What Is Geography: Essay

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Geography was a slow discipline to emerge, and ‘until the early 1960s, ‘change in British geography was slow and slight’ (R. Johnston: 2006). It lacked imagination as well as promotion, however, took a turn in the 1950s when regional geography dominated. This included ‘identifying, describing, and to some extent accounting for (if not ‘explaining’) areal differentiation or the varying characteristics of the earth’s surface as the ‘home of man’ (R. Johnston: 2006). The 1970s saw the emergence of ‘new geography, which was inspired by the quantitative revolution. The quantitative revolution is a widespread greater knowledge of models and statistics, leading to the mathematizing of geography and a greater quantitative understanding of the variety of sub-disciplines studied (N. Castree et al: 2013). Although this revolution was sparked outside the discipline as ‘there was little in human geography’s foundations on which to draw’, it was evident that ‘the impact of these ideas launched on a largely unsuspecting geographical community in the mid-1960s was both massive and rapid’ (R. Johnston: 2006). From this turn of events, geography was then classified as a spatial science. Through investigating the idea of geography as a social science, concepts such as Marxism, idealism, and existentialism were explored, which started to influence and change the way in which geographers looked at the world. By the 1980’s it was realized that there was a cultural turn, which ‘sought to break down the barriers between different ‘types’ of geography – such as economic, industrial, political, urban, etc – into an awareness that common human traits and behavior patterns (‘culture’) underpin most (if not all areas) of life and thus are inscribed in spatial structures which constrain and yet facilitate further action.’ (R. Johnston: 2006). This merging of borders combined with the progression of globalization is some of the main primary factors which have molded geography into the compelling and unavoidable discipline that it is today. Such changes are always expected, as said in the book approaches to human geography, ‘in reality, most ways of knowing are partial and in flux; they continue to change as geographers examine and re-examine their strengths and weaknesses, and as new ideas came along as a challenge’ (S. Aitken et al: 2006). This demonstrated the unpredictable nature of the discipline and how It is constantly evolving.

The quantitative revolution brought with it a change in the ways geographers view the ‘real world, and by this, I mean a change in methods; the ways in which we are able to engage with our findings. These can be categorized as qualitative or quantitative. The effects of this were seen by everyone, as said by John Kerr Rose (1936) ‘the methods of correlation analysis would seem especially promising tools for geographical investigation’ this call was largely unheeded’, (I. Burton: 1963) proving the unanimous agreement, and therefore the united progress for the subject. Quantitative methods generate numerical values in order to convert results into interpretable statistics. With the turn of the quantitative revolution, these were much more commonly used to gain legitimate and equitable results. Qualitative data collection is descriptive and can be highly subjective. It relies on people’s feelings, thoughts and emotions, in order to gauge a more all-rounded understanding of the situation. With the most recent cultural turn, and with the progression of human geographers engaging with space, place, and feelings, the use of qualitative data has become fundamental. The relevance of this is shown by the way ‘the methodology adopted by a researcher is informed by their wider ontological, epistemological, and ideological beliefs as these define what is the most appropriate and valid way to make sense of the world (N. Castree et al: 2013).

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As noted in the previous paragraph, geographers study a very diverse set of topics. Nigel thrift says ‘geography is becoming more successful and at the same time, the world is adding new and exciting geographies that we can study’ (N. Thrift: 2002). This shows how the progression has led to the addition of further topics. Examples of the main sub-disciplines studied by geographers include cultural, development, economic, historical, and political geographies. Furthermore, these can be broken down into more sub-categories, for example within cultural geography we study things such as feminism, materialism, and poststructuralism. Whilst some believe this to be a negative aspect, this is a contested idea. As said by Cox, ‘human geography now possesses the intellectual weapons to mount a convincing response and even a counter-attack on the imperialism and self-sufficiency of the social scientists’ (K. Cox: 2014). This highlights the different ways of thinking by geographers, proving the added value of their opinions and views. What ultimately makes this so superior is the use of the ‘geographical imagination’. The ‘fine spreading’ of geography is not always seen as a bad thing, with (Cloke et al: 2014) saying ‘the diversity of human geography is a strength, not a weakness.

A key sub-discipline within geography is globalization. This can be described as ‘the process whereby people, places, regions, and countries become more interlinked and more interdependent at a planetary scale (N. Castree et al: 2013). This movement has been heavily reliant on the increase in technology, however, in conjunction with the changing nature of geography as a whole, globalization has also started to change, as demonstrated by the international benchmark journal, which said ‘globalization is obviously about the innovation in technology, however, added to this, it is regarding the social and spatial dimensions’ (ESRC: 2016)

Its development, like any other sub-discipline within geography, is reliant on the intersections between time, space, and place. As said Steger ‘ notices that the conceptualization of globalization as a dynamic process rather than as a static condition forces the researcher to pay close attention to shifting perceptions of time and space’ (M. Steger: 2009). This interdependence has led to a merging of cultures, leading to more areas of common ground, less defined borders, and therefore the breaking down of borders and boundaries, as well as the hollowing of the nation-state. This has led to the emergence of more open markets, where trade is much more freely accepted, leading to increased mobility and therefore increased volume of trade. In this case, I am referring to borders in both the physical (geographical) sense, as well as the emotional boundaries between different cultures, religions, and viewpoints becoming more fluid as well. As demonstrated by The RAE overview report ‘recent research at the borders between geography, social theory, and philosophy, pointing to work focusing on natures- cultures, and on understanding the relationships between materialities, emotions, and practices’ (ESRC: 2016). This merging of cultures, led by globalization has sparked changes within other sub-disciplines too. Ways in which we define scale, space, and place are evolving, and their importance and interconnection are becoming more dynamic with time, causing geographers to rethink the ways in which they engage with space and place. The ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of a place is no longer clear cut’ (N. Castree et al: 2013), and whilst places are not being homogenized, their interactions are changing.

One definition of place is ‘specific sites, whether entire cities or smaller locations, within cities, which are shaped by human beings’ (N. Castree et al: 2013). Whilst this is a very literal translation, and the extent of this can be measured, the place has a much more detailed meaning, one which human geographers love to study and engage with. Place holds elements such as culture, and when combined with scale adds depth and body to its meaning. Encompassing with the changes occurring in the discipline, the boundaries to which place is defined are unclear, with its limits not being determined. It is said that ‘the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of a place are no longer clear cut. The metaphors of ‘switching points’ and ‘nodes’ better enable us to see places as at once unique and connected and mediate between older idiographic and nomothetic approaches’ (N. Castree et al: 2013). The dynamic of place is a highly mobile one, and at any given time can represent different responses from different people. People have many different connotations with space, depending on past experiences and exposure, and this also agrees with Marxist views. These can be shown by ‘places began to be seen as instances of general processes because the new ontological presumption was that a certain spatial order was operative within and between otherwise different and distant localities.’ (N. Castree et al: 2013).

The changing role of culture and the breaking down of these borders is leading to a different conceptualization of identity as well. People may define/categorize themselves by fitting themselves into certain groups in society, but with these boundaries merging, these are becoming more unclear. This has led to the questioning as to whether individuality even exists, with people always being part of a larger collective group. Identity is defined through the historical actions which have happened, determining characteristics based on place. It is fluid and is made up of many intersections from different networks. These global shifts occurring are not necessarily changing people, but giving them greater exposure to alternative groups, potentially shaping their categorization. The idea of nationalism, says whether you fit into a certain group of people or not. Nationalism represents a set of power relations between different groups of people and it is the dynamics of these which are shown by decisions and actions which define a place.

The future of geography, with ‘human and physical geography splitting apart’ (N. Thrift: 2002) and a certain lack of ambition and general adventurousness’ (N. Thrift: 2002), some say looks bleak and uncertain. This splitting has been caused by a lack of common ground between physical and human geography, as each sub-discipline is becoming more and more specialized in its field. This has led to the questioning of whether geography is a proper subject anymore, or whether it has been spread too finely, and therefore doesn’t have any substance to it. A sub-discipline such as cultural geography might have much more in common with the social sciences than something such as weather patterns in physical geography for instance.

To conclude, attitudes towards human geography have been dynamic in their existence, progressing from seeing geography as a one-dimensional interaction between people and environment, and based on purely human communication, to recognizing the role of time and space in the importance of understanding the wider picture, in order to achieve the geographical imagination. It engages with a number of topical debates, and its extensive, wide-ranging knowledge provides insights into key issues which few other disciplines do. Overall, the most important thing for geography is to establish its prestige and to continue to progress and dictate as a discipline.

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