Wander through many milieus

- Human Geography
- Contested Worlds

May 25, 2007

After several years' dearth of decent introductory human geography textbooks, the past few years have seen a number of well-edited texts filling this niche. These two mark out contrasting notions of how to explore contemporary geography and our world. This contrast is not just between the established introductory text Human Geography: People, Place and Culture and the newcomer, Contested Worlds , with its focus on different scales of contest in the contemporary world, but in the sharply different traditions of pedagogy.

Harm de Blij and co-authors have made Human Geography , now in its eighth edition, a fixture in the textbook landscape. It retains its focus on people, place and culture interpreted through the lens of classic high-school topics such as migration, race and ethnicity, and religion as well as divisions of human geography into political, urban, agriculture and industry and services. This familiarity was key to the success of the earlier editions, along with the appeal of its well-illustrated and exemplified analysis.

As with many new editions, there is a temptation to add chapters (there are three here on culture and globalisation) and expand the text. This last point is resisted by the now well-honed editorial sense of the authors, who have reduced some sections to accommodate the new chapters. And they have responded to the views and comments of past readers, most of whom are to be found in the US.

Unlike Contested Worlds , Human Geography is aimed at the US market, being rich in colour photographs, colour maps and illustrations. It has summary sections at the end of each substantial section of a chapter, and sets questions to encourage readers to "think geographically" about the topics. Web-based class material, study tools and problem solving pages support this.

There is a surety about the text, with a writing style that is comforting and reassuring, coverage of human geography that is topical yet familiar, and contents and presentation that ease the reader into the topics of human geography identified as core by the authors. Yet by the same course, the text is open to critique of "reducing" academic discussion (often cited only in the references) into conversational tones.

While offering a excellent synthesis of ideas, it is weak in enabling readers to search more deeply on topics, or to guide them into debates on the topics covered, let alone those absent. There is little, for example, influenced by the "cultural turn" in geography, little engagement with public geographies or on policy areas, and no mention of contemporary geopolitical issues of the Middle East or other areas of political context.

By contrast, Martin Phillips' edited text sets out to open up such spaces. Contested Worlds is about the different ways in which geographers (and other social scientists) engage with each other and by their actions define "what is geography".

The chapters acknowledge that the contemporary world and any geographical analysis of it is one of contest. This dialectic, didactic dimension is the main thread linking the chapters, opening a richness of debate that is much less comfortable and reassuring than de Blij's account.

After two introductory chapters on the contested philosophies in human geography, the book is subdivided into three "worlds" - global, regional and local. Within each three chapters different authors explore themes in economic, political, population, urban, social and development geography through specific case studies and topics.

These span from Peter Vujakovic's analysis of the new world order to David Cook's account of marginality of Maori farmers in New Zealand, by way of Southeast Asian tiger economies and US urban gentrification. This rather haphazard selection of examples reinforces the contested and disorganised contemporary world and is in sharp contrast to the ordered and systematic approach of Human Geography . The appeal of Phillips's book is the richness of each chapter, especially the sensitive ways in which each contributor navigates through the differences in "seeing" their topic. There is a personality to this text - excellent synthesis of complex readings and some strong guidance from each writer to make the topic accessible at an introductory level.

Contested Worlds' appearance is less student friendly, with dense text, no colour, few illustrations and poor layout (summary boxes are split badly between pages). But it has compensations: the paperback version is a third of the price of Human Geography and it offers students a richer sense of why the subject remains an exciting area for study.

Human Geography: People, Place and Culture. Eigth Edition

Author - J. de Blij, Alexander B. Murphy and Erin H. Fouberg
Publisher - John Wiley
Pages - 430
Price - £69.50 and £36.50
ISBN - 9780471679516 and 9780471679516

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