Do you ever get that very particular kind of brain-ache when you think about unfathomablequestions like “If the universe is everything there is, but it is expanding, what is it expanding into?” That’s what thinking about my relationship with Cultural Geography as an academic often feels like. So most of the time, I just try not to think about it.
However, when I do force myself to think about it, I’m not able to come up with a neat and succinct answer. As someone who shunned the second year undergraduate course in Cultural Geography because I thought it would be ‘too fluffy’, only to embark on an MA in ‘Cultural Geography’ two years later, my relationship with the subject has never been clear-cut. Over my academic career so far, I’ve felt like a geographer; a human geographer, a social geographer, a cultural geographer and a historical geographer. But on reflection, I’m not sure this confusion is too much of a problem. Given how interdisciplinary the subject seems, does the label matter anymore?
I have often joked that Geography is the magpie of academic disciplines, stealing whatever it fancies from other disciplines. Although the process is more of a sharing than a taking, I don’t think it is an inaccurate analogy to make. I was recently at a seminar given by a Historian in which she said that she was using geographical ideas for her analysis because they were the most useful and appropriate. Apart from making me feel a bit smug, this also reinforced a thought that I’ve had for a while: the boundaries between academic disciplines are artificial, and often arbitrary. Does it really matter what I am so long as the research I am doing is well-informed, detailed and original? (The merits of these qualities in academic research can also be questioned, but I think that is a question for a future session of soul-searching!)
However, it is useful to know that I am a Geographer. It tells you a bit about the academic background I have come from, or the types of writing I am likely to be familiar with. But knowing I am a Geographer gives no indication whatsoever as to which topic I’m studying. In fact, people frequently ask me how my topic (historical contentious politics in London) counts as Geography. If I were a more coherent and confident speaker, this is the response I would give:
“My topic is geographical because of the manner in which I approach it. Geographers study the same things as everybody else, but from a different perspective, with a slightly different focus. So for me, defining Geography isn’t about drawing lines in the sand between what we can and can’t study, it’s about articulating a way of thinking, a thought process focussed on space, place, networks, scale, and other ‘geographical’ concepts.”
So I am proud to call myself a Geographer, despite all the quips about colouring in that I still face! One of the main reasons I like the discipline so much is its breadth. One of my highlights of the RHUL Geography Department calendar is the Postgraduate Symposium during Welcome Week, because it brings the whole department together in a way that is quite rare the rest of the year, and it reminds me just how wide an umbrella ‘Geography’ is. From glaciers, peat bogs and cave men to art galleries, Iranian restaurants and graffiti, Geography can be anything, and this is one of my favourite things about the subject. I am a Geographer because of the particular set of tools and techniques I use to study a topic, not because of the topic I choose to study.
Hannah Awcock (Phd Candidate)