Is Everyone a Geographer?

Blog Post created by jkerski-esristaff Employee on Jun 15, 2012
In my last column, I raised the question about whether a travel column would look different authored from the perspective of a geographer or geospatial professional versus a column authored from the perspective of a journalist. I stated that some similarities surely exist but there are likely to be some key differences. This discussion raises a larger issue: Are all travel writers really geographers? Are all travelers essentially geographers? And, more broadly: With the advent of easy to use geotechnologies that have enabled the general public to use many of the same tools and data that were formerly only used by GIS specialists, does that mean that everyone is now a geographer?

In the new book Practicing Geography , my colleagues and I wrote a chapter that asks this very question. These new capabilities reinvoke inherent tensions between the integrity of the field of geography as a discrete academic discipline, on the one hand, and its generalist appeal on the other hand. Although this tension within geography is not new—William Morris Davis reacted to it over one hundred years ago (Schulten 2001)—geography may have never been more prominent within the everyday human experience than it is today

I contend that geography is a three-legged stool. One of the legs of the stool represents deep and rich content knowledge that has accumulated across the millennia but also is forward-looking—envisioning how the world could and should be. The content knowledge includes that about specific places, processes, and phenomena. Another of the legs represents geographic skills—working with scale, maps, imagery, databases, graphs, space and time, movement, dispersion, fieldwork, regions from cultural regions to ecoregions, different perspectives, human-environment interaction, interpreting the past and present and planning for the future, and many more. The skills are used in low tech and high tech situations ranging from interpreting paper maps to operating field probes and performing geoprocessing operations within a GIS environment. The last leg represents the spatial perspective—the unique place-based framework that all geographers bring to any problem that they examine. The spatial perspective is holistic; it is systems-based.

What are your thoughts about this topic: Isn’t everyone a geographer? And, what about the increasing number of professionals outside who are incorporating spatial thinking and GIS into their work—in business, history, mathematics, design, biology, engineering and other fields. Are they geographers? Do they need to be geographers? If not, what geographic content knowledge, skills, and perspective do they need to have in order to be effective in their own fields?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

Schulten, S. 2001. The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.