Directions for Geography: towards better public engagement

by Fiona FerbracheGlobal geographies

As a geography lecturer, I often hear students enthuse about the diverse opportunities the discipline presents to them in terms of future careers.  Geography embraces so much between the polarised categories of the natural and the social; the human and non-human; local and global; and life and death, as illustrated on this website.  Recognising the centrality of geography in the world around us makes it somewhat surprising that our disciplinary issues are rarely acknowledged as explicitly geographical when they appear in the public realm.  This point is made by Smith (2013):

academic geography generally has little or no disciplinary presence in episodic media enthusiasms for geographic topics ranging from glacier behaviour, food labelling, or flows of people, goods or waste

He continues by stressing that geographers with popular public profiles, Mark Maslin and Iain Stewart, have been labelled exclusively as ‘earth scientist’ and ‘geologist’ respectively, despite their crossovers with geography (which, in the latter case, is reflected upon by Donovan, Sidaway and Stewart, 2011).

So what can be done to bridge the gap between scholarly knowledge of geography and public knowledge of geography?  Among other things, Smith suggests the development of interactive exchanges between academics and publics (see, for example Lane et al. 2011), and adaptation of research outputs for presentation to different audiences (Smith cites Murphy (2011) as a good example). These activities might well be enriched through the use of internet technologies and digital media.

The lack of geography, explicit in the public arena, makes websites such as Geography Directions and Geography in the News, key resources for students and teachers.  Arguably though, these sites remain focused on a more disciplinary community, thus raising the question who (or which groups of people) comprise the ‘publics’ that we are seeking to make geographies with and for?  Also, in seeking to include, who are we excluding?

books_icon  Donovan, K., Sidaway, J.D. & Steward, I. 2011 Bridging the geo-divide: reflections on an interdisciplinary (ESRC/NERC) studentship. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36 9-14

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Lane, S.N., Odoni, N.. Landström, C., Whatmore, S.J., Ward, N. & Bradley, S. 2011 Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36 15-36.

books_icon  Murphy, J. 2011 Walking a public geography through Ireland and Scotland. The Geographical Journal. 177 367-379

books_iconSmith, J. 2013 Geography in public and public geography: past, present and future. The Geographical Journal. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00491.x

60-world2  Geography in the News. RGS-IBG.

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