World Knowledge and Discipline

Geographers are fond of saying that what 'ties the discipline together' is an attention to phenomena insofar as they are distributed in space. At the same time, and like other scholars, geographers tend to see their discipline as divided into subdisciplines. There is economic geography, bio-geography, and so on. Here a similar strategy is invoked: it is held that economic geography concerns spatial aspects of economic phenomena, that biogeography concerns spatial aspects of living things, and so on. It is common to imagine that below disciplines and sub-subdisciplines are research areas, and finally the work of single individuals.

We see just this view in Brian Berry's famous 'cube' (Figure 10.1), where the discipline is divided into human and physical parts, which are in turn subdivided into the economic, the social, and so on, and where the discipline can be further divided orthogonally, in terms of the geographical area or scale that is being studied, or of the time period that is being studied. Although Berry created his cube during the quantitative revolution of the 1960s, this way of thinking was by no means

Stage A-











Region 1

Subregion 2

Place 1


Population Geography

Variable 1











1 Geomorphic


Figure 10.1 Berry's cube.

Figure 10.1 Berry's cube.

new to - nor is it a relic of - that era. We see an earlier version in Freeman and Raup's 1949 Essentials of Geography (1949: 8) (Figure 10.2).

And it appears more recently in de Blij and Murphy's Human Geography (2003: 5) (which though entitled 'human geography' also includes physical geography and environmental studies) (Figure 10.3).

Indeed, in the case of geography we can find a similar project even as far back as the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy (ad 90-168), where geography is described in what looks like a familiar way, as the study of places, regions, and the 'figure' or shape of the earth itself, a figure that is to be captured in mathematical terms. So there seems to be good reason, on historical grounds, for thinking of geography as a discipline that is ultimately defined in ontological terms, in terms of the objects that it studies. And this should be no surprise - geographers are not alone in looking at disciplines in this way. A look at an introductory textbook in almost any discipline will reveal something similar, a diagram or

Geography Disciplines
Figure 10.2 Geography and other academic disciplines.

chart - often a pie chart - laying out the structure of the discipline, and pointing to the place of that discipline among all disciplines.

But it is important to note that in geography, as elsewhere, these illustrations are fundamentally ambiguous. They may refer to a discipline in terms of the objects that it studies, as in Berry's cube where geomorph-ologists study landforms, or in Freeman and Raup, where there are geographers who study population problems, or in de Blij and Murphy where some geographers study environmental problems. But the illustrations often seem to suggest something different, that disciplines and subdisciplines need to be seen not as reflections of the structure of the world, but as the way we structure of our knowledge of the world. So Berry sees economic geographers not simply as looking at 'economies', but also


Cultural ^ Geography q sq^


Cultural ^ Geography q sq^

Geographic Cube Brian Berry

Figure 10.3 Human geography.


Figure 10.3 Human geography.

as asking economic questions about the world, and for de Blij and Murphy, cultural geographers ask cultural questions. In a sense, each can be said to be looking at the world through a particular lens, economic, cultural, and so on. From that perspective the illustrations are very much like the systems used in libraries for the classification of published materials and of written knowledge, systems such as the American Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal classification systems.

But this is not all. The illustrations may in fact be read a third way; they may be seen as laying out the structure of the discipline itself. So there is a subdiscipline called economic geography that creates economic-geographical knowledge of economic-geographical aspects of the world, and so on. There are people called 'biogeographers' and 'economic geographers'. They publish in biogeography and economic geography journals, go to biogeography and economic geography conferences, and belong to biogeography and economic geography organizations.

These three ways of looking at academic disciplines - in terms of the nature of the objects that they study, in terms of the structure of the knowledge that they produce, and in terms of their social organization -have long been widely accepted. Note, though, that as different as they may be, they have something important in common; each envisions the possibility of unity, a unity of the world, a unity of knowledge, and a unity among those who study the world. The very structure of the illustrations suggests that far from being an unruly, fragmented place, the world is an interconnected whole that with the right approach and the right tools can be apprehended for what it is. It is a structure that can be captured on a page.

It is this image that has in part guided the understanding of the place of theory, and later metatheory, in geography and elsewhere in science. But as we shall see, in recent years some geographers have made claims that undercut the authority of these diagrams, just as they call into question the authority of metatheory, and in the process demote theory. On this newer view, academic disciplines can never be captured on a page.

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  • reija
    What areas of discipline can a geographer go into?
    8 years ago

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