Monday, August 22, 2016

What has Geography Done for Us Lately?

I know he used to do nice stuff for you...
In the spirit of last week's post on "what is Geography good for, anyway*?", I wanted to make a better defense of the discipline. Some of my colleagues have had to literally defend the discipline (or at least their departments) in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny about Geography's relevance and worth, and I admit the stakes aren't so high for me. I think what Geography has contributed from its inception is the language for comparing seemingly disparate phenomena. And it also has value as the study of what is where and why. So Geographers look for the connections between different places (or spaces, or anything with a location) at the differences between them, too. With the language of Geography, we can draw parallels and identify mechanisms of how things change or why they came to be where they are. The production of knowledge about how one location differs from another has always been incredibly important, even outside of a formal discipline. Knowing what is where (aka chorography) could legitimately be the most useful knowledge one can have.

Now we generate enormous amounts of data about what is where (and when), which we've hardly scratched the surface of in terms of analysis, modelling, and prediction. I struggle to impress on my students just how rich we are with data, and how desperately we need more people to dig into what we've got. Of course the wealth of data doesn't always represent a wealth of information, and the complexity of our models often falls far short of the mark in terms of reproducing real-world phenomena (some would argue that this is exactly how science progresses). Sometimes we have to be targeted about what data we collect, and where, and why, and how often. But we also have to try things out of pure curiosity, just to see what we can see.

Some think the ultimate proof of a discipline's worth to be what laws it can identify, what universal principles can it state (nomotheticism, if you're nasty). I guuuueeessssss Tobler's Law (that everything is connected to everything else, but closer things are likely to be more similar) counts for ticking that box. I'm more fond of the second law of Geography, I think (that things outside your area of interest affect what happens inside it). But I admit that I find laws from other disciplines more useful. I am not married to Geography (or most other disciplines) retaining their titles and structures past the point of their usefulness, and I do think that academic institutions could be better organized based on other principles. But Geography is certainly deserving of its current status as a discipline as much as any other.

*OMG that's totally Paula Abdul at the beginning of that video, she was Janet Jackson's choreographer, apparently. You learn something new every day!

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