Getting Back Together or Splitting Up

Let us assume that human and physical geography are in some way divided. If so, there would appear to be at least three ways forward: integration (or perhaps re-integration); splitting up; or some kind of uneasy co-existence.

What are the arguments in favour of re-uniting the two halves of geography, how might this best be achieved and are there any signs of this happening? Three types of argument for re-unification have been presented in recent literature. The heritage argument claims that as geography has always been united, therefore it should stay so. It refers back to the founda-tional texts of the great American geographers W.M. Davis and Carl Sauer, the 'father' of French geography, Paul Vidal de la Blache, and many others to establish tradition. The related holistic argument indicates that geography simply is the study of human-environment relations, and that the two component parts cannot be separated (Stoddart, 1987). The pragmatic argument stresses that physical and human geography would be too small and weak as individual disciplines to survive in a harsh, under-funded academic climate (Gregory et al., 2002).

So, how might a re-integration of human and physical geography, perhaps building on the strengths of today's human-environment relations work, be achieved? Many geographers have contributed to this debate, but the main types of approaches they have put forward can be categorized as focusing on shared subject matter, methodology, philosophical standpoints or big questions. Looking first at shared subject matter, there are many areas in which human and physical geographers from different specialisms within geography work on a range of similar topics from different perspectives. Topics of interest include land degradation and societal change in South America and Africa (see, for example, Endfield and O'Hara, 1999; Dougill et al., 1999), geography and global environmental change (as outlined neatly by Liverman, 1999), water resource conflicts (Swyngedouw, 1999), wildlife conservation and issues such as biodiversity prospecting and genetic engineering.

Natural hazards, resources, environmental history and environmental management are all topics which can be approached from either the human or physical side, although there remain reasonable questions of what exactly is added. Some discussions on the challenges awaiting such work are presented in a series of papers on African Environments in the December 2003 issue of Area, authored by historians, human geographers, ecologists and economists.

The possibility that physical and human geographers could share methods and techniques has been debated for a long time, and many connections have been proposed. Modelling, fieldwork, cartography and data analysis are all methods which have the potential to be shared by many human and physical geographers. Taking the case of GIS, for example, presentation and analysis of spatially referenced data could provide a powerful way of understanding a whole host of geographical topics, from cut flower commodity chains to geomorphic surfaces dated with cosmogenic nuclides (Openshaw, 1991). All that is required is suitable data and a reasonable grasp of computer technology - oh, and of course, an appreciation that something might be gained from the exercise. In reality, such a bridging methodology would work best only if there was a shared vision of which forms of knowledge creation were valid. Many of the arguments raised in the Science Wars make this quite a difficult task.

Another potential way of bringing together physical and human geographers in useful discussion and interchange of ideas (perhaps a different form of integration) is through consideration of potential bridging ideas or themes. For example, Doreen Massey (1999) shows how both physical and human geographers have wrestled with issues of space and time. She illustrates how useful insights might come from jointly considering these issues. Other points of commonality are issues of scale and hierarchies, and the increasing use of dynamic (rather than equilibrium) ideas and metaphors in both physical and human geography. Such a vision of integration encourages mutual respect, discussion and debate, while maintaining separate research foci and methods. Slightly different approaches have recently been proposed by Rhoads (1999) and Urban and Rhoads (2003) who suggest that human and physical geographers should get involved in re-examining the Cartesian dualism between humans and nature, in an effort to unravel the complexity of human-biophysical relations. Keith Richards (2003) presents yet another prescription for integrating physical and human geography, this time through ethical considerations.

There is also a case for the two parts of geography to go their separate ways. Peter Worsley (1979) made an early plea for British geomorphology to leave geography and, since then, there have been several calls for a decisive split between physical and human geography. There are currently two forces encouraging separation. First, it can be argued that both physical and human geographers might be taken more seriously if they were aligned more closely with researchers in closely allied subjects. In the highly competitive academic world, strength comes at least partly from outsiders' perceptions of the value of one's research and the term 'geography' is not viewed strongly by many natural scientists (could the same be said of other social scientists?). Physical geography already faces this dilemma. Much ecology and biogeography research, for example, is carried out by biologists. Biogeographers and ecologists currently working in geography departments may realize significant advantages to working in plant science or biology departments. Similarly, climatolo-gists might benefit from working in atmospheric physics departments, and geomorphologists and Quaternary scientists in earth science departments. Might historical geographers thrive better in history faculties, or urban and social geographers benefit from closer alliance with urban planning and sociology? Another option might be to redesign 'academic space' to form new centres focusing on inter-disciplinary problems.

A second reason why physical and human geography might split is if the tensions between science and social science methodology, philosophy and subject matter become too great to be either shoe-horned together in an effort to re-integrate the two, or to co-exist reasonably happily as at present. If, for example, physical geographers such as glaciologists or Quaternary scientists bring in big research grants and require substantial research infrastructure (laboratories, post-doctoral staff, computing suites, etc.), they might outgrow the rest of the department. Put bluntly, there's competition for floorspace! Some human geographers, especially those engaged in work greatly separated from, or critical of, science, may feel increasingly uncomfortable shackled to physical geographers pursuing the natural science research model. Mildly co-existing tribes might become polarized onto opposite sides of the 'Science Wars' and find little benefit in remaining together.

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End of Days Apocalypse

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  • leevi
    Why did human and physical geography split?
    9 years ago

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