Wednesday, April 04, 2007

History of modern geographic thought

A short guide to the modern history of geographic thought, by Catholicgauze.  If any of you are interested, this sums up the last 150 years of geography as a discipline and academic field, which is not quite where it is today.  I recall some of this, but most of it happened prior to my birth, so when I say I recall it, it has more to do with my college days while capturing a BS in Geography.

(After reading the summary by CG, you might note that my degree was a Bachelors of Science, not arts.  Considering the battle for geography to be classified as a science in the 1950s and it’s divisions since then how, do you ask, did I get a BS and not a BA.  That has more to do with my background and the course of study I took (Engineering) before I burnt out and change my major.   I had so much science at that point that almost all my electives were science related.)

But it goes further than that.  If I may extend CG’s train of thought.   Geography is continuing to suffer as a discipline, but it’s because of it’s own successful child, GIS.   Geographic Information Systems has it’s origin in the 60s, with the first successful computer models of geographic phenomenon at Harvard, but the true origins probably lie earlier than that as geographers attempted to quantify mathematically what had only been analyzed qualitatively prior.

There are some who worry that geography is getting lost in favor of GIS.  Some universities have curtailed their geography departments in favor of geographic information science, which is much more marketable and closer to science.

However, it’s not really science.  Geomatics (of which GIS is a part) is not so much a field of study in and of itself, but a tool.  You don’t measure geography for it’s own sake, you measure and quantify the spatial aspect of almost every other type of subject on the planet.  Sociology, geology, politics, cosmology, weather, transportation, biology all have spatial aspects to them.  So if GIS is a tool, what happens to geography?

      What will become of geography? The future right now points to more technology like remote sensing and especially GIS. But the geography has been known to switch directions quickly before. Maybe the globalized world at war will led to the rise of regional geography with elements of cultural studies. Maybe the potential of climate change will cause physical/environmental geography to become more popular. What is known; however, is that multidisciplinary studies are becoming more frequent in academia. The big struggle hear is for geography to remain unique and not be absorbed into things like "environmental studies" or "international studies."

I note that nothing is said about cartography, the study of map creation, in this context.  What happens to cartography, and will universities abandon it or will it break out into it’s own?  GIS practitioners will say that it’s alive and well inside the technical arena of geographic information science.  Most GIS systems have fairly sophisticated rendering software to make almost any map you might desire in short order.   The combination of GIS systems and image software suites can produce some stunning maps. 

However, the existence of fine tools is not enough to produce good quality maps, as much as they make the process far less painful.  Maps are designed to communicate something to the reader.  The objective is to tell the reader a story, or enlighten the user to the relationships between subjects.  Whether it’s a thematic map about the election results or a road map designed to get you from A to B, without map making skills your map may not be able to communicate what the price of tea in China is.  There are many principles that cartographers use to make a good map.   And I’ve seen some pretty bad maps in my day.

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