• research;
  • change;
  • critical histories;
  • sociologies;
  • institutional contexts


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The paper discusses a survey of British academic human geographers enquiring about change and diversification within personal research activities, their nature, motivations and impacts. It argues that this is widespread and a significant aspect of the production of contemporary geographical knowledge. The findings highlight the range of motivations underpinning research change, its impacts and mediation through the institutional context of British human geography. It concludes that despite a more prescriptive institutional context geographers have a degree of autonomy, albeit somewhat fettered, to shape their own research trajectories to some extent. This provides some important capacity with which to engage with imminent challenges facing the discipline in the UK). The paper complements recent critical histories of geography and sociological accounts of the discipline.

Introduction: the personal and the normative

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Individual and collective scrutiny of the research process has become routinely embedded across higher education internationally. It underpins tenure systems, national research assessment exercises and international subject benchmarking reviews. Typical of these processes are comparisons between individual research trajectories and supposed normative ideals represented through various metrics and criteria. These normative ideals are constructed around notions of specialisation, progression, linearity and the accumulation of academic capital (Bourdieu 1988; Crang 2007, 511). However, it has been noted that the universalisation of this ideal through cultural norms and systems of academic administration and management is frequently at odds with the more messy realities through which knowledge is produced:

the contingency of which our ideas come off (either through funding or making it through journal refereeing), the lumpiness of how sometimes things all seem to go well and sometimes nothing seems to work, tend to be suppressed in the ‘ideal’ trajectory.

Crang (2007, 512)

Informal conversations with colleagues from various institutions revealed this distinct ‘lumpiness’ in our research careers. Our collective experience of research was of eclecticism, diversity, change and uncertainty and only rarely a linear, progressive accumulation of academic capital. Folding back these personal experiences into the prevailing narrative of geography's history and development (great men, seminal publications, high scholarly debate, paradigm change), I was struck by this further disjuncture between the personal and the normative. I found it hard to find any examples of this normative ideal within these biographical discussions. Although these discussions spoke of individual agency, the autonomy that academics retain to shape their own research careers and the influence of disciplinary shifts, they also highlighted a series of other influences, constraints and possibilities, predominantly institutional in nature, shaping research practice. The most obvious of these were those changes bracketed under the labels of neoliberalism and the corporatisation of higher education (see Castree and Sparke (2000) and other contributions to this special edition of Antipode). The reactions to these changes though were more ambivalent, less emphatic in their opposition than I was expecting, given the critical tone of the literature. Although colleagues spoke of instances of resistance to these changes through their everyday practices, there was also a sense of more multiple negotiations with and within them. This spoke of a further potential disjuncture, in this instance between the critical literatures of the corporate university and everyday practices, which seemed to demand further scrutiny. However, it became apparent that there have been precious few studies of the academic labour process per se (Willis 1996; Sidaway 1997), fewer still that focus specifically on research (Evans 2011; O'Byrne 2011) and none that seem to recognise the ‘lumpiness’ of research practice discussed above.

A common thread in discussions with colleagues was the eschewal of specialisation in favour of diversification of research interests, something very characteristic of my own research career (see Hall 1997 forthcoming; Hall et al. 2002). These changes in research direction had been prompted by a host of pragmatic, serendipitous, personal, institutional and disciplinary reasons, few of which I recognised from conventional accounts of the discipline's history, development or contemporary state. Patterns of research change though are of more than merely inherent empirical interest. They, like the production of all geographical knowledge, do not happen within a vacuum (Hubbard et al. 2005), but rather are prompted by a number of factors. Focusing on biographies of research change and aggregate patterns, then, speaks of aspects of how the discipline is changing and of the numerous reasons underpinning this. Examining the research process within geography as it unfolds potentially captures those factors typically absent from prevailing narratives of its history and development and could contribute to both historical narratives of the discipline's development and sociological accounts of its current state and futures.

The research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The research prompted by these reflections involved a short online survey distributed by email between September 2010 and January 2011 to all human geographers working within geography departments or units1 in UK higher education institutions. Respondents were accessed through institutional websites and from 721 mails, 137 responses (19%) were received. The survey asked about instances where respondents had changed, shifted or diversified their research interests to some degree, the motivations for this, their experiences of research change and its impacts. It contained both open and closed questions. The project seeks to make three primary contributions. First, it aims to provide an empirical overview of an aspect of the academic research labour process as it is currently enacted in geography in the UK. Whilst there have been recent examples of sociological discussions of the discipline, they have rarely been grounded within extensive empirical research (though see Sidaway 1997). This project, then, adds an empirical complement to these discussions. Extending this it seeks to explore the links between the everyday experiences of researchers and the institutional and disciplinary contexts they are located within and the wider reproduction of aspects of the discipline. Finally, following recent interventions into debates about the history of geography, it seeks to offer a reading of the production of contemporary situated geographical knowledges (Graham 2005; Barnes 2008).

Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

every geographical idea emerges out of a messy (yet traceable) network of people and places, and is a synthesis of charisma and context.

Hubbard et al. (2005, 185)

This project is located within two distinct yet related bodies of literature. Firstly, it draws inspiration from a series of critical interventions into debates about the writing of geography's histories. These have criticised the tendency, within conventional retellings of this story, to produce disembodied narratives (Driver 1995; Barnes 2008) peopled by transcendent subjects (Livingstone 1995), which present the discipline's evolution as a process of paradigmatic change and ‘successive hegemonies’ (Purcell 2005, 178). These, it has been said, do not speak to the conditions under which much geographical knowledge is produced both within and beyond the academy (Mattless 1995) and privilege the macro/structural over more immediate, contingent contexts. As Lorimer argues ‘the resultant accounts are, by definition, dominated by grand, scholarly stories, set in the quasi-mythological and exclusive spaces of “the academy” ’ (2003, 200). The discipline, it is argued, has been predominantly framed within paradigmatic narratives, which, despite being presented as universal, represented particular hegemonic positions (Purcell 2005, 178), produce accounts that are overly closed, masculine, scholarly, Anglo-centric, clinical and detached from their immediate contexts (Rose 1995; Minca 2005; Driver and Baigent 2007; Sidaway and Johnston 2007). These critical commentaries explored alternative conceptual frameworks, contexts, sources and methodologies (Boyle 2005), advocating greater openness, plurality and contingency in the writing of geography. They ranged beyond the academy to excavate the spaces within which geographical knowledge was produced and focused upon the contributions of lower profile figures than was conventional (Lorimer 2003; Maddrell 2006). What they produced, despite their differences, were accounts that acknowledged the situated nature of geographical knowledge, which pointed to the inclusion of institutional contexts of geographical knowledge production (Roberts 2000; Driver and Baigent 2007). They employed methods such as biography (Boyle 2005; Peet 2005; Lorimer and Withers 2007), autobiography (Moss 2001), oral history (Jenkins and Ward 2001), institutional histories and sociological accounts of disciplines (Sidaway 1997; Sidaway and Johnston 2007). As Barnes argues ‘philosophies and ideas are embodied in the histories of the humans that make them … such histories include inter alia places, institutions, lives and personalities’ (2008, 650).

These concerns connect with those in recent sociological accounts of the discipline (Sidaway 1997; Castree and Sparke 2000; Demeritt 2000; Roberts 2000). Although it is rare to find these overlaps explicitly explored within the literature, Barnett does argue that the issues and insights revealed by critical histories of the discipline are not restricted to its ‘distant past’ (1995, 419). These accounts highlight a number of changes to geography's institutional contexts which, they argue, profoundly affect the ‘politics and possibilities of the academic labour process’ (Willis 1996, 295 in Sidaway 1997, 488) and the potentials of academic geographers to produce knowledge of various kinds. They illustrate the more general observations that ‘our agency is structured’ (Ward nd) and that ‘geography has never been made in conditions of our own choosing’ (Sidaway 1997, 498).

Central to these arguments is the recognition that the academy does not offer an ontologically or economically discrete realm within which to produce geographical knowledge. Since the 1970s the finances of British higher education have become increasingly precarious and subject to external scrutiny. The system has come under pressure to demonstrate the utility of public investment in it, which has had uneven impacts across and within disciplines, as the policy frameworks through which higher education funding is distributed align more closely with those in the corporate world (Demeritt 2000, 321). This has engendered within universities a ‘neoliberal discourse of public accountability … synonymous with cost-effectiveness’ (Demeritt 2000, 313). Whilst this has been identified as a ‘global issue’ (Smith 2000, 331) it has been mediated through national systems of higher education (Samers 2005; see also Kong 2007 and the other contributions to this Journal of Geography in Higher Education international symposium on ‘Geography's place in higher education’), and institutional circumstances to produce a somewhat variegated landscape of increasingly corporate higher education (Castree and Sparke 2000, 226). Outcomes of this include the increasingly managerial administration of the academic labour process (Sidaway and Johnston 2007), changes to the academic labour market characterised by increasing flexibility and precariousness (Sidaway 1997, 490), greater emphasis on income-generating activities and the ‘saleability’ of academic expertise (Heyman 2000), the commodification of research through national research assessment exercises (Castree 2006; Sidaway and Johnston 2007) with a resultant intensification of research activity (Sidaway 1997, 492–3) and the hegemony of output-driven models of research productivity (Demeritt 2000, 223). In sum, Castree and Sparke argue that ‘the dynamics of contemporary capitalism are straining and splitting apart the university as a space of critical intellectual citizenship’ (2000, 223).

Although enduring and resilient, the national institutional contexts within which disciplines are reproduced intersect with a global trend towards the increasing corporatisation of higher education. There is a recognition that British academic geography is increasingly subject to similar forces to those long observable in other parts of the world, most notably the USA, where the corporatisation of higher education seems more developed. Demeritt, for example, reflecting on his experiences within the UK academic labour market, talks of a distinction between lucrative and ‘useless’ forms of geographical knowledge here: ‘having trained as a historical geographer, I have found success in the academic labour market only by emphasising my environmental expertise’ (2000, 321). He reflects upon these experiences to speak of wider gatekeeping processes increasingly framing the production of disciplinary knowledges in the UK:

If geography is what geographers do, these gatekeeping decisions about who gets to become a geographer and what they can legitimately do will determine the future of the discipline. It will probably mean more research in GIS and such apparently policy relevant fields as global environmental change and economic geography, at the expense of ‘useless’ cultural and historical geography.

Demeritt (2000, 323)

More recently, Castree (2011, 294) argued that, ‘Geography in England is one of many university subjects that will be significantly restructured – with almost immediate effect – because of powerful external drivers altering research and teaching’. He cites the likely impacts of cuts in public funds to support teaching and research in universities, shifts in the balance of funding between science and social science which will impact particularly on human geography, the threefold rises in student fees to study at university and the increasing importance attached by institutions to scores in the National Student Survey. However, like Sidaway (1997, 498), Castree cautions against a too deterministic reading of disciplinary contents from (changing) institutional context. He argues that geographers in the UK, despite these challenges, have some opportunities to make their own discipline. Similarly, albeit in a broader context, Heyman (2000, 293) argues that the university is an institution that has been contested throughout its history and continues to be so, whilst others have noted an enduring autonomy amongst academics, despite the seemingly increasing corporate colonisation of their life worlds (Castree and Sparke 2000, 226), to decide how they shape their research work and its outputs (Sidaway 1997, Demeritt 2000, 232).

The tendency for accounts of neoliberalism generally, and the corporatisation of higher education specifically, to be overly monolithic, a ‘top-down impositional discourse’, and to be too concerned with ‘documenting what we have lost’ (Larner 2003, 511 in Klocker and Drozdzewski 2012, 1276) has been well documented. There is a tendency in some of these literatures not to recognise its contingencies. Often these abstract accounts reflect the tendency of some critical commentators' ‘failure to recognise the impossibility of being positioned outside neoliberalism’ (Klocker and Drozdzewski 2012, 1274; see also Berg 2006, 764). A corollary of this is a tendency towards an under-theorisation of forms of agency within these accounts.

Many critical commentators occupy what Rose (in Klocker and Drozdzewski 2012, 1274) refers to as ‘paradoxical spaces’ within the corporate university. Such spaces highlight an openness to the corporate university rarely admitted in discussions of it. Whilst it is impossible for academics to situate ourselves outside the academy's neoliberal norms whilst sustaining academic careers, this is not to deny our agency to negotiate them in various ways through our professional practice. The result might be a kind of fettered negotiation whereby elements of these norms are challenged whilst the broader contours of corporate higher education are (largely) undisturbed. Whether this ambivalence is desirable in any normative sense is perhaps another debate. That it is observable empirically is difficult to deny, however.

These paradoxical spaces of the corporate university are relatively un-illuminated realms. There is little systematic evidence which speaks of, and about, these spaces (Klocker and Drozdzewski 2012). Consequently we can only tentatively begin to theorise the forms of agency that exist within them. The results of the research discussed later within this paper suggest something of a widespread ambivalent engagement with the norms and tools (Larner 2003; Berg 2006) of the neoliberal, corporate university. Whilst in a small number of cases there is evidence of active resistance to these norms, in the majority of cases it is possible to observe forms of ambivalent negotiation whereby respondents were (largely) not motivated to change their research in response to them but, at the same time, were anything but disengaged from their demands2.

Here we run up against the empirical limitations of much of this recent sociology of geography. There is little robust evidence available to discern aspects of the relationship between contemporary geography and its changing institutional contexts. In this sense, the critical histories of geography discussed above have been pioneering in their methodological foundations and have produced empirically richer narratives. Pooling the concerns and approaches of these literatures suggests ways of progressing these debates and adding nuance. This project is in part a response to the observations raised within recent sociological accounts of geography. It advocates further empirically informed sociological research utilising conceptual frameworks, sites and methodological approaches similar to those of recent critical histories of the discipline. In so doing it seeks to begin to develop an empirical equivalence between these two literatures. For example, the analysis that follows explores cases where respondents have developed new areas of research in response to gatekeeping processes similar to those discussed by Demeritt above, and it assesses the significance of academic autonomy in creating new geographical knowledges. It builds upon these examples to tentatively speak of aggregate trends across the discipline revealed by the data amongst a host of other issues.

Analysis and discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The respondents to the survey were broadly reflective of British academic human geography in that they were predominantly male, middle aged and based in pre-1992 universities (Table 1) (Crang 2003). Whilst acknowledging the growing literature charting the inequities within the academic labour process and their relationships to gender, age, ethnicity and institutional context (Pandit 2004; Shelton 2005; Bauder 2006; O'Byrne 2011) space precludes anything but the briefest mention of these dimensions here. Without doubt the relationships between freedom to change and diversify research interests or, alternatively, pressures to do so, and these demographics would repay further research. There is, for example, evidence that women in academia spend less time on research compared with men in comparable positions (Carrigan et al. 2011, 137), although this finding is not specific to geography. In addition, women have been disadvantaged through the criteria used within national research assessment exercises (Crang 2003, 1715) and suffer an imbalance in applications for research grants, their likelihood of success and in research-based promotion systems (Klocker and Drozdzewski 2012). While it is not possible to explore this issue in any depth, this paper suggests that it is likely that the issue of research change, like many within the academic labour process, is gendered and unequal in other ways.

Table 1. Summary statistics
Male94 (69.1%)21–306 (4.4%)
Female42 (30.9%)31–4040 (29.4%)
  41–5059 (43.4%)
  51–6014 (10.3%)
  61+17 (12.5%)
What type of institution were you working in when you began to develop your new research area?When did you first start to develop this new area of research? 
Pre 1992 university93 (68.4%)Within the last year2 (1.5%)
Post 1992 university33 (24.3%)1–5 years ago67 (48.9%)
College/institute of higher education4 (2.9%)6–10 years ago27 (19.7%)
Other6 (4.4%)11–15 years ago19 (13.9%)
  15–20 years ago12 (8.8%)
  20+ years ago10 (7.3%)

The survey suggests that the research trajectories, of a significant minority at least, of British academic human geographers are anything but linear. While 69 respondents (50.3%) indicated that their new areas of research had developed within the last five years, the responses from many suggested that research change or diversification has been a characteristic of British academic human geography for many decades. Further, research change was recorded from respondents across all sub-disciplines of human geography and appears to have involved, in most cases, a major reorientation within their research work (Table 2), undermining any perception that it might primarily involve hobby or side-project research. Thus, research for many across the span of contemporary British academic human geography is characterised by discontinuity, diversity and bifurcation of research trajectories in addition to linearity and continuity.

Table 2. The nature of research change
Would you class this new research area as human geography? 
Yes – but is different to my main research area25 (18.2%)
Yes – but it also straddles disciplinary boundaries making links to cognate disciplines94 (68.6%)
No – it is in a discipline other than human geography7 (5.1%)
No – it is primarily pedagogic/educational research but focused on human geography/geography3 (2.2%)
Other8 (5.8%)
Which of the following would you say most accurately describes this new research area? 
A one off or small scale development with a limited time span and limited number of outputs that will not replace or affect your main research area in the long term14 (10.2%)
A substantial research interest (nearly equal to/equal to/or exceeding your main research area) that runs alongside your main research interest52 (38.0%)
A substantial research interest (nearly equal to/equal to/or exceeding your main research area) that has partly replaced your main research area31 (22.6%)
A substantial research interest (nearly equal to/equal to/or exceeding your main research area) that has wholly replaced your main research area24 (17.5%)
Other16 (11.7%)

There is a danger, however, that by focusing on change, underlying continuities become masked. Many respondents spoke of continuities between even seemingly disparate research areas or those across sub-disciplinary boundaries. It was rarer, although not entirely uncommon, to find no connections between respondents' various research areas:

Early research was historical geography of landscape and national identity. Now I work mainly in contemporary geographies of climate change and landscape, as well as work on creative writing and landscape. This has entailed a significant reorientation of theory and method even though the focus on landscape has remained the same.

Respondent 32

My research has always been eclectic, so not sure where to start, but on the other hand there are threads that connect it up, so on the other hand my research is consistent, and not really divisible into core and ‘new’.

Respondent 68

A porous, mobile discipline

The survey produced compelling evidence that both the boundaries between human geography and a range of cognate disciplines and human geography's own sub-disciplinary boundaries are extremely porous. The majority of respondents (94 or 68.6%) characterised their new areas of research as ‘human geography, but straddling disciplinary boundaries, making connections to cognate disciplines’. Disciplines cited included sociology, psychology, economics, design and technology, architecture, engineering and humanities. Reasons given for this interdisciplinarity included the influence of either current or past institutional contexts, an inherent valuing amongst respondents of interdisciplinarity and greater social relevance of interdisciplinary research compared with purely geographical research.

I don't do anything because it might or might not relate to a discipline, but because, in no particular order: it's interesting to me, I think it is important in some way, it's fun. I never at any point ask myself whether or not it's geography.

Respondent 51

I am more evolved as a social scientist now … We in the UK give lip service to multi-disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. I have a social commitment to ensure that my research has something to contribute to the lives of ‘distant others’ in India. Understanding the historical processes helps to engage meaningfully with the social, political and indeed environmental processes in the developing world.

Respondent 99

I work in a multi-disciplinary institute attached to a geography department, so in that sense there is lots of scope for me to do the work I want to … I prefer to see human geography as a distinct part of the broader social sciences, with lots in common with my sociological background. However, levels of engagement with my colleagues can be limited by different disciplinary parameters etc.

Respondent 14

I strongly believe interdisciplinary work is mostly given lip service and that there is little true and deep respect and understanding between the disciplines, and academics tend to still be precious about their disciplines and hold onto the boundaries and there is such suspicion of, disdain towards, even disregard of the methodologies, data, and so on of other disciplines, particularly other faculties.

Respondent 39

Whilst it is rare for conventional narratives of geography's history to exceed its formal boundaries, the responses to this survey speak of a discipline which routinely overlaps with a host of others in the generation of new geographical knowledge and whose boundaries, as practiced, appear to be far less clear-cut than is often supposed (Driver 1995, 413; Minca 2005, 168). However, interdisciplinarity does, on occasions, rub uneasily against the institutional and administrative structures of disciplines. This was noted by some respondents:

Interdisciplinarity and creative boundary crossings are encouraged on one level but discouraged in career terms.

Respondent 68

The majority of research change across all areas of human geography involved the crossing of sub-disciplinary boundaries. Within each sub-discipline at least 55% of respondents indicated that their research change had involved some crossing or spanning of sub-disciplinary boundaries. Although sub-disciplinary representations of geography are well established within many of its narratives and institutional forms (such as the organisation of the research groups of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)) they are actually a relatively recent development. Sidaway and Johnston (2007, 62) note that sub-disciplines emerged as an outcome of the specialisation of the discipline in the 1960s. Whilst often presented as a natural, universal division of knowledge, these responses highlight that the sub-disciplinary representations of geography are in fact recent, ‘positioned narratives’ (Purcell 2005, 178) that do not necessarily correspond to the realities of everyday practice.

Respondents originally working within cultural, economic and environmental geography did seem to show a greater propensity for sub-disciplinary boundary crossing than those elsewhere. Here the respective proportions who indicated that this was the case were 71.4%, 72.2% and 66%. Movement out of cultural geography was characterised predominantly by shifts into economic and social geography, reflective of the former's recent ‘cultural turn’ and the longstanding cognisance between social and cultural geography. However, the survey also revealed a number of institutional reasons underpinning these moves. The most commonly cited were related to spotting gaps in knowledge. There were also hints within the survey of concerns over the social relevance of cultural geography (Hamnett 2003), although these concerns were not solely restricted to cultural geography, and its relationships to the wider political-economies of the discipline and of contemporary higher education:

The switch was essentially political – I didn't feel cultural geography was engaged enough, and was reproducing the same (often obscure) arguments again and again. I wanted to carry some of the useful approaches of cultural geography to a more obviously socially relevant issue.

Respondent 93

Contemporary human geography is so theoretically driven that it appears divorced from so many real world issues. I find that engaging communities through history and local understanding is a far more productive way of making a difference to people's lives. I continue to believe in the importance of both ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research feeding into each other and enriching both. Theoretically based research is important but, in my opinion, by itself intellectually unrewarding unless connected to real world understanding.

Respondent 35

Geographers in the UK have to a large extent been far removed from the realities of the real world and have immersed themselves in a self promoting agenda of no social or global relevance. Thanks to the system of RAE and REFs, which promotes mediocrity at best. I must add that there are exceptions to this rule among a handful.

Respondent 99

A number of other respondents indicated that their moves away from cultural geography were prompted by the need to broaden teaching experience with a view to securing permanent employment, moving from working with theory to policy, difficulties getting published, a lack of funding opportunities and the effects of department restructuring and closure. Whilst certainly not restricted to cultural geography, these issues were cited less frequently with regard to other sub-disciplines. These responses echo the ‘gatekeeping decisions’ discussed by Demeritt (2000, 323) above. That this is having impacts on the unfolding nature of contemporary British human geography seems undeniable. There is tentative evidence that sustaining research careers within cultural geography in the UK is becoming more difficult, certainly for some, and that research trajectories are being shaped, in places, by pragmatic decisions related to securing positions within the British academic labour market rather than by purely disciplinary considerations. Also, although not emerging as an aggregate pattern within the data, there were echoes of these concerns within responses from some historical geographers.

The experience of economic geographers differed somewhat to that of cultural geographers. The largest single sub-disciplinary destination for this group was environmental geography (six respondents). This seems to reflect specific funding opportunities (the Economic and Social Research Council Science and Society programme was cited, for example) and the development of new research networks and contacts. Given the low numbers concerned (nine respondents) it is difficult to conclude anything emphatic about those respondents who diversified or changed their research from environmental geography except to note that their experience seems to contradict that of economic geographers who moved toward environmental geography.

An enduring, if fettered, autonomy

Despite the (tentative) suggestion above that some British cultural geographers are feeling the sharp end of the corporatisation of higher education, its colonisation of the lifeworlds of respondents appears to be anything but complete. Confirming suggestions in a number of recent sociologies of the discipline (Sidaway 1997; Heyman 2000; Ward nd) academics continue to exercise considerable autonomy over the shaping of their research careers. British human geographers are motivated to change their research or develop new interests for a variety of reasons. Of these, personal (101% or 73.7%) and disciplinary (80% or 58.4%) are the most important. By contrast, institutional reasons were cited by 52 respondents (38%) as motives for research change. Analysis of open responses confirmed the statistical impression that it was frequently a combination of personal and disciplinary motivations that underpinned research change. The most commonly cited specific reasons included identifying gaps in knowledge, recognising something that geographers had paid little attention to, and personal curiosity, interest or enthusiasm. For example:

I have never done a project that I wasn't interested in. I know this sounds slightly naive, but if I think something sounds interesting and I don't know the answer to a good question, then I'm happy to ‘go for it’ and try and set up a project.

Respondent 26

I have never been a person who has restricted myself to one area. I have pursued a number of different research areas during my career which follow from my intellectual curiosity and perception of knowledge gaps.

Respondent 37

A combination of personal curiosity (I kept thinking about something and thought it interesting) combined with realising that there was little current human geography and contemporary sociology that addressed or considered what I thought to be pressing political and disciplinary questions.

Respondent 82

Whilst institutional reasons appear less significant they were nonetheless cited by over a third of respondents. The need to secure funding was the most significant of these, being cited by 22 respondents, whilst for a number of others their research change was prompted by the need to align more closely with departmental or institutional research priorities. Thus, whilst institutional reasons appear less significant than personal and disciplinary motivations in aggregate terms, it would seem that for many the pursuit of personal interests and disciplinary contributions is contingent, to a degree at least, on their alignment with a range of institutional imperatives. Autonomy then endures and remains an important factor shaping the creation of new geographical knowledges, but this is far from a universal and unfettered autonomy:

I believe this is a topic geographers can contribute to and existing theoretical tools can be used in analysis but in a new empirical context. The topic of sustainability also fits with my institution's research priorities.

Respondent 44

Two reasons: (1) recognising a gap in knowledge in the new area; (2) the new area is also, in honesty, opportunistic. That is, recognising an area that has a greater potential for funding (both hard and soft money) than my primary research areas.

Respondent 86

The negotiations between the personal and institutional emerged as a particular issue for respondents who had conducted research in international settings. International fieldwork is inherently more demanding in terms of costs, possibly language issues, and the need to spend extended periods away from home which may conflict with family circumstances. In some cases respondents indicated that these factors had prompted shifts towards more local, manageable and affordable research. Often though there remained a conceptual link between original (international) and new (local) research despite their different geographical locations:

Work on memory and heritage was again prompted by personal interest in the places around me and the development of wider academic debates in memory. I worked on *** and *** – both places where I have lived. But this work was also (and much more) a reaction against the practical and funding difficulties of doing research in foreign countries and beyond one's first language. I find a paper on a UK topic in English takes only a third of the time and effort of work on overseas topics in foreign languages. Further, there are often small or no research costs – in marked contrast to overseas work. As my daily workloads increased, I wanted to develop a percentage of my research profile that was not quite so time, cost and labour intensive – and that was, frankly, easier all round. Hence I have worked on memory and heritage issues in the UK (although again, personal interest is part of this story – I've been lucky enough for much of the last 20 years to not do too much that doesn't interest me).

Respondent 45

The survey revealed a host of other factors that have prompted research change amongst respondents (Table 3). Although individually none was a major motivator of change in any aggregate sense, taken together they reveal the multiple factors and contingencies that shape the day-to-day research practices of human geographers and their evolution into longer-term research agendas. They highlight the value of the work of critical historians of the discipline who have sought to place such contingencies and ‘small stories’ within the historical evolution of the discipline (Lorimer 2003; Hubbard et al. 2005; Barnes 2008).

Table 3. Additional motivations for research change
Personal factors

Specific personal experience

It's natural to have diverse research interests

Geographical move

Political motivation/desire to produce more socially relevant work

Personal commitment (such as religious conviction)

Desire for change/stuck in a research rut


Disciplinary factors

Specific developments within discipline/subject research environment

Invitations from colleagues

Opportunities to develop research networks

New theoretical insights which throw light on original work

Recognition of the dynamism of another area

Value interdisciplinary research

Came from a different discipline

Frustration with existing field

Able to demonstrate ideas to a wider realm

Institutional factors/political economy of higher education

Institutional/department restructuring

Demands of a specific job

Career needs/need to change or diversify career

Moving institutions/fitting in with new institution

Reactions to practical or funding difficulties associated with overseas fieldwork and/or language difficulties

Teaching links

(Largely) positive moves

The majority of respondents reported the impacts of research change to be overwhelmingly positive (Table 4). This was reflected in both statistical and open responses. However, there were a significant minority of respondents who were more ambivalent about the impacts of research change. This ambivalence either stemmed from the practical or intellectual challenges of maintaining diverse research strands or from external, often managerial, perceptions that research diversity did not correspond with epitomes of ideal research trajectories or that it potentially compromised departmental research foci:

I have struggled to keep on top of the relevant literatures for my various interests increasingly as the years have gone by … for most of us it is difficult (or impossible) to be international-class in a string of debates.

Respondent 45

Table 4. Impacts of research change
ImpactVery positivePositiveNeither positive nor negativeNegativeVery negative
Personal/identity53.3% (73)36.5% (50)10.2% (14)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)
Your career (overall)30.7% (42)41.6% (57)19.0% (26)8.8% (12)0.0% (0)
Your teaching27.2% (37)39.0% (53)32.4% (44)1.5% (2)0.0% (0)
Your department or institution14.7% (20)50.7% (69)32.4% (44)2.2% (3)0.0% (0)
Disciplinary impact14.0% (19)43.4% (59)38.2% (52)3.7% (5)0.7% (1)

I have been told many times that I should only focus on my *** [original research] – a model that implies academics are only very good at one thing. I view this as a management argument (and big science) for easy pigeon-holing rather than an academic one. In every other aspect of my job crossing boundaries has been nothing but positive. It has enabled me to see links and let students know, to view my [original] research from different perspectives as well as keep my mind fresh and open to new ideas from whatever academic source.

Respondent 87

On a personal level, respondents reported the maintenance of interest, feeling refreshed or liberated as a result of changing or diversifying their research. These responses highlighted again the endurance of a sense of autonomy amongst many academics, indeed in a small number of cases they could be interpreted as forms of resistance to the prevailing political-economy. There was a sense here of respondents occupying something akin to the ‘paradoxical spaces’ (Rose 1999 in Klocker and Drozdzewski 2012, 1274) noted earlier:

For me and my identity doing a lot of very different things has been hugely liberating both in that I am confronting new intellectual challenges, hugely varied new audiences and very different media and publication opportunities. As I have the attention span of a gnat, this helps. It also feeds into teaching practice in positive ways, both in terms of performance practice and substantive material.

Respondent 51

The shift in focus has kept me interested in my research and satisfied that I am moving forward and pushing myself rather than staying within the boundaries of what I already know. Reading new literatures and working in new research contexts is both challenging and exciting. It has definitely benefitted me intellectually in terms of maintaining motivation.

Respondent 65

I like the work now and get excited about it.

Respondent 115

I have no career worth speaking of – to quote Steve Biko, ‘I write what I like’. As a life-long contrarian I confidently predict that I will continue to write annoying and unsaleable material until retirement.

Respondent 66

Positive impacts on teaching were frequently cited by respondents. In the majority of cases they reflected students' enthusiastic responses to materials based on new research areas.

Students love to talk about this stuff and have been gravitating to it for dissertations and papers; the department doesn't really care as long as stuff is in the top line journals or a book and [I] am getting a few citations to the work.

Respondent 115

Elsewhere responses suggested a relationship between teaching and research which was more mutually constitutive. In some cases teaching seemed to have some influence in shaping research change. Here respondents talked of research change and diversification reflecting, and in some cases responding to, the teaching priorities of departments and on a few occasions helping to secure employment. In other cases, largely, but not exclusively, where respondents had developed pedagogic research interests, research change was influenced or grew directly out of teaching practice.

I've always been interested in pedagogic research and I see it as my responsibility as a lecturer to improve my knowledge so that I may improve my teaching. The department that I'm in is also very supportive of this research, providing me with opportunities.

Respondent 24

Whilst career enhancement was not explicitly articulated as a motivation for undertaking research change it did emerge more strongly as an impact. Typically this revolved around research change enhancing opportunities for publications and accessing funding which benefited career progression. In addition, the expansion of collaborative opportunities and research networks were also mentioned.

I found I had hit a productive vein of research which brought me a university research centre, lots of research grants, publications and consultancy. A dream for certain kinds of academic (nightmare for others).

Respondent 11

I think showing that I worked across different disciplines … worked well for me in terms of promotion, it was a narrative that people understood and was needed at the time in institutions. As a result I was head hunted for a chairs and then *** [institution] matched it. This would not have happened if I had stayed narrowly in *** geography.

Respondent 70

Running counter to this narrative of career enhancement, however, was a smaller, albeit emphatic, set of responses highlighting tensions between research change and career progression. These responses highlighted the difficulties of maintaining research momentum in multiple, often discrete, research areas (see also Sidaway 1997, 495) and the widely held perception that research diversity dilutes the research profiles of individuals (and potentially, departments). Here tensions emerged between the peripatetic research activities of some respondents and those measures of research productivity becoming increasingly embedded within the management of British, and international, higher education (Demeritt 2000):

In career terms and disciplinary impact it might be that I haven't really pushed on and developed a profile in one particular area. I also worry about charges of opportunism, or lack of seriousness, if you move between research areas.

Respondent 18

A range of research foci also widens the breadth of grants that can be accessed. I think this breadth becomes less of a benefit over time, however. I have struggled to keep on top of the relevant literatures for my various interests increasingly as the years have gone by and our collective (and my personal) workloads have increased. I now want to conclude most of my research foci (although this takes years) so that I can focus on one or two more manageably. This disciplinary impact especially is hindered by research that spans different areas … Focusing on one debate and research area is probably a wise strategy as one's career develops (with perhaps two at most – to demonstrate range and flexibility, especially in more unfashionable fields – like historical geography).

Respondent 45

I like having two research areas and like being able to work with very different materials, methods etc. I'd be bored doing one area, I think. But I'm fairly sure my career has suffered, at least a little, because I split my energies between them; it takes time to switch because they are so different. I've been told in appraisals that having these two topics makes me look unfocused – especially outside geography, where I'm doubly weird :) I think promotion is based on doing one thing really well, at least at my institution. I also wish I'd picked at least one mainstream topic, rather than two obscure ones.

Respondent 128

A sense of ambivalence also emerged around the reception and impacts of research change within departments and institutions. There were many instances of respondents reporting positive experiences in this regard which included forging new connections with departmental colleagues, the enhancement of departmental expertise and research profile, positive publicity, the development of new departmental research initiatives and, in some cases, research groups and centres. However, these contrasted with examples of departmental indifference, even hostility, where it was perceived that research change weakened departmental profiles, research assessment submissions, or diluted research foci. Elsewhere some respondents reported departmental or institutional indifference towards the specific contents of new research providing it addressed more generic research assessment, income generation or publication targets. The following examples illustrate this range of responses:

*** [institution] loves it … I'm going to be the first recipient of the new super-duper web-sites for their resident ‘experts’. Everyone leaves me alone because they assume I have better things to do.

Respondent 79

Departmentally, initial reaction to anything I do is very, very negative, but mellows as certain individuals learn (slowly) that impact does not equate to tedious journal articles no-one will ever read. At present they are neutral.

Respondent 51

In terms of career or my department it has been neither positive nor negative. I have had no support or guidance from other colleagues; the new research is very much driven by any quality time I can find outside of teaching/'legitimate' research/writing interests.

Respondent 110

Unfortunately the institution is more concerned with publications and research income than interest in a particular discipline.

Respondent 10

These responses point to some apparent contradictions in the nature and impacts of the administrative infrastructure that overlays British academic human geography. At times this appears to be highly directive in terms of the permissible research foci of staff, notwithstanding the endurance of significant autonomy noted above, and at other times or in other places indifferent. Beyond noting this unevenness it is difficult, at the moment, to conclude anything concrete about its impacts on the generation of new geographical knowledge with the British higher education system. However, these responses do seem to provide evidence of the growing influence, albeit in different ways in different places, of research assessment goals (Castree 2006).

Despite emerging as a statistically less significant impact than those discussed above, respondents did frequently discuss the disciplinary impacts of research change. These responses covered disparate sets of issues rather than any singular narrative of disciplinary impact. Within these responses the issues raised included facilitating inter- or cross-disciplinary dialogues, the benefits of developing a broad theoretical context, new research throwing light on original areas, enhancing the role of geography in what are seen as non-geographical areas, shaping disciplinary agendas and making contributions to disciplinary histories and self-awareness. While some of these impacts are potentially inherent to most research areas, others seem to specifically reflect the effects of moving between different research areas. They highlight, for example, the broadening of perspectives, integrating diverse theoretical, methodological or empirical positions or moving across conventional sub-disciplinary or disciplinary boundaries. Whereas it does not require the innovation of new research areas to achieve these impacts they would appear more likely or explicitly developed where researchers have moved across disciplinary terrains.

Finally, some respondents spoke of the benefits of extra-disciplinarity, of their research taking them beyond geographical constituencies. These included both the impacts of research on areas such as policy, media coverage, specific communities and society generally, but also a range of benefits such as working with established researchers in other disciplines, the novelty of being the only geographer within research networks and working within fields seen as more significant or held in higher regard than human geography. Whilst the extra-disciplinarity of human geography has been acknowledged within recent critical accounts (Driver 1995), there have as yet been few substantive accounts of ‘geography beyond geography’ and the reciprocities within this relationship. Although intuitively it might seem that extra-disciplinarity is a more likely consequence for human geographers with shifting or diverse research interests, they are clearly neither necessarily inherent nor limited to them. The whole area of extra-disciplinarity within/of human geography is one that would repay more extensive investigation.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The findings of this survey reveal both specific aspects of the diverse and changeable research practices characteristic of many British human geographers and more general processes of geographical knowledge production. They add empirical detail to recent sociologies of the discipline, confirming aspects of these literatures such as the importance of gatekeeping processes in the shaping of the discipline and the endurance of a somewhat fettered autonomy amongst academic geographers. However, they also suggest a range of other issues that deserve further investigation, such as the porous nature of geography's internal and external boundaries and the sheer diversity of personal institutional and disciplinary factors shaping contemporary geography and their relative importance. They also point, albeit tentatively, in their mentions of unfashionable sub-disciplines, towards the uneven impacts of the corporatisation of higher education across the discipline. This project has, then, made a small contribution to evolving accounts of the discipline that situate the production of geographical knowledge within a range of contexts which exceed the purely intellectual.

Geography as a discipline globally faces many challenges (Smith 2000); these appear to be particularly pressing in the context of English universities (Castree 2011) and British higher education more generally. Castree has challenged geographers to make their own futures in the face of these challenges. This paper suggests that, to an extent, they have been doing this for some time. It is primarily personal and disciplinary factors that are encouraging research change amongst the human geographers who responded to this survey. They appear to be deploying their remaining autonomy in the shaping of their research trajectories and could be seen to be responding to the various challenges that Castree and others have outlined. For example, many respondents spoke of the positive impacts their research changes have had on their teaching practice, enthusing students and broadening their intellectual horizons. Changes to the higher education fees regime are likely to bring the nature of the teaching–research nexus into sharper focus within institutions. Refreshing teaching, maintaining student enthusiasm and underpinning teaching with original, relevant geographical knowledges will become increasingly important as students are asked to pay up to £9000 per year from 2012 for a university education in England and Wales3. Human geography, on the basis of the results of this research, appears to be a very mobile discipline and thus well placed to meet this challenge. Similarly, many respondents to this survey appear to have reacted in inventive ways to the increasing challenges of securing research funding. This has included moving into more applied areas and forming multidisciplinary teams, often, for example, with environmental scientists, in ways that have secured the sustainability of research funding for human geography work at times of increasing funding austerity for the social sciences.

In part, Castree's (2011) call to geography and geographers was to be organised in their responses to the challenges they face. The responses discussed here speak of more disorganised, individual agencies across the discipline but ones which collectively provide a reserve which might be usefully and repeatedly drawn upon to negotiate the increasingly challenging institutional contexts of British geography. This survey suggests it is important to acknowledge both the potentials of the organised responses advocated by Castree and the more diffuse agencies demonstrated here, the ways in which they might be connected and related and the challenges involved in potentially aligning these in the negotiation of geography's immediate futures.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Many thanks to all those who responded to the survey upon which this research is based and for their enthusiasm for the project. Aspects of this research were discussed in the panel session ‘When is a geographer not a geographer? On changing and diversifying ones research’ at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference in Edinburgh (July 2012). Thanks to Ed Brown, Sally Eden, Anna McLauchlan, Jon May and Alison Stenning for their excellent contributions to that session, to Pauline Couper for co-convening the session and to the audience members for their contributions. Many thanks also to James Sidaway, Klaus Dodds (the editor of The Geographical Journal) and the anonymous referees for their constructive criticism of an earlier draft of this work.

  1. 1

    Geography departments/units were identified as those where geography was taught as a named undergraduate award and which appeared on the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) database of departments. The paper recognises, however, that what constitutes a geography department is not unproblematic as now many are multidisciplinary units (see Hall and Toms 2012). It also recognises that many geographers are employed in non-geography departments, sites where a significant amount of, often unacknowledged, geographical knowledge is produced (see Johns 2012).

  2. 2

    The extent to which these experiences are reflective of more general experiences is unclear from these data. A degree of sample bias might be in evidence here. In self-identifying as having changed or diversified their research and, thus not reflective of ‘ideal’ career trajectories, the respondents to this survey might be inherently more likely to display degrees of ambivalence towards the instruments of corporate higher education, such as research assessment exercises.

  3. 3

    These fees apply also to English, Welsh and Northern Irish students studying at Scottish universities.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: the personal and the normative
  4. The research
  5. Critical disciplinary narratives: histories and sociologies
  6. Analysis and discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References
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