Sixty Years of Change in Human Geography
Human geography as practiced in the UK today is unrecognisable from whatcomprised the discipline sixty years ago. In the first two decades after the SecondWorld War, few human geographers would have identified themselves as socialscientists: theirs was a somewhat small and introverted discipline whose strongestexternal links were with geology and history. Similarly, it is doubtful whether anymembers of other member disciplines considered geography to fall within the socialscientific orbit. Although there are still some lingering doubts as to whether humangeography is a social science (as exemplified by the lack of any coverage of linksbetween it and sociology in Halsey and Runciman, 2006), however, there is nowgeneral acceptance within the discipline that the great majority of its practitioners arecorrectly situated in the social sciences (something that was much resisted whengeographers belatedly obtained recognition by and entry to the SSRC in the late1960s: Chisholm, 2001; Johnston, 2004b): some, mainly historical geographers,identify more strongly with the humanities, and they have gained recognition for theirwork within the AHRC.Understanding the nature of the changes that have taken place, and the growingpluralism that has characterised human geography, especially since the 1970s,requires an appreciation of the context, not just the wider intellectual milieux withinwhich geography was set in post-war UK society but also the particular institutionalsettings experienced by human geographers. The nature of that institutional context isset out in the first section of this paper, as a preface to an outline of the changes thathave taken place. A further paper, presented as an appendix to this paper, discussesthe politics of how the changes have occurred.
The institutional context
As an academic discipline, geography is a creation of the late nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries, thus making it older than many of other disciplines that comprisethe contemporary social sciences. Geography as a subject is much older than that, andgeographical material was being taught at the country’s ancient universities for muchof the modern period – albeit not necessarily identified as geography per se (Withersand Mayhew, 2002; Livingstone, 2003). The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) wasfounded in the 1830s to promote geography in the widest sense, and comparablesocieties were established in several provincial cities – mainly to sustain commercialinterests – in the subsequent fifty years.Many contemporary disciplines within the academic portfolio have been created byindividuals promoting a new, almost always a research, agenda, usually by ‘breakingaway’ from a ‘parent discipline’. Geography, on the other hand, was created frombelow, to meet a teaching rather than a research agenda. In the mid-19
century, theofficers of the RGS became concerned with the quality of geography teaching in thecountry’s secondary (mainly public at that time) schools, and commissioned a reportwhich would draw international comparisons. This provided material with which topress for more, and more rigorous, geographical teaching throughout the school