Self Portraits Of A Surgeon – The Question Of Cultural Geography

world_geography_cartoonAs a Cultural Geographer I am no stranger to an identity crisis. At least twice a week I am confronted by a terrifying realisation that I am no longer sure what I am. I should clarify. I am speaking in terms of my profession, and not my sanity, for I know perfectly well what I actually am; a bag of organs and bones trying to make my way in the world like every-body else.

More often than not these minor crises are encouraged to rear their ugly heads from somewhere deep within, by a friend, relative or newcomer asking a simple question. You have more than likely heard it, or even been asked it before. At parties, around dinner tables, in the pub and for the duration of arduous ‘networking’ events, the question makes its way around the room pointing me out from afar as if eying me up as its next victim.

When the question does finally come, it is usually phrased in two ways. The most polite, usually from a newcomer, is ‘So…what do you do then?’ And the more direct, most likely from a friend you recall having told at least a few times is ‘So…what do you actually do again?’

Usually I have seen the question coming but have nonetheless done my upmost to repress any kind of coherent response. I panic, and generally respond by blurting out something non-sensical, preposterous, or most worryingly, pretentious. Without any intention to do so, what comes out of my mouth is something which may sound clever but makes me look completely stupid. Particularly at a party.

As a Cultural Geographer, working at a time in which the discipline often debates collectively of how to best engage with the public, I find the usual response of ‘I am a Cultural Geographer… er… yeah. It’s a bit like sociology but different’ will disengage any half interested public in a matter of seconds. At times such as these, I only wish I could relay my interests without toeing some sort of company line, for it is never how I regard myself, or for that matter the discipline that I am working within. What comes out is far too often a generic entanglement of utterly boring words that amount to nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders from my recipient.

At the times when I have been able to offer something with a little more substance, I am met with further probing questions of exploration. I get asked ‘So… why does that matter?’ Or, my personal favourite to which I have never come up with an answer to easily satisfy, ‘So… how does that work in the real world?’. In doing so, they question how my work fits into their world. They want to understand, but only fleetingly. If only to humour me. They want a response that is interesting, engaging and something to build the next five minutes of conversation on. What they get rarely hits the mark. The words ‘culture’ and ‘geography’ are appealing to a listener, for they are both well worn in everyday life, but they are also distant and difficult to comprehend together.

Given Cultural Geography’s extensively broad scope, and my position within that, such questions initially appear all to easy to answer. Have any discussion amongst a group of Cultural Geographers and you are likely to come out of it thinking that the discipline is everything. And to a certain extent you would be right. The research going under the banner of Cultural Geography clearly stretches far and wide. Responding with everything is however, not an acceptable response when being questioned by the public. It is far too ambiguous, far too general and more importantly provides a response that will immediately paint a geographer as either a ‘know it all’ or someone who knows nothing at all. In other words, everything is nothing in their eyes.

These problems haunt me as a Cultural Geographer, and as such I am frequently required to begin each day by justifying my position as someone doing something worthwhile. I am required to purposefully engage and re-engage with the ‘real’ world on a day to day basis.

After some particularly strenuous window gazing during a recent ‘library day’, I decided to lay down my thoughts once and for all (or at least until I change my mind). I worked to answer the questions outlined above by producing a response that I would be happy to give in a perfect world. It is not right. It is not wrong. But it is a response that I would be content with giving in order to engage the broader public with my work as a Cultural Geographer. Even if it sits as a lonely file on my hard drive for years to come, it is a point of reference for which I can come back to in time and review.

Below is my manifesto if you like. A personal statement. Meant only for me, but reproduced here only for the sake of making it fixed. For now at least.

I am a Cultural Geographer. This is what I do.

I am interested in how people and things situate themselves and others in the world. My aim is examine how they do so in order to gain a broader understanding of the world’s entanglements. I do this by looking into the cultural practices of everyday life. Such practices include many of life’s complexities, ranging from the social, to the political, to the economic and the environmental.

It is with such fundamentals that I use to ground myself as a Cultural Geographer in the so called ‘real’ world. I am not a stuffy, blue sky thinking academic, although there are times when such things have to be considered. I resent thinking (sometimes by myself) which suggests that my work is not grounded in the ‘real’ world, for its sole purpose is to increase my understanding of the ‘real’ world in the hope that such work can one day be of some tiny benefit to it.

The themes and topics that make up my research interests are all just context for broader geographical thinking. Such topics and projects are finite. My interests will move on, for time has the habit of dragging once interesting topics into contention with boredom fairly quickly. Beyond my immediate research the fundamentals of Geographic interest will however, remain consistent.

I am a thinker but I am also a ‘doer’. I may read but I am also working hard to apply such reading to the ‘real’ world. At the risk of sounding completely pretentious, my work is the ‘real’ world in certain respects. Cultural Geography, for me at least, is about the immediate world around me. More importantly, it is about how such a world relates to the world’s of others. Cultural Geography is not so much something that is done, but rather something that is lived. In order to engage with wider publics and to answer questions of what use the discipline is and what it does, this assertion is perhaps Cultural Geography’s greatest asset. That is the ability to show people that they matter in a wider world. Cultural Geography as a discipline does not need to bring people into geography for they are out there living it, as we as professional geographers do, everyday. Rather geography, and indeed myself, should endeavour to work within those everyday realities in order to help broader publics benefit from understanding their own place within the world.

As a geographer I may see the world through a matrix like vision of spatial and temporal practices but I would argue that the public does too, just in different terms. Those not claiming to be geographers are in fact geographic practitioners by nature. In this respect a geography exists for all, and that is why public consultation, whether it be delivered in fragments over a pint in the pub or diligently across a lectern should remain a priority for myself, and indeed the discipline.

Mike Duggan (PhD Candidate)

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One thought on “Self Portraits Of A Surgeon – The Question Of Cultural Geography

  1. pikaperdu says:

    I have an undergrad degree in geography, and totally understand that feeling. After a couple years trying to explain to people what I do with my time I feel like I got the patter down. Geography is the study of place. In my field, physical geography, we focus on natural processes in the landscape and land management issues. It’s nice in a sense that the study of ‘ecology’ or ‘natural resources’ — titles most people feel a little familiar with — are also multidisciplinary (as in… pretty much just geography with a different name!). Human geography is its own thing, but just like physical geography, it takes a variety of disciplines and applies them to solving / understanding various problems in given geographic locations. Yep, the things we study are all across the board, but I do think the value of an interdisciplinary outlook is becoming more appreciated by society as time moves on. Is what we do “fluffy”? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve spent enough time working in natural resource fields and studying natural resource subjects to have seen both. It is hard in a geography department to find focus, when there are so many sub-disciplines to dabble in, but for me, that framework was the right choice. The single-discipline sciences have the equal, but opposite danger of becoming too myopic.

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