Strategic Essentialism and Radical Intra-Disciplinarity
I’ve been an Anglophile ever since I was a postdoc at Loughborough University in the late 1980s. As you might have guessed, it wasn’t the food or weather that convinced me to love all things British; it was its geography, or, rather I should say, the fact that it had Geography. What I mean of course is that geography as an academic discipline is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom’s K-12 curriculum, and so it lingers on in peoples’ minds, as a field of inquiry, as a type of career, as something. So when I was chatting with the two British women sitting next to me on the flight to London and I nervously answered their questions about what I was going to be doing in Loughborough for a year, I was totally and wonderfully surprised by their reaction, which was, for an American, a non-reaction. They didn’t look puzzled or confused, they didn’t ask me to recite capitals, nor did they think my interests made me an historian or a sociologist. The idea itself — the study of geography — meant something without explanation. What a relief!
As geographers living and traveling in the United States we almost always are put into the situation of explaining who and what we are and do. I have become quite practiced at discussing my work and my interests to people on an airplane or over coffee and explaining why what I do is called geography. I also have become fluent in the language of the academy, and have worked vociferously to promote the importance of geography as integral to a liberal education and a key component of research agendas. In my deans’ offices I offer key insights into the ways in which geography as a discipline is critical to solving many of the world’s great challenges: the impacts of climate change, the uneven effects of economic globalization, the increasing inequalities that destabilize power. Borrowing from the postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, I use the term strategic essentialism to describe these important interventions into the academy and into popular culture. Spivak developed the term to suggest how particular groups of people — often minorities or subalterns — may choose to represent their identity as stable and fixed in order to strategically use that identity to promote their interests and/or intervene in a political debate. So when asked by a dean to justify the hire of an additional geographer, I am quick to point to the importance of “essential” geography (and of course depending on the specific case, that “essence” could be geospatial analysis, or human-environment expertise, or landscape studies). But like Spivak, I am not promoting essentialism — that there is somehow an innate set of principles that define geography — but instead suggesting that simplifying geography’s and geographers’ quite complex and at times contradictory ways of seeing the world is often necessary to achieve certain ends.
What is particularly interesting and ironic about my almost daily invocation of some form of geography essentialism is my full-hearted belief that what is so intellectually exciting about geography in the United States today is its tolerance for and support of divergent and at times opposing ways of analyzing and seeing the world; its anti-essentialism. Under the banner “geography” we perform regression analyses, conduct in-depth interviews, run computer simulations, undertake archival research, collect soil samples, georectify data, and organize focus groups (to name just some of our methods). We use and contribute to the making of theories, perspectives, and technologies as diverse as Lacanian psychoanalysis and Germanium detectors. We are a promiscuous discipline, what some might call an un-disciplined discipline. And it is in part this very intra-disciplinarity that makes geography at this moment so vital. Not all of us are equipped to work across the divides that can separate physical geography, geospatial science, and human geography, but because we inhabit the same space — this thing called geography — we often know each others’ habits, respect each others’ ways of knowing, and understand enough about each other to speak and be heard. And these are the skills required for twenty-first century knowledge-making and problem-solving, skills that Eric Sheppard has referred to as engaged pluralism. The most pressing challenges today, whether related to global climate change, socio-economic inequalities, or on-going territorial conflicts, can only be understood through diverse tool kits, methods, theories and ways of knowing. That diversity exists (and often thrives) within geography. While brainstorming with fellow geographers and friends we came up with the term radical intra-disciplinarity to describe geography’s intellectual contributions. We added the descriptor “radical” to signal that geography’s intra-disciplinarity is not a passing fad but rather is at the root of, and fundamental to, geographical practices, and to highlight the ways in which those un-disciplined practices can lead to important transformations.
I’m already working on a Presidential Plenary for the Chicago AAG 2015 that will highlight and celebrate the creative and radical possibilities of our discipline being so un-disciplined, and I hope that it will form one of the main themes of the conference. More about that later, but for now I would like to hear your comments and thoughts about how and why (and whether) we need to be strategically essentialist, and the possibilities of our radical intra-disciplinarity.
I’m still of course an Anglophile; my world of geography and geographers in the U.K. is robust and enriching. And I still find it annoying to be always explaining geography when returning home, but I think that’s a relatively small price to pay in order to be part of the intellectual community that we’ve created and inhabit in this thing called geography.
Past president columns can be found in the AAG President’s Column archives.