The Future of Geography Conference |

CGIS KNAFEL, K450,1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 0238

Day 1: Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

Panel I: The Geography of a Discipline

1. Wendy Guan, Executive Director, Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University

The Geography of Geography

There are many definitions for geography, most contain the word space or place. In order to foresee the future of geography, let’s first examine the presence of the discipline, in particular, its variation in space. This paper will illustrate the distribution of global leading higher education institutions, and compare that with the distribution of those leading the study of geography. Are they mostly overlapping? Or in some countries, they deviate from each other? Among the leading institutions for the study of geography, are they focusing on physical geography, human geography, geographic information science, or all sub-disciplines? Among the leading institutions that are not strong in the study of geography, what are the related disciplines they choose to focus on? Is there a geographic variation in the composition of geographic education? If yes, how to describe it, and how to explain it? Do these patterns reveal any insight to the future of the discipline?

2. Eric Sheppard, Professor, Department of Geography, UCLA

Geography: The Inescapable “Discipline”

Ironically, the classificatory administrative scheme developed by Eduard von Humboldt for Prussia’s first European state university in Berlin and subsequently adopted worldwide has no place for Geography, the discipline popularized by his brother Alexander. University administrators have tried placing Geography in the social sciences, humanities, earth sciences and computer science, yet it exceeds any such attempts to confine it. Thinking geographically means attending to how humans and the more-than-human world we inhabit are dialectically inter-related (deconstructing nature-society binaries); it means attending to how space-time and socioecological processes are dialectally related (how socioecological constructed spatialities shape such processes); it means transcending the subject-matter bounds of other disciplines (the interdisciplinary discipline). Any scholar who thinks geographically is a de facto geographer, whether or not they are paid up members of the disciplinary club. 

Geography is confined to the borderlands of the US academy: All but absent in K-12 curricula and largely excluded from elite private universities (driven out of Harvard in 1948 for reasons not unrelated to the homosexuality of its then-chair). Yet, as Carl Sauer has written, "interest [in geography] is immemorial and universal; should we [geographers] disappear, the field will remain." Further, as homi baba and others have noted, borderlands can be transgressive spaces of knowledge production. In this spirit, thinking geographically challenges trends underwriting the specialization of knowledge production, undermines core propositions of other disciplines (e.g., economics), and highlights the importance of attending to the geohistorical specificity of all knowledge claims.

Geography’s breadth gives it the capacity to tackle wicked problems currently faced by humankind, such as globalization and environmental change, as Earth’s future feels increasingly uncertain. My own research focuses on capitalist globalization, socio-spatial inequality and environmental justice, examining how uneven and asymmetric connectivities—between places, across scales, and linking human and more-than-human processes—(re)produce differentiated socio-spatial positionalities that shape persistently unequal conditions of possibility for people and places. One conclusion from this is that we need to theorize from the periphery, not just the core. Another is that alternative development paths are necessary (and possible). Yet in the ‘anthropocene’ we must also pay attention to socioecological processes and globalization—that other aspect of thinking geographically. For me, this means strengthening intellectual engagement between so-called human and physical geographers through the emergent boundary object of critical physical geography, as well as between qualitative and quantitative methods and theory languages (exploring, for example, parallels between dynamical systems theory, dialectics and post-prefixed and feminist thought). If we are to hold Geography together we must aspire toward practicing engaged pluralism. But doing so can not only help the discipline realize its potential but also change how we think about and practice in the world.

3. Matthew Wilson, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky

Prepared for The Future of Geography

While thought and practices at the heart of geography are a few centuries old, the most recent expression of these traditions as a discipline in the US academy are barely a century in the making. Indeed, as human geographic study emerged out of geologic and physical geographic inquiry nearly 100 years ago, alongside the formation of new departments in US universities, the question of the future of geography largely remained an imperial one. How might we draw and trace the role of representation in the discipline of geography, especially as impacted by the particular geographies of academic departments in the US? Why might these geographies matter to the teaching of methods and techniques in representation and to the forms of study and examination in human and physical approaches in the discipline? In this paper, I consider these questions in relation to the development of coursework in mapmaking, map interpretation, and GIS. In doing so, I examine the specific history of the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky, founded in 1944, representing 75 years of disciplinary security amid trends, transitions, and technological change.

Panel II: Imagining Geographical Modes for the 21st Century

  1. Susanna Hecht, Professor, Department of Geography, UCLA

Rethinking Geography in the 21st Century: Futures on an Unruly Planet: Metaphors, Myths, Epistemes and Practices

Geography has a history of multiple millennia of thinking about and trying to understand human relations in, with and to nature. In times of an unruly planet, Geography is your disciplines of choice (plural here is intentional). This reflects its heterodox quantitative and qualitative methodologies, its historic interest in representations, scale and meanings and its rebellious refusal, as a discipline to be simply reductionist, textual, or purely “scientific” in an uncritical way. Geography attempts through its training of students, colleagues and scholars from other disciplines to  remain highly attentive to the human dimensions and consequences of planetary inhabitation. This involves invoking the rigor of new methods of landscape apprehension (Lidar, remote sensing, GIS, econometrics) biohistorical methods (ice cores, tree rings, historical ecology, sediment data, palynology, fire history etc) as well as the tools of political ecology (political economy, ethnography, environmental history, environmental sociology, environmental humanities and science and technology studies) as well as economic geography and spatial studies. Typically, geography has placed its understanding of landscapes within large scale processes of globalization flows at different scales, epochs and regions, the effects of varying economic systems and the power relations that inhere in them, adaptations to different enviro-cultural contexts and the relentless dynamics of change, moving from locality to the planetary. How to proceed forward now in the disruptive planetary time we are living through? I take as my starting point the ideas of Ghosts and Monsters building on Tsing et al.(2017), but  expanding their apolitical framing within a broader set of conceptual outlines and also  cultural ecologies engaging ideas and methods of political ecology. In the cases I discuss the continuum/spectrum  between ghosts/the undead and zombies;  symbionts, commensals versus vampires; and mutant ecologies /novel biocultures versus feral Frankensteins as a means of classifying and thinking about ways of being in and as nature and about inflection points  and viabilities along these in the (forgive me) anthroscenes of the Anthropocene.

2. Patricia Ehrkamp, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky

Migration as a Mode of Being?

This paper grapples with the idea of considering migration as 'a mode of being' as Khosravi suggested in a recent piece. If migration were indeed a mode of being, what challenges would this present for other modes of being, for geopolitics, and nation-states (and associated citizenships) that are predicated on people staying put. States have addressed such challenges with the increasing closure of borders to migrants, immigration enforcement, deterrence, externalization of borders, and the (state) violences that go hand-in-hand with these strategies. Amidst these policy changes anti-immigrant hostility and violence against asylum seekers and other recent arrivals are on the rise in many advanced economies. These hostilities towards migrants raise questions of what remains of hospitality and the possibilities of citizenship and belonging, and if there is belonging when people are on the move. Can there be solidarity with the stranger in times of rampant xenophobia? What could spaces of solidarity look like? If migration is a mode of being does it necessarily need to be in opposition to not-migration? Are mobility and immobility necessarily dichotomous or are they related, and if so, how can we think about these relationships? I will address some of these questions in my talk, providing some starting points for conversation rather than answers.

Panel III: Mapping Geographical Scenarios in the 21st Century

1. Nathan Sayre, Professor, Department of Geography, UCLA

How to Counter-Map an Uninhabitable World-in-the-Making: Geography in the 21st Century

Geography’s future, along with its identity, has been a topic of chronic debate and anxiety for the discipline in the US since the 1950s, when a wave of closures began that ultimately shuttered departments at nearly all of the prominent private universities in the country. The field is widely overlooked and misunderstood both inside and outside of the academy. Yet recent decades have seen astounding growth. Membership in the American Association of Geographers increased 81 percent from 2000 to 2016, and average attendance at its annual meetings grew from <3400 in the 1990s to >8000 in the 2010s. The AP Human Geography exam is the most rapidly growing of all the College Board’s offerings, with the number of students taking the test up 544 percent from 2008 to 2018. What accounts for this apparent paradox, and what does it portend?

Geography’s intellectual touchstones reaching back to antiquity have been humans and the environments they inhabit: “the habitable world,” in Clarence Glacken’s words, more commonly glossed today as “Nature and Culture” or “Human-Environment Interactions.” The effectively infinite variety of forms that these relations may take was a key source of Geography’s vulnerability in the 20th century: the field’s core concerns appeared intractable to replication, experimental control, or statistically valid prediction—the hallmarks of modern science.

The situation in the 21st century appears inside out and backwards, a moebius-strip-like transformation. The nature/culture binary has become empirically obsolete, even at the scale of Earth itself, courtesy of fossil fuels and the relentless expansive dynamism of capitalism; "the Anthropocene” both announces and obfuscates this fact. Meanwhile, the accelerating proliferation of digital and digitally-enabled technologies—satellites, sensors, super-computers, the internet, smart phones, etc.—resuscitates the vision of a spatial science on the modernist model. This very likely explains much of the growth alluded to above. In short, while the conceptual building blocks of Geography have melted into CO2-enriched air, the methodological potentialities of the field have expanded exponentially. The future of the discipline depends, in no small part, on how its practitioners navigate these contradictory trends and the forces behind them.

2. Zayde Antrim, Professor of History and International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford

On Reading al-Idrisi in the Twenty-First Century: A Thought Experiment in Metageography

This contribution was inspired by a recent encounter with a familiar map in an unexpected place. I was viewing Joyce Kozloff’s 2017 “Girlhood” exhibit online while preparing for a class on map art this past semester when I suddenly had a flash of recognition, followed immediately by a sense of disorientation. I checked, double-checked, googled, and then checked again. Despite failing to find confirmation (and getting briefly sidetracked by a critic’s suggestion that it “appears to be an old map of North America”), I am certain that the background map for her piece “Then and Now” is a composite rendition of the sectional maps from a twelfth-century Arabic atlas commissioned at the Norman court in Sicily. This atlas, al-Idrisi’s Nuzhat al-mushtāq fīʾkhtirāq al-āfāq (A pleasure for one who longs to stroll across distant lands), happens to be the focus of my current research.

The striking effect of much of Kozloff’s map art is produced by juxtapositions that bring mundane objects and images into proximity with the strange in order to denaturalize them. My own recent work has attempted to do something similar: to unsettle modern spatial categories by putting those of the early and medieval Islamic world into conversation with the present. I propose to go one step further in this conference and conduct a thought experiment. What can we learn by taking the metageography that undergirds al-Idrisi’s atlas seriously as a way of understanding and visualizing spatial relationships in the contemporary world? What would the resulting maps look like? What modes of connectivity might they suggest?

While I want to resist making distant pasts into useable pasts, I think the challenge – and the charm – of radically different ways of seeing the world has much to teach us in the present. My hope for the future is that geographers and historians, especially historians of premodern, indigenous, and nonwestern pasts, find their way to each other on a more regular basis to discuss alternative models with the potential to denaturalize and disrupt taken-for-granted patterns of spatial thought.


Day 2: Friday, October 4th, 2019

Panel IV: Geography’s Interdisciplinarity

1. Jamie Goodwin-White, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, UCLA

(Im)mobilities, social and spatial

Although geographers are keenly interested in questions of social and spatial mobility, many of our paradigms for understanding the relationship between these have come from other disciplines. Notably, population geographers and regional scientists model migration via economic perspectives that emphasize the relative benefits that accrue from spatial mobility and conceive of who moves in selection terms. For immigrants or other minority groups, we appropriate sociologists’ spatial assimilation ideas that conceive of moving as mobility toward opportunity or away from segregation, with spatial distance a metric of social difference. These approaches yield testable models yoked to theoretical and societal significance, but they are heavily parameterized. Further, spatial mobility has diminished significantly in recent decades. However, little systematic emphasis has been placed on what immobility means, when and how internal mobility constitutes vulnerability rather than opportunity, or (for example) how immigrant social adjustment occurs in the absence of internal mobility. With renewed attention to how locations matter for outcomes across other disciplines and in the media, geographers have opportunities to contribute to how this relationship, and the mechanics of how geography shapes life trajectories, are studied and understood. Greater empirical investigation of spatiality and scale, the spatial mechanics through which inequality is translated or elided, and even questions of whether locations matter more or less than they did (and for whom) when our predominant theories were formulated, are all important topics for study. Questions like these could help elucidate how what we already know (locations matter, via Chetty and others) happens, and how the relationship between social and spatial mobility has developed and is emerging. They could also point to what we are thinking about when we are thinking about mobility.

2. Neil Brenner, Professor, GSD, Harvard University

Operational Landscapes: Hinterlands of the Capitalocene

What role do spaces outside the city play in urbanization, and how are they transformed through this process? City-building is a process of sociospatial concentration, but its preconditions and consequences stretch far beyond the city’s immediate environs. The term “hinterland” is used here to demarcate the variegated non-city spaces that are swept into the maelstrom of urbanization, whether as supply zones or impact zones. Such spaces include settlements (cities, towns, villages), land-use configurations (industrial, agrarian, extractive) and ecologies (terrestrial, oceanic, subterranean, atmospheric). We refer to explorations of such spaces, and their role in urbanization processes, as engagements with “the hinterland question.” Across the urban social sciences and design disciplines, the hinterland question is today considered secondary or even irrelevant to the study of urbanization; the city, its dense socioeconomic networks and its powerful agglomeration economies occupy center stage. In the age of planetary urbanization, this position is untenable: city/hinterland relations lie at the heart of the contemporary urban problematique. And yet, these relations are today undergoing mutations that necessitate not only a repositioning of the hinterland question into the core of urban research and practice. but its radical reconceptualization.

Panel V: Of Scales and Spaces

1. Bruno Carvalho, Professor, RLL, Harvard University

After the Future: Scales of Belonging in the Urban Anthropocene

Over the past 150 years or so of intensive urbanization, various infrastructure projects have been conceived with regional and continental scales in mind, in pursuit of modern futures, and linking extractive frontiers to major metropolitan centers. Whereas the built futures imagined in this modern past had been marked by a sense of possibility and malleable geographies, our own contemporary condition seems increasingly defined by intractable futures of environmental limits or urban and climate crises (no futures). I will likely draw on examples from between the 1940s and 1970s, as well as from the work and thought of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. In relation to the broader Brazilian context of the “nationalist-developmentalist” period, Burle Marx mobilized a different set of forms of being and belonging that included embodied geographies (paths, plants) as well as the planetary (earth systems, ecologies). In a moment when authoritarians are making successful appeals to a sense of belonging to an idea of the nation, rather than to a place, how can this type of work – and the field of geography – help us articulate alternative forms and scales of belonging grounded on the territorial (cities, ecosystems) rather than on more abstract modes of identity?

2. Anna Secor, Department of Geography, Durham University

Space for Feminist Decolonial Thought

In this paper, my goal is to spur conversation about how new spatial concepts can join forces with the ongoing, multivocal, feminist and decolonial project of delinking thought from the dominant episteme. This conversation is critical because the apparition of a universalized subject of ethics and politics in Western thought required, fundamentally, the erection of a spatialized onto-epistemological system of inclusions and exclusions premised on the denial of topological entanglement. Within this dominant spatialized epistemic order, politics and ethics were located within a public sphere accessible only to the ‘universalized’ subject (i.e. White, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical, male, heterosexual, secularized, bourgeois) whose encounters with others were envisioned in terms of pre-established difference, autonomy, and individuality. In contrast, a topological understanding recalibrates our understanding of space, the subject, and encounter. Rather than being premised on hierarchical dichotomies such as universal/particular or public/private, topological encounters are differential entanglements, within which shifting interdependencies give rise at once to matter and meaning. Ethics and politics thus emerge within an immanent topological dynamic in which enfolded geo-historical conditions are unfolded in the material-discursive becoming of both difference and space. Geometric relations of interiority/exteriority and other dichotomous onto-epistemological manifestations – such as the folding back of difference into representationalism in the form of liberal multiculturalism or conservative ethno-nationalisms – are thus understood not to reflect the spatiality of the situation itself, but the capture of (some fraction of) what happens within the dominant matrix of power. It is along these lines that I hope to open a conversation about how new spatial imaginaries create opportunities for rethinking politics and ethics on a terrain unbounded by the dichotomies and foreclosures that have secured the mythos of Man.

Panel VI: Borders and the Directionality of Migration

1. Elaine Ho, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore

Multi-Directional Migration—Why it Matters for the Future of Geography

Although the concept and practice of migration seems to be premised upon the flows of people across space, I suggest that researchers inadvertently “fix” people in space (or spatial contexts) when they consider migrants as subjects of study. For example, we tend to isolate “immigration” or “emigration” trends as separate fields of study, anchored in either a migrant-receiving or migrant-sending country respectively. What are the implications, however, if our starting point of analysis is one that captures how “multi-directional migration” flows intersect in a migration site, or the way that such flows forge (citizenship) connections across migration sites? Such an approach might mean using immigration as a lens to critically analyse emigration that takes place concurrently within a migration site, or considering how re-migration across the life course (or across generations) reverses “source” and “destination” countries repeatedly—thereby also re-spatializing rights, obligations, and belonging. With the above in mind, I propose three lines of inquiry: (1) How do we study multi-directional migration in all its messiness so that geographical analyses continue to remain relevant to the social realities of migrant lives and their biographies? (2) How might such an approach contribute towards theorising the changing practices of citizenship in a trans-territorial context? (3) Lastly, what would mapping multi-directional migration look like, how can this be operationalised, and what political effects would such an endeavour achieve?

1. Melissa Wright, Professor, Department of Geography, Penn State

Border Walls, Border Wars, and Sustaining la Vida Fronteriza (Border Life): Reflections from the Mexico-US Border

The border wall (the Wall) of “hardened concrete, rebar, and steel” that Donald Trump promises to build along the US’ southern border with Mexico continues to raise alarms for social and environmental justice groups on both sides. In November 2017, the eight wall prototypes unveiled by private contractors offered a preview of what to expect: thick concrete and steel structures that stand thirty feet high and six deep, some fully blocking visibility and any animal migrations along with wind and water flows, and all designed to withstand attacks by “sledgehammer, car jack, pick ax, chisel, battery-operated impact tools… .” Together, with prototypes for digital barriers, this project requires unprecedented federal funding for border infrastructure as it reveals the legacy of policies over the last thirty years that have promoted a bellicose approach to surveillance and immigration control along the US’ southern land border.

In my project, I examine how opposition to the Wall and the policies behind it has gained steam through environmental and social justice coalitions that seek to protect “la vida fronteriza” (border life) across the diverse border landscape. Through their alliances that merge advocacies for human rights, immigrant well-being, and environmental stewardship, anti-Wall coalitions have formed powerful campaigns that have raised significant challenges for Trump’s Wall agenda and the policies aligned with it.  By elaborating upon “border thinking” (pensamiento fronterizo) as a combined theoretical and daily/practical strategy for sustaining borderland diversity, I explore how critical geography can offer productive interventions for fortifying these efforts with global significance for a sustainable planet.