Finding Geography’s place?

By Neil Roberts, Plymouth University and Tim Hall, University of Winchester

Despite UK geography’s high international research standing and continued success in attracting students, it is becoming less easy to identify geography and geographers within its universities.  A principal reason for the reduced disciplinary visibility is that only around half of all geographers are now located in traditional Departments. As we show in a current paper in Area, the proportion of single-discipline Geography departments in the UK declined from 55% to 37% between 1995 and 2010, largely at the expense of multidisciplinary “Schools”.

The naming of departments and what processes of change these new titles reflect are a concern way beyond geography. Eric Jaffe recently wrote about the case of Psychology departments in the US in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer magazine. In many cases these departmental name changes were an attempt to address Psychology’s image problem or to more clearly convey the nature of the discipline and the work of faculty. However, Julie Winkler, the President of the Association of American Geographers, in her regular AAG Newsletter column reflected on concerns that changes in department names can also weaken disciplinary identity.

While this trend has affected many disciplines, it is having particular consequences for Geography because the discipline straddles the divide between the social and natural sciences.  As a result, Geography is now paired up administratively with sharply contrasting subjects in different universities in the UK. Pairings are most common with environmental and earth sciences, but sociology, archaeology and politics are also frequent subject partners.  A similar divide applies to higher-level administration, with Geography split between Science and Social Science faculties (figure 1). These changes create new opportunities for cross-disciplinary dialogue, but they also risk cutting off some human geographers from fellow social scientists, and isolating some physical geographers from their natural science bedfellows.

Word cloud analysis of faculties within which geography units are located in the UK

Figure 1: Word cloud analysis of faculties within which geography units are located in the UK

The weakening of Geography’s administrative autonomy has doubtless made it easier for University senior managers to re-allocate geographers between REF sub-panels, or to re-brand environmental scientists as geographers for undergraduate teaching programmes (or vice-versa).   On the other hand, thus far there have been only limited moves in the UK towards splitting the discipline in two, as is the case in Sweden and the Netherlands where human and physical geographers are found in separate departments, a fragmentation trend that is currently affecting in several Australian Universities.  None the less, any weakening of disciplinary identity and loyalty will only make it harder to defend Geography’s integrity as a discipline in the UK in the coming years.

About the authors: Neil Roberts is Professor of Physical Geography at Plymouth University and Tim Hall is Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Studies/Head of Applied Social Studies at the University of Winchester. Neil and Tim’s Area paper was co-authored with Phillip Toms, Charlotte Parker (both University of Gloucestershire) and Mark McGuinness (Bath Spa University).

books_icon Hall, T., Toms, P., McGuinness, M., Parker, C. and Roberts, N. (2015), Where’s the Geography department? The changing administrative place of Geography in UK higher education. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12154

 Jaffe J  2011 Identity Shift Observer, Association for Psychological Science

 Winkler J 2014 ‘What’s in a Name? The Renaming and Rebranding of Geography Departments’ AAG News

 

 

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