Development Of Geography As An Academic Discipline

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In this essay I will be looking at the development of geography as an academic discipline, and then I will be discussing the role that theory has had in the development of geography. I will research past events and influences, to see how they have affected geography as an idiographic subject and changed the subject into a spatial science and effectively into a core academic discipline.

The discipline of geography is among the most ancient of sciences. Geography can be traced back to Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar who lived around 276-196 B.C and who is often called ‘the father of geography’. Alexander Von Humboldt was a German geographer from 1769-1859, commonly known as ‘the father of modern geography’. As well as Humboldt, Carl Ritter is also considered as one of the founders of modern geography. Both Humboldt and Ritter shared similar views. The naturalist Charles Darwin wrote a book called the ‘Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859. It “proved an inspiration to many geographers, who saw in Darwin’s idea of natural selection the possibility of a general theory of man-land relationships… so man needed to adopt modes of living which were consonant with the environment in which he lived…” (Graves, 1975)

Geography branched out as a new light and the thought process was now in place. Yet Darwin never claimed to be a geographer, with his main concentration being botany. Humboldt and Carl Ritter then co-founded a Geographical Society in Germany in 1874, bringing together Humboldt’s principle of a systematic approach and Ritter’s regional approach which were key methods of geography at this time. Regional geography is the study of world regions. It looks at key characteristics and how one place is specific and unique compared to another.

Another German geography, Freidrich Ratzel was the first person to use the term Lebensraum, which was used by Adolf Hitler. One of Ratzel’s students Ellen Semple studied under Ratzel and was heavily influenced by his ideas, publishing ‘Influences of Geographic Environment in 1911. Another one of Ratzel’s students, Ellsworth Huntington also applied Ratzel’s theory of regional geography to the reasoning behind the rise and fall of civilisation. Despite being one of the oldest disciplines, in today’s society, geography struggles to define itself as an academic subject. Over the past few decades, geography has had to forge its way to stand as a fundamental scientific subject.

In the early 19th century, many geography scholars believed that environment had a key role on the living marvels. The theory of Environmental Determinism – the view that the physical environment sets limits on human environment – was being questioned due to claims of its lack in the intellectual relevance and faults in its descriptions of certain locations. This led on to the theory of environmental possibilism. Possibilism states that the environment does have an effect on society, however it is not deterministic and humans can heavily influence the environment around them. By the 1950’s environmental determinism was virtually history and environmental possibilism had now taken over as central theory.

The first few steps forward for geography were the opening of the first geographical institutions, such as the establishment of the first institution by Humboldt and Ritter in Germany in 1874, The National Geographic Society in 1888 and also the Royal Geographical Society, founded in 1830 in Britain. The Royal Geographical Society is an institution to encourage the progression of geographical science. “The Society also devoted much of its energy to education, and was responsible for both the incorporation of the study of geography in schools at the turn of the 20th century, and for the first university positions in the discipline.” (Royal Geographical Society website.) The Society is the largest Geographical Society in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It supports and promotes geographical research, field training, education and teaching. These associations were the grounding for geography to start to grow and develop as the funded key and essential research. They also promoted geography in schools and universities, leading to the first university lecturer appointed in 1888. In 1919, Geography was the established as a Bachelor of Arts degree, and Cambridge University appointed its first professor in 1933, which was a great step forward for geography being such an influential place of learning. This appointment acted as a catalyst, and after this, many other universities started to follow suit.

By the 1930’s Britain had 44 University geography departments. However, there was a slump in the early 1940’s when geography hit crisis point. Geography departments started to deteriorate as geography as an academic topic struggled to stand as a basic University subject. “…geography as a subject is frequently misunderstood by the non-geographers…” (Graves, 1975) This meant that other discipline professors and educators questioned the importance of geography. “During the eighteenth century, geography began to be taught in certain institutions of higher learning, though the substance of what was being taught varied immensely in quality.” (Graves, 1975) This was followed by Harvard University abolishing geography as a subject in 1948. Being such an important and significant place of learning, this eradication had an adverse impact on the way geography was viewed. It lost its place as a highly regarded subject, and was starting to be regarded as overly descriptive with no relevance to science, the Greeks named it as ‘a description of the earth’.

It was at this point that questions were raised about the importance of geography and whether it answers the ‘why’s?’ and ‘how’s?’. At this time, geography had no documented split between the human and physical side. Also, “…geography in academic institutions straddled the arts and the sciences.” This made it hard for geography to have a true factual definition. Society started to wonder whether it sat as a science or a humanity subject. These questions and queries made it increasingly difficult for geography to have a good platform on which to grow. Essentially, the subject needed to be defined, and this would entail more detailed research.

With more advanced research, geography started to branch out with the division of both physical and human geography into contemporary geographies. Henderson (1968) “the ‘adjectival geography’: agriculture geography, urban geography, social geography, settlement geography and so on.” These numerous modern geographies started to make it easier to for geography to be defined. At last there were specialised areas that focused on one particular area of geography. “Parallel to this trend towards specialization, there developed a tendency to use quantitative techniques of analysis.” (Graves, 1975)

The importance for technology to develop in society had increased massively by the end of World War II, which meant there was a gap for geography to grow. This gap led to the quantitative revolution, which was one of the major turning points of modern geography. This revolution began in the 1950’s, and marked a swift change in the method behind geographical research – making geography into a spatial science and shifting from an idiographic subject to an empirical law making one. It made laws that applied to large groups of people and individuals, and established broad generalisations.

It was a turning point, and geography started to grasp attention once again. It brought to light new determinism models and mathematical equations to answer hypotheses that could be used in teaching, and helped to define geography, making it able to answer the more logical questions and respond in more depth. Geography could again stand as a strong scientific discipline in schools and universities. The subject started gaining popularity again and Universities began to recognise the value of geographic study and training – this provided more classes and degree opportunities.

The use of fieldwork started to be used in schools in the 1950’s, as a key method of teaching. Fieldwork is an effective teaching method in geography – is an interactive fun way for people to learn and experience what they are learning at first hand. It is an important method of learning as fieldwork teaches things that cannot be taught or learned in class. However, disappointingly the focus on fieldwork started to weaken as it “… is not promoted in educational institutions because of factors such as time to cover comprehensive curricula, financial constraints, legal issues and commitment by educators.” Factors such as these had the effect that the inclusion of fieldwork declined in some schools; however, with the help of funding fieldwork is still a very important and prominent part of teaching geography whenever possible.

Geography is unique in that it is not artificial. It is not something that textbook writers had composed for students to study. Geography is alive, and something that is relevant and we use in our daily lives. Fieldwork started to make a real impact in higher education in 1985. It gave people transferrable skills, including “Project design, organisational skills, leadership skills, group skills and student participation.”(Royal Geographical Society website) This is why fieldwork is vital, it helps pupils understand and picture the subject for them. Fieldwork also put research and findings into practise. In undertaking field work, students are effectively carrying out innovative research over and above what could be achieved in a classroom.

The president of the American Geographical Society, Jerome E. Dobson, president of the American Geographical Society argues that geographic tools allow for scientific advancement and therefore geography deserves a place among the fundamental sciences, but more importantly more of a role in education. “…most academics in the United States considered geography a marginal discipline…” (Jill Freund Thomas) In May 1993, Roger Down worked towards making research in geography education to be an “integral part of work”. In his own words, “The need for research in geography education: it would be nice to have some data.” (Downs, 1994b:57). In the UK, The Geography Education Research Collective is “…dedicated to the promotion of geography education through research and publication.” (http://www.geography.org.uk/gtip/gereco/) 13 teachers come together every four years with the resolution of creating research in geography education. It is a UK based association and was first set up in 1893. “The field of geography education is sadly lacking in empirical data that might inform and underpin decisions about standard setting, curriculum design, materials development, teaching strategies, and assessment procedures. Large quantities of high-quality data are necessary if geography is to be successfully implemented in the education system… We need a new attitude towards research…”

In conclusion I believe that geography will continue to grow and develop with the discoveries of new modern geographies due to the enormous amount of scientific research that is now able to be undertaken. The development of new technologies has helped geography turn into an academic discipline as it supports research making research easier to carry out, and getting results which are far more precise.

In the future technology will continue to advance and thus continue to be included and promoted in school curriculums. “…the most important change which has occurred is the realization that any progress in understanding phenomena studied by geographers involves the conscious use of scientific methods and the development of a body of theory to explain such phenomena.” (Graves, 1975) With advanced technologies, wider geographical research will also be capable and new discoveries will be made.

The role of theory in the development of geography in education is very significant as it is the basis of learning and has helped geography thrive over the last couple of centuries. “For, if a theory is to be developed, then some understanding of the nature of theory and of the process of theory building was required.” (Graves, 1975) Today geography continues to flourish and expand in education. Nowadays, increasing numbers of students chose to study this subject at university, so the trend is set for the popularity and importance of this discipline to continue to go from strength to strength in the future.

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