Friday, September 2, 2011

Reflections on the Disciplinary Intersection of Geography and Anthropology in the American Academy

Like many American geographers, I am a convert to the discipline. I started with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology before transitioning to geography. This disciplinary shift is not unusual. Geography, as an academic discipline, is filled with converted anthropologist – each with their own reason for transitioning. Conversely, I am unaware of anyone who has transitioned from geography to anthropology, although there must be some anthropology converts out there. I have spent a fair amount of time pondering the historical context of both disciplines and how they relate to one another. I was delighted when the editors of anthropologies invited me to write an essay on the topic. 

Both disciplines have interesting and colorful histories which serve as the foundation of their strengths and the roots of their shortcomings. Each has weathered its own dark days of questionable ethics and has been complicit (at best) in oppressive practices of Anglo-American hegemony. What is to follow is very brief and candid look at the historical context of geography, the current state of both disciplines, their relationship to each other and speculation on their future. My assessment of the current state of the two fields is somewhat impressionistic, by which I mean to say that this article is not solely derived from literature review of each discipline’s history and canon, but rather blended with my own lived experience and firsthand observations from within and adjacent to both disciplines. I have chosen not to highlight the historical context of Anthropology in this article, as there a many other scholars far more qualified to do so (see Darnell, 2001; Stocking, 2001; Stocking, 1991; Stocking, 1968), but situate the current state of the discipline in comparison to the current state of geography.

Geography, as an Anglo-American discipline, has its roots in the colonial exploitation carried out by Europeans. The field was initially articulated by an elite group of colonial capitalist, who were at worst the architects of colonial regimes and at best were the ‘uninterested’ cartographer charged with cataloging, codifying, normalized and strategically othering the colonial landscape. Early geographical societies were expedition dinner clubs whereby rich, European men could boast of their recent travels, including the ‘strange natives’, unique vegetation/topography/climate, and the economic resources ripe for exploitation they encountered on these trips (Livingstone, 1992). Like many disciplines, the field had a process of professionalization, led by pioneers like Alexander Von Humbolt and Carl Ritter who tried to instill standard scientific methodology in the discipline. In both its social club and early academic manifestations, geography was a descriptive field, obsessed with measuring, recording, and cataloging geographic features and spatial distributions. 

Prior to 1940, geography fell out of fashion for US academic institutions and most geography departments were eliminated at private colleges and universities. The post-World War II era found a new resurgence of geography programs at large public universities and state schools, as American military members returned home from the war with a GI Bill education allowance and firsthand experience of world geography. This era was highlighted by the quantitative revolution in geography, where mathematical equations were positioned as the key to unlocking the secrets of spatial distribution and gravity models were the order of the day (Barnes, 2001; Burton, 1968). In the late 1960’s geography took its qualitative turn, as a subset of human geographers took to adapting participant observation, ethnography, and interview methodologies from their colleagues in anthropology. Simultaneously, some in the discipline took a critical-radical turn, marked by the rise of feminist and Marxist research (Peet, 1977). 

Currently, geography is a very pluralistic discipline that employees a broad scope of methodological techniques and a wide range of research topics. A recent debate on the current state of geography, which was incited by the release of an National Research Council’s (NRC) report on the current state and future direction of ‘geographical sciences’, notes that geography finds strength in its pluralism (see the Focus Forum in the Professional Geographer, 2011). This plurality provides geography a flexibility to research a wide-array of topics, using a large collection of acceptable methodological approaches. Unfortunately, the plurality of the discipline weakens the internal cohesiveness, which often leaves geographers struggling to articulate ‘what geographers do?’ to those outside the field. This lack of brand recognition, coupled with the discipline’s exclusion from Ivy Leagues caliber private universities, has left American geography with a slight inferiority complex. The discipline is constantly working to justify, explain and resituate itself, partly out of pragmatism - in an attempt to survive the neoliberal restructuring of the contemporary academy - and partly to sooths its stinging ego – feeling that geography does not resonate with the prestige of other social sciences.

Conversely, the current state of anthropology is the mirror image of geography. The discipline of anthropology resonates with prestige, both within the academy and in the public. It has established roots in both America’s elite private universities and large flagship public universities. The discipline is cohesive, as it is bonded through a shared canon of seminal literature and an agreed upon methodological approach. However, much like geography the discipline’s strengths are also the very conventions that pose challenges to the discipline. The shared canon and commitment to ethnographic methodology provides a rigid structure to the discipline. Anthropology, as a discipline, appears to have an unwritten checklist of what constitutes ‘doing anthropology’, including a strong ethnographic methodology, a distinctly defined ‘other’ culture, and the creation of an empirical narrative. Whereas geographers perpetually answer the question ‘what do geographers do?’ to the public, anthropologist appear to spend a great deal of effort answering the question, ‘how is this anthropology?’ to their advisors and colleagues. 

Both disciplines have their own institutional guilt based on their histories of exploitation; the era where anthropologist and geographers were culpable in the ‘white man’s burden’ of colonization. The scars of forwarding the ideologies of colonialism, racism, and environmental determinism pepper the history of both disciplines. At times, it feels as if both disciplines are frozen with fear and inaction as they try to absolve this institutional guilt. It has taken both fields decades to reengage in research that examines the complex relationship between humans and their physical environment, for fear of evoking the ghost of previously racialized and environmentally deterministic ideologies that early iterations of geography and anthropology guised as scholarship. 

That being said, the two areas, in which geography and anthropology research are currently most intertwined, are a post-guilt return to studies on neocolonialism and critical human-nature interaction. The research areas of critical development studies and political ecology are the perfect confluence of anthropology and geography. These two research areas allow both disciplines to move beyond their historical guilt and engage in critical and important scholarship. A quick survey of development studies research over the past decade shows this disciplinary merger, as it is difficult to differentiate geographers and anthropologist in the literature. They engage in similar methodological approaches, which allow anthropologist to stray for their strict ethnographic methodology fetish. This research topic allows geographers of varying sub-specialties (economic geography, geopolitics, etc) to come together to create a unified plurality, while attempting to absolve itself from colonial guilt. Similarly, political ecology is emerging as an important and vibrant research intersection between anthropologist and geographers. These types of cross-discipline research areas only serve to strengthen both disciplines and produced a higher quality of scholarship.

It is not difficult to imagine a future where anthropology and geography become more intertwined and collaborative, as highlighted by development studies and political ecology. This cross-disciplinary engagement of anthropology and geography could be good for both disciplines. It could allow anthropology to become more flexible in theoretical approach and methodology, freeing the discipline from its rigid canon. Geography could attain a more sharply focused pluralism and could root itself in the more publically established reputation and acceptance at private universities that anthropology has in North America. That would free geography’s fragile disciplinary psyche from an inferiority complex and provide anthropology the flexibility to expand its canon and methodology. 

With the order of the day being collaborative interdisciplinary research and a forward march to totally neoliberalizing the university system, I suspect we might see a reorganization of the academy in the near future. Setting aside critiques of the neoliberal Academy and discussions of the total dissolution of the disciplinary structure in the university, a restructuring of disciplines within the university could bring cultural anthropology and human geography even closer. It is easy to envision the creation of joint anthropology and geography departments, much like the model employed at Louisiana State University. I would suspect that this marriage of anthropology and geography would bring about the creation of autonomous archaeology departments, such as the ones which already exist in Europe and the merger of geology and physical geography departments. While I fully support a more integrated interaction between the two disciplines, I am not ready to see both disciplines parceled off and rejoined by the emerging corporate-neoliberalized agenda of university administrators. It think increased collaboration should come from a place of academic honesty; an interdisciplinary engagement that stems from a genuine attempt to conduct better scholarship, rather than disregarding the historical uniqueness of these two academic division for the sake of an exercise in institutional organization and neoliberal budgetary practices. Remaining vigilant against current attempts to force the neoliberal project on the Academy is the next important area where anthropologist and geographers can come together for a common goal…and perhaps alleviate some colonial scars along the way.

Tim Brock
PhD Student, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky

Works Cited

Barnes, T.J.  2001. Retheorizing economic geography: The quantitative revolution to the
cultural turn. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91(3).

Burton, I.  1968. ‘The quantitative revolution and theoretical geography’ in Spatial analysis: A
reader in statistical geography eds. Berry, B.J.L and Marble, D.F. Prentice-Hall.
Princeton, NJ.

Darnell, R. 2001. Invisible genealogies: A history of Americanist anthropology. University
Press of Nebraska. Lincoln, NE.

Focus: Discussions on NRC report’s strategic directions in geographical sciences.  2011.
Edited by Sui, D.Z. Professional Geographer. 63(3).

Livingston, D.N.  1992). The Geographical Tradition. Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, UK.

Peet, R.  1977. ‘The development of radical geography in the United States’ in Radical
geography: Alternate viewpoints on comtemporary social issues by Peet, R. Methuen and Co. London, UK. 

Stocking, G.W.  2001. Delimiting anthropology: Occasional inquiries and reflections. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI.
-----1991. Colonial situations: Essays on the contextualization of ethnographic knowledge. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI.
-----1968. Race, culture and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. The
University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank: Ryan Anderson and the anthropologies editorial staff for their invitation to write this essay as well as their insightful comments; Patrick Bigger and Victoria Dekle for thoughtful critiques and essay enhancing comments. Any errors or oversights in this essay are, of course, my own.

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