Selling ‘geography’ to myself – Reflections on the 2014 Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society Conference, Melbourne

iag conference 2014

It’s worth stating at the outset that I’m not sure I’m a geographer. The 2014 IAG NZGS combined conference in Melbourne was the second such event I have been to and at its conclusion I was left feeling much the same as last time – perplexed, bemused, intrigued and frustrated.

Geography in public policy

There was only one presentation that really spoke to me: Robert Gale’s paper questioning the role geography plays in public policy. Gale asked whether geography can appear more relevant to, and geographers therefore necessary within, the public sector and policy processes. It’s no surprise this presentation would be interesting to me – it reflects my desire to merge my public policy past with my academic present.

Robert Gale asked the audience how we could make geography relevant, and suggested we try to promote terms like ‘platial’ to describe the role geographers can play in policy development and analysis. In a subsequent discussion Robyn Bartel suggested that we define advice in terms of its potential to be ‘geographic’ versus ‘ungeographic’, in contrast to the economic/uneconomic dualism. Why shouldn’t we promote ‘geographic’ as a core tenet of policy development? Describing policies as ‘geographic’ could indicate they take geographic factors into consideration. Factors like space, place, community, perception and… and… and what? It would be hard to ‘sell’ geography to a non-geographic general public when the study of geography, particularly human geography, seems to me to have little by way of consistent defining characteristics.

Geography

What is geography? And is there a difference between how we define geography for those within geography and those outside of geography? Ruth Fincher’s keynote address, which defined ways geography departments could carve out a place for themselves in academic institutions, seemed to almost touch on this point. Fincher suggested increasing the visibility of geography departments within universities, increasing the prominence of geography through publishing, and examining how the human/physical geography divide can benefit or harm the potential for departments to attract students and funding.

But on conclusion I still wasn’t quite sure what I, as a potential future geography academic, am supposed to be selling when I talk about geography. It reminded me of a comment by a fellow PhD candidate. She told me she was doing a PhD because after an undergraduate degree in geography, and then a masters degree, she still wasn’t sure what skills geography had given her. She couldn’t tell people what geography ‘meant’ and therefore what we, as geographers, ‘do’. As someone doing a PhD in human geography I was empathetic, even within this conference there were papers that were not just unrelated to my research, but entirely incomprehensible to me.

Non human agency?

For instance, the idea of ‘non human agency’ was the source of particular interest and complete confusion. Leah Gibbs’ was presenting on the interaction between shark cull policy and the nonhuman agency of the ‘Freo doctor’ and ocean temperature. I haven’t the faintest idea how abiotic physical processes could display evidence of ‘agency’, and how this could be applied to policy. Additionally, Donna Houston and Andrew McGregor presented a paper on the often-overlooked intersection between human and animal ethics in food decision-making. In this case I was comfortable with the idea of the nonhuman ‘cow’ in question – but a question from the audience on whether the ‘agency of the cow’ had been taken into consideration completely threw me. I questioned Sarah Bell about her research into considering nonhuman agency in national park management, but after a misplaced handbag-related interruption I finished the conversation even more confused about ‘nonhuman agency’ than when I started.

Pragmatic geography

Alternatively, there were those papers that made complete sense to me, including Sallly Weller’s compelling paper on de-industrialisation, financialisation and Australia’s macro-economic trap. It painted in clear terms the challenges (ultimate demise?) of manufacturing in Australia and the relatively powerless stance of Australia with regards to its position in international markets. And Jamie Peck’s paper on ‘Model Power’, the ways in which social policy models travel and transform over time and space. In this presentation, Peck implied that developing nations are increasingly and rapidly transporting, manipulating and applying ‘model’ policies and practices – a process defined as ‘fast policy’.

Geography for fun!

There were also papers that were downright entertaining, including Helen Fitt’s cultural geography analysis of transport decisions and the ways in which we subconsciously brand ourselves by our choice of transport, or Daniel Ryland’s exploration into the life of a carrot in a caterer’s kitchen.

What can ‘geography’ offer?

It seems to me there may be a multitude of skills and ideas applied across all (or at least most) sub-geographic disciplines. But are any of the skills specific to geography? What can human geography offer that philosophy, anthropology, sociology, economics, law, political science, or any number of other human-related disciplines cannot? Perhaps it is the constant reminder of interactions within geography – between place and space and human and nonhuman and temporal interactions – that gives geography its strength. And in analysing and addressing interactions geography is capable of explaining greater complexities.

Perhaps it is the ability for geographers to explain the tyranny of distance which gives us strength over standard economists, the ability to reflect on the way human societies develop in conjunction with their biophysical surrounding that gives us strength over anthropologists, the ability to see beyond the black and white of a two-sided legal battle to the way entire legal/community interactions unfold that gives us strength above standard lawyers. It is Sally Weller’s implication of scales of economies and problems of remoteness, Jamie Peck’s indication of knowledge flows through space and time, Lauren Rickards’ linking of a very real human impact on the environment in the past with a very theoretical future world that show evidence of the geographic-ness of our research.

And if this is the case, am I suitably skilled to call myself a geographer? And do I bring the best of ‘geography’ to policy analysis?

[Apologies to all/anyone if I have misconstrued your research topics/ideas – my notes were generally terrible, if not completely absent]

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