As geographers recently abroad, we have come to the sad realization that the United States is increasingly perceived as a mighty global power crippled by ignorance of its vast global sphere of influence. To address this problem, the American Geographical Society (AGS) is sponsoring expeditions, named in honor of former AGS Director Isaiah Bowman, who served as geographer for Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Informing the public and the U.S. government about world geography has long been a mission of the AGS, and now the Society renews this commitment.
The AGS Bowman Expeditions prototype began in Mexico in 2005 (LJWorld.com 2006; Herlihy and others 2007); other expeditions have begun to the Antilles, Colombia, and Jordan. These initial expeditions are funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). Simply stated, the AGS sends a team of geographers to a selected foreign region, where, in order to increase U.S. and international understanding of that region, it gathers cultural and physical GIS data, conducts original research on a geographical topic chosen by the lead investigator, builds collaborative relationships with foreign scholars and institutions, and reports findings in scholarly journals and popular media. Most fundamentally, the concept of the AGS Bowman Expeditions is based on the belief that geographical understanding is essential for maintaining peace, resolving conflicts, and providing humanitarian assistance worldwide.
Troubled by intelligence failures, uninformed public debate, and related conflicts around the globe, AGS President Jerome Dobson "deplored the cost of geographic ignorance, measured in conflict" (2006a, 1; see also 2004, 20; 2005, 1; 2006b). He proposed the AGS Bowman Expenditions as a straightforward but ambitious plan to return geography to a more central place in higher education, science, and public policy circles. Past U.S. administrations relied on geographers in war and peace, and Dobson suggests that today's global and regional crises require new initiatives for geographical fieldwork and analysis. Regional geography and foreign-area studies are poised for a renaissance of relevance in a world fraught with intelligence failures, international misunderstandings, ethnic conflicts, terrorism, natural disasters, and other challenges to peace and prosperity.
In this report we describe the background, development, and methodology of the AGS Bowman Expedition prototype, Mexico Indigena, led by a multinational team of Latin Americanist geographers, ourselves among them. Our experience recalls the time when geography and geographers played greater roles in U.S. government affairs and demonstrates the need for a digital regional geography.
The concept of the AGS Bowman Expeditions resurrects the early-twentieth-century notion of open access geographical intelligence, when the U.S. government worked closely with geographers to better understand the world. Forerunners in bridging the divide between academic geographers and the government, the AGS has a distinguished tradition of assisting the U.S. government in great enterprises, including Arctic exploration, the first transcontinental railroad, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and the Panama Canal (Wright 1952). During World War I, President Wilson commissioned the AGS to run a massive analysis of wartime foreign intelligence ("the Inquiry"), and the Society was also responsible for drafting his famous Fourteen Points for peace negotiations (N. Smith 2003). In addition, the AGS sponsored significant geographical exploration, scholarship, and mapping of Latin America (Bowman 1946).
The discipline of geography entered the U.S. academy late: The first university department was not established until 1907. The fledgling discipline was thrust onto the world stage during World War I and came of age during World War II (Wright 1952; Stone 1979, 95; N. …