Today I turned in my last assignment for the term. As I had said, I would post my essay on the contemporary trends in geography. Now this is an alright piece of writing, though personally it feels a little BS ridden, so I hope you (and more importantly my professor) likes it. Not too much on the philosophy side, but hey, maybe I’ll flesh that out in another post. Enjoy:
My Perceptions and Thoughts on Contemporary Geography as an Academic Discipline
Frank L. Engel
Geography 471: Essay Final
December 10, 2007
When I began this course, I had (at least what I thought) was a pretty good idea of what geography was about and how I fit into the discipline. Now, at the end of my first semester as a Ph.D. student, I feel displaced as if lost in a fog. This essay is as much a task set before me to get a grade as it is a journey in which I hope I arrive with a sense of clarity in my understanding of who I am, and why I seem drawn to geography rather than civil engineering or one of my other interests.
Prior to the course, I thought of geography as a coherent and cogent discipline with one main focus of understanding. Geography is the study of spatial patterns and how those patterns change with time. I thought that the entirety of the discipline could be understood in this context, and I had what I thought were good sources of reason for this. Borchert (1987) defined geography as a science in which clarity and communication [were] achieved through the use of maps as a language. According to this view of geography to which I subscribed, maps (digital or otherwise) became the frame of reference for describing, analyzing, and understanding spatial phenomenon. Human and social geographers used maps to convey patterns in human settlement, epidemiology, and a numerous other inquires. We physical geographers used maps to explain and understand process and environmental change. For instance, several studies on meander migration and change communicate their results almost exclusively with change maps. To me, and Borchert, it seemed as though this was an acceptable way in which geography was differentiable from any other discipline. We were special in that we worked with the language of maps, and thus was our niche in academia. It was an eloquent (and somewhat misguided) belief. My ideas about what geography was were further refined prior to the course from reading Demko (1992), who considered the issue of memorization and the cliché and oft repeated idiom from the outside world, “So you’re a geographer huh? Say, what’s the capitol of Turkmenistan?” To Demko, the essence of being a geographer was about understanding the characteristics of the location of interest, that is “know[ing] your place” and allowing this knowledge to inform relevant lines of questioning. One of his best examples was that of the silk hat trade in the nineteenth century. Geographers were not so much concerned about the number of hats produced, or were they came from, but more interested in the increase in swamps due to the “falling out of fashion” of beaver skin hats. The reduction in beaver harvesting led to more beaver dams, and thus more swamps and lakes. From these readings and others, and the indoctrination to geography in my undergraduate education, I took geography to be the exclusive discipline which studied space and spatial phenomenon. Specifically how that phenomenon manifested in spatial patterns, how humans interacted and shaped those patterns, and how all of this mixed in the pot through time.
Though perhaps not the worst definition and concept of what geography was it was a bit rose tinted. Through this course I have learned that unfortunately (or fortunately) my discipline of choice was nowhere near as clear cut as I had imagined it. In the course, I was exposed to the modern history of geography as it became an institutionalized field of study in academia. From its earlier nineteenth century focus on exploration of the unknown and the formation of the American Geographical Society to radical geographies with humanist perspectives (Johnston and Sidaway 1979), I have begun to realize the complexity (and confusion) in defining the discipline in such simplistic terms. Probably the biggest realization I have had as a result of the course is the fact that geography is not privileged as the only discipline which used the domain of space to frame its lines of inquiry. It has become obvious that several fields from sociology to epidemiology, history to engineering, all frame (or are beginning to frame) research questions in ways that seek spatial pattern recognition and understanding. For instance, Schröder’s (2006) article on the incorporation of GIS towards understanding vector based disease propagation attempts (though perhaps poorly) to outline how epidemiology questions can be answered through geographical, spatially based constructs. This realization that geography is not the only discipline to ‘tackle’ the spatial domain has been recognized by others in the field. There are recent ripples throughout the discipline reminiscent of Hartshorne’s call for geography as the grand synthesizer and integrator of the other academic disciplines (Hartshorne 1939). These modern calls consist of various attempts to frame geography as a “transdisciplinary synthesis science” (Gober 2000, Skole 2004) painting the discipline as the great portal at the “convergence of disciplines” (Colwell 2004).
So it seems that now that my views on geography prior to the course were at least an okay start and that I was not the only one coming to grips with what our discipline is. Other researchers in my field have been going through this same identity crisis as they attempt to integrate their (perhaps intuitive) beliefs that geography is the study of spatial phenomenon change and patterns through time with the inexorable fact that several other disciplines also are concerned with these same inquiries. I think that they, like me, came to a realization that geography still is all of these things and more. Geography is unique in that it is so broad. Geography’s role in academia can be to tie all of these disciplines together through collaboration and integration of understanding at several spatial temporal scales, and is especially relevant towards studying phenomenon which have social and/or environmental implications at the human scale. Perhaps the reason I do not leave geography for some other focus is due to the fact that I can remain broad, consider an enormous range of questions about our world, and pull from those other disciplines as I need to inform my research and inquires.
A Discipline Divided?
Geography has many personalities. Though the main focus on spatial problems might be a unifying theme throughout the discipline, the truth is that there is an enormous range of questions being addressed in the discipline, and some have little or nothing to do with others. Wolman (2004) I think put it well when he stated that as practitioners of geography, we really only focus on parts of geography, and sometimes there is overlap, sometimes not. It would paint a nice picture to say that geographers and their many parts overlap often, but unfortunately in contemporary geography I do not think this is the case.
The main divide it would seem lies on a line between the physical and human/social realms. This gapping hole has widened since the revolt against the positivist spatial analytical tradition in the late 1960s and 1970s with the rise of the school of relevance. Human geographers, unsatisfied with the perception of modeling human behavior with homoeconomicus began to incorporate human freewill into the mix with radical geographies (e.g., Harvey 1972) that eschewed positivistic approaches. I think that this change in emphasis [in] the human geographies has spurned an [inherent] (though maybe not admitted) distrust of physical geographers and their methods. I am not alone in thinking this. Rhoads (2004) gives a similar and bleak outlook on the interaction between human and physical geographers, even going so far as to claim the perception that “geography integrates inquiry” as a farce. He rightly points out that human geographers tend to relegate physical geographers to the human-environmental (man-land) geographical tradition (Pattison 1964). With this premise then, collaboration and interaction between the human and physical geographers would necessarily have to be within this tradition (Rhoads 2004).
While I believe that there is a divide in contemporary geography, I do not see this as necessarily a bad thing. Considering other fields, especially hard sciences, I see much the same things. Chemistry, biology, physics, and others are broken into several sub-genres which investigate different lines of inquiry sometimes with entirely different ontological frameworks (e.g., quantum physics verses mechanical physics). It seems that other disciplines within academe are generally uninterested in contesting their identities. Now, that is not to say this is not a fruitful exercise, but it lends credence to the belief that I do not think of the divisions in geography as a vexing and worrisome occurrence. The broadness of geography as a discipline I think secures its presence. There will always be questions of a geographical nature to research, and what is more encouraging is that collaboration within the discipline and across disciplines is becoming easier and easier. In the big picture, this fractionation of geography does not threaten the future, and likely will if anything, lead to new collaborations and thus new and exciting lines of inquiry.
Where I Stand
I have already hinted at my fit into the discipline of geography in this essay, but now I will flesh things out a bit more. If pushed into a corner, I might say that first I am a geomorphologist, then a physical geographer. The research questions that drive me are concerned with the physical processes that shape the landscape, and the interrelations of those processes through varying temporal scales. However, I also label myself as a physical geographer because I am concerned with the relationships between the physical processes shaping the land and the effects of human impacts on these processes. Using a definition of Yi-Fu Tuan, I have a vested interest in studying the earth as the home of people (Tuan 1991). This emphasis has led to my curiosity in studying the anthropic influences on the environment.
Recently this line of inquiry has manifested into research questions concerned with stream restoration and naturalization. Two veins of research interests have come about from this. The first vein is studying the physical process implications of environmental perturbation and design. I have approached problems in this vein through the use of analytic models, Newtonian physics and fieldwork. Though I am studying spatial and temporal patterns, and thus this is implicitly geographic work, similar work is being done in several disciplines such as geology and civil engineering. The second vein is a combination of studying the complex human component to environmental design and the impacts thereof, and studying of the value ladeness of environmental ethics and choice. What makes us as humans decide that a stream is naturalized or restored? I believe that questions such as these combined with intense physical process investigations will elucidate how we as a species interact with our environment, and this I believe is fully in the realm of geography.
I think it is important that I also include a last input and influence on where I stand as a geographer. Serendipity. Perhaps I would have never been a geographer at all without this special little word. I owe much of what I am to the situations that have fallen into my lap, especially as of late. Actually, this seems to be a trend among many geographers. This semester’s GEOG. 595X section is a grand example of this point. Almost every faculty here at UIUC emphasized that how they arrived at the crossroads of the discipline rested significantly on chance and luck. I am no different I guess. I was lucky to even get to college in the first place and once I did, I spent it double majoring in music performance and education on the violin. My typical day consisted of about 8 or 9 hours locked in a soundproof prison cell called a “practice room.” It was only by chance that I took my first geography course (world regional) and received a “C”. Despite the fact, I fell in love and switched gears entirely. I found myself drawn to the physical geography classes and remote sensing, and then by chance I took a river management class. Lucky me, I was now hooked on studying rivers. When I started my masters, I began studying with Joanna Curran and discovered sediment transport. Projects I completed with her including an in depth study of aggradation in a river due to flood control structures got me interested in the role of anthropogenic influences. Now, at UIUC, I find myself able to study process in more intense ways than I ever thought possible whilst also concerning myself with the philosophical end of human choice and values in environmental decision making. So yes, I am a physical geographer, and with a bit of serendipity have landed in a situation I wouldn’t have any other way.
Geography and the Rest of the Ivory Tower
As I have alluded to in several ways throughout this essay, I believe that geography contains a unified theme of study in the spatial and temporal realm. Though several disciplines partake in similar lines of reasoning, I think that geography is especially adept at tackling these issues, especially those which find their foci in human and environmental interaction and span varying spatial and temporal scales. Individual researchers in contemporary geography tend to be highly specialized within their subfields, often giving them the opportunities and ability to collaborate with scientists in other fields. Though this may be responsible for some fractionation within the discipline, it is also perhaps the greatest strength of geography as it is this broadness of research interests that encourages cross field collaboration and integration. This broadness is key to an integrated logical framework of understanding the world. I think that this premise is what drives the aforementioned calls for geography as a synthesis science. Geography, with its ability to “see the forest through the trees” is in a powerful position in academia to create strong collaboration among varied disciplines and further understanding of the world. Now, having said that, I think it is important to concede that geography is a small discipline in comparison to other fields of knowledge, and will likely remain so. I think it is a pointless exercise to over promote geography, casting it as the sole and only powerhouse for inter-departmental collaboration. However, geography does have this feather in its cap, and we should strive to fulfill and take advantage of the opportunities laid before us.
Throughout this essay I have laid bare my thoughts on how my perceptions about what geography is have changed with the knowledge garnered in this course. I think I have successfully cleared some of the fog in understanding what it is to be a geographer, and where I fit into the scheme of things. Also, I have discussed issues of fractionation within our discipline, suggesting that maybe it is not such a bad thing as it may bring about further collaboration across (and within) disciplines. Finally I have tried to place geography in the context of my (inexperienced) understanding about how the academy is structured with the goal of illuminating geography’s role in the future advancement of knowledge.
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