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).

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Making Human Geography: New book by Kevin Cox

KCOX

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.

Introducing Human Geographies

IHGI have just received my copy of the new, 3rd edition of Introducing Human Geographies, “the leading guide to Human Geography for undergraduate students”. Technically, not published ’til 2014, but perhaps available in the better bookshops in time for Christmas. In the second edition, published in 2005, I wrote a chapter under the Issues sub-section with the title ‘Who cares?‘. This time, I have a chapter in the Horizons sub-section on ‘How to think about public space‘. This chapter is actually the first published piece in which I attempt to outline some of my own thinking about publicness that came out of an ESRC project on the theme of Emergent Publics which finished a while ago now…. I’m not sure an undergraduate textbook is necessarily the best place to try to articulate the fuzzy research agenda that I thought might have ’emerged’ from that project, but I suppose it might be a good way of catching the next generation early. Only time will tell.

We’re Number One?

Scan 130690012-8Simon Batterbury has added a comment on the short post about the ESRC’s International Benchmarking Review of Human Geography, which found that human geography in the UK ‘ranks first in the world’. I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog (I can’t imagine why, I find myself to be a very engaging blogger), so this is an opportunity that does not come along too often to keep a conversation going. Or to just have the final word, depending on how things develop. Here are some thoughts of mine on Simon’s thoughts – I have no specific desire to defend the claim of the Review, but it is interesting to think about how one might proceed to think ‘critically’, as they say, about this sort of exercise:

–       The first thing to say is that this isn’t actually UK geography’s own judgement of itself – it was the judgment of an international panel of scholars (some of whom seem to have quite well developed skills in analysing colonial remainders in contemporary life), undertaken at the behest of the ESRC.

–       Simon repeats the canard about British geography being all a bit too theoretical. That’s right, British geography departments are chock full of people writing complex exegeses of Marx and Spinoza. I suspect that if you looked closely, you’d find that even the most obvious targets of this sort of complaint turn out to be rather more practically oriented than is acknowledged (by adherents as well as doubters): take non-representational theory and/or affect theory, for example, the most self-consciously ‘theoretical’ field which almost everybody (including me) loves to get wound up by, but which seems to be able to inform plenty of interesting research on ‘applied’ topics such as health and well-being, educational attainment, or the design of built environments; even when it isn’t being all ‘relevant’ like that, this is a field that shares a broader disciplinary hang-up on methodology – if you want to know how to do something empirical with affect theory, then you read geographers writing about this range of work, not sociologists or literary theorists.

–       Simon’s suggestion that the ‘public sociology’ agenda needs to be extended to geography seems to get things the wrong way around – it is difficult to imagine another discipline that is not more invested in various fields of application than geography, including, as I have just suggested all that woolly ‘cultural geography’. Debates about public sociology seem to be a case of that particular discipline trying to catch up with other disciplines that have, as it were, always already sold-out.

–       I’m not entirely sure that environmental studies, development studies, political ecology, or planning are ‘fringe’ fields in human geography, in the UK or anywhere else – they seem to make up a large chunk of what has been taught and researched in any department I have ever been in as a student or lecturer.

–       I’m not sure why one would think of a department like Reading (where I worked in the 1990s) or the LSE as being anomalies for being a bit ‘applied’ – again, this is a fairly standard feature of geography departments all over the UK.

–       My last thought goes back to the precise ‘authorship’, shall we say, of this particular report – it’s one of a set of reviews of social science disciplines undertaken by the ESRC, the primary public funder of social science in the UK. These reviews need to be read, one might have thought, as strategic initiatives – they tend to identify weak areas in each discipline, marked for further support or enhanced training (not enough macroeconomics in economics, hilariously!); not enough quant in sociology, that sort of thing. They are moments in ongoing games over the disbursement of public monies, in which the institutional interests at stake are not exhausted by Universities or academic disciplines. They also tend to emphasise various strengths, and they are ‘co-productions’, between the ESRC and other research councils with disciplinary bodies, like the BSA or RGS – pumping-up strong areas is a way of making moves in competitive games for further government funding, amongst other things. Such evaluations also, no doubt, enable defenders of often fragile departments to make stronger cases for further support and investment in their programmes in their own institutions – that might well be where the real significance of ‘Human Geography is Number 1’ lies, whether or not that was intended. I suppose my point is just that ‘critical’ analysis of these sorts of exercises might well benefit from a bit more social science imagination, recognising how organised fields of institutional practice tend to work.

–       No other discipline subjected to one of these reviews has been found to be ‘No.1’ in the way human geography was. One can imagine how that might invite a view that this judgement is a kind of back-handed compliment that implicates a whole international field. On the other hand, it is interesting to pause and consider how valuable it might be that human geography isn’t self-evidently dominated by the scholarly infrastructures of the USA – not least, because it might tell us something about the peculiar strengths of human geography in North America and elsewhere too.

–       There is of course a well-established tradition of ex-patriot British geographers now located in the US bemoaning how British geography is not all it should or could be (I’m not counting Simon here, since I think one is allowed to rant in blog posts, and he’s not in the US I don’t think). I have in mind pieces more or less regularly published in proper grown-up academic journals. It is impossible to imagine a similar discourse emanating, say, from American sociology or American political science. There are complex reasons for this, no doubt, including biographical trajectories, but also to do with just how mainstream ‘critical’ approaches are to international human geography agendas. Or, to put it another way, UK human geography’s elevated international status is not straightforwardly a function of the qualities of UK human geography on its own, and I mean that in the best possible way.

ESRC International Benchmarking Review of Human Geography

IMG_0487Over the last few years, the ESRC has undertaken a series of benchmarking reviews of the international research standing of different social science disciplines in the UK. They have just published the International Benchmarking Review for Human Geography. Here is the take-home paragraph:

“Our unanimous conclusion from the evidence presented to us is that human geography in the UK is innovative, vibrant, and in most sub-fields is the world leader. Its students and staff are gifted and committed, its research outputs are disproportionately influential, read and referenced throughout the English-reading world – and, in translation, beyond. It is radically interdisciplinary and with the spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences has become an exporter of ideas and faculty to other disciplines. In the 1960s and 1970s the overseas export of geographers was substantial, and though slower today and more likely to be two-way, this trade in academic knowledge continues. UK geographers have an art not only for innovation but also for synthesis and a large number of the seminal publications (books as well as articles) continue to have a UK origin. So too among the major disciplinary journals – the UK publishes more than its share. Bibliometric indicators reveal that both in volume and in citation impact UK human geography exceeds the scores of other countries and almost all UK comparator social sciences. Cumulatively, this evidence supports the conclusion that human geography as a whole in the UK ranks first in the world.”

Say it loud, say it proud.

Class in Human Geography

A new textbook collection on where-its-at in human geography, edited by John Agnew and James Duncan, is now out – The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Human Geography. I have a piece in this one, on Class. The interesting things the editors did with this collection is commission a series of pieces on substantive topics – landscape, region, sexuality, that sort of thing – rather than on headline ‘approaches’ or sub-disciplines, but they asked two people to write on each topic. So, for example, my colleague George Revill did one of the pieces on Mobility, David Ley the other. In my case, Andy Herod did the other piece on class – as I understand it, certainly from my end, we wrote these ‘blind’, without knowing the other contributor’s identity. I haven’t read the whole collection, but a quick skim through indicates that this might be quite an effective way of covering a range of different takes on the same topic without asking one person to review the whole of a sub-field.

By my count, this is the tenth collection of this student-focussed sort – Handbook, Encyclopedia, Dictionary – I have written something for in the last five or six years. I’m sure this a publishing phenomenon that tells us something interesting about how a discipline like geography is reproducing itself (though one of these 10 was for Political Theory collection, so it’s not just geography) – though I’m not sure what. The ones I have most enjoyed doing were for the latest edition of The Dictionary of Human Geography, partly because like many other people this title has such an important place in my own induction into the discipline (I belong to the late 1980s, 2nd Edition generation, nice impressionist picture on the front, lots about structuration theory); mainly, though, because the challenge of writing really short pieces on, for example, Ideology, or Culture, or Deconstruction, while trying to say all things one wanted to say about these topics was great discipline. I think the really interesting issue is how these texts get used, these days – we recommend the Dictionary for certain OU Masters courses, actually – it’s that advanced, I suppose; whether they really effectively reproduce (mini-)paradigms, who knows.