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Applied Geography: In Pursuit of Useful Knowledge by Michael Pacione, in "Applied Geography," Vol. 19 (1999)

Applied Geography: In Pursuit of Useful Knowledge by Michael Pacione, in "Applied Geography," Vol. 19 (1999)

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Applied Geography 19 (1999) 1–12
Applied geography: in pursuit of usefulknowledge
Michael Pacione
 Department of Geography, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow G1 1XH, UK 
Received 20 January 1998; accepted 13 July 1998
Applied geography is concerned with the application of geographical knowledge and skillsto the resolution of real-world social, economic and environmental problems, yet the approachhas been the subject of criticism from Marxist and, more recently, postmodern theorists. Thispaper examines the substance of this critique and employs the concept of useful knowledgeto illustrate the principles, practice and potential of an applied geographical approach to thechallenge of enhancing the quality of present and future living conditions and environmentson the planet Earth.
1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Applied research; Marxism; Postmodernism; Useful knowledge
Applied geography is concerned with the application of geographical knowledgeand skills to the resolution of real-world social, economic and environmental prob-lems. The underlying philosophy of relevance or usefulness and the problem-orien-tated goals of applied geography have generated critical opposition from other ‘non-applied’ members of the geographical community. Particular criticism of the appliedgeography approach has emanated from Marxist and, more recently, postmoderntheorists who reject the potential of applied geography to address the major problemsconfronting people and places in the contemporary world.
* Tel.:
44-141-552-4400; Email: mpacione@compuserve.com
0143-6228/99/$ - see front matter
1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.PII: S0143-6228(98)00031-9
M. Pacione/Applied Geography 19 (1999) 1–12
Applied geographers have generally been slow to respond to these critiques.Applied physical geographers have largely been content to view the critique of posi-tivist science as distant thunder and to concentrate on ‘doing’ applied research. This‘exit’ strategy may indeed be a logical response, given the subject matter of appliedphysical geography. Applied human geographers, however, must address these cri-tiques directly, yet to date few have responded to the opportunity to demonstrate thevalue of an applied geographical approach. It is not enough for applied geographersto simply keep doing applied research; the inherent value of the approach requiresthat they engage their critics in debate. This paper employs the metaphor of appliedgeography as the pursuit of useful knowledge to respond to criticisms of the approachand to demonstrate the value of applied geography in addressing social, economicand environmental problems in the real world. In addressing this question the papercomplements earlier discussions on the nature and value of applied geography whichhave appeared in
Applied Geography
and elsewhere (Sant, 1982, 1992; Kenzer, 1989,1992; Hansom, 1992).
The concept of useful knowledge
The concept of useful knowledge will no doubt upset a number of practisinggeographers. Those who do not see themselves as applied geographers may interpretthe phrase as indicating a corollary in the shape of geographical research that is lessuseful or even useless. This would be a misinterpretation. The concept is employedhere to express the fundamental ethos of applied geography rather than to annoy‘non-applied’ geographers. In the context of recent critiques of applied geographythe concept serves a useful purpose, representing a deliberate decision to get off thefence and make explicit the view that some kinds of research are more useful thanothers. This is not the same as saying that some geographical research is better thanother work—all knowledge is useful—but some kinds of research and knowledgeare more useful than others in terms of their ability to interpret and offer solutionsto problems in contemporary physical and human environments.We can illustrate this point by comparing the contents of two geographicalagendas, separated by a timespan of 50 years. The first of these is the ‘missionstatement’ delivered by the eminent historical geographer H.C. Darby (1946) in hisinaugural lecture in the University of Liverpool. In Darby’s view, his goal as ateacher of geography was to help students learn to read their morning newspaperswith greater intelligence and understanding, and to take their evening walks or theirSunday drives with greater interest, appreciation and pleasure. While few modernapplied geographers would regard this as an adequate definition of their work, thereis a degree of overlap between Darby’s agenda and the goals of applied geographyin that, from a realist standpoint, Darby’s activities could be regarded as emancipat-ory and an example of critical science.The second geographical agenda is taken from a more recent ‘call for papers’issued in May 1997 on behalf of the Social and Cultural and the Population Geogra-phy research groups of the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geogra-
 M. Pacione/Applied Geography 19 (1999) 1–12
phers. In preparation for a session at the annual conference offers of papers wererequested on the theme of ‘the body’. Additional guidelines for prospective contribu-tors were as follows:Is the body dead? Has it been ‘done’? This joint session seeks to explore currentand future critical, geographical perspectives on ‘The Body’, as a discourse, as acentre for conflict, consensus, rebellion or domination. Participants are encouragedto consider ways in which their own bodies can be used to em-body their presen-tations. All/any form(s) of (re)‘presentation’ are welcomed.Clearly the research topics of interest to participants in this conference session wouldhold little appeal for many applied geographers. Indeed some may even be stimulatedto recall Stoddart’s impatience with “so-called geographers…who promote as topicsworthy of research subjects like geographic influence in the Canadian cinema, orthe distribution of fast food outlets in Tel Aviv” (Stoddart, 1987, p. 334).The distinction between the concerns of applied geography and the proposed agendafor the 1998 IBG conference session serves as a useful primer for our subsequentdiscussions. Those who study the kinds of topics identified in the call for conferencepapers might legitimize their agenda by pointing to the eclectic nature of geographyand the value of ‘pure’ research; for these and other geographers the idea of appliedgeography or useful research is a chaotic concept which does not fit with the recent‘cultural turn’ in social geography or the postmodern theorizing of recent years.We shall return to this question later, but in the meantime it is useful to make explicitthe views that underlie the view of applied geography espoused here. We can do thismost clearly by comparing the applied geographical approach with an alternative post-modern perspective. One of the major achievements of postmodern discourse has beento illuminate the importance of difference in society as part of the theoretical shift froman emphasis on economically rooted structures of dominance to cultural ‘otherness’focused on the social construction of group identities. However, as Merrifield and Swyn-gedouw (1996) point out, there is a real danger that the reification of difference maypreclude communal efforts in pursuit of goals such as social justice. A failure to addressthe unavoidable real-life question of ‘whose is the more important difference amongdifferences’ when strategic choices have to be made represents a serious threat to con-structing a practical politics of difference. Furthermore, if all viewpoints and expressionsof identity are equally valid, how do we evaluate social policy or, for that matter, rightfrom wrong? How do we avoid the segregation, discrimination and marginalizationwhich the postmodern appeal for recognition of difference seeks to counteract? Thefailure to address real issues would seem to suggest that the advent of postmodernismin radical scholarship has done little to advance the cause of social justice. Discussionof relevant issues is abstracted into consideration of how particular discourses of powerare constructed and reproduced.Responsibility for bringing theory to bear on real-world circumstances is largelyabdicated in favour of the intellectually sound but morally bankrupt premise thatthere is no such thing as reality. As Merrifield and Swyngedouw conclude:

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