A while back, the Stanford Daily ran a cartoon of a teacher remarking to her class that most young Americans can't locate Iraq on a map.
"What's a map?" one kid asks.
The geographic illiteracy of many Americans is the stuff of hand-wringing and punch lines. But the story is far more complicated. The U.S. educational system may have misled most of us into believing geography is about map identification. In fact, it was, and is, far more. It is a vast interdisciplinary field that sprawls across the social and natural sciences. It also is a field that has no department at many private universities and colleges—Stanford among them.
The National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1993 organized a Rediscovering Geography Committee to assess the state of the discipline in the United States. The idea was, first, that illiteracy was a problem but, more important, that technology had utterly transformed the field. A map was no longer a passive, two-dimensional object. Moreover, geographers, or people doing geography, could be found in the natural sciences, engineering and computer sciences, social sciences and humanities.
"Geography's boundaries are very nebulous," said Karen Seto, one of a small handful of geography Ph.Ds at Stanford. "No other field is split like that, between the natural and social sciences."
One of the members of the Rediscovering Geography Committee was Eric Sheppard of the University of Minnesota and a 2005-06 fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. "Geography doesn't fit nicely into categories of natural science, social science or humanities," he said last spring at the center. "It fits into all of them. Geography existed before the academic structures we have now."
Geography emerged as a discipline in the 19th century because European nations needed to keep track of their empires. Just as international economics and politics engendered the new discipline then, something similar can be said for geography's resurgence over the past couple of decades. Globalization, environmental change and technology have given new life to a field some thought irrelevant.
Its comeback is the result of its inherent interdisciplinarity and its intimate connection with increasingly ubiquitous technology, most notably geographic information systems. It appears under new guises: environmental sciences, earth sciences, spatial economics, geostatistics. Its rise, fall and recovery, the permutations of a discipline, illustrate the interaction of the contours of knowledge, academic trends and the pace of technological innovation.
Geography's downfall followed the conclusion of World War II. One of the most critical developments took place at Harvard. The university's president, James Conant, famously pronounced, "Geography is not a university subject," and proceeded in 1948 to abolish the department, not without stirring up a bitter dispute.
"Once Harvard shut that program down, there was a domino effect," said Billie Lee Turner, director of Clark University's Graduate School of Geography and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Rediscovering Geography Committee.
The dominoes fell at Stanford a decade later; evidence of the tale lies in Green Library's Special Collections. Provost Frederick Terman found he had a small, underfunded geography department with an unclear mission and retirements looming. The department was housed in a small cluster of tin sheds with broken windows, inadequate storage space and virtually no fire protection. Years later, Professor Emeritus Andrew Burghardt remembered that the maps had been piled up inside the women's restroom.
In February 1960, Philip Rhinelander, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, wrote, "It would be better to discontinue the department entirely than to proceed with a mediocre operation." Soon after, Terman called on an outside expert to evaluate the department, the implicit choice being to beef it up or eliminate it. By the end of 1962, despite pleas from scholars elsewhere, Stanford's department, too, was history. Its remaining faculty went elsewhere, and the classes were divvied up among other departments.
The story, however, is not a simple one. Geography departments at state schools continued tothrive. Many geographers today acknowledge that the old departments at the private schools were not well run. Part of the problem was the definition of the discipline itself, which was difficult to establish.
Philippe Cohen, administrative director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and Stanford's other geography PhD, said the discipline's inherent interdisciplinarity is both its strength and its weakness.
"I propose a metaphor," he said. "The university can be seen as a building with too many walls. Geography is the opposite; there are too few walls, and there's a lot of background noise. It can get real intense. It could be located in just about any of the schools."
Turner, one of the field's heavy hitters, has written about geography's "identity crisis," born of 19th-century intellectual debates. From the start, the field was torn between the qualitative and the quantitative, the human and the scientific environment—what today some would call the fuzzy-techie split. "It's a funky discipline," Turner admitted. "Geographers have to be special people living in both worlds. But geographers who are good at that have never had it better."
Some geographers note, not altogether happily, that the things they've been saying for decades are now being embraced by other disciplines. Suddenly everyone has discovered the importance of place. Human relationships, national identity, sense of self—today no one would venture an opinion on these matters without paying attention to where events happen and the physical context of the formation of ideas.
Asked if he felt his field was being usurped by interlopers, Michael Goodchild, one of the world's most prominent geographers and the director of the Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science at the University of California-Santa Barbara, laughed. "That's the inevitable reaction when a field is in transition," he said. "It's a long story. There are long historic tendencies for other fields to encroach on what might otherwise be geography. Take any environmental science program in the country and change its name to geography and nobody would notice. Same thing goes for atmospheric science in many parts of the world. There's lots of overlap."
According to Seto, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford, geography is "the relationship of the what, the where and the why," the crucial integration of the human and the physical. But mostly, it would seem to have to do with how one thinks, not what one thinks. If a historian tends to arrange data into a narrative or chronological sequence, Seto pointed out, a geographer tends to link discrete pieces of data or events to see how they're different or similar, comparing the values of things at different locations. Though the geographer and the historian look at the same data set, she said, they mentally organize it in different ways.
This literally different perspective on the world comes into play when Seto works with colleagues from another discipline. Right now, for example, she is working with historian Margaret Pugh O'Mara, deputy director of the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West, on a comparative Pacific Rim urbanization project that has been awarded an Environmental Venture Program research grant by the Woods Institute for the Environment.
The technical end of geography's spectrum is in splendid shape at Stanford. Andre Journel, widely regarded as the world's greatest geostatistician, resides in the School of Earth Sciences, where he is the Donald and Donald M. Steel Professor. Geostatistics is the study of how data are related in space. Journel's PhD is in applied mathematics, and he is a key contributor to what he described as a revival of a quantitative and predictive geography.
"Traditional geography," Journel said, "was very descriptive. Geographers observed land forms and then said they were generated by glaciers or erosion or whatever. And observations led to predictions. But pretty much it was descriptive.
"Geographers missed the quantitative and computer revolution. It's not enough to make a nice picture. You must translate that into numbers so you can pass it on to the engineers. Engineers can't work with pictures; they need numbers."
Journel has team-taught Reservoir Characterization and Flow Modeling with Outcrop Data (GES and ENERGY 246) with geological and environmental sciences Professor Stephan Graham, who holds the Welton Joseph and Maud L'Anphere Crook Professorship.
"Steve Graham is my geographer, if you like," Journel said. "He has a fantastic catalog in his head of sedimentary outcrops in the world, of shapes and formations, and some of these outcrops represent what might be underground. But an engineer needs more than a picture of the outcrop; he has to form the picture into a numerical grid.
"So I'm that middle man between the geologist—or the geographer or the physical scientist—and the guy who puts numbers toward a precise engineering goal, for example, to find oil or predict urban expansion or decide where to put a dam. I'm the numerical interface between physical scientists and engineers."
Ideally, he said, a person should do all three things: physical science, statistics and engineering. "That's what we're training our students to do," he said. "They're completely interdisciplinary. They're masters of mathematics and engineering and geology. We've been interdisciplinary long before Stanford realized how important it was. We had no choice."
At the heart of this statistical work lie some of geography's most basic tenets.
"The critical question for geographers is why we can see one thing in various places," according to Seto. "Geography has laws, and they have worked themselves into some of the most popular ideas about space. But people don't realize where those ideas came from." She offered as an example fractal analysis, the study of how patterns repeat themselves on the small and large scale. Mathematics relies on this principle, but it started in geography, she said.
Her own work, on land-use change in China, relies both on those principles and on the work of one of Journel's graduate students, Alex Boucher. Boucher started off in mining engineering, which is where geostatistics originated (because that was the field of its inventor, who was Journel's adviser). When Boucher arrived at Stanford, however, he and Journel decided he should broaden out a bit, and then he discovered Seto. She introduced him to satellite remote sensing, and a collaboration was born.
"That's where my interdisciplinary work started," Boucher recalled. "I had always worked in mining engineering, but now I was working on land use. I may never use the word 'geography,' but clearly that was the orientation I was taking. It was a big change for me. My strength is quantitative, so my task was to see where I could contribute."
It all gets back to maps, which today have little to do with two-dimensional objects covering schoolroom walls. Seto has loads of data sets on land use in China that form the basis for subsequent maps, as well as for analyses, using geostatistics and spatial econometrics, of the causes and consequences of land-use change.
"How can we chart the spatial pattern of the landscape?" Boucher asked. "How can we simulate that?" Maps, he pointed out, are precise on average; they are not necessarily correct. The geostatistician chooses which sort of map best suits the data, balancing local and structural accuracy.
"Geographers sometimes aren't comfortable with the absence of a single map with a single answer," Boucher said. "Geostatisticians have a multitude of maps, a series of maps, and each one is as likely to be true as the next."
The key contribution geography is making to a wide range of natural and social sciences is the notion that place matters, that human activity is the result of the interaction of humans and place. Geographers used to be the only ones crossing data and location; today everyone is doing it.
"The fundamental change in the academy at large is the movement from aspatial to spatial data. It doesn't matter what it is, but everything can now be put in space-time coordinates," Turner said.
Indeed, geography may end up having the last laugh. Its huge range, which has been a handicap over the years, is turning out to be an asset. Anecdotal evidence points to good times for interdisciplinary people such as geographers, though the pendulum may not be swinging quite as fast as the young job-seekers might like.
"We need geographers," said Earth Sciences Dean Pamela Matson. "They're the ultimate interdisciplinarians. We attempt to hire those kind of people. It's a key discipline, and we need to bring it in, even if we don't have a department."