Changing priorities in physical geography

Organizers: Olav Slaymaker, University of British Columbia, Marc Tadaki, University of British Columbia, and Yvonne Martin, University of Calgary.

Physical geography is a sub-set of the discipline of Geography. Up until the 1950s, physical geography functioned as “the physical basis of Geography”. Understanding the ways in which bio-geophysical forms and processes operate at the Earth’s surface was a necessary prelude to studying the interactions of socio-political processes with bio-geophysical systems. The rationale for physical geography was entirely pragmatic: it existed as a servant of the parent discipline and any philosophical underpinnings were left to Geography. Over the past century, the scholarly priorities across Geography’s sub-disciplines have changed substantially, valuing or prizing different forms of knowledge along the way. The quantitative revolution of the 1960’s, for example, saw a convergence around positivist methods for both physical and (some forms of) human geography. With changing priorities in human geography toward interpretative styles of inquiry, the epistemic ‘rift’ between human and physical geography has increased, and physical geographers have often sought to instead identify as – and contribute to – other disciplines or knowledge framings. With the rise of ‘bio-geosciences’ and other interdisciplinary environmental sciences, the value of being a ‘physical geographer’ in these contexts is not often explicitly articulated.

In this special session, we invite physical geographers to engage in a conversation about the value of their work as physical geographers in an interdisciplinary age. Such a conversation will necessarily entail philosophical perspectives such as critical realism and critical rationalism and a need to articulate a defensible philosophical strategy for the production of knowledge. It has often been argued that Geography can contribute to advancing the intellectual frontiers of environmental science, folding these into the fabric of social processes. The notions of environmental ‘crises’ are often put forward as sites for integrative synthesis: flood hazards, ecological thresholds, climate change, invasive species, urban ecological change, and so on. These and other narratives are put forward as rationales for integrative environmental science, and often they can lead to material effects: research projects, university departments and institutes, non-governmental scientific programmes, and so on. Many physical geographers are actively engaged with shaping these narratives, and certainly most are affected by them.

The logics of research assessment in universities and governments also provide incentives for particular types of inter/disciplinary engagements across the environmental sciences. Institutional 'competition' encourages us to be very clear about our value propositions as practitioners of this thing called 'physical geography'. Further, given the changing political economy of research funding, environmental scientists are increasingly inhabiting roles in the private sector (e.g. consultants), which changes both the how and the why of research. In this context, the roles of science and scientists in framing environmental change are also in flux, and new understandings of the politics of research are required. This session will explore the how and the why of the restructuring of environmental science, emphasizing opportunities that point to an engaged disciplinary project for physical geography.

In this context of changing intellectual, disciplinary and institutional priorities, we invite physical geography colleagues and graduate students to contribute their thoughts on opportunities that lie in these developments. We invite contributions which explore:

  • What are major theoretical frontiers in interdisciplinary environmental science, and how can physical geographers contribute to advancing these?
  • What are the value-systems underpinning our work as physical geographers?
  • What research do we prize; what should we prize and for what reasons?
  • Which kinds of ‘interdisciplinary’ narratives and incentives are we encountering, and how are we adding value to them?
  • What distinctive contributions are physical geographers making across diverse interdisciplinary projects? 
  • For physical geographers, what are the advantages vs. disadvantages of working in a Geography department vs. an Environmental Science department?
  • Is there value in practising 'physical geography' as a disciplinary institution? Should we produce geographers, environmental scientists, or bio-geoscientists, and why?
  • How are research and teaching assessment practices shaping how we conduct our work?
  • How might we engage with 'applied science' narratives in creative ways?

If you are interested, please send an abstract to Marc Tadaki, Yvonne Martin,  or Olav Slaymaker,  by March 13, 2015