Thursday, July 3, 2008

On the relevance of geography

PhD students are typically required to take at least one course in which they explore the origins of geography, identify some of the key moments in its development as a modern discipline and, ultimately, to consider in its simplest terms, "What is geography?" I suspect students in other disciplines are also expected to do similar things, although I wonder if they spend as much time wrestling with the meaning of their disciplines as do geographers.

It is a bit difficult to find a simple phrase or sentence that captures the broad range of what geographers are or what it is they do. For many Canadians my age, their main knowledge of geography is captured by grade school memories of emptying Laurentien pencil crayons from a plaid pencil case and colouring in outline maps of Canada, each province getting its own colour, each one of us struggling to label the words "Prince Edward Island" on a black oval little bigger than a cookie crumb.

Few of us ever meet someone who describes himself or herself as a geographer. We all know people who describe themselves as accountants, welders, stay-at-home parents, hockey fans, etc., but no geographers. On St. Patrick's Day you will see dozens of people wearing green "Kiss me, I'm Irish" t-shirts (although none of them are actually Irish, and most require vaccinations and a bath before anyone would dream of kissing them). On no day of the year will you encounter a "Kiss me, I'm a geographer" t-shirt.

Even among geographers, there can be a reluctance to identify oneself as simply a geographer. More common is the adjective-geographer, the two most obvious being human geographer and physical geographer, but there are lots of other variations: social geographer, cultural geographer, biogeographer, and so on. This may be due to the fact that geography is such a broad umbrella any number of people may shelter beneath it. In my own department, for example, there is a geographer who studies the distribution of permafrost, another who studies the experience of Latin American immigrants to Canada, and still another who studies psychosocial health and environmental risk perception. They all coexist quite comfortably within the geography department, even if, I suspect, one is not entirely sure what it is that the others do in detail.

So it is that your poor PhD student struggling to complete his or her mandatory theory course must wade through articles that ponder whether human and physical geography are actually separate disciplines; whether geography is actually a discipline at all or can be safely disbanded and its practitioners dispersed to other disciplines (as has been done at many American universities); or whether geography has a rosy future because of its ability to integrate so many diverse ideas and practices into the discipline. Fortunately for the student, there is no right answer to the question "What is Geography?" Many an answer will do, so long as it is given articulately and does not offend the instructor's sensibilities.

My purpose here is not to relive my PhD student days, nor to undertake any serious deconstruction of the meaning of geography or its philosophical underpinnings (it would not likely attract many return readers to this site). Writing a blog creates an imposition for other people; the blogger is in essence saying to the reader "I think what I have to say is so darn important you will want to give up your time that might be better spent on some other activity to read my postings". Blogging is, when you think about it, conceited and a bit arrogant. So now that I have decided to join the conceited and arrogant crowd, two questions become important: what is so useful about having a geographer's perspective on things; and, what sort of a geographer am I that anyone would want my opinion as a geographer.

My short answer to the first question is as follows. Geographers are often good generalists; that is, te nature of the discipline often forces us to acknowledge and become familiar with a range of theories, techniques and practices, even ones we don't ourselves employ. In the regular course of our duties, academic geographers are asked to sit on committees, preside over examinations and carry out administrative responsibilities relating to student research. In doing so we are exposed to everything from geomatic technologies to post-Fordism to aeolian geomorphology. I know what a thelweg is, though I haven't measured one's velocity, and I know what Foucaultian discourse analysis involves, though I have never tried it myself. This ability to understand what's going on beyond one's own potato patch is a skill in rapid decline within academia and elsewhere as well. Many of the sticks and carrots of the university research system lead academics to specialize and then specialize more. Why be just a geographer when you can be a critical-Marxist-social-theorist or a mid-latitude-alpine-geomorphologist? Yet many of the world's most pressing environmental, socio-economic and political challenges require broad-based, multi-pronged responses - exactly the opposite of what academic institutions encourage. It's therefore good, I would suggest, to have a few generalist geographers around the table to keep us all talking to one another.

As for the second question - what sort of a geographer am I - it will hopefully become apparent through this and subsequent postings. Whether or not what I have to say is in any way stimulating and engaging only time will tell. I do hope you, who has persevered through this long first posting, will visit again. I have some ideas I would like to share with you and get your thoughts on, so please do check back again.

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