Innovations in Southern Studies within Geography

Article excerpt

In the late 1930s, the Committee on Geographic Research of the National Research Council and the Association of American Geographers developed the "Southern Studies Project." The Project proposed to use geographical research to address economic, social, and political problems in the southeastern United States. It was a response to the poverty, racism, and other problems exposed by and made worse by the Great Depression as well as a disciplinary push to advance and develop innovative field-based techniques and methods. Before being abandoned at the start of World War II, the Southern Studies Project had coordinated a number of geographers across the country and received funding from the National Research Council to provide a spatial perspective on the "employment situation" in the region. There were even plans to devote a regular session of the AAG program every year to papers that would report results from the Project. Lamenting what might have happened "if war had not diverted attention to other matters," Preston James called the Southern Studies Project a mere "paragraph in the history of American geography" (James 1974, p 1). While the specific institutional effort to promote southern studies was short-lived, the sub-field certainly did not die within geography.

Over the past several decades, a significant amount of work has addressed the American South, both as a setting for case studies and theoretical applications and as its own subject of inquiry (Wheeler and Brunn 2004). There is not sufficient room here to chronicle all of the meaningful work done by geographers of the South, but readers will probably recognize the most prominent contributions. These include, but are not restricted to, the agricultural geography and rural landscape studies of John Fraser Hart (1976); Judith Carney's (2001) research on the African origins of rice cultivation; the work of Merle Prunty (1955), Charles Aiken (1998) and John Rehder (1999) on the evolution of the southern plantation; Alken's (2009) additional work on the geographies of William Faulkner's writings; Sam Hilliard's (1972) analysis of food ways; explorations of southern cultural sub-regions and landscape artifacts by Karl Raitz (1984), Terry Jordan-Bychkov (2003), and Fred Kniffen (1968); studies of the historical geography of New Orleans by Peirce Lewis (2003) and Craig Colten (2005); the critical study of race by Bobby Wilson (2000), Richard Schein (2006), and Clyde Woods (1998) and Latino/immigrant issues by Thomas Boswell (1993), Altha Cravey (2003), Jamie Winders (2005), and Heather Smith and Owen Furuseth (2006); research on political geography, iconography, and religion by Gerald Ingalls (1997); Jonathan Leib (1995), Gerald Webster (2002), and Stan Brunn (2000); the industrial geography studies of Merrill Johnson (1997); and the analysis of gender and women's economic strategies in Appalachia by Ann Oberhauser (1995).

No list of important southern studies scholars in geography is complete without mentioning James Wheeler of the University of Georgia, noted for his research on the changing economic and urban geography of the South (Wheeler and Brown 1985; Wheeler 1992; Gong and Wheeler 2007). For twelve years, Wheeler served as editor of The Southeastern Geographer, working with many authors, including us, to publish their work on the South. This special issue is dedicated to Jim, who passed away in December 2010.

The Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers (SEDAAG) has played a major role in advancing our understanding of the southern geographic experience beyond simply publishing The Southeastern Geographer. SEDAAG's Southern Studies Committee, one of the Division's longest standing committees, sponsors special paper sessions and panels at annual meetings every November. Membership on the Committee is by invitation and recent additions are part of a larger goal of broadening the organization in terms of age, gender, race, and intellectual approach. …