The new role for ‘Geography’

I’ve just finished reading through Danny Dorling and Carl Lee’s book, ‘Geography’.


I’ve been on a bit of a Geography tip lately – which is odd for me as I usually prefer to stay clear of academic-type stuff when I am trying to get into holiday-mode.   I had read through Prisoners of Geography and it seemed the logical next step to return to this book.

I had bought and started the book a few years ago but I drifted away from it and it has sat on my ‘things I need to read’ shelf for a couple of years and I kept picking up the books to the left and right of it instead.   Having completed my geography degree over 25 years ago and then proceeding to teach it since then – I wasn’t sure that I actually needed to be told what Geography is.

My reading of Tim Marshall’s book and now this has actually made me realise that I do indeed need to realign my understanding of what geography is all about.

Dorling and Lee divide their chapters up into five themes – Tradition, Globalisation, Equality, Sustainability and Mapping the Future.   At first I was a little perplexed by the winding narrative through each chapter.   I like order.  I like sub-headings.  I like things to be broken down for me into bite sized chunks. When you’ve been teaching for 25 years and this is what you do day and daily – it sometimes smarts a bit when you have to do the thinking and make the connections for yourself.

They described the pursuit for geography as where,  “Geographical questions are never stand-alone ones. All the questions we ask lead to other questions. Geography is about joining up the dots that help make up the big picture. Connections are everywhere.”

Though, that definition is refined and supplemented through the discussion of each topic.   At the end of each chapter the reader is immersed in an attempt to consolidate the linkages that have been discussed and the definition of how geography fits in with this is further stretched.


Towards the end of the book – in a sort of conclusion they note the following,

“Geography is the big picture.   It is the subject that studies the accumulation of the deep fertile soils that feed billions.  It is about the philosophies we apply to try and understand the world we live in and the people we share it with.  It is the inquisitiveness we have in common about our world that matters to all of us.

In a world of dense connectedness – of which we may know an increasing amount – geography enables us to better grasp the complexities and place them within the fundamental framework of our planet – the biosphere that is our ultimate enabler.  Geography makes the complex comprehensible, and it provides a context.  Geography forces us to look forwards, down the road and into the future.  But it looks forward while also realising that so much that is geographical cannot be understood without looking back.”

The book ends,

“Geography is, literally, the study of the world. Geo is ‘earth’ and graphy is ‘writing:  geography is ‘earth-writing’.  The word is old as the Greek language, and its modern use is as new as the ink on these pages or the pixels that make up the letters you are reading from the screen.  Most subjects start with a definition.  geography ends with one: to write about the earth is to write about almost everything we know, everywhere we live and all that we cherish most.”

For too long I think I have held a particularly linear view of what geography is.  I’ve always favoured the more ‘human’ aspects of geography and within that I have always described myself as being a ‘historical geographer’.  (Not a hysterical geographer, I should add).  But, I still have been constricted with a too-shallow and not broad enough interpretation of what geography is all about.   I have been exploring the geo-political aspect of geography a lot more recently.  Neither Tim Marshall or Danny Dorling would have imagined the crisis that COVID-19 has brought to our planet and how the basic reaction to this is to close down links between countries, between counties and between communities.  We have lost a sense of connection (and control).  We are fearful of what happens next and how we can, if ever, get back to a sense of normality.   Normal is a long way off.   We have put everything on hold.   Climate Change is maybe not the crisis it once was.   Brexit is not the crisis it once was.   Geopolitical relations are not what they once were.  The global financial system is not what it once was.   Priorities have shifted and it is up to the geographers to start redrawing the lines to see how we map out a new, more conciliatory future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s