Stanford Publication Cites Goodchild About Defining Geography

Stanford University’s Interaction, a quarterly electronic publication that focuses on multidisciplinary research and teaching, recently paid tribute to Professor Mike Goodchild in a fascinating article about the multidisciplinary nature of Geography. Stanford faculty member André Journel, one of the world’s leading geostatisticians, examines the rise, fall, and recovery of the discipline of Geography in “Geography: ‘The what, the where and the why’” and, along the way, explains why Stanford has no Department of Geography.


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.

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