Divided Discipline

Heather Viles

'Physical geographers are from Mars, Human geographers are from Venus'. Discuss.1

Geography is in an unusual position. Along with a few other subjects such as psychology and archaeology, it straddles the divide between the physical (or natural) sciences and the social sciences. This position can be seen as, on the one hand, geography's unique and vital strength and, on the other, a grave impediment or problem for the subject. Many geographers over many years have argued that the bridging role of geography is an essential and important one, and that human and physical geographers should unite in trying to achieve a more successful, more useful synthetic study of natural and human relations on the earth. The quotation with which I start this chapter is a modification of the title of a popular book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Gray, 1992). It presents a caricature of the alternative view of many other geographers, i.e. that human and physical geographers are worlds apart, and unable to provide any meaningful dialogue across the divide. In this chapter I aim to examine the nature, causes and consequences of the division of geography into two potentially incompatible components, and to investigate to what extent such a division can and should be overcome.

The divide between the arts and the sciences has long been recognized, debated and analysed. In 1959 C.P. Snow wrote a polemical essay entitled 'The Two Cultures' in which he bemoaned the increasing gulf between scientists and what he called 'literary intellectuals' within Britain. Arts-based academics, in Snow's analysis, are unwilling and unable to comprehend recent scientific advances, and scientists are dismissive of the soft and imprecise research undertaken in the humanities. Following Snow's work, there have been discussions about how real such a gulf is, how it might be bridged and, indeed, to what extent it needs to be. For example, the differences between the sciences and the arts (broadly defined to encompass all 'non-science' modes of understanding) were hyped up during the so-called 'Science Wars' of the 1990s. In books, articles and in the pages of newspapers, 'hard' scientists traded blows with sociologists of science, post-structuralists, feminists and postcolonial scholars among others. These critics argued that conventional models and practices of science commonly ignore some crucial questions about what knowledge is important, how it is produced and who is involved in producing it (Ziman, 2000; Sardar and Van Loon, 2002). For their part, the hard scientists challenged what they regarded as the irresponsibility of questioning the power of reason and the sanctity of scientific claims in the face of real-world problems such as HIV/AIDS or global warming. Skirmishes across the divide have led to important debates about the social accountability of science. More recently, Tony Becher and Paul Trowler in their book Academic Tribes and Territories (2001) have made a more sophisticated analysis of the differences between academics of all types. They identify the development of distinctive academic cultures associated with different academic communities (tribes) who deal with very different academic ideas (territories). In their analysis, academic studies can be categorized on hard/soft and pure/ applied axes, leading to a more nuanced series of distinctions than the bipolar arts/sciences divide presented by Snow. The tribes stake out their territories on the landscape of knowledge, with some being more open and diffuse, while others are close-knit and closed. Becher and Trowler believe that understanding the differences between diverse approaches to knowledge should go some way towards bridging the gaps.

Because physical geographers are scientists who largely study natural phenomena, and human geographers generally study human communities, geography as a whole spreads over the divide between the sciences and the arts, in terms of both subject matter and approaches to study (or in Becher and Trowler's terms, tribes and territories). Is this good for the discipline as a whole or not? Is the gulf between the two sides getting wider? It might seem quite difficult to understand why these questions are so important to geographers that they have been regularly debated in the pages of geographical journals for many years, but they matter for a range of reasons. First, in the eyes of many geographers, the relationship between people and the environment, humans and nature is the fundamental focus for geography as a subject. Thus, if physical and human geography are really incompatible and unable to communicate, then the 'heart' of geography is under attack. Second, there are challenges to geography as a discipline in terms of funding and recruitment of staff and students. Divisions between the two major parts of the discipline can be seen as a source of weakness, making such threats more acute.

The third reason why it matters may seem less important at first. Physical and human geographers have a shared heritage in terms of their disciplinary history, which many would be sad to see come to an end. Looking at some of the famous early works in geography, such as Mary Somerville's book Physical Geography (written in 1848), it is clear that, for many nineteenth-century geographers, physical geography provided a major foundation for human geography. The discipline's founders, the likes of Friedrich Ratzel, W.M. Davis, Paul Vidal de la Blache and Halford Mackinder, all regarded the unity of geography as essential. Many of the concepts used by geographers in the past to provide some shape or structure to the discipline, such as regions, landscape, and systems presented a clear vision of how human and physical components were interlinked. In academic circles, as in other walks of life and their institutions, such traditions and communities matter even if they cannot always be defended on grounds of utility and practicality.

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