Total Geography

Total Geography 1

April 16, 2011

Over the last few months I have been putting together some ideas about something that I have been calling, in my own mind, "Total Geography".  It is an approach to Geography that I have been working on for a long time and I think it's about time for it to start showing its face in public a little, if only informally,  before I throw it into the deep end of formal publication in a little while.

More than probably any other subject Geography is characterised, in fact nowadays it is actually defined, by its split personality. One of the first ideas with which 1st-year geography undergraduates have to grapple is the notion of Geography as a "plural and contested discipline". Some students don't even engage with "Geography" at all but slip at the start of their degrees into either a "Physical Geography" or a "Human Geography" route. These specialisms, and the sub-specialisms within them, are very important. I have spent decades describing myself as a Physical Geographer, a geomorphologist and a glaciologist. But for me it is beginning to seem, after nearly 40 years of consciously defining myself as a Geographer of one sort or another, that I am losing something important if I look at the world through a small fragment of the lens, rather than using the whole of the glass.  One of the strengths of the discipline is that it can take a wide view of the big picture, as well as focusing down on the little details when they become important. Increasingly I feel that it is the contextualising wide view that defines the spirit of Geography.

And so, over the last few years, I have started to look for ways of rediscovering this wide view. Geography is about engaging with the world around me; exploring details to understand aspects of the whole. But my training has led me slowly into deep lines of specialist exploration: trained me to drill into my view of the world like a microscope. I know an awful lot about a few grains of sand and a few ice crystals. There's more to Geography than that. We need to remember to keep looking up and looking around. Essentially, what I have therefore been playing with, both in my own geographical practice (let's not call it research) and in the work I have been doing with students (and let's not call that teaching), is a way of seeing more when I look at the world. A way of taking a wider point of view as well as appreciating those important details.

"Total Geography" sounds a little grand, but it has stuck in my head so it is the term I will continue to use. I'll elaborate upon it in future posts tagged with that label, and I will try to collate the posts on my website.


Total Geography 2 – three starting points

April 20, 2011

When I explain my approach to Geography I keep finding myself returning to a small set of quotations and examples that illustrate where I am coming from.

T.S.Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

from “Little Gidding”

I often say that this is the whole point of studying Geography. We explore, we learn about places, we discover new things about the world, we have experiences. And then we apply all of that experience to our own viewpoint, to what we see out of our own window. And by seeing our own place in the light of all these other things that we have discovered and explored, we can see it clearly, and know it properly, for the first time. How we understand the places with which we are familiar changes as we explore new places with which we can compare them.

But what does that exploration and discovery involve?

Marcel Proust wrote:

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes; in seeing the universe through the eyes of another, one hundred others – in seeing the hundred universes that each of them sees.

from “In Search of Lost Time”

The aim of Geography is to see more, and one way to see more is to see through different people’s eyes, to take on board their experiences, their attitudes, their viewpoints. Our aim as Geographers is to be able to see in the landscape the things that a variety of other different types of people see, and to absorb their perspectives into our own. Then, recalling Eliot, we can come back from all that exploring and better know our own place, and ourselves.

Rudyard Kipling wrote:

…what should they know of England who only England know?

from “The English Flag”

If we know only one thing, have only one opinion, see from only one point of view, how can we judge that? In class with my students I use a simple analogy to explain this point. I hold up my whiteboard marker pen: “Look at this fat pen. But how do I know to call it a fat pen if this is the only pen I’ve seen?” I take a regular biro from my pocket. “Ah, yes, that one was a fat pen.” Only when I have something to compare with can I make my evaluation. If I know only one thing, I can know nothing about it. What can I know of this pen, if this pen is the only pen I know?

So we can’t judge something without context; without comparison. We can’t evaluate our own view of the world without placing it in the context of other views. I can’t really know my own “place” until, with Eliot, I have explored others and returned. And, with Proust, my journey of discovery is an exploration not only of places, but of other points of view.

As a Geographer, then, as I set out to explore and discover (or, as we say nowadays, to “engage with”) the world around me, what is it exactly that I need to do? How do I do Total Geography? I’ll consider that in future “Total Geography” posts.