Academic geographers are by no means unique in possessing a love of landscapes and a desire to understand those landscapes more completely. This curiosity about place impels many to travel, to explore, and to peruse atlases. Such curiosity explains our love of fieldwork; it motivates us to understand how places are formed, controlled, planned and experienced. Our principal challenge as academic fieldworkers is to channel our curiosity so that we are able to tell comprehensible and instructive narratives about the places we study. This, it turns out, is no simple matter, because landscapes, and the peoples who inhabit them, are always opaque; the stories of the places that interest us rarely announce themselves. Our goal here is to make clear some strategies we use to uncover the secrets of place, the methods we employ to ask good questions and get educative answers.

We have immensely enjoyed the various challenges we have confronted in the field, from trying to understand how police officers read the landscape, to uncovering the mysteries of landscape formation, to discerning how various members of Zanzibar society understand the logic of their city. These experiences have enabled us to do geography in the richest possible way. We work to see the world through the eyes of others, or as it once existed in the past; we see landscapes as the product of the many forces that shape them. To plunge into fieldwork is to plunge into the world in all its complexity, and with deep respect for that complexity. The analytic challenge of making some modest sense of that complexity is what compels us to do geography. Our hope is that we can inspire others to follow our example. If nothing else, we hope to breathe continued life into what we consider geography's central tradition: its animating commitment to the field, its compulsion to experience, probe and explain the spaces that surround us.

essay questions and further reading

1 In their jointly-authored contribution to the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1999) forum on methodology in physical geography, Bernard Bauer, Thomas Veblen and Julie Winkler liken the different methodologies employed by physical geographers to shoes of different styles. Given that the papers in the Forum represent individual views held by purveyors of distinct sub-disciplines of physical geography, how important do field studies appear to be in this shoe closet? The forum, entitled 'On Methodology in Physical Geography', appears in vol. 89, pp. 677-778. Further help can be found in a special issue of Geographical Review (2001) 'Doing fieldwork', vol. 91, pp. 1-508. See also Rhoads and Thorn (1996).

2 Can ethnography help poor and marginalized communities in their struggles, and, if so, how? Or is ethnography hopelessly exploitative of the subjects of research? In addition to the two special issues listed above, see also Nast (1994). Additional insights can be found in Herbert (2000) and Shurmer-Smith (2002).


1 It is important not to overstate the effects of the embrace of quantification on the tradition of doing fieldwork in geography. For one thing, the distinction between quantification and fieldwork was significant only in human geography, not physical geography, where quantification was used to enhance the analysis of field data. Also, even during the height of the 'quantitative revolution', many human geographers continued to embrace the practice of field-work and other qualitative methods of gathering and interpreting data.

Bauer, O. (ed.) (1999) Forum: on methodology in physical geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89, 677-778.

Chorley, R.J. (1978) Bases for theory in geomorphology. In Embleton, C., Bruns-den, D. and Jones, D. (eds) Geomorphology: Present Problems and Future Prospects. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 1-13.

Driver, F. (2001) Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire. Blackwell, Oxford.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage, New York.

Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge. Basic Books, New York.

Geographical Review (2001) Special issues on 'Doing fieldwork', Delyser, D. and Starrs, P.F. (eds) Geographical Review 91, 1-2.

Giddens, A. (1985) The Nation-State and Violence. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Godlweska, A. and Smith, N. (eds) (1994) Geography and Empire. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Herbert, S. (1997) Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Herbert, S. (2000) For ethnography. Progress in Human Geography 24, 550-568.

Mann, M. (1986) States, Wars and Capitalism. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Mouzelis, N. (1991) Back to Sociological Theory. St Martin's Press, New York.

Myers, G. (1994) Eurocentrism and African urbanization: the case of Zanzibar's other side. Antipode 26,195-215.

Myers, G. (2002) Local communities and the new environmental planning: a case study from Zanzibar. Area 34,149-159.

Nast, H.J. (1994) Methods and techniques: women in the field. Professional Geographer 46, 54-102

Rhoads, B. and Thorn, C. (1996) Observation in geomorphology. In Rhoads, B. and Thorn, C. (eds) The Scientific Nature of Geomorphology. Wiley, Chichester, pp. 21-56.

Rose, G. (1993) Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Rundstrom, R. and Kenzer, M. (1989) The decline of fieldwork in human geography. Professional Geographer 41, 294-303.

Sack, R. (1986) Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Said, E. (1983) Opponents, audiences, constituencies, and community. In Foster, H. (ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic. Bay Press, Port Townsend, Australia, pp. 135-156.

Shurmer-Smith, P. (2002) Doing Cultural Geography. Sage, London.

Simandan, D. (2002) On what it takes to be a good geographer. Area 34, 284-293.

Thorn, C. (1988) Introduction to Theoretical Geomorphology. Allen and Unwin, Winchester, MA.

Zelinsky, W. (2001) The geographer as voyeur. Geographical Review 91,1-8.

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