On being a geographer

Geography was the one subject that both fascinated me and made sense to me. I was always intrigued by its broad canvas: how could a subject range from understanding the flow of water in rivers to measuring the urban heat island to the challenge of social inequality? Superficially, it can make no sense, and so the lazy public perception is to assume its all about maps and countries and writing about travels through these strnge lands. A google search for best geographical books only serves to reinforce this myth, as does the word itself: ge-, earth, -gaphia, writing. 

It’s obviously the spatial subject. I was always fascinated in the symbiotic relationship between people and their environment and how the changing social, political, economic, environmental and cultural demands of the time meant this was dynamic and ever-changing. But for me it’s also the systems subject. It draws on the best of sociology, political theory, economics, anthropology and the physical sciences. 

Geographical questions help us understand why places emerge where they do, whether for fortification, navigation, trade, raw materials, and the like. They help us understand the custom and culture of the people who live there, conditioned as we are to the places we live. Custom and practice is shaped by topography and landscale, climate and weather, the available food to eat, the neighbouring populations… and so on. The emergent relationship over time and space between people and their environment. Unfortunately, all too often we see homo sapiens as separate from nature, largely dominant over it and no longer part of it. It is only through natural disaster that we are literatlly brought down to earth.  

I argue, too, that it should be the perfect subject for anyone involved in public policy. It grounds sociologists and economists and political theorists in the importance of places, of those locations where people actually go about their daily lives, run errands, raise families, create friendships, find love. It offers a compelling account of why abstract theories mean nothing in isolation from grounded reality. It recognises that all these factors I have described pay out differently in different places and therefore need different responses that are context specific. Other subjects appear to have less nuance. 

I love seeking connections and seeing the whole more than the parts, spotting the unusual and the curious, using these to guide my deep dives into specific topics, areas or intrigue. Geography is the strategic subject primarily because it does just this: it offers sweeping panaramas of society, conditioned as it is by the specific demands placed upon it in specific places, by then zooming out another layer and seeing the meso level connections and infuences, all within a macro global scale. 

I read a short paper from Doreen Massey recenty where she writes about “an (idealized) notion of an era when places were (supposedly) inhabited by coherent and homogeneous communities is set against the current fragmentation and disruption. The counterposition is anyway dubious, of course; ‘place’ and ‘community’ have only rarely been coterminous. But the occasional longing for such coherence is none the less a sign of the geographic fragmentation, the spatial disruption, of our times.” 

To be a geographer is to work in detail whilst being cognisant of all these layers. It’s to be a strategic, systemic thinker.

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