Physical Geography and the AAG
Geography is the quintessential interdisciplinary discipline — or, as AAG past president Mona Domosh has described it, a ‘promiscuous discipline,’ an undisciplined discipline — a radically intradisciplinary discipline. For someone like myself whose research is in human and nature-society geography, this means that my work is in conversation not only with that of other geographers, but also in some cases with the work of anthropologists and sociologists, and with those in other interdisciplinary fields like environmental studies, development studies, and even religious studies. My colleagues in Geographic Information Science collaborate with computer scientists and applied mathematicians, among others. And physical geographers — including geomorphologists, climatologists, biogeographers, hydrologists, and soil scientists — read and want their work read not only by geographers but also by geologists, ecologists, atmospheric scientists, civil engineers, and aerospace engineers. If all these other disciplines are the spokes, geography imagines itself as the hub, with porous boundaries but shared concerns, whether about the relationship between humans and the earth’s surface, about space-time, about scale, or about the manifold human and physical landscapes of the earth.
In this arrangement, many Geography departments thrive in producing research and teaching students. And yet, I believe there are some questions we need to ask about the positionality of physical geographers within the discipline, and the role of AAG in serving the needs of all geographers.
Consider this. A 2015 survey of the AAG membership, current and lapsed, found that of those who responded, only 13.7% identified physical geography as their primary focus (compared to 51.6% human geography). Similarly, a 2020 survey by AAG found that of academics, 20% identified physical geography as their primary field (vs. 57% human geography) and only 17% of students identified physical geography as their primary field. This is down considerably from 1979, when Melvin Marcus noted that 36% of members were physical geographers.
In my own department, almost all physical geographers attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting every year – and the AAG only every few years, if at all. With over 25,000 attendees every year now, AGU’s meeting has rapidly become the preeminent conference for earth and environmental scientists of all stripes. Given limitations of time and dollars (not to mention the carbon costs of conference travel), most of us cannot afford to travel to more than one major conference a year, and for physical geographers, the choice is increasingly AGU over AAG (or for that matter, in some cases, also over the Ecological Society of America (ESA) or the Geological Society of America (GSA) meetings). As AGU, which boasts 60,000 members, gets larger and larger, it is no wonder that it has become a center of gravity for many current research specializations of physical geographers, who by and large identify with the rise of Earth System Science as an integrative approach to the geosciences. As circles of scientists move towards a conference, special sessions, invited talks, side meetings, and other events draw a critical mass of researchers, who often attend as much to see those colleagues as to give talks.
Similarly, for the discipline’s flagship journal in the United States, the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, the percentage of submissions to the “Physical Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences” section has decreased over time. Data from 2014 to 2020 show that on average, physical geography articles constituted about 9% of total new manuscripts and 11% of total accepted manuscripts. Things were not always thus. When the AAG was founded in 1904, physical geography dominated the organization and the field; indeed, at that time geography itself was often equated with physical geography, and specifically, geomorphology (Marcus 1979, Rhoads 2004; Aspinall 2010). From 1911-1923 articles in physical geography accounted for between 50-100% of those published in the Annals. There was a significant dip in the prominence of physical geography from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s, followed by a revival from the 1960s to 1980s that coincided with the increasing specialization of and creation of journals for subfields within physical geography. Writing in 2004, Bruce Rhoads stated that from about 1923 to 2004, the long-term average was 21% physical geography articles in the Annals.
The relatively low percentage of physical geography articles in journals of the AAG relative to the number of physical geographers teaching and researching in Geography departments is thus by no means new. However, it has been exacerbated over the past two decades by the proliferation of scholarly journals, the increasing specialization of research areas, and increasing interdisciplinary collaborations between physical geographers and other earth and environmental scientists who have other target journals. Moreover, consider that AAG has two journals, the Annals and Professional Geographer, whereas the ESA now publishes six, and the AGU an astounding twenty-two journals.
Physical geographers naturally want their work read, and cited, by others in their specific research areas – and geologists, hydrologists, ecologists, climatologists, etc. don’t tend to read the Annals or Professional Geographer. The key issue is audience. Geography journals are broad, encompassing multiple subdisciplines, unlike AGU’s specifically targeted journals. AGU has managed to find a way to provide both depth and specialization (in specific journals and membership sections) as well as interdisciplinarity (in the very large annual conference). Another important issue is turnaround time. For many journals in the earth sciences, articles can appear online within three or four months of submission; the Annals takes much longer.
Beyond these, impact factors (IF) may also make a difference, given how much metrics have been made to matter in academia these days. Though the impact factor of the Annals is quite high for Geography (3.3 in 2019, 4.68 in 2020), as is that of Progress in Physical Geography (3.488), the impact factors of journals in other disciplines are comparable, or in some cases higher due in part to the size of the fields. For example, the 2020 IF for the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters was 4.72 and Water Resources Research’s was 5.24. The ESA’s Ecology has an IF of 5.5; American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate has an IF of 5.7 and its Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society an IF of 9.834.
…in many departments, retiring climatologists, geomorphologists, and biogeographers have been replaced by new faculty whose training is from other disciplines with their own strong identities. Without these more senior physical geographers as mentors or models, an identification with Geography as a discipline is likely to become ever more dissipated.
In addition to these issues, though, there is also a tension within physical geography between those — more often geographers trained in Geography departments — who embrace the more holistic dimensions of the discipline, and those who are frustrated that this holistic perspective may disadvantage them in the eyes of geoscientists who see such an approach as less “rigorous.” Related is also a tension between geography’s field-based tradition and broader trends towards a greater emphasis on numerical modeling. Of note too is that in many departments, retiring climatologists, geomorphologists, and biogeographers have been replaced by new faculty whose training is from other disciplines with their own strong identities. Without these more senior physical geographers as mentors or models, an identification with Geography as a discipline is likely to become ever more dissipated.
I don’t think any of this is a problem for individual geographers or even for departments. My concern is with what else AAG as an organization could be doing for physical geographers. What would make it worth it to physical geographers to join the AAG, itself a way to continually sustain our broader academic community around our holistic, undisciplined discipline? How do we achieve a healthy balance of the centrifugal forces that pull physical geographers into the orbit of other disciplines with the centripetal force that keeps us together as geographers? After all, many of my physical geography colleagues, even if their degrees were not in Geography (as mine too, were not), do really appreciate the holistic nature of the discipline. And, are graduates in physical geography from Geography departments going on to be hired as faculty members in other Geography departments? If not, what might facilitate that?
There are clearly no easy answers, but here are a few ideas, which I’ve formulated with the help of several physical geography colleagues.
First, the advent of the Special Issues of the Annals since 2009, seems to me to be a very positive development given that the themes have been capacious enough for contributions from the whole range of subspecialities within geography. Such holistic and integrative perspectives are very much geography’s strengths. Perhaps highlighting these special issues to colleagues in other Earth System Science fields would be one productive measure, especially as Earth System Sciences also slowly opens up to more consideration of human dimensions.
Second, there are many ways that AAG as an organization could strengthen its appeal to physical geographers. More recognition for early career faculty as well as students in physical geography could be helpful, for example through early career awards and paper awards. These would have to be not just granted, but also advertised widely to physical geographers in a variety of institutional locations. Addressing the relative absence of postdoctoral fellowships in Geography compared to other departments associated with Earth Systems Scientists is also important. Keynote addresses and high-profile events at AAG meetings, whether in person or virtual, regional or national, could also help increase interest. Finding ways to reinvigorate key AAG specialty groups in physical geography is also important. AAG could sponsor workshops for graduate students and early career faculty on grant proposal writing. Moreover, AAG could be well-situated to help geoscientists tackle issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, given Geography’s integration of human geographic expertise on such issues together with the geosciences. Finally, training sessions or other initiatives focused on topics such as highlighting women physical geographers or tools for addressing racial inequities in geoscience could help raise AAG’s profile.
I offer these suggestions cognizant that I’m not a physical geographer, so I stand to be corrected if any of what I’ve written here seems off. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions.
Aspinall, Richard. 2010. “A century of physical geography research in the Annals.” Annals of the Association of
Harrison, Stephan, Doreen Massey, Keith Richards, Francis Magilligan, Nigel Thrift, and
Barbara Bender. 2004. “Thinking across the divide: perspectives on the conversations
between physical and human geography.” Area 36(4): 435-442.
Marcus, Melvin. 1979. “Coming full circle: Physical geography in the twentieth century.”
Rhoads, Bruce L. 2004. “Whither physical geography?” Annals of the Association of American
Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.