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Questioning Geography

Douglas Sherman, Alisdair Rogers and Noel Castree

Upper-level undergraduates and postgraduates taking geography degrees are usually required to take a course unit on the history, nature and philosophy of their subject. For many undergraduates it is a unit to be endured rather than enjoyed. For many postgraduates, by contrast, it is an important part of their journey to becoming professional geographers. Whether you're reading these words because you have to or because you want to, we hope that Questioning Geography demonstrates why close scrutiny of our discipline's character is necessary, interesting and even, perhaps, intellectually exciting. Before we explain the book's distinctive approach to its subject matter, let us first remind you why your degree course contains a unit that requires you to consult a book like this one. There are at least two major reasons for such modules.

Most modern university degrees are modular. Students have a lot of choice about the course units they take. The degree of choice typically increases for undergraduates as they move through the successive years of their degree. For postgraduates, meanwhile, the amount of choice depends very much on the master's or doctoral programme in question. While choice is a good thing - it allows students to tailor their geographical education, among other things - it also comes with a risk.

The risk is that students will graduate with no sense of what, if anything, was 'geographical' about their higher education. It is all too easy for students to become so immersed in the specialist knowledges they encounter in different course units that they lose sight of the wood for the proverbial trees. This is the first major reason why most geography degrees have a compulsory unit on the history, nature and philosophy of geography. Without such a unit, professional geographers worry that their students will graduate with no understanding of geography as a whole as opposed to its constituent sub-fields.

The second principal justification for these kinds of units is that they are an effective way of conveying a very important truth: there is more than one way of knowing about the world and not necessarily any single correct way. What do we mean by this? Geographers are in the fortunate position of trying to explain different kinds of phenomena, everything from ecological succession to industrial location and environmental perception. It would be surprising if the assumptions we made about what counts as facts, how causes operate, whether our own values should enter our explanations and other such issues were the same for all conceivable phenomena. What's more, even accounts of the same processes, say, domestic labour by migrant workers, could look very different depending on whether one's understanding was influenced by feminism or mathematical modelling. We don't want to labour these points here, because they are raised again and again by the contributors in their chapters. What is worth remembering is that, in common with other scholars, geographers regularly interrogate the assumptions contained in their ways of knowing. If they didn't, they'd still be operating with the intellectual tools of bygone eras.

Questioning Geography is intended to offer degree students a fresh perspective on a discipline of unusual intellectual breadth. It is hardly the first book to consider the history, nature and philosophy of geography. But it is the first to approach its subject matter in the way it does. The many rival texts now available seem to us to be split into three rather unsatisfactory kinds. First, there are those that explore geography's development through time, tracing the succession of major 'paradigms' since Western geography was founded as a university subject in the late nineteenth century. Second, most books on the nature, history and philosophy of geography focus on human geography alone. Finally, several of these books discuss geography by way of a survey of its several sub-fields. In the first case the problem is that some of geography's intellectual vitality is lost, as students feel they have to memorize those 'isms' and 'ologies' that have supposedly succeeded each other over time. In the second case the problem (obviously) is that half the discipline is ignored. In the third case the risk is that the broader issues cross-cutting sub-disciplines are not apparent to student readers.

In light of this, Questioning Geography tries to do something different. Its starting point is the undeniable fact that geography is a contested discipline. Students often think that academic subjects are rather civilized, even dull, places where harmony prevails. The reality is that they are hotbeds of disagreement and dissent. Geography's present and past are a testimony to this fact. For all its internal diversity (both within and between human and physical geography), it remains animated by several fundamental issues that impinge on many areas of the discipline and that cannot be resolved in any straightforward way. These issues concern everything from what geography's subject matter should be to how topically broad it is to its wider social role. These are issues that concern geographers of all stripes (human and physical) and can be articulated as a set of key questions. These questions force all geographers to confront fundamental problems with the discipline as currently organized and practised. They also make us consider possible and probable actions to change geography for the better. Above all, the debates that have congealed around these questions over the years speak to geography's self-reflexive character and intellectual dynamism. Sometimes heated, these debates cut to the heart of what geography is (or should be) about, how it studies the world, and what geographical knowledge is to be used for.

The book's title refers, then, not so much to the questions geographers ask about the world they study as to the questions they ask about the constitution of their discipline. The title is both a statement of fact and an invitation to student readers. As the chapters show, geography has been and remains a discipline prepared to ask tough questions about itself. Accordingly, we want students to feel confident that they can question geography once they know the kinds of questions that are worth asking and the kinds of considered (but rarely consensual) answers that professional geographers have provided.

Each chapter seeks to address a key issue about the way the discipline of geography is organized and practised. In most cases the issue is announced in the title as a question. The chapters do not need to be read sequentially since there is not a consistent 'message' that runs through the book. As editors, we felt it necessary to let contributors offer their own informed discussion of the issues they were asked to discuss. Consequently, each chapter does not in any way offer a 'correct' answer to, or resolution of, the question posed or issue discussed. Rather, contributors were asked to identify the key points of debate, the principal contributions to the debate and their own specific viewpoint on the matter at hand. In this way, we hope, student readers will appreciate that there is no right or wrong answer to the questions posed by contributors. Instead, there are only contests among geographers vying to take geography in the directions that seem to them to be fruitful, whether the issues are philosophical, theoretical, methodological or practical (i.e. the uses of geographical knowledge in society).

Whether you are an undergraduate or a graduate student, we hope that Questioning Geography will persuade you that an examination of how geography is organized as a discipline amounts to more than indulgent navel gazing or dull introspection. The book, we hope, conveys some of the key tensions that make geography what it is: an exciting discipline that offers distinctive perspectives on the world yet which progresses (if 'progress' is the word) through self-criticism and honest recognition of its shortcomings. After reading some, or all, of this book, degree-level geographers should understand why the philosophy, history and practice of geography are more than merely 'academic' matters that concern their professors alone.

Though the chapters can be read in any order, we have grouped them into five parts according to broad thematic overlaps. 'The ''Nature'' of Geography' (Part I), as the scare-quotes suggest, contains chapters that explore how the discipline of geography has been defined and the reasons why it does or does not possess a coherent identity. Ron Johnston, Heather Viles, Katherine McKittrick and Linda Peake, in their respective chapters, together explore some of the fundamental fault-lines that make geography's identity, relative to other subjects, a contested one and they examine whether and how that identity can be changed.

Part II, 'Approaches in Geography', examines the different ways in which geographers have chosen to 'do geography'. Noel Castree's Chapter 4 discusses the venerable issue of whether geography can be considered a 'scientific' field of study. Stephan Harrison, in Chapter 5, discusses this issue in relation to physical geography, where the appellation 'science' still informs the self-understanding of practitioners (unlike human geography where the term 'science' is sometimes treated with a good deal of suspicion). Finally, in Chapter 6, Maureen Hickey and Vicky Lawson discuss the 'post-scientific' approaches increasingly common in human geography but they do so, subversively, by redefining what the still-prized label 'science' means.

In Part III, 'Key Debates in Geography', some fundamental philosophical issues that span both human and physical geography are examined. These issues cut to the heart of both what geographers study and how. Tim Burt, in Chapter 7, considers whether geographers study unique configurations of things or more general phenomena common to many situations. Bruce Rhoads, then, in Chapter 8, examines whether geographers examine visible forms in the landscape, the processes producing them or both. Following this, in Chapter 9, Matthew Hannah debates the hoary question of whether geographers' knowledge is a reflection of an outer reality or else a construction forged by geographers themselves. This relates to the final chapter of this part, by Michael Curry, which looks at the issue of whether multiple perspectives on geographical reality are somehow preferable to those that claim to 'unlock' the world's truths with some sort of single master key.

The book's penultimate part is entitled 'The Practice of Geography'. The chapters in it consider key issues surrounding some of the 'tools of the geographical trade'. These tools are not so much methods of investigating geographical reality, as broad categories of investigative practice. These include cartography and visualization (discussed by Scott Orford in Chapter 11), modelling and prediction (discussed by David Demeritt and John Wainwright in Chapter 12), fieldwork (discussed by Steve Herbert, Jacqueline Gallagher and Garth Myers in Chapter 13), counting and measuring (discussed by Danny Dorling in Chapter 14) and theorizing (discussed by Elspeth Graham in Chapter 15). In each case, the contributors examine the debates on the tools in question.

Finally, the short concluding part discusses 'The Uses of Geography'. In Chapter 16, Alisdair Rogers rehearses the debates over geography's ir/relevance to the formation and implementation of policy measures that improve the human and environmental worlds. Following this, in the final chapter, Noel Castree poses the broader question of who has the right to determine what geography is and should be. He focuses particularly on teaching and in so doing brings the issues home to student readers taking geography degrees. Even though this is the final chapter in the book, we could equally well have started with it and some readers might find that it makes sense to read it first.

Readers should be warned, however, that there is, inevitably, an element of recapitulation throughout the book since the chapters do not have to read in order or as a whole. Each contributor thus assumes little or no prior knowledge, meaning that material dealt with in a certain way in one chapter recurs in other contexts in other chapters. Readers can skip some of this recapitulatory material if they feel confident that have already picked up the necessary information elsewhere in the book.

As editors, we are sure that Questioning Geography conveys something of the richness, dynamism and dissent that characterize contemporary geography. Where so many texts on the nature, history and practice of geography end up as rather dry discussions of the discipline's 'nature', we hope here to convey its vitality to student readers. By organizing the book around key questions and issues, our intention is to add bite to students' understanding of the discipline whose future many of them will help make as teachers and researchers.

The 'Nature' of Geography

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