Conclusion Does Fragmentation Matter

Contemporary academic disciplines are necessarily fragmented into specialist sub-disciplines and fields: without it, scientific progress would be substantially hindered. Fragmentation can create problems, however, since it can readily stimulate centrifugal forces that are much stronger than any countering centripetal forces. Individual academics - in our case, geographers - are drawn to work in small communities, many of which are relatively isolated from other communities within their discipline, and indeed may have more contacts without than within their parent discipline. When this happens, disciplinary cohesion declines. Individuals identify with it because it was the focus of their training and provides them with a career, but their scholarly interests mean they have more in common with people having other identifications than with members of their own discipline as defined in the academic division of labour.

Whether such fragmentation and centrifugal change are detrimental to a discipline, and whether this is a particular problem for geography and geographers, are moot points. For three physical geographers, such fragmentation within geomorphology has resulted in a very significant change in the nature of work in their field (Smith et al., 2002). The shift from denudation chronologies to process-related studies initiated in the 1960s was intended to provide a sounder basis for appreciating long-term landscape change. Instead, there has been what they term a 'diaspora' as various groups of physical geographers have 'become more closely allied with other professions and increasingly distanced from the mainstream' (ibid.: 414). Indeed, in their view the mainstream is drying up: work deploying process studies as the basis to landscape appreciation has resulted in 'researchers certain that they know the answers, but possibly ignorant of the questions' since they invariably start with the processes they wish to understand rather than the landscape changes they wish to explain. For them:

If geomorphologists ignore their central role in the study and understanding of landscape, there is the danger that for all their short-term appeal, our new clothes might turn out to resemble those of the emperor. Moreover, as we discard our traditional garments, others are quickly coming behind, trying them on and finding that they fit quite well! (ibid.: 414)

Clearly, to them, a discipline - or sub-discipline - has to have a central purpose that distinguishes it from others, which for geomorphology should be the explanation of landscape change. Without that central purpose, fragmentation into specialist sub-communities is likely to lead to, at best, inter-disciplinary competition and, at worst, disciplinary decay: no core means, ultimately, no future because no distinctiveness.

At present, therefore, geography is considerably fragmented. It is a discipline that embraces a wide range of disparate intellectual projects which, whatever their separate value, do not apparently cohere around key disciplinary concepts and goals. One of geographers' long-established concepts, the region, has sometimes been defined as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, an organic unity that reflects the interacting diversity within places. The region may well have been a useful metaphor for geography itself for some time: it isn't now.

Geography as a fragmented academic discipline lacks a coherent intellectual project. Rather, it is a congeries of disparate projects that share a dwelling but not a home. Furthermore, geography as an academic discipline bears little resemblance to geography as recognized subject matter outside the universities. If the former discipline is healthy and vibrant, this may not be a problematic situation. But if it is under threat, then it needs a political project to defend it - which may call for an intellectual project which rejects some of the fragmentation and seeks to impose and imbue a common purpose.

But should that common purpose mean a coherent core and adherence to a dominant disciplinary project that is more constraining than enabling? Should geographers, as Clayton (1985) advised, restrict their range of activity - 'do less to do anything better'? Should such retrenchment, as Smith et al. (2002) argue, refocus on certain traditional concerns - defined as much as anything by the spatial scale of their investigations? Or should they, as Tickell suggests in the epigram to this chapter, continue to let as many flowers bloom as seeds are fertilized, to continue pressing against (even beyond) the sub-disciplinary research frontiers in order to advance knowledge? For the discipline as a whole, if Clayton's advice were followed, this could be the prelude not only to interminable and unproductive debates about what is and isn't geography (thereby potentially limiting academic freedom) but also to disciplinary stagnation. For individuals, specialization is clearly absolutely necessary, and each university department will undoubtedly have to decide to concentrate its human, technical and other resources in order to reap their potential, but within those parameters Tickell's advice is surely the most sensible: researchers should develop skills and pursue research interests that they perceive as best for the advancement of knowledge, and which are recognized as such within wider intellectual communities. If topics like landscape change are ignored by geographers, then if they are important enough scholars will return to and reinvigorate them (and will it matter whether they are geographers?).

Will accepting this path mean the absence of a disciplinary core? Yes, certainly sometimes, and perhaps for most of the time. Some think that the current absence of a clearly defined, commonly agreed core is unfortunate with regard to geography's political project (for example, Martin, 2002). And yet there will always be elements of a distinctive core. To deploy another geographical metaphor, the practice of geography, like any other discipline, can be likened to a major river. All of the water it carries to the sea comes from defined catchments; in its middle reaches, the separate streams combine in a single channel; and in its lower reaches braiding is common, as different segments pursue their own course, occasionally recombining. For geography, the catchments are the origins of their students, the middle-reach channels are the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes within which new geographers are socialized into the discipline; and the lower-reach braiding reflects the specialist sub-disciplines and fields into which researchers migrate - occasionally recombining with those from other channels as their interests converge (for a time at least). Those braided channels form the contemporary intellectual project that continually renews the vitality of the degree programmes (a form of reverse flow unknown to hydrologists?!). The political project for geographers involves sustaining the health of the entire river basin.


1 Is fragmentation into specialized sub-disciplines a necessary consequence of geography's expansion in recent decades? Stimulating material for use in answering this question can be found in Clayton (1985), Gregory et al.

(2002), Dear (1988), Thrift and Walling (2000) and Thrift (2002). These authors address the issue from the perspectives of both physical and human geography. You might also reflect upon the organization of the course in your own department.

2 Is the future of geography its demise as a separate academic discipline? The same sources are relevant to this question. You could also follow the debate initiated by Thrift (2002) in a series of papers in the journal Geoforum.


1 The original (pre-edited) version of this chapter contained illustrative material and quotations to sustain the arguments developed therein. Copies of that original can be obtained from the author at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK.

2 An eighth point (6*) was added in 2003, without any further evaluation and three of the top-graded departments (5*) in 2001 were promoted to this new level.


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