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So what is a Geographer anyway? (Part II)

By Brian Doucet
January 17, 2008

As I have mentioned previously, geography is a very broad term. In many regards, this is one of our strengths; as geographers, we study and learn about such diverse topics which enable us to learn from each other. I recently completed a master’s program in human geography and planning. In our group of around a dozen students, we researched such diverse topics as gentrification in Edinburgh (my own topic), water privatisation in Bolivia, Spanish migration to the Netherlands, social cohesion in a newly built city, and creative clusters in Berlin. All of these topics, of course, fit easily under the umbrella of geography (or to be even more specific, human geography). Because of this, I learned about topics totally different from my own. What is also clear from this small example is that geography is global and there are many variations in geographic phenomenon throughout the world. Studying water privatisation would be much different in another part of the world than in Bolivia, just as migration studies in Asia would probably yield different findings than in Europe.

While being a truly global subject, and being able to learn about a wide variety of topics that fit under the rubric of geography are positive elements of the subject, this vastness and broadness can cause some difficulties. Medical students study medicine, law students study the law, and despite the internal differences within those subjects, they are much more unified in their knowledge than the geography students studying geography. Our subject is so broad that there are at times very few ties that bind us together. We all study the earth, and in the case of human geography, people over space. But these are very weak ties. Geographers study geography, but there is usually a very important adjective attached to the word: urban geography, economic geography, historical geography, or medical geography, for that matter. Are we in danger of becoming so broadly-based that the economic geographers gravitate to the economics department? Did my gentrification study really have that much in common with my colleague studying water privatisation? Are the ties of spatiality really enough to sustain our field in the future? In my opinion they are. Geographers study a variety of topics it is true, but the key element that unifies us is that we add is the element of space and geography to these subjects. In the economic geography example, not only do we contribute to our understanding of the mutually exclusive topics of economics and geography, but also to how economics manifests itself in space. This additional insight to these various disciplines is what gives us our strength as scientists. And, however varied the topics we study throughout the world, it is this element that unifies us together as geographers.