Modern explorers chart demise of the 'lone hero'

May 7, 1999

Ask people to describe the study of geography and most will mention fieldwork. But there has been surprisingly little analysis of what fieldwork is and how it developed.

"We often write about the history of ideas, or institutions, or societies, but we don't tend to write about the history of practices or skills," said Felix Driver, reader in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

But a discipline's ideas spring from its practices, and Dr Driver has this week redressed the balance with a conference at Royal Holloway investigating the history of fieldwork. The 19th century saw the rise of an international publishing industry producing guidebooks that outlined ways of collecting information, what questions to ask and what equipment to use. Dr Driver suggests that this emerged from the professionalisation of science and a perceived need to organise the knowledge being gathered.

As explorers often travelled alone to uncharted territory, the authenticity of their findings could be questioned. Credibility depended on using certain kinds of instrument or procedures, writing down observations in the field, say, rather than preparing a report after returning home.

"People would say information was worthless unless it was gathered in a particular way," Dr Driver said. "This may have devalued the efforts of some fieldworkers, such as artisan botanists, groups of workers who had their own societies and clubs. Some work was seen as less trustworthy because the people doing it were not trained or did not have literary skills."

There were also moral undercurrents. Teresa Ploszajska, lecturer in environmental and biological studies at Liverpool Hope University, said the Victorians believed the countryside had a latent power to ameliorate the perceived moral, social and physical dangers of urban life. Geographers promoted outdoor rural education not simply to advance scientific knowledge but because they believed it improved society.

The national geography curriculum's compulsory component of fieldwork is seen as a radical shift from the traditional curriculum. But Dr Ploszajska said fieldwork was common in schools between the 1870s and 1940s because it was thought to foster patriotism.

David Matless, a lecturer in Nottingham University's department of geography, said that even in mid-century, outdoor pursuits, building up knowledge of one's locality and country, were seen as a means of cultivating citizenship. Fieldwork was defined primarily not by what it was but by what it was not. The geographer was not a tourist, who might commit such crimes as being noisy or littering.

"Geographers had a very clear sense of what 'proper' geography was, but they were always slightly worried that they might not be doing it - they might be enjoying themselves too much."

Fieldwork still has an ethical basis, but the focus has shifted. Dr Driver said history's "heroic lone explorer" often had a support team, frequently of indigenous people, who never got a mention.

"Fieldwork is no longer about going into an area, observing and getting out, but about building up contacts. Environmental work, for example, could include the attitudes of farmers to agricultural practices and listening to talks by local planners."

In the past, geography was less about engaging with people than about engaging with a place, Dr Matless agreed. "When we think about ethics, we tend to think of how we conduct ourselves in relation to other people. There is a strong sense of your responsibilities to your respondents."

The lone explorer has also been overtaken by student field trips, which are characterised by collaboration.

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