Beware the Social Theorists in Geography

August 21, 2015 at 12:35 pm  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  14 Comments

Dear Justin,

I spoke with the Human Geography department because that was where I assumed my interests led. But then, while they didn’t explicitly state it, they seemed to imply that a lot of Human Geography is theory based, and I got the impression that the use of mapping/statistics and analyzing using the technologies of Geography wasn’t a big focus.

I honestly don’t know enough about Geography to articulate my question well — but I’m curious. Is all Geography at a Master’s level going to use some forms of visual analysis, in various ways, maybe GIS, maybe remote sensing, maybe GPS, etc? Or can there be programs that are based on intellectual theory without the technology side of things? If so, is that common? Should I specifically be asking about that in order to find a department that melds both? Is that just something that you don’t find in Human Geography?

I know I like the human studies side of things. Why are societal aspects of the world affected by space? Things like nationalism within the study of borders, or even linguistic differences across areas of space, these are all fascinating. I just assumed they naturally would be something you could study by using technology to better visualize, represent, express, predict, and understand. So that’s my current confusion, I really want to learn about that and study it from a statistical and spatial viewpoint. Can you not fold this sort of social science aspect into the technical side of things? Is it really just with things like mapping rainforests to find better habitats for endangered animals or oil excavation that you get to focus on the physical/spatial analysis and representation of Geography?



Hi M.,

Well, you’re starting to learn about key divisions within geography. There are a large number of human geographers who are really, in my opinion, more social theorists than they are geographers. My advice is to avoid them. Not because they don’t have value to offer you or the discipline, but because many of them tend to have a bias against the technological and quantitative driven sub-fields within the discipline. You’ll hear them use words like “positivism” or “positivist” if you’re stuck listening to them long enough.

You do need to expect to study the theory and history of geographic thought in a grad program. It’s important. And you’ll need to have some understanding of theory salient to your research theme (e.g., core-periphery or similar). But that doesn’t mean your focus can’t be empirical. The key is to find an advisor who will encourage and facilitate your research interests rather than trying to indoctrinate you into the School of David Harvey.

Depending on the department you may be better off talking to the GIS/Cartography/Spatial faculty rather than the Human Geography folks. There are certainly plenty of human geographers who understand and value visual/analytical approaches. Finding one of them to serve as a mentor would be great; but a “spatial” professor willing to mentor your efforts will do the trick. You can tap a more traditional human geographer for thematic expertise as a second committee member. Some departments are more theoretical than others but the best programs typically have some representation or a balance of both factions. You should be able to figure out who’s who by reading research interest descriptions.

This is a problem for the discipline because it creates confusion regarding what it means to be a geographer or to have majored in geography. But that’s a topic for another post.

Hope this helps.



  1. Matthew Wilson / August 25, 2015 at 5:39 pm / Reply

    This is unfair and, at worst, deeply misleading advice.

    • Justin / August 25, 2015 at 5:44 pm / Reply

      Hi Matthew, thanks for sharing your opinion but it would be far more helpful to my readers if you made your case. Best, Justin

  2. Matthew Wilson / August 26, 2015 at 10:08 am / Reply

    I’ll encourage you to (1) read or re-read Nadine Schuurman (2000), a GIScientist, on the unnecessary, if well-trod, distraction created by precisely the line of thinking your advice advances — to divide the discipline (, and (2) to help your audience by reflecting on the philosophical training/reading that composed your own **Ph**D, however spatial scientific it might be, which likely would be a much more productive point of commonality in the discipline.

    Schuurman (2000, 587) writes in her conclusion after a brilliant re-telling of the story of 1990s hair-splitting and nasty name calling (of which your post seems somewhat nostalgic), “The greatest danger is that critique of GIS will develop its own vocabulary and references. … Social theory can, by definition, only tangentially engage a technology which is written in the language of computational algebra and constructed through the laws of physics. The present danger is that sociotheoretical critics of GIS will create a self-reinforcing world framed in a discourse unrecognizable by practitioners and scholars of GIS.” Indeed, a real pickle — and one that has been discussed for decades now. HOWEVER, she continues to pinpoint the problem that your post illustrates well: “GIS scholars are apt to respond by discounting critical attention to implications of their work in favor of attention to theory and practice situated within the technology.” The point was to recognize that we benefit when we are actually speaking with one another, not to gloss over the potential irreducibles in our various epistemologies, but to trace and understand their various departures, to build stronger interpretations and claims.

    Since these dark times, there have been incredibly productive engagements between spatial scientists and critical/social theorists within the discipline. Dismissing these engagements (see here: is to fan the flames of a science war that you seem ill-prepared to address. Of course, I could be misreading your advice.

  3. Harrison Campbell / August 26, 2015 at 4:48 pm / Reply

    “Pickles”… an ironic choice of words. “Ill-prepared” … unnecessary.

  4. JP / August 26, 2015 at 10:59 pm / Reply

    Thank you Matt!

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  6. Eric Huntley / August 27, 2015 at 6:59 pm / Reply

    I’ve taken the liberty of crafting an alternative response to your would-be student of geography. I’ve gathered that you go into anaphylactic shock when you read prose that reeks of theory. While I don’t have the same response, I am open to the idea that such language isn’t necessarily how you should communicate with a student exploring the possibility of a career in geography (academic or otherwise). Therefore, I’ve left this in the closest thing to “plain” language that I can muster.

    Hi M.,

    You’ve correctly identified some key divisions within geography. There are, indeed, a large number of human geographers whose primary concern is not the visual representation of human spatial phenomena or the analysis of digital geospatial data. I won’t weigh you down with a detailed depiction of a decades-long and occasionally overheated debate within the discipline but I think it’s worth sketching the (rough) outlines of the history that led to the tension between GIScience and human geography.

    Basically, it goes like this: in the middle of the twentieth century, there were a collection of geographers who thought that geography could only stay relevant to society and maintain a respectable place in the academic hierarchy by focusing on the search for universal principles that would describe human behavior in space. This was often (though not exclusively) undertaken using statistical and computational methods. You might see this referred to as the “quantitative revolution” if you dig into the literature. Soon enough, this was challenged by a number of geographers, some of whom started their careers as ‘quantifiers.’ The arguments tended to run like this: a search for descriptive laws that would describe all of humanity was 1) insensitive to the fact that geographers should be interested not only in describing but also changing a society run through with devastating injustice 2) incapable of (or even averse to) describing the difference and diversity that characterize the every day lives of people in a society and 3) based on an untenable claim to universal knowledge (this is connected to a critique of what is called ‘positivism’ by philosophers of science). Similar debates flair up again as GIS ‘goes mainstream’ in the 1980s and becomes ubiquitous in the 1990s, largely treading the same territory, though using the ideas of different theorists (on both sides).

    Thus, for several generations now, academic human geography has by and large been less concerned with representing the world than with acting in it or critiquing its destructive political systems and economies.

    So yes. GIS and geospatial technology has often had a tense relationship with human geography. However, the relationship was never totally severed, which means that now there are now a number of scholars whose work straddles the critical tradition and GIScience. They are managing to do GIS work and think theory at the same time. When you ask “can you not fold this sort of social science aspect into the technical side of things?”, I can’t help but thinking that this is what you’re looking for. Work like this recognizes GIS, remote sensing, spatial analysis, etc. are powerful tools. However, it must also recognize that they are also only tools—their use doesn’t give you privileged access to truth.

    So I guess I would end this note by saying that if you are interested in learning how to use software and deploy techniques at the ‘high end’ of geospatial analysis and digital image processing, etc. (and that is actually all you are interested in), don’t apply to a human geography program. However, if you are really interested in “fold[ing] … social science … into the technical side of things? Consider finding a program that is home to scholars doing work at the interface of GIS and critical social thought. They exist, and will offer you the opportunity to learn how you might sit between the difficulties of technology and the complexities of theory, doing compelling work while being aware of its power and its effects.

    It doesn’t have to be one or the other.


    • Justin / August 27, 2015 at 9:04 pm / Reply

      By the middle of your second paragraph M had already decided Geography might be too weird to pursue.

      • JPRMAPS / August 28, 2015 at 2:12 am / Reply

        Well said, Justin! Me, a Ph.D. geographer who lives as an independent consultant in the real world.

      • Taylor / August 28, 2015 at 7:44 am / Reply

        And, you know what? That’s perfectly fine if that’s how they feel about it. But it’s better to do that with a legitimate understanding of what they’d be getting themselves into than going on the half-baked advice of someone who just couldn’t bear to actually do their reading in graduate school because they were scared off by words like ‘positivism’.

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  8. jimbojones / September 30, 2015 at 9:08 am / Reply

    As a geographer who has absolutely no interest in “critical geography” or the social theorist branch of geography, I think it is important that people know that there are indeed many types of scholarship under the big tent of Geography. You can be a social theorist or a hardcore data nerd and both personality types fit in our tent. I am an evidence based, data driven social scientist and have been approached by fellow geographers after giving an AAG talk to be told that “your talk was really interesting but its all about data analysis and you can’t learn anything from data.” I often find myself explaining that I am not “that kind of geographer” to folks who have only ever met geographers from the social theory or critical geography realm. Add in the fact that many of the critical geographers are unabashedly Marxist and it is no surprise that when I identify as a geographer I have on occasion dealt with some very negative preconceptions about what type of scholar I must be.

    There are many many geographers who are not GIS or RS scientists who are quantitative scholars so the divide is not between the RS/GIS community and all the human geographers. Again Geography has a very very large tent and geographers are a diverse crowd.

    • Justin / October 1, 2015 at 9:56 am / Reply

      When the tent is too big, it’s too difficult for newcomers to figure out if they want to go inside or not. I want a smaller, more focused tent. And, the litmus test is not quant vs non-quant. Qualitative methodology is superior for many types of core geography questions. The problem lies in those who believe social theory should become an industry unto itself within geography. They should find a different tent.

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