Academic journal article Geography

125 Years of the Geographical Association

Academic journal article Geography

125 Years of the Geographical Association

Article excerpt


On 20 May 1893, a dozen men gathered in the New Common Room at Christ Church, Oxford, to establish what was to become the Geographical Association (GA). The meeting was called by Halford (later Sir Halford) Mackinder and Douglas Freshfield (who would shortly quit the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) over its refusal to admit women) and attended by ten others, who were mostly public school teachers. Therefore, 2018 is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the GA, a cause for celebration and critical reflection.

The inaugural General Meeting of the GA was held in December 1894 at the Royal Colonial Institute in London (the GA's first corporate member). The record shows that four key questions were discussed: Should geography exam papers be set by experts? Should physical geography be an essential feature of a geography course? Should knowledge of the whole world be required or more detailed regional knowledge? and Should geography be a compulsory school subject? To varying degrees, these questions are all still relevant today in the context of recent reforms to GCSE and A-level geography; the increasing specialisation of geographical knowledge within as well as between human and physical geography; debates about the decolonisation of geographical knowledge; and persistent questions about the place of geography in the school curriculum.

It is, of course, a daunting task to review the history of the discipline over more than a century, covering human and physical geography, core skills, key concepts and methodological trends. Readers might be expecting a history of geography (as a discipline) and an account of changes in geographical education (its pedagogical principles and practices), emphasising key events and institutions, and focusing on leading figures, academic trends and seminal publications. However, these 'internal' factors need to be balanced by an understanding of the wider social context that shapes the intellectual environment in which our disciplinary history has evolved.

All this is to justify my refusal to attempt to write a comprehensive or definitive history of the GA - an impossible task in my judgment. An alternative approach, taking a lead from the inaugural meeting of the Association, is to ask a series of rhetorical questions: What kind of history do we need to review the past and prepare for the future? What principles of inclusion or exclusion should be used? What would be its scope, both in narrow disciplinary terms and in terms of the wider social context? This is still a near-impossible task, but one that is slightly more tractable than aiming for an all-inclusive historical survey. Thus, the approach I have adopted is loosely chronological, identifying some key moments and episodes in the development of the discipline including the role of the GA as an institutional force in shaping this history, while noting significant continuities and discontinuities between the discipline's past and present.


Some excellent resources are available to help trace our disciplinary history. They include David Livingstone's landmark study of The Geographical Tradition (1992), which is organised around a series of key 'episodes'. Livingstone describes our disciplinary history as 'a contested enterprise' rather than a unitary project. While his work goes back to the Renaissance, in our 125-year period, Livingstone's episodes include the founding of the discipline; the relationship between geography, race and empire; the rise and fall of regional geography; and the debate over quantification.

Other valuable resources include The Dictionary of Human Geography (now in its fifth edition) (Gregory et al., 2011), and its twin volume, The Dictionary of Physical Geography (now in its fourth edition) (Thomas, 2016). Neither is a 'dictionary' in the conventional sense. Rather than attempting to provide concise definitions of key terms, each volume is organised as a series of open-ended essays, tracing the flow of 'words in motion', with an emphasis on debate and disciplinary contestation. …

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