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  Concerns over the relevance of their work surfaced among geographers during the late 1960s as they realized that their adoption of spatial science had not led to their discipline making substantial contributions to the resolution of what were perceived as the major social problems. As Prince put it (1971, p. 152):

Many geographers were deeply frustrated by a sense of failure, conscious that the knowledge they already possessed was not being put to good use, that much had been learned about ways and means of reducing hunger, disease and poverty, but little had been achieved, that educated people had not been instrumental in stopping a barbarous war [in Vietnam] and that, within their own universities, they had failed to bring about overdue reforms.Many associated these feelings with a critique of spatial science, which was recognized as offering technical solutions to some problems (such as transport planning) but ignored major long-term issues.

This general feeling of malaise and unimportance was represented in two very separate directions within the discipline. One argued that geographers had much to offer, but that they were largely ignored by decision-makers (see public policy, geography and). Steel (1974, p. 200), for example, claimed in his Presidential Address to the British Geographical Association that:

As geographers we often get hot under the collar over the number of theoretical economists who are called on to advise the governments of developing countries. We comment on how much better World Bank surveys of countries would be if they were prepared, at least in part, by geographers … We wonder why university departments of geography are not engaged on a consultancy basis more often than they are, and we marvel that the Overseas Development Administration in London has only a handful of geographers on its staff where, we feel, an army would be more appropriate.Out of such concerns came arguments that geographers should more actively promote the relevance of their knowledge and the applicability of their methods, albeit in particular contexts in which they could operate as detached, \'value-free\' scientists (see applied geography). This was accentuated in the 1980s, in part as a response to the pressures for universities to become more focused in their work on society\'s problems (see Johnston, 1995) and to raise greater shares of their research income from private as well as public sector sources. In pressing this case within the discipline, many promoted the rapidly expanding technologies such as remote sensing and geographical information systems. Longley (1995, p. 129), for example, argued that training in GIS provides students with saleable skills in contemporary labour markets, providing \'clear testimony that quantitative spatial analysis is most certainly not preoccupied with techniques that do not work to analyse problems that do not matter\'. (See also geodemographics.)

For some the need to be relevant is closely linked to disciplinary survival in materialist societies. For example, Ron Abler (1993), Executive Director of the Association of American Geographers, argued for a refocusing of American geography on what he termed a \'priority for the practical\': currently \'too many geographers still preoccupy themselves with what geography is: too few concern themselves with what they can do for the societies that pay their keep\'. These attitudes were strongly reflected in a report to the US National Research Council on Rethinking geography (NRC, 1997), which was commissioned because of a \'well-documented growing perception (external to geography as a discipline) that geography is useful, perhaps even necessary, in meeting certain societal needs\' which the committee that prepared it took as an invitation to provide a showcase for geography\'s strengths as \'good science and societally relevant science\'. In \'selling geography\' to the US scientific community and potential \'buyers\' in the country\'s public and private sectors, this committee chose to emphasize the spatial science approach within the discipline and significantly under-play that (assumed irrelevant or, at least, less relevant) based on social theory (the dichotomy is Sheppard\'s, 1995; cf. human geography).

The second set of responses to the \'relevance malaise\' developed through the contemporary critique of spatial science and positivism. It emphasized both the poverty of the theory that geographers were employing in their searches for explanation and the relative insignificance of many of the topics that they were studying. This was typified by Harvey\'s (1973, p. 129) statement that:

The quantitative revolution has run its course, and diminishing marginal returns are setting in. … There is a clear disparity between the sophisticated theoretical and methodological framework which we are using and our ability to say anything meaningful about events as they unfold around us. There are too many anomalies between what we purport to manipulate and what actually happens. There is an ecological problem, an urban problem, an international trade problem, and yet we seem incapable of saying anything in depth or profundity about any of them.Although many followed Harvey\'s lead by seeking understanding in Marxist theory, 16 years later he wrote a similar, more trenchant, critique (Harvey, 1989, pp. 212-13):

I accept that we can now model spatial behaviours like journey-to-work, retail activity, the spread of measles epidemics, the atmospheric dispersion of pollutants, and the like, with much greater security and precision than once was the case. And I accept that this represents no mean achievement. But what can we say about the sudden explosion of third world debt in the 1970s, the remarkable push into new and seemingly quite different modes of flexible accumulation, the rise of geopolitical tensions, even the definition of key ecological problems? What more do we know about major historical-geographical transitions (the rise of capitalism, world wars, socialist revolutions, and the like)?Harvey was not alone in pointing to a myopic condition among geographers. Stoddart, from a very different position within the discipline, has also been highly critical. In 1986 he recognized and regretted

the fact that for many people the geographer has long since appeared to have surrendered to other specialists his catholic concern for the diversity of the natural world. We have too long accepted the artificial constructions of the bookmen about what geography is, what it should be concerned with and how it is done … so many retreat into increasingly restrictive and esoteric specialities, where they protect themselves with secret languages and erudite techniques.A year later, he not only extended that case, claiming that geography has collapsed into a series of specialisms, each with \'its own technical expertise … its own theoretical constructs\', with the result that \'we speak separate languages, do very different things\' and \'Many have abandoned the possibility of communicating with colleagues working not only in the same titular discipline but also in the same department\' (Stoddart, 1987, p. 330), but also proclaimed that:

Quite frankly … I cannot take seriously those who promote as topics worthy of research subjects like geographic influences in the Canadian cinema, or the distribution of fast-food outlets in Tel Aviv. Nor have I a great deal more time for what I can only call the chauvinist self-indulgence of our contemporary obsession with the minutiae of our own affluent and urbanized society — housing finance, voting patterns, government subsidies for this and that, and how to get most from them. We cannot afford the luxury of putting so much energy into peripheral things. Fiddle if you will, but at least be aware that Rome is burning all the while. (Stoddart, 1986, p. ix)For him, like Harvey, geographers should focus on \'the big questions, about man, land, resources, human potential\' but unfortunately

We no longer ask these questions, but the questions remain. It is largely people other than geographers who are asking — and answering — them now. It is astonishing that it is Ladurie and the Annales school who have commandeered the whole field of the relations of climate and history. Braudel writes what is in effect geography (though without maps) and calls it history: the historical geographers tag along in dutiful homage. (Stoddart, 1987, p. 330)Harvey\'s means of focusing on the \'big questions\' is based on a very different view of the purpose of relevant work from that of Rethinking geography\'s authors. For him, theoretical advance and the greater appreciation of the world that this provides is a crucial applied task, leading to the emancipation that a successful \'people\'s geography\' will bring (Harvey, 1984): this then enables the enhancement, through education, of people\'s awareness of how their current condition has been created and so allows them to take control of their own lives: social change comes about through an \'informed revolution\'.

These wider issues of relevance than those linked to the narrow conceptions of applied geography associated with Stamp and his successors are illustrated by geographers\' recent engagement with ethical issues (cf. ethics, geography and). Moral questions regarding justice and equality, and whether all conceptions of what is \'good\' and \'bad\', \'right\' and \'wrong\', are relative rather than absolute are now central concerns in geographical debate — with reference not only to research and its application but also to teaching and the role of \'authority\' in construction of the \'learning experience\'. Work characterized as the cultural turn and critical human geography is promoting awareness of how all knowledge is produced and situated in particular contexts and then used to promote privileged positions for some forms over others — masculinism, Eurocentrism, and colonialism are just three examples of such positions. Geographers\' concerns with the philosophy of science are seen as of lesser importance than those with knowledge-construction, as part of critical engagements with capitalism, imperialism and the production of inequality. Such work is highly relevant to the creation and maintenance of humane societies, but because it transcends the narrow utilitarianism that characterizes much of modern geography, especially its institutional structures (both professionally and within the universities, many of whose leaders have embraced that utilitarianism), many seek to marginalize it from the disciplinary project.

Geography is a fragmented discipline, necessarily so (Johnston, 1998). Workers in the various fragments seek to establish their relevance in very different ways, which occasionally stimulates debates over what should be privileged in disciplinary promotional activities: for too long, the concept of relevance has been narrowly construed. (RJJ)

References and Suggested Reading Abler, R.F. 1993: Desiderata for geography: an institutional view from the United States. In R.J. Johnston, ed., The challenge for geography. A changing world: a changing discipline? Oxford: Blackwell, 215-38. Buttimer, A. 1993: Geography and the human spirit. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. London: Edward Arnold. Harvey, D. 1984: On the history and present condition of geography: an historical materialist manifesto. Professional Geographer 36: 1-11. Harvey, D. 1989: From models to Marx: notes on the project to \'remodel\' contemporary geography. In B. Macmillan, ed., Remodelling geography.Oxford: Blackwell. Johnston, R.J. 1986:On human geography. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Johnston, R.J. 1995: The business of British geography. In A.D. Cliff, P.R. Gould, A.G. Hoare and N.J. Thrift, eds, Diffusing geography: essays for Peter Haggett. Oxford: Blackwell. Johnston, R.J. 1998: Fragmentation around a defended core: the territoriality of geography. Geographical Journal 164. Longley, P.A. 1995: GIS and planning for businesses and services. Environment and Planning B 22: 127-9. National Research Council 1997: Rethinking geography: new relevance for science and society.Washington, D.C.:NRC. NAS-NRC, 1965: The science of geography. Washington, D.C.: NAS-NRC. Prince, H.C. 1971: Questions of social relevance. Area 3: 150-3. Sheppard, E.S. 1995: Dissenting from spatial analysis. Urban Geography 16: 283-303. Steel, R.W. 1974: The Third World: geography in practice. Geography 59: 189-207. Stoddart, D.R. 1986: On geography, and its history. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Stoddart, D.R. 1987:To claim the high ground: geography for the end of the century. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 12: 327-36.



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