#Geography as a field: Paradigm Shifts

In many ways I feel like I am still arriving at an understanding of the contours that make up the vast body of knowledge known as geography.  For me as a newcomer who stumbled in as a Janie-come-lately by way of Women’s and Gender Studies, History, and a concentration in the study of American Slavery my relationship to the field of geography is still in the idealistic stage. I have not been mired in it long enough to become a useful critic, perhaps.

But throughout this year I have been exposed to the history of geography as a field, the vanguard of the discipline such Carl Sauer, Ellen Semple, Paul Vidal de La Blache, and more contemporary geographers field-redefining geographers such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Willie J. Wright, LaToya Eaves, Priscilla McCutcheon, Yi-Fu Tuan, David Harvey, Mona Domosh, Mei-Po Kwan, Derek Gregory and others. I think the most perplexing thing for me as a newcomer were the anxieties surrounding defining the field. I had always held the view that geography was fully understood, well defined in and outside of academia. Even my mother who mostly waved me off when I would get into deep discussions my research was much more attentive to me when I told her how I used maps. But upon learning that certain departments dismantled the subject at varying times, I was educated on how a subject so vast and filled with so many specialties was seen as a weakness of the discipline and not a strength.

Complexity for me, has always been an intellectual bridge to higher thinking so in my understanding geography’s vast array of focuses were very attractive.

Certain paradigms jumped out to me with regard to geography as a field- discarded and problematic ones such a environmental determinism(which I had a subtle understanding of through southern apologist historical writings of the “fitness” of Africans for slavery), studies of regions, quantitative turns, Marxist turns, humanistic turns, and postmodernist turns.

But is there a new paradigm?

If there is one I think it is driven by our contemporary context. Consider the following provocations:

“Human geographers will, of course, play their part. Their papers and reports track ‘progress’ within and between sub-fields of human and physical geography. Most of them also seek to ‘add value’ to the research publications they survey. PiHG and PiPG are thus journals of record as well as places where authors seek to move Geography forward: that is, they both ‘map’ and ‘navigate’. The COVID-19 crisis presents a challenge to geographers, as it does to researchers in most other disciplines. The challenge is also a significant opportunity:

  1. How should we describe, explain and evaluate the unfolding crisis, foregrounding its dimensions of spatio-temporal unevenness throughout?
  2. How can we ensure that it is not only the voices of English-speaking academics and those based in the more privileged institutions internationally that are heard?
  3. How might attempts to make sense of COVID-19’s geographies affect the way we do Geography and define ‘progress’ in the discipline? As part of this, are there older approaches, ideas or methods that might usefully be revisited? Conversely, what might we need to invent in order to address absences in our cognitive and normative tool box?”

source: Castree, Noel, Louise Amoore, Alex Hughes, Nina Laurie, David Manley, and Susan Parnell. “Boundless Contamination and Progress in Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 44, no. 3 (June 2020): 411–14. doi:10.1177/0309132520920094.

So I will say that this cataclysmic moment we are in has produced an imperative for a new paradigm that addresses the questions above.

This is the more than just a “progressive turn” it must be qualified with some affirming word that resists corruption and power like anticolonial or decolonizing because progressive as a word by itself is loaded with many investments that may include those of an oligarch class. So if there is a new paradigm it is the Progressive Anticolonial Turn in geography—one that defies borders, regions, boundaries, one that resists capitalist logics just as the pathogenic cloud that continues to assail us has.


***featured image is a map I made of my home state of North Carolina which utilizes the landscape condition value raster dataset



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