Beware the Social Theorists in Geography
August 21, 2015
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?
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.