Why Not in My Back Yard? Field-Based Physical Geography Research in the Southeast

Article excerpt

Observations that submissions of physical geography research to the Southeastern Geographer have been low prompted us to question if the Southeast is understudied by physical geographers relative to other regions. We reviewed over 7,000 articles in eleven journals to estimate the frequency and types of field-based research being done. We also reviewed the online publication lists of physical geographers living in the Southeast to determine where they conduct their research. Based on the journal articles reviewed, 72% of the field sites were in international locations. Of the 28% that used U.S. field sites, only 8.4% (2. 3% of the total) were in the Southeast. Given that the Southeast makes up over 12% of the land area and is home to 37% of the geography programs in the U.S., the concentration of research in the area is low. Aside from being understudied, field-based research in the Southeast is also unevenly distributed. North Carolina and Georgia were the most studied states. North Carolina was the most frequently used location for geomorphology studies and Tennessee was cited most often for biogeography. Kentucky and South Carolina were the least studied states. Few researchers from states outside the SEDAAG region come into the Southeast to conduct research. At the same time, a significant portion of the research efforts of geographers living in the Southeast have been put toward field sites in other states and countries. The resulting lack of focus on the unique environments of the Southeast is limiting our knowledge of the region.

KEY WORDS: physical geography, southeastern U.S., field research, research trends, representation


Self-reflection is common among geographers (Moss 1979; Baker and Twidale 1991; Brunn 1997; Rediscovering Geography Committee 1997; Guy, 1999; Orme 2000; Cutter et al. 2002; Thrift 2002; Ferguson 2003). The exercise of self-examination helps us to contextualize the evolution of our discipline and, to a limited extent, predict and shape its future. This article developed out of comments by the new editors of the Southeastern Geographer about a relative dearth of physical geography articles in the journal (Lecce and Alderman this issue). Although a multidisciplinary journal, the Southeastern Geographer has, in practice, been mostly an outlet for research in human geography. On an annual basis, physical papers have averaged only about 20% of the journal's articles. After rising to about 40% during the late 1980s and early 1990s physical papers are again in sharp decline, falling to about 17% for the past five years (Lecce and Alderman this issue). The number of submissions is slightly below the norm when compared to the number of physical geographers in southeastern departments, which averages about 26% of faculty in geography departments.

Given this, we began to wonder if the relative dearth of submissions of physical geography articles to the Southeastern Geographer is indicative of field-based physical geography activity in the Southeast as a whole. This paper is focused around, and attempts to address, some of the questions that we began to ask: Is the Southeast studied by physical geographers as much as other regions in the U.S.? What places in the Southeast are most and least studied? Who is doing research in the Southeast and what are southeastern geographers doing? None of these questions are particularly easy to answer, but addressing them may lead to an improved understanding of the presence of southeastern physical geography in the larger discipline.

Graf (1984) referred to the Southeast as an invisible region of American geomorphology, citing the early lack of major universities in the south as a reason for the historically few geomorphology research projects conducted in the region. More directly important than the lack of universities would have been the associated scarcity of geomorphologists in the area (Costa and Graf 1984). …