A trans-Atlantic geo-difference

Essentials of World Regional Geography. Third Edition - Geography - World Regional Geography. First Edition
May 26, 2000

Textbooks play a crucial role in academic life. According to Thomas Kuhn, they are sources of authority addressing the "already articulated body of problems, data and theory... to which the (relevant) scientific community is committed". In this sense, they are routes by which entrants to a discipline or sub-discipline are socialised into its mores, into appreciations of what is known and the methods researchers use to convert the unknown into the known.

These three large introductory textbooks should, therefore, be major works of geographical synthesis. Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts 2000 offers itself as an "information highway to geographic literacy"; Essentials of World Regional Geography "open[s] the door of world regional geography to all who want to come into the 21st century with the geographic knowledge and cultural wisdom necessary to play the role of a thoughtful citizen" (quite some ambition); and World Regional Geography attempts to "give students a framework on which to build their own knowledge of world places". But the reference and bibliography section of each book immediately raises doubts as to whether these books are indeed significant introductions to either the results of recent geographical research or to geographers' mores and ways of working. There is little reference to work by academic geographers. Indeed, journalism is a major source: The New York Times for World Regional Geography , and the Christian Science Monitor for Essentials of World Regional Geography , while Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts does refer to more academic works (mainly specialised textbooks) but not to very much of the journal research literature.

Why are the authors (all US academics) implying that their colleagues' writings are irrelevant to an introductory text? Geography is weak in US high schools and very few students go to university intending to take geography courses. Universities have to mount introductory courses that attract students who either browse the course catalogue or hear about them from previous customers. Traditionally, many have offered one-semester courses in world regional geography, introducing the study of environments, places and spaces that occupies the core of geographical scholarship and, one hopes, convincing some students to enrol for more advanced courses. Geography as an academic discipline in the United States is, then, very different from the geography taught to freshers, and this is why introductory texts tell them very little about what geographers do and virtually nothing about how they do it.

Such courses need a text. A successful book can sell many thousands annually, an attractive proposition to publishers who will invest heavily, with lots of graphics and other resources. Thus, Realms, Regions and Concepts has an associated website offering ten "virtual field-trips" to four continents; a separately purchased CD-Rom illustrates Essentials of World Regional Geography ; and World Regional Geography comes with a CD-Rom based on National Geographic materials.

All three are global in their coverage. I assessed them against two criteria. First, how good are they on the parts of the world I know best? Australia and New Zealand get brief coverage. All have similar material, with Essentials of World Regional Geography out-performing World Regional Geography because it pays more attention to urban areas; but none discusses the major changes to New Zealand's economy and society since 1984, or even the preceding welfare state. The British Isles similarly get relatively little space. Again, I preferred Essentials of World Regional Geography , though all three are out of date, with no reference to the post-1997 devolution.

Second, what do the authors regard as their selling points? Realms, Regions and Concepts offers "approximately 150 concepts... (which are) primarily geographical"- dictionaries are better. Essentials of World Regional Geography includes materials on problem landscapes and landscape in literature (the UK section is illustrated by an excerpt on "Coketown" from Dickens's Hard Times ). World Regional Geography offers vignettes of individual inhabitants and their ways of life and cultural insights (a section on "Waltzing Matilda" for Australia). All useful in "selling" geography, perhaps, but only weakly linked to what academic geographers do.

There are two basic meanings of the word geography. The academic one refers to the discipline that studies patterns and processes in environments, spaces and places, while the vernacular one concerns what is where in the world. The two meanings overlap, but at different stages of the education process in the US and the UK. Vernacular geography is taken for granted in UK universities (perhaps wrongly), so these are not books likely to be used by UK students. But they do provide insights into the American university system, and perhaps suggest what may happen in the UK one day if the small size of the UK market were to make us reliant on American textbooks.

But things do not have to develop that way: Philip Porter and Eric Sheppard's A World of Difference (1998) shows how an excellent introductory text can be structured around a basic theme of geographical research: spatial variations in resource availability and use.

Ron Johnston is professor of geography, University of Bristol.

Essentials of World Regional Geography. Third Edition

Author - Christopher L. Salter, Joseph J. Hobbs, Jesse H. Wheeler Jr, and J. Trenton Kotbade
ISBN - 0 03 031351 1
Publisher - Harcourt Brace
Price - £24.95
Pages - 607

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