World-wise explorers

August 5, 2005

Far from being irrelevant, geography is engaged with the public at all levels, says David Demeritt

I am proud to call myself an academic geographer. Unfortunately, after years of hearing government ministers complain that academic research is too "inward-looking" for their purposes, some of my colleagues are less happy to do so.

For the past few years, politicians - as well as a number of geographers - have argued that geography, like the social sciences more generally, has succumbed to postmodernism and become bogged down in irrelevant social theorising. Rather than being "directly relevant to the main policy and political debates", our research is often dismissed by critics such as former Home Secretary David Blunkett as "driven by ideology paraded as intellectual inquiry or critique".

Such complaints are wrong. They ignore the important contributions that physical geographers have made to our understanding of climate change and other environmental problems. Allegations about the "retreat from empirical and explanatory rigour" within human geography have themselves been based largely on anecdote and personal impression. The very people insisting on the importance of providing research-based evidence for policy have not bothered, in this case, to provide any.

One way to assess the relevance and appeal of geography for non-academic users of research is to look, as a colleague and I did recently, at the Co-operative Awards in Science and Engineering (Case) programme of the research councils. Under this programme, a university researcher and a non-academic organisation collaborate in the design and execution of a PhD studentship scheme. The project is co-funded by the research council and the non-academic collaborator. Different research councils have slightly different rules for these awards, but all are based on open, national competition.

Unpublished data from the Natural Environment Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council indicate that geographers have in recent years enjoyed considerable success in the national competition for these Case awards involving collaboration with non-academic organisations.

In the period 1999-2002, geography departments received just over 10 per cent of the Nerc quota of studentships allocated automatically to UK departments on the basis of their Nerc research grant income, but they secured 11.4 per cent of the industrial Case awards made by Nerc. This impressive result suggests that physical geographers are more engaged with end users of Nerc research than academics in many other disciplines.

The success of human geographers in engaging with end users is even more striking. Between 2000 and 2004, human geographers won 28 per cent of the 335 ESRC Case awards, more than twice as many as any other subject.

Through the Case scheme, UK human geographers have been involved in collaborative research with a variety of public, private and voluntary sector organisations, addressing everything from social exclusion and sustainability to retail banking, public history and public service provision.

Contrary to those bemoaning the public relevance and influence of geography, data from the Case programme demonstrate that there is demand in society for academic geographers and that their research is relevant to policy and political debate. What is depressing about the constant hectoring about policy relevance is its narrow instrumentalism. Understanding, truth and beauty are not medieval ornaments, as former Education Secretary Charles Clarke would have it, but worthwhile pursuits, no less important than serving public policy.

Academic geography that draws on social theory is part of a valuable intellectual tradition that helps us to think critically about what counts as relevant and for whom. Policymakers are not the only audience for our research.

One danger of the current hand-wringing about relevance for policy is that it may distract our attention from wider public engagements. Historians have worried at some length about their profession's collective abdication of the role of public intellectual. But geographers are not as bothered as we should be that our discipline does not boast more bestselling authors or TV dons.

The relative health of undergraduate enrolment in geography suggests that the problem here is not with postmodern theory or the cultural turn per se. Indeed, such courses often prove very popular with students. Rather, our difficulties in capturing large public audiences are indicative of deeper problems. Promotion and academic acclaim depend on peer-reviewed publication - not public engagement in more popular outlets: writing opinion pieces such as this one will not do much for your profile in the next research assessment exercise.

The Case awards show geography to be a lively and relevant subject. Academic geographers should be proud.

David Demeritt is a reader in geography at King's College London.

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