What happened to ‘geography’?

In a blog last year on his Pop Geography site, Clive Barnett discussed the future of geography as a university field of study.[1] There were two points that caught my eye. First, and in the context of the fragmentation of the field, he noted the absence of anything that holds together intellectually, the different sub-fields – health geography, urban and regional studies, animal geographies, physical geography, among others. Then, and somewhat in self-contradiction, he says that there might be ‘some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields’ but that ‘there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis.’

I am particularly interested in the relation between human and physical geography. This has in part to do with an undergraduate experience in which I did a lot of physical geography before moving away from it in my final year. My sense is, though, that I am not the only one with this interest. Some British geographers express concern, though typically physical geographers and not human geographers. Some years back I wrote a paper that appeared in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education on the role of physical geography in the graduate seminar on geographic thought. The attention this continues to get, at least according to my weekly update from ResearchGate continues to surprise: so far, a phenomenal 20,000 reads, if it can be believed; and this for an article published way back in 2006. Much of the interest comes from outside the US and the UK; India is particularly prominent.

Looking back, what I did as an undergrad in the late 1950s was part and parcel of a different understanding of the field and how it should work. It was informed by a more unitary view of the geographical imagination, albeit with internal contradictions that spelt trouble for the future and which would make it vulnerable to centrifugal forces. One of the effects of this was the ideal of the ‘compleat geographer’ who did work in both human and physical geography and there are some excellent cases of this, including people like John Borchert, Yi Fu Tuan (yes!), Monica Cole, Peter Haggett, Glenn Trewartha, and the Australian, Griffith Taylor.

It was a time when human and physical geographers alike would do studies of particular regions, again working across the boundary. A book edited by Jean Mitchell which appeared in 1962 under the title Great Britain: Geographical Essays consists of thirty chapters, of which twenty-seven were devoted to particular regions. Each region was discussed from both a physical and a human geography standpoint. Each invariably began with a discussion of the lie of the land; notably how geology had affected the topography of the area, though the significance of that knowledge for what followed in the further discussion might seem quite remote. Physical geographers prepared chapters as did human geographers, each trying to work across respective divides, but, it has to be said, falling far short of any coherence.

This interest in working in both branches of the field happens no longer. All that remains is a sort of nostalgia genre where, in their later years, geographers cross the boundary to write regional geographies of the areas in which they grew up. Recent additions include Peter Haggett’s book on the Quantocks and Allen Scott’s on what he calls Solway country. Otherwise, the separation between the two branches has deepened to gulf-like proportions. One is either a human or a physical geographer, and that is that.

One can only speculate on why this might have happened. My suspicion is that the pressures have been both internal and external. There have been demands from outside the field for more specialized understandings, ones that can be turned to practical application. Harvey argued that part of the context for the spatial-quantitative revolution in human geography was the growth of the planning field and, one would add, the increasing interest that human geographers showed in it. The journal Regional Studies was an early sign, and the first editor, significantly, was Peter Hall, who drew on other geographers for his editorial team, though not exclusively. Physical geography has its own stories to tell. The early studies in hydraulic geometry were financed by the US Department of the Interior and for the very obvious reason that they were interested in rivers because they thought that it would help in understanding flooding. In climatology, the air mass revolution reoriented climatology in the form of synoptic climatology towards more practical applications of a forecasting nature.

Geographers of both stripes, human and physical, have eagerly participated in these centrifugal tendencies. In part it was to escape the charge of amateurism that had been launched at geography, and particularly at human geography, in the immediate post-war period; a charge heavy with implications for the future of Departments of Geography, though no-one raised the same sort of complaint about English studies, History, or Modern Languages, where the charge might have stuck equally well. They have then found, though, that this fitted rather nicely with the competition for visibility in the field; something encouraged by Department Chairs eager to improve the field’s standing in the university pecking order and egged on by the corporatization of the university. Where careerism came from is unclear, aside from the struggle for promotion and tenure, but it is now a marked feature of university life and specialization and even more specialization offers the opportunity for carving out one’s own niche, so long, that is, that one can connect it to broader ongoing research themes in the field. In the United Kingdom, the so-called Research Assessment Exercise has added its own impetus. Why care about the coherence of the field when someone somewhere is simply doing sums, but sums heavy in their implications?

At a theoretical level, the idea of bringing the two fields together is a complete pipe-dream: the objects of interest are radically different. One might note that in physical geography space is taken for granted: it is a necessary aspect of the physical processes under examination. Water has to flow downhill, when warmed, air has to rise, and so on. In human geography space is also a necessary aspect of the social process: it cannot exist without attention to spatial arrangement. The problem is that in human geography, social relations get changed and with it, so do space relations: different technologies, different geographies and this gives the entirely false impression that the relationship is contingent. There is in short a good reason why human geographers have obsessed about space and physical geographers couldn’t care less.

Nevertheless, and to return to the geographical imaginary, they do share a common approach to understanding. Massey’s attempt in 1999[2] to get going what she called ‘a conversation’ between human and physical geographers was significant. Her claim to unity was to define them both as ‘historical and complex sciences’: ‘historical’ in the sense that it is time-space that we should be interested in; and ‘complex’ because of the role of chance and emergence in the creation of human and physical geographies. This, of course, was a further development of her arguments about the significance of time-space juxtapositions. Contingency – something also emphasized in geomorphology – seems to have got lost. It cannot be folded in to complexity because contingent relations do not necessarily yield to emergence: moving the position of a regression line can be simply an additive effect. No matter; what contingency and complexity point to is the fundamental significance of configuration in space-time in both physical and human geography and at any and all geographic scales. The global circulation of the atmosphere is the result of a combination of unequal net receipts of radiation at the earth’s surface, the earth’s rotation and the disposition of land and water, just as much as the most recent round of globalization had its contingent conditions: which, in combination, created emergent powers whose social implications we are now realizing. And so it is too at more local levels. The book Massey wrote with John Allen and Allan Cochrane on Rethinking the Region is a case, while geomorphologists, like Stephan Harrison and Mike Summerfield, have been keen to emphasize the emergent character of all physical landscapes. Something like the English Lake District and its radiating valleys, cutting across rock types of quite varying resistance only makes sense in terms of an earlier dome structure of less resistant strata into which streams were able to incise themselves with ease.

This might suggest an abandonment of theory in the sense of those more general understandings about the world: leaving it, rather to the social sciences, the civil engineers, the hydrologists and the atmospheric scientists. This would be false, and for two reasons. First, it is often knowledge of particular places that then gets extended in an explanatory fashion elsewhere. Agassiz proposed the idea of an Ice Age based on initial research in Switzerland and the idea was then applied elsewhere, including by others. Marx’s laboratory was primarily England, but again he revolutionized understandings of social change elsewhere. There was a time in human geography when people talked about ‘spatializing’ social theory but this idea seems misleading to me as it tries to apply very general claims about space relations instead of examining the implications of how things work out in particular places.

There is also the scalar aspect to consider. Configurations of forces emerge at larger scales and structure what happens more locally. The most recent round of globalization is a good instance: a new international division of labor, intensified regional unevenness within the advanced capitalist countries, for example. It also works in physical geography: global warming is having regionally diverse effects. Tectonic movements at the global scale condition in an ongoing way what happens at more regional and local levels.

Of course, one can ask why would one want to do this? Why try to bring the ontologically disparate together, drawing on the notion of configuration? Is it any more than a nostalgia thing by geographers who got their initial formation, like myself, back in the 50s? Or is something else afoot? One of the great motivating conditions for the study of geography has been a curiosity about elsewhere, but places as a total experience; something that has been lost in the turn to specialization. Massey wanted to get a conversation going, which meant between the two major specializations in the field. She was also keen, though, on reviving regional geography and certainly the physical landscape was an important aspect of that, as she averred in an interview in 2009:[3] “ … the other thing, which one can’t live up to, but I think is a geographical potential, is the way geography crosses, or has the potential to cross, the human sciences and the natural sciences. And before I had to specialize, that was one of the things that I really, really liked about geography … it still has that potential absolutely to engage me, that ‘holistic’ perspective of geography.” Absolutely.


[1] https://poptheory.org/2020/07/01/on-the-abolition-of-the-geography-department/

[2] Space-time, ‘science’ and the relationship between physical geography and human geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 24 (1999), 261-276.

[3] Doreen Massey, Human Geography Research Group , Sophie Bond and David Featherstone (2009) The possibilities of a politics of place beyond place? A conversation with Doreen Massey. Scottish Geographical Journal 125, 401-4.

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