The Social Theorist Strikes Back
August 27, 2015
Last week I wrote a post warning my GIS-inclined readership to Beware of Social Theorists in Geography. Apparently this struck a nerve with some who fit the description and don’t want me to express such an opinion. Here’s the text of the primary voice in opposition to the contents of my post:
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 (http://phg.sagepub.com/content/24/4/569.short), 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: http://criticalgis.blogspot.com/p/critical-gis-bibliography.html) is to fan the flames of a science war that you seem ill-prepared to address. Of course, I could be misreading your advice.
Here, dear Readers, is my response.
Allow me to apologize for the strange collection of obscure syllables above. Despite this man’s advanced education it’s clear he’s lost the ability to communicate in plain English. I’ll do my best to help you wade through the jargon and parse his syntax. It’s a path fraught with peril. So, follow along as I boldly go where very few plain spoken humans have gone before.
But first let me expose the skeletons in my academic closet. I do have a Ph.D. in geography but I lack any noteworthy scholarly production. After finishing grad school I went into the private sector so my business resume better illustrates my professional accomplishments than my curriculum vitae. I also must admit I was a below average graduate student. I didn’t read everything assigned, relying primarily on abstracts alone to complete my understanding of various topics in the discipline. I was far more interested in computational approaches to applied geography problems. I also had a job outside of grad school so I could support my family and thus I had to be efficient with my time. I never really figured out how to include the term postmodernism in a sentence and I was often admonished for failing to properly cite key figures whose work I found too boring to endure. My dissertation research wasn’t even published except for the copy collecting dust in Knight Library. I teach now. But only as a lowly Statistics Lecturer in the Business School at Colorado State University in Pueblo (where?). In short, I’m an academic failure (sorry, Bart).
Despite my failings, I have a unique perspective on the discipline of geography. I understand how the academic game is played and I successfully mastered the art of identifying skills used by top research geographers that are actually applicable in the “real world” (for the social theorists, this is a different sort of universe where problems must be solved rather than discussed endlessly). I also served on an admission committee while I was a Master’s student so I know more than average about what it takes to gain admission to a good graduate school and a good geography department. In addition, I’ve hired several geographers and coached many more on this blog and elsewhere.
As it turns out, and this may come as a shock, most students of geography don’t become tenure track professors. In fact, almost none of them do. Instead, the overwhelming majority of geography students enter this unfamiliar real world where jobs are not handed out to those whose primary talent involves speaking in tongues and publishing fairy tale ideas in obscure academic journals.
Sadly the discipline of geography has few representatives from the real world who are in position to help aspiring geography majors, geography graduate students or job hunters with a degree in geography. There were certainly very few helpful resources for me when I decided to pursue a geography education in the early 1990s. One of my goals with this blog is to provide a third party perspective to help aspiring geographers reach their career goals. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, obviously I have detractors, but I’m certainly trying my best.
Now, let’s move on to translation of the hieroglyphics written above.
First, the social theorist says I should read a 15-year old paper explaining why people like him shouldn’t criticize research involving GIS technology and vice-versa. He states this as if GIScience has remained stagnant since 2000 and as if the world knows or cares about the ongoing debate and navel gazing within geography. Also note the holier-than-thou tone where he speaks down to me as if I’m a student in a seminar where he presides over his unworthy minions.
Second, he says I’m trying to divide the discipline of geography. Here’s a news flash, pal – the discipline is already divided. There are two camps. One camp does research on salient topics that are important to contemporary society. The other camp writes a pile of drivel no one understands, no one cares about and no one will ever read. One camp has driven the growth of geography by becoming relevant while the other camp has continued to obscure the discipline and prevent it from being looked upon as useful to the private sector (the place where the vast majority of geographers make a living now and will make a living in the future). So, while this Kumbaya peace accord might help faculty coexist at AAG conferences, it does nothing for students of geography or the standing of the discipline as it relates to the value of a geography degree.
Third, he says the discipline benefits when we speak to each other. Well, sure, I’m all in favor of cross-disciplinary communication, research and problem solving. But, I don’t care about pandering to members of the discipline whose work doesn’t resemble anything even remotely geographical in nature. I think the discipline benefits when we have clarity about what it means to study and practice geography. This would suggest a more consistent curriculum and a more coherent and cohesive explanation of what geographers do. At the moment, although it has changed for the better in the past 20 years, the average professional who might be in position to hire a geographer thinks we study States and Capitals.
Fourth, he says I’m “fanning the flames of a science war”. Whatever. If we’ve been at war no one has died and no one has really noticed. I don’t like to tip-toe around issues. I prefer candor. I find candor far more effective than the passive-aggressive style of someone who implies I’m not worthy because I forgot, heaven forbid, the critical contribution of someone who wrote a friendly paper helping her stay in good stead with her unproductive colleagues who might otherwise have denied her tenure and ruined her career. In my experience debate is a highly effective process that often produces important insights even if it also results in bruised egos.
Finally, he says I am “ill-prepared” for this debate. This is his way of declaring I’m not qualified to contribute to the discussion of what geography should be.
Thankfully, I live in the real world. Here, I’m allowed to say what I believe about geography and its role in society and my voice isn’t required to survive a gauntlet of sanitizing journal reviewers. My opinion matters to my small readership because I tell them the sort of truth they rarely hear from professors. My opinion matters because I’ve figured out how to make geography training valuable in an increasingly competitive and tech-driven global marketplace. And, my opinion matters because I represent the overwhelming majority of geography students and geography graduates who’ve never published in the Annals and never read it because most issues provide limited yield in the way of useful knowledge.
So, I stand by my advice to avoid social theorists in geography. Unless you plan to become a stuffy elitist academic who dwells on the ethereal, these well-meaning but misguided wanna-be philosophers won’t help your career and they might just do long term damage to your prospects for earning a living … at least on this planet.