing and knowing that both of these styles of thought sets in train – and there is a whole architecture of academic personae built around this broad distinction, revolving around a culture of pretending to read only for the things reported and a culture of pretending to read only for what things really mean.


The Pleasures of the Text?

Because reading is important to what I do professionally, and because what I do professionally is wrapped up in all sorts of anxieties associated with either not having read enough or not having read properly, I have a fraught relationship with reading for pleasure or relaxation. I’m not very good at reading novels – I tend to have to trap myself into doing this, by taking novels into the bath for example. Reading has all sorts of occasions and spaces in fact – I read a lot of Marx as a graduate student, for example, and an awful lot of that was on trains and buses. I always over pack books for plane journeys, and I have managed to read not only cricketers’ biographies but also very manly books about flying planes in a single flight. The reason for a beach holiday is primarily to force oneself to read things one might otherwise not get around to. I’m learning to like reading in the garden, listening to sparrows. Quite a lot of this reading (not the Marx) depends on finding ways of retreating or holding off other tasks or other distractions, in a kind of forced withdrawal, or it takes place in the interstices of other activities (on journeys, on holiday, waiting to do other things).

Reading as a way of passing the time, or killing time while waiting, or as escape, is rather a different practice from the sort of professional reading that academics and scholars and intellectuals do – it doesn’t figure much in arguments about the edifying worthiness associated with ideas of literary reading that are so common in the humanities. Because of this difficult relationship between reading and precious time, I fret quite a lot about starting novels, in case I start something which I can’t then maintain an interest in.

And one way of thinking about the different sorts of reading one can engage in is by thinking about the status of unfinished books. Academic books, of course, aren’t really meant to be read all the way through, from front to back. There’s no shame in reading bits of an academic book, selected chapters. I’m not worried about never having read all sorts of things, but I do worry about not having finished things I have started. I have never finished The Thin Man, because I quickly got the point about its importance lying in the quality of the dialogue early on and lost interest in the mystery. I never managed to complete Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder, because it’s one of those books which is rather transparently a bit of allegorised Theory, the kind of novel that reflects back to academic critics the kinds of ideas they always already project onto the literary in the first place. I should have finished Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, about a town in self-imposed lockdown during the Spanish flu epidemic in the USA a hundred years ago, and keep thinking I should go back and do so now, but now it’s not so enticing a prospect; likewise, with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. When I was 16, I took Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on holiday with me because it was a set text for A Level English. I can remember reading Chapter 3 on the plane home (planes, again), and thinking it was a rather obvious metaphor for life’s struggles (it’s about a turtle trying to cross the road), and realising that I would have to write an essay about this chapter, which then seemed like a total waste of time when that is exactly the task that was assigned. I gave up English at that point, as well as never finishing the book, although I don’t think that I have ever managed to escape a love/hate attachment to the interpret-ability of things that revealed itself then.

I’ve now found the perfect way of dealing with this anxiety about not knowing what to start in case I don’t finish it. I’m walking around a lockdowned house, carrying a copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities with me from room to room, and occasionally finding the time to read one of its short, essay-like chapters. It’s actually quite good fun. It’s modern, for sure, but not difficult in a writerly way – that’s not a kind of pleasure I find myself disciplined enough, or smart enough, to enjoy. I realise that this sounds like an absurdly pretentious sounding thing to drop into a blog post. But the point is that Musil didn’t finish this book. So I figure that it’s OK if I don’t either.





Who Does Geography Matter For?


The report last week by the Royal Historical Society on Race, Ethnicity and Equality into the discipline of History in UK higher education, as well as some of the attendant press coverage, has reminded me of a train of thought I have been following, in my own head, since the summer. It was prompted by the #ChooseGeography hashtag, which has been a medium for sharing various reasons to affirm why Geography Matters, as they used to say.

The stream of tweets reminded me that I, and a number of other geographers I know, didn’t really choose geography at all. It chose us – it’s proved to be an unexpectedly creative and open space in which to find things out. Perhaps this grammatical difference – between choosing geography and being chosen by it – indicates a significant cleavage within the field more broadly. The active sense of choosing geography is associated with a strongly justificatory rhetoric of why geography matters in more or less useful, practical, even applied, ways. #ChooseGeography does reflect a wider embrace of the idea that Geography is ideally placed to address all sorts of ‘global challenges’ – because geographers are really good at understanding the interactions between local actions and global processes [they really are].

Of course, it’s worth remembering that all those ‘challenges’ that drive current debates about the value of research are externally sourced (remember, the establishment of UKRI means the Haldane principle is effectively dead – by defining it as a principle only relating to decision about individual research proposals) – which does raise the question of what is involved when whole scholarly fields define their own intellectual agendas by so openly embracing the logics of ‘challenge-led’ research (i.e. what the government of the day randomly decides is worthwhile, with no more arms length mediation).

The problem with the ‘really useful knowledge’ version of geography is that it tends to side-line that strand of geographical thought that focuses on how all those ‘challenges’ arise as matters of public concern in the first place [you could call that a ‘critical’ strand, or a ‘genealogical’ strand; or, just ‘science’, in so far as science is about problem-finding, not problem-solving, to borrow a line from Richard Sennett].

So, for example, lots of those ‘global challenges’ are now described as really complex, and therefore requiring integrative, ‘interdisciplinary’ approaches. Climate change is, obviously, the best example – it’s now routinely thought of as a “super wicked problem”. Now, if you take that idea seriously (and you should), then it means that this sort of problem can’t be solved (and certainly not by the application of scientific knowledge, however integrative and expansive it might be). A little bit of intellectual history can be a dangerous thing. Science doesn’t offer solutions. It’s difficult to roll that idea into grand funding bids though, isn’t it.

So, here is my final thought: Just what is the relationship between the idea of geography-as-useful-and-challenge-oriented, on the one hand, and the chronic whiteness of the discipline, in the UK, on the other?

To be more precise, how does the ongoing framing of a field of knowledge – one that seeks to understand the worldliness of the world – as a purveyor of beneficent knowledge which is able to solve other people’s/peoples’ problems (and especially, which is able to solve problems created by other people’s/peoples’ supposed lack of thoughtful action), how does that framing help to reproduce a problematic and unacknowledged paternalism at the heart of the Subject of academic Geography (whether as student, teacher, or researcher)? Just askin’. Seriously.

Anyway, I wonder if the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers, of course) might consider a similar exercise to the one undertaken by the RHS sometime soon. It would make interesting reading.




Democracy for Geographers

The International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, edited by too many people to mention, published by Wiley in collaboration with the Association of American Geographers, is now available (at £1500 or so – I guess this is one for Libraries). Murray Low and I wrote the entry for Democracy, still one of those concepts that Geographers mention a lot in passing, as a kind of ideal, without necessarily ever making it into a central theme of debate. Maybe.

Geography Books

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-10-15-28It’s sad, I know, but one of my favourite places is the Bookbarn, in Somerset on the road from Bristol to Wells. It is, as the name suggests, a big barn full of old books (my partner refuses to ever come along with me, because the smell of second-hand books repulses her just a little). The books here seem to consist mainly of discontinued library stock, from everywhere from the Cleveland County Library and the former Bath College of Higher Education (precursor to Bath Spa) to the Seeley Historical Library in Cambridge. If you were so inclined, you could acquire pretty much any book written about the Royal Family in the last 60 years here, or, alternatively, construct your own personal archive of every single Open University social science course from The Dimensions of Society (1975) onwards.

The Bookbarn even has a whole Geography section, which is more than you can say about most academic bookshops these days. It’s about 12 square feet of shelves, containing books mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, with a sprinkling from  1990s and more recently. I was there on Saturday, and I could have bought all of my old school textbooks for both O and A level, but thought better of it. You could, too, collect a number of ‘classics’ of modern academic Geography, including Harvey’s Explanation in Geography, Haggett’s Locational Analysis, pretty much anything you might want by Dudley Stamp, Wilbur Zelinsky’s A Prologue to Population Geography, different editions of Wooldridge and East’s The Spirit and Purpose of Geography, the original version of Sparks’ Geomorphology, or the first Progress in Geography edited collection from 1969.

These shelves offer a snapshot of how Geography was represented in public life in the UK somewhere between about 1970 and the mid-1980s, in so far as the books acquired by school and University libraries but also by local public libraries are an indication of that. Standing there, in front of them all, you get a strong sense of the 1970s having been a little bit of a golden age for Geography publishing in the UK, with a wide range of book length research monographs and edited collections reviewing and promoting geography as a science, and in particular human geography as a social science (an age when publishers such as Heinemann, Croom Helm, Arnold, and Hutchinson all had important geography lists it seems). Many of the books on these shelves are ones I can remember, at least from the covers if not necessarily from actually reading them, from when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s. They seemed a little dated even then, which might have been a design issue in some cases, but also had to do with the way in which the intellectual substance of many of the books you can find in the Bookbarn had, already by then, been framed as standing on one said of a divide between ‘radical’ and not-so-radical geography, which was overlain onto the mutually hostile methodological chauvinisms on both sides. I liked the radical stuff (the only book on the shelves at the Bookbarn which really counts as an influential one for my own intellectual formation is 1984’s Geography and Gender: An Introduction to Feminist Geography, by the IBG’s Women and Geography Study Group). Amazingly in hindsight, did an undergraduate degree in which one didn’t actually have to take any notice of ‘quantitative’ and statistical approaches at all if you didn’t want to (I don’t as a result share the antipathy towards those approaches often felt by people once forced to sit through what, way back when, were not very well taught classes promoting them; nor the sense of self-righteousness often attached to ‘qualitative’ approaches that is the flip-side of generation-shaping ‘Bad-Stats’ experiences). The books I have in mind (some of which I bought – they are dead cheap), are expressions of the “methodological ferment” that transformed Geography from the 1950s onwards, primarily through the adoption, development and refinement of statistical techniques and mathematical modelling to spatial patterns, processes and forms. You can trace the emergence of whole new sub-disciplines in the wake of this modernization in the books in the Bookbarn: of urban geography, for example, in Harold Carter’s The Study of Urban Geography, David Herbert’s Urban Geography: A Social Perspective, and Ron Johnston’s City and Society;  or of development geography, in Akin Mabogunje’s The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective or David Grigg’s The Harsh Lands; as well as the traces of approaches that sound suddenly contemporary again (e.g. The Political Geography of the Oceans). The books gathering dust on these shelves were, I guess, integral to the institutionalisation of geography-as-(social)science as higher education expanded during the 1970s, and are testament to what I can’t help thinking of as ‘IBG-Geography’, expressions of an assertive discipline framed in no small part by turning away from the associations of geography with merely descriptive accounts of far away places In his wonderful genealogy of modern social science in Britain, which is very geographical without saying much about Geography, Identities and Social Change in Britain, Mike Savage does identify human geography as exemplifying the adoption of social scientific expertise in what were traditionally conceived of and practised as humanities disciplines: “Foremost amongst these was human geography, which largely abandoned its focus on the culture and traditions of fixed regional spaces and forged close relationships with sociology and anthropology and self-identified as a social science.” It’s the books through which this process of self-identification was enacted that are all sitting in the Bookbarn. You can even find here evidence of that moment when it was possible to imagine human geography and physical geography having common intellectual grounds, and not only ones based in shared methodologies, but even in shared philosophical assumptions (I picked up a copy of Bob Bennett’s and Dick Chorley’s Environmental Systems: Philosophy, Analysis and Control, which is rather prescient in its presentation of the synthesizing promise of systems theory, now all the rage again in somewhat different, resilient, form).

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-17-19-58Driving home (composing this blog in my head), it occurred to me that this ‘sample’ of books captures the becoming-relevant of geography in this period. You can pick up a copy of David Smith’s Human Geography: A Welfare Approach (with its great front cover) alongside his more technical Patterns in Human Geography, both of which explicitly question the sorts of problems geographers sought to address and the values they sought to advance in addressing them. You can find traces of the divisions between different images of the vocation of geography (stresses and strains captured in the very title of Michael Chisholm’s Human Geography: Evolution or Revolution?). The recurring focus is on issues of spatial analysis, where this involves the delimitation of distinctively spatial processes and spatial forms, but none of these books are aridly methodological – there is plenty of social theory embedded in these books, just not perhaps the sort of (post-)Marxist thought that had become so central to defining the meaning of social theory by the time I was an undergraduate. For example, the OU’s co-published Fundamentals of Human Geography reader, from 1978, includes a piece by Claus Offe on advanced capitalism and the welfare state, a fact which in no small part captures something of the taken-for-granted background of quite a lot of the substance held on these shelves. Assertions of the importance of a newly robust social scientific human geography – such as Studies in Human Geography, a 1973 collection edited by Chisholm and Brian Rodgers and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council as it was then, with the intention to “focus attention on the substantive contribution of geographers to several fields of study” and aimed as much at ‘non-geographers’ as at ‘practising geographers’ (I’m still practising) – were articulated in a context in which it was still assumed that a relatively stable institutional field of ‘planning’ and ‘regional policy’ existed into which geographers could speak with authority and influence. By the time I was an undergraduate, this stability no longer existed, and I was inducted into geography in a context in which it was the dissolution of that stable field which generated all the most exciting intellectual energies (you can pick up a copy of Martin and Rowthorn’s The Geography of De-Industrialisation at the Bookbarn too, from 1986, a book which pretty much captures the moment, as do the slightly later  of OU edited course books on The Economy in Question and Politics in Transition, which are also there). By the time I was a graduate student, in the early 1990s, as those stable fields of ‘relevance’ further dwindled, the sorts of “critical human geography” that I settled into was rapidly reshaped around theoretically sophisticated forms of analysis which were really good at identifying the possibilities of political purchase for academic analysis in situations where it seemed, at first look, to have disappeared (a pattern of analysis which continues to frame an awful lot of work in human geography, probably including most of mine).

My excuse for spending my Saturday afternoon leafing through books I mainly didn’t read 30 years ago and mainly won’t be reading now (with some exceptions), if I need one, is that I do have a professional interest in the more or less recent profile of Geography. Amongst many other things, I’m meant to be editing a Companion on the history and philosophy of geography (a rather daunting task; I’m not doing it on my own), so I am telling myself that all this browsing really counted as research, of a sort at least. It’s interesting, for example, to notice just how many of the old books you can find at the Bookbarn were concerned not merely with applying quantitative methods to spatial problems, but rather are explicitly engaged with the challenge of theorising issues that are “peculiarly geographical”. Not thinking of the spatial as just a residual, or as an externality, or merely contextual, remains a compelling issue across social science, and it is one theme that might well connect what are often still presented as incompatible qualitative and the quantitative ‘paradigms’ in geography (does anyone still use that word?). It’s not, for sure, an issue over which strands of quantitative geography and traditions of spatial analysis hold a monopoly, but my afternoon in the company of all these old books reminded me that it is this theoretical issue that was at the core of the process of making human geography from the 1950s onwards, and it’s this theoretical issue that might well remain central to a distinctively geographical imagination of the challenges of ‘spatializing the social sciences’ (and humanities, I suppose).

(How) Should we Read Heidegger?

Scan 130690059-3Just noticed this in Geografica Helvetica (via a tweet from Juliet Fall about this journal being open access now) – a ‘debate’ emerging, perhaps, about the implications for geographical thought of the latest revelations in Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks‘, published last year (not very flattering revelations, which is of course saying something). Benedikt Korf raises the question of whether there isn’t something irredeemably tainted, poisonous, about Heidegger’s thought. Ulf Strohmayer takes up the challenge thus laid down, arguing that the best way to respond is to delve even deeper into Heidegger’s thought – a not uncommon response to the sorts of questions Benedikt raises. Somewhere between the two pieces, the question of the degree to which the fascination with/of Heidegger depends upon all the biographical stuff (Nazi, adulterer, prude, anti-semite, etc) is passed over.

Of course, it might always be possible to go along in geography without worrying about Heidegger’s thought at all, one way or the other.

Approaches to Human Geography: new edition published

91rdYH74XwLOh the excitement – a new year, and a new book in the pigeon hole at work. The new, second edition of Approaches to Human Geography, edited by Stuart Aitken and Gill Valentine, has been published. I have found this text, and various others in the ‘family’ of associated texts published by Sage on ‘Key Concepts’, ‘Key Texts’, ‘Key Thinkers’ really useful in my own transition back into not-so-distanced higher education teaching in the last year or so.

I happen to have a chapter in the Approaches volume, titled Postcolonialism: Powers of Representation. I don’t know about other chapters, but I think mine is a significant revision from the previous one, in tone if nothing else.

On Stoddart

CCCCI was saddened to hear of the death of the geographer David Stoddart. The Guardian has an obituary, written by Peter Haggett, and The Independent has one by Tam Dalyell, with whom Stoddart campaigned to save Aldabra from being used as a military base; and there is an appreciation on the Berkeley Geography Department website.

Stoddart is the main influence on me becoming a Geographer, or at least on remaining in Geography long enough to become one. I am the last-but-one Geography undergraduate he admitted before leaving Cambridge, and no-one had applied to his College for a couple of years before me. Later on, it occurred to me that this might have been why I got in – I assume he wasn’t going to look too hard at the stray application that did turn up (I only applied to that College because they offered the best accommodation deal). As my Director of Studies, I was taught by Stoddart for a year, in his office in the Department of Geography (he had effectively ceased to actually visit the College some time ago). He wasn’t actually around when my first term started, he arrived a couple of weeks later, having been away in California, securing the Chair to which he moved at the end of 1987.

For a year, I had one-on-one supervisions with Stoddart, because there weren’t any other Geographers for whom he was responsible (This wasn’t, in my experience otherwise, a normal situation at all; supervisions normally had two or three people in them). In these meetings, I learnt various things. I learnt how to nurse a large glass beaker full of sherry through an hour-long meeting in which someone else was ding a lot of the talking without ending up totally trashed (not a skill that has been called on much since then). Above all, I learnt that Geography was an intellectual vocation. Stoddart’s outward demeanour was, as I recall, rather hearty, but his teaching was focussed on ideas, ideas, and ideas. His supervisions were interrupted by phone calls from Joseph Needham, and full of discussions, by Stoddart, of Darwin. His model of teaching was to send you off to read something for next time, and then when next time came round, you would find yourself talking about something else entirely. As a matter of principle, he didn’t set essays; so I didn’t write any in my first year as an undergraduate, until exams in the summer. This was a model of Geography as reading, like a personalised version of Geography as ‘Greats’ (I tended not to invest so heavily in Stoddart’s predilection for romping around salt marshes in the cold of November).

UntitledStoddart had me read Paul Wheatley’s Pivot of the Four Quarters in my first term, and Clarence Glacken’s Traces of the Rhodian Shore over the Christmas break (let’s not dwell on whether I understood anything going on in these kinds of books). Perhaps most importantly, he pointed me in the direction of David Harvey’s work. Getting me to read Harvey was his strategy to keep me from switching from Geography at the end of my first year. I went to University with the intention of studying Economics, and only started with Geography because if you already had an A-Level in Economics, you did not need to do the first-year Economics course. I thought doing Geography would be a good way of learning a few more facts about desertification and drought before focussing on proper, complex ideas about how the world really worked (which is what doing Economics at school had seemed to have been about). When I first met him, at a meet-and-greet event in the Spring before going to University, I had told Stoddart that I liked Keynes (he had asked me who my intellectual hero was, and I didn’t think it wise to say ‘Charles M. Schulz’), and that I had an interest in knowing more about Marxism (probably because of reading too much of the NME). So when I started, when he did arrive back, he told me to read Harvey, specifically, ‘Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science‘. This essay was almost designed to convert callow just-out-of-school Geographers into critical social scientists. It worked on me. When I later ordered Harvey’s Limits to Capital for the College library, the request was forwarded to the Economics fellow for approval, who declined it on the grounds that this book was already held at the University’s Economics library. Stoddart was furious at this, and insisted on it being ordered as core Geography reading.

By the end of my first year, actually much earlier, I had settled on staying with Geography (helped by the realisation that Economics was really just abstracted applied algebra). This was because I had discovered a whole world of social theory, a world full of Marxism and feminism and Giddens, a world in which it turned out that everyone was talking about politics and power. And I had discovered this world in no small part because Stoddart encouraged me in that direction, and also because he demonstrated to me through his own work and teaching style that Geography was the place to stay if you were really interested in pursuing ideas.

Making Human Geography: New book by Kevin Cox


I have just read Kevin Cox’s new book, Making Human Geography. It tells the story, as he sees it, of how over the last 50 years or so, human geography has become a field of sophisticated theoretical and methodological inquiry. He starts by admitting this is a ‘personal understanding’, and it has a strong ‘interpretative’ line that reflects is own convictions, not least about the continuing saliency not just of Marxism, but of geography’s Marxism, of ‘historical-geographical materialism’ as an explanatory framework. I guess this won’t be to everyone’s tastes (there is plenty to disagree with about Kevin’s account of all sorts of things). But one of the things that I liked about the book was its tone. He worries about the ‘eclecticism’ associated with contemporary human geography, especially in its self-consciously ‘critical’ varieties; but does not complain about fragmentation nor indulge in nostalgia for lost coherence. Above all, the book makes an assertive case for human geographer’s achievements in laying the groundwork for the on-going challenge of spatializing the social sciences. This is a book about the ‘strong ideas’ developed by geographers, not the geographical ideas you can find elsewhere – no Lefebvre here, no ‘methodological nationalism’. These sorts of absences might be something that not everyone will be comfortable with – after all, geography now inhabits a broad field in which various spatial and environmental vocabularies are shared, including political theory, media studies, science and technology studies, as well as ‘Continental Philosophy’. All sorts of theorists get to be classified as ‘spatial thinkers’. Geographers increasingly thrive in this interstitial field, finding it easier to ‘pass’ as just another social scientist or theorist (in turn, in the UK at least, the institutional form of Geography in higher education has been transformed by the capacity of what are now very seldom mere ‘Departments of Geography’ to act as hospitable homes for various fields of inter-disciplinary social science ). Just how to ‘wear’ the distinctive disciplinary understandings of space, or scale, or networks developed since the 1950s outlined in this book has become more and more of a challenge. Not least, the challenge is to avoid a certain sort of ‘take-my-ball-home’ chauvinism that is associated, for example, with arguments about using space ‘metaphorically’ compared to proper ‘material’ understandings. The story in this book revolves around the different concepts of space (the trusty triad of absolute, relative and relational space) that have shaped human geography. This is a much more helpful way of approaching inter-disciplinary conversations (though not without it’s own implicit chauvinisms I suspect).

Scan 130260001This book covers a lot of ground – everything from geographical deconstruction to the expansion method (which is much less interesting than it might sound) – even as it cleaves to its own distinctive narrative line. It’s accessibly written, reflecting its origins no doubt in many years of seminar teaching. In parts, it presumes quite a lot of familiarity with the discipline and its main players. Apart from anything else, it does a really good job of elaborating on how important the ‘quantitative-spatial revolution’ both was and still should be for human geography’s intellectual progress: one of the most interesting themes is the idea of quantification and spatialization as two distinct intellectual movements that converged in the 1950s and 1960s; it also makes the point that the development of quantitative spatial science since then has been more often than not focussed on issues of contextualisation, against the caricature of ‘generalisation’ and ‘law-finding’ often directed against this style of work. Again, I guess the call for some sort of rapprochement across quantitative and qualitative styles might not resonate that much in some ears – not only, but not least, because to a considerable extent the cross-generational formation of human geographers (like me) naturally attuned to the worlds of social theory, Continental Philosophy, or qualitative methodologies is dependent on an institutionalised blindness around quantitative social science (the reverse is true too, of course).

I don’t necessarily agree with how Kevin interprets human geography’s trajectory. For example, I don’t really recognise the presentation of change since the 1980s, in terms of various ‘Posts’ that displace the centrality of Marxism. It’s a standard presentation, no doubt. It easily underestimates just how central Marxism still is in human geography, compared to any other social science field I can think of. I’d tell that story differently (perhaps in terms of a succession of errors compounding themselves… perhaps as the triumph of certain ‘philosophical’ temptations over the modern dilemmas of social theory…; or perhaps, on reflection, more charitably, in the same tone of genuine curiosity that Kevin strikes in his version of the story). But I do think that his account focuses in on the fundamental points of tension around which any disciplinary field develops: issues of method, key concepts, and the question of how best to understand ‘why things happen and why’. Above all, I like the fact that this is unashamed celebration of what human geographers do as geographers, and why this is important for the social sciences more generally.