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.




Keep Mrs. Honeyman right out of sight

A week of protest, demonstrations, rioting, flash looting, vandalism and violence across towns and cities in England has been another occasion for the expression of instant opinion and analysis by academics and intellectuals.

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association (BSA) made a public claim for the relevance of sociology in the wake of the riots, primarily on the grounds that sociologists know that ‘crowds are not rational’. Really? Since when? A peculiar claim indeed, one which seemed to conflate ‘emotions’ with ‘lack of reason’, and invited us to regress a hundred years or so back to Gustave Le Bon, and running counter to a wide range of social science that has spent decades demonstrating  precisely the opposite.

The Mandy Rice-Davies Award for this week goes to Zygmunt Bauman, for whom these events were all a symptom of rampant consumerism – actually a widely shared view amongst much of the commentariat, from left to right. David Harvey developed the extended analogy between the ‘feral rats’ doing the looting and ‘feral’ bankers and capitalists going unpunished for their crimes in bringing about global financial chaos. An analogy which, one might suppose, did not really throw much explanatory light upon last weeks’ events at all. Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett discerned a general sense of cynicism born of inequality as laying behind the riots.

Some commentators were keen to insist on a link between these events and the Coalitions’ agenda of austerity and cuts – but the link was only presented as a ‘context’, which rather begged the important question about how the relationship between contexts and conditions on the one hand, and actions and events on the other, is actually meant to be mediated. A number of people alighted upon an academic paper which finds a correlation between fiscal austerity and social ‘unrest’, in order to shore up the argument that there was a link between rioting and cuts.

Much of the commentary I have seen has suggested that ‘the right’ is keen to deny any and all causal analysis of these events, invoking pure criminality and mindless irresponsibility. This seems to be wrong-headed, and probably continues a long-standing failure to credit the post-Thatcherite right in the UK with having a quite well-developed social theory of our contemporary malaise. There are various sorts of causal accounts on the right – from Peter Oborne, whose account alights upon inequality and unaccountable elites in a way that easily resonates in fact with various left narratives, to the lunacy of David Starkey’s claim that the riots happened because ‘whites have become black’, and not in a good way. In between these positions, there is of course the prevalent Tory position, which invests heavily in ‘culture of poverty’ style arguments, focussing on family structures, moral failures, cultures of entitlement, and the like. There is a whole strand of social thought and research informing this style of analysis of course, and it is on this terrain, like or not, that the politics of academic analysis on these issues is likely to be fought. What these classically conservative narratives have going for them, of course, is that they specify and identify mechanisms, and potential objects of intervention, which mediate between broad structural processes and observable patterns of group behaviour and individual action. It is this ‘pragmatic’ emphasis that is missing in the grander narratives of consumerism, neoliberalism, feral capitalism and the like which emanate from the left, and which makes those critical narratives politically weak – consoling in their own way, for sure, but not really identifying practical paths of action, beyond general calls either for revolution, solidarity, or to rally round and ‘take responsibility’.

Somewhere amongst all this, I did happen upon some more informative contributions, although these tended to reinforce the sense that academics are better placed to think slowly through events rather than squeeze them into their pre-existing frames. The ESRC did a better job than the BSA by publicising the work of David Waddington and Clifford Stott on the complex dynamics of policing and public (dis-)order – work that explicitly counters the sense that rioting is ‘irrational’. Society and Space re-posted a series of academic analyses of policing and urban unrest from different historical and geographical contexts. And Paul Rogers drew attention to a recently published analysis of the dynamics of urban rioting and community reconstruction in Bradford from 2001 to 2010 which also seems pertinent going forward.

None of these examples reflected directly on events of last week, but each seems to promise more by way of understanding the causes and conditions and possible consequences of those events than much of the more instant reaction. Above all, each of these examples draws into focus the intricate roles of policing in contemporary democratic politics – another issue which, it seems to me, much of the theory-left has consistently failed to think through, happy to think of policing as merely an instrument of state control and oppression, a version of ‘the repressive state apparatuses’. This week has crystallised the issue of ‘cuts’ to the public services more acutely than ever before, certainly, but not because the cuts stand as a background condition or cause. Rather, it is because the consequences for the public order, in the broadest possible sense, of shrinking the resources and recalibrating the organisational structures of agencies charged with protecting and sustaining public life have been so starkly dramatised. In terms of both funding issues but also of principles of accountability and independence, policing has suddenly become the central terrain of debate and contestation around which the shape of public life is likely to be shaped in the next few years. And it’s good to remember that it’s when the call is to “start assembling the boys from the fort” that things start to get really worrying.