Geography looks for its place on the map

January 13, 1995

Huw Richards takes new directions from a conference in Northumbria

John Osborne may have died just before the turn of the year, but the most famous invention attributed to him appeared to be out in force at the start of 1995 as the Institute of British Geographers met at the University of Northumbria.

Gillian Rose of Edinburgh University pointed to "a number of angry young men emerging in the last year" as the history and philosophy of geography group discussed "Geographical traditions" -- a title, as Queen's University, Belfast's David Livingstone pointed out, that reflected a distinct trend in modern academic discourse -- "the expunging of the definite article".

While the concept may have acquired a certain universality since Osborne first disconcerted the mid-1950s, it is characteristic of modern geography that it should happily pick up a notion first clarified in an entirely different discipline. No subject can have diverged more dramatically from its popular image than geography. The subject has always been distinct from others in the way in which it straddled the science-arts division, and is now a veritable junction box of a discipline, deriving vitality from connections across an extraordinary range of traditional cross-disciplinary boundaries.

Derek Diamond, professor of geography at the London School of Economics and outgoing president of the IBG, notes: "Fifteen years ago if you asked one of our members to define themself academically they'd have said simply 'I'm a geographer'. Now you would be very unlikely to get such a simple definition."

This diversification strikes him as a logical development: "It reached the point that economics, for instance, reached some time ago, that of a well-based, well-established social science with a full shelf of theoretical volumes attempting to explain why society, economies and politics change in different space."

There is no reason why this explosion of cross-disciplinary activity should affect the validity of the discipline. "Nobody questions the statement that everything has a historical dimension. Given that everything exists in space as well as time, there is no more reason to doubt that it has a geographical dimension as well," he says But while diversification excites and inspires, it can also induce unease. When boundaries become so flexible, questions arise as to where, if at all, they should be redrawn. Hence perhaps the current fashion for looking back, if not in anger then in earnest inquiry, to try to find clues as to where geography is at from the examination of where it came from.

It is not a debate to cheer the traditionalist. Inst ead its terms and signposts often serve to disorientate the non-geographer. But there is no doubting its intellectual vitality, even if Felix Driver of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, convenor of the session, was drawn to admit that "it too often takes the form not of conversation, but of violent assault".

Counter-attractions on offer included debates on quality, global warming, local economic development, landscape ecology, geographical utopias and "states of the art in economic geography". But there was no questioning the appeal of the topic, particularly for younger geographers.

And like any form of youthful academic inquiry, it draws much of its vitality from a determination to question everything. Dr Rose homed in on the notion of tradition, noting that in a geographical sense it defined "analytical space" -- creating groups of insiders and outsiders and "paternalistic lines of descent with "dutiful sons following father figures". It even, she suggested, served the angry young men by giving them something to rebel against -- but "where are the women in all this?" The answer, she suggested, was not to be found in the neat insider-outsider duality, but in a more complex analysis.

Dr Driver argued that hetereogeneity was nothing new in the subject, noting the diversity symbolised as long ago as 1872 by the very different figures of Henry Morton Stanley, Henry Yuill and William Winwood Reade, all fellows of the Royal Geographical Society but otherwise sharply differentiated.

Clive Barnett of Reading University confessed to a fear of being identified as an angry young man and launched into the very concept of history of geography, arguing that it was too easily assumed that "geography in the past is the past of today's geography".

Professor Livingstone examined three views of geographical knowledge -- encyclopedism, Nietzschian genealogy and as a tradition of inquiry. He argued that both encyclopedism and genealogy were self-limiting: "In order to say anything coherent they need to exempt their own utterances from the treatments to which they subject everyone else's."

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