Beyond colouring pencils: what Geography is really about

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Let me begin clearly: the colouring pencil joke isn’t funny. Perhaps it was funny in the 1960s when geography was an academic backwater, but it’s now a flourishing, exciting discipline that deserves to be understood, not mocked. I think it’s high time somebody explained, in detail, what we really study in geography, and why it’s such a relevant degree.

Academic geography is a lens which interrogates space, scale and relationality. Unlike at school, geography isn’t structured around a central corpus of ‘world issues’ at university, making charges of magpie-like eclecticism and superficial engagement misplaced. Just as you can do a history of almost anything, you can do a geography of almost anything by examining its spatiality. Nor is there one singular geography – the plural ‘geographies’ is frequently used to describe the many, divergent ways an object’s space and scale can be encountered.

Human geography is a critical social science characterized by theoretical and intersectional engagement with spatiality. It emerged as a respected discipline in the late 1970s when it began contesting poststructuralism’s view that space was merely the inert container of social life. Geographers have come to argue instead that space produces social life; that space is a product, source and conduit of power; and that space is therefore implicated in representation and knowledge production. It’s perhaps easier to digest how provocative and important geographical thinking is by asking the question: what are the consequences of recognizing knowledge as inseparable from its location of production and the bodies producing it, given all sites are differentially inscribed with power?

Although human geography remains grounded in rich empirical material and aspires to be a vehicle for progressive change, it’s vital to stress that geography is philosophical and very contemporary. To explain the social construction of space, geography borrows promiscuously from feminist, queer, postcolonial, Marxist and non-representational theories, often at the scale of the body and the human. 

Human geographers recognise that the human in its title isn’t a singular ontology, as the modernist (colonial) project attempts, but full of many ways to be human. A key idea is embodiment: the ways we each live and feel space are different because our bodies are differentially inscribed and disciplined through discourses such as gender and race. Foucault’s thoughts on discourse help reframe classic GCSE topics like migration and development as uneven processes, bound up with who can control discursive space, and therefore reify the borders and identities they define. We might consequently define human geography as about understanding, at all manner of scales, uneven ‘power geometries’.

Physical geography, on the other hand, is a natural science regularly published in leading scientific journals under (sub)disciplines like geophysics, hydrology, glaciology, climatology, and biogeography. It’s organized around understanding the Earth as a single physical system, synthesising geophysics, climate science and ecology to explain why the Earth’s surface has its current expression, and how this expression changes over time. The physical geography you probably covered at GCSE about waterfalls and cliff stumps remains a focus of academic geography – landform geomorphology is still poorly constrained – but the focus is on connecting erosion and sediment transport to the broader system.

Many of the most pressing questions in science, questions that will define the rest of our lives, involve physical geography. Will devastating tropical cyclones become more common? How high will sea levels have risen in 2100? Will an uncontrollable release of methane from Arctic permafrost trigger catastrophic climate change? To answer these questions, physical geographers look to the past – to past glaciations (ice ages) caused by changes to axial tilt and tectonic mountain-building processes – and use modelling to project future change. 

Geography is commonly promoted, therefore, as a kind of interdisciplinary toolkit to understand the climate crisis. In my first year at Oxford, I’ve already experienced the many angles through which geography encourages us to interrogate the science-policy nexus, but I think it’s somewhat mistaken to portray physical and human geography as blurred together. They’re more like oil and water: brought together vigorously, the environmental geography generated is innovative, but their emulsification is often only temporary, the results published on one side of the discipline. To me, geography is about assembling diverse perspectives, about straddling the gulf between hard and social sciences, but it can’t yet fully bridge it.

There’s a sobering reason why physical and human geographies became grouped together like this. Geography was deeply complicit with empire. Emerging out of explorers’ travel-writings, geography was established to produce knowledge about the physiognomy of the earth and the physiognomy of colonial subjects, to lubricate the cogs of colonialism and instruct children as future colonialists. Oxford’s geography department, founded in 1899 by the repulsive colonialist Halford Mackinder, is one of the oldest in the world. Geographers must confront their discipline’s birth in the imperial desire to render the entire world, physical and human, visible, knowable and hierarchical. We must reject this in favour of self-reflexive, partial knowledges.

Happily, human geography now leads the way in locating knowledges within their power structures and decolonizing research. Much is still to be done, but with human geography’s intersectional outlook and physical geography’s rejuvenated analysis through big data, I believe we can finally be proud of our subject. No longer a backwater, no longer superficial, geography’s attention to space and scale could not be more relevant. 

We brandish our colouring pencils in defiance.