Engaging geography

i. background & purposes

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In recent years geographers have begun to explore the work of Michael Burawoy (2005), the rise of ‘public sociology’, and the forms any ‘public geography’ might take (Ward, 2005, 2006; Castree, 2006; Fuller and Askins, 2007; Fuller, forthcoming). Public sociology ‘brings sociology into a conversation with publics, understood as people who are themselves involved in conversation’ (Burawoy, 2005: 263) and has two main sub-forms – ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’. The former includes the production of books by sociologists that are read by those ‘beyond the academy’; newspaper articles and column writing, where sociologists comment on matters of ‘public importance’; and/or journalists acting as a conduit, playing a key role in shifting academic research into the public realm. In all these traditional forms the public sociologist gets things started, acts as a catalyst, but does not necessarily get involved. In contrast, in the latter (organic) form work is undertaken ‘in close connection with a visible, thick, active, local and often counter-public’, engaging in ‘dialogue’, or what Burawoy terms ‘a process of mutual education’ (2005: 264-5). Whilst there are possible examples of ‘traditional’ public geography, including ‘classics’ such as Bunge (1971) and Harvey (1973) alongside more recent public-ly oriented works by Gould (1990; 1993), Monmonier (1996), Harvey (2003), Retort (2004) Smith (2005), Diamond (2005), all of which emphasise the potential importance of style and strategy as much as substance in reaching out and engaging with publics (Castree, 2006; Fuller, forthcoming), much organic public geography (like organic public sociology) remains hidden from view, not least as a consequence (according to Burawoy) of days being filled with the undertaking of such activities, leaving little time to actually document them. Burawoy notes that a key task of any public sociology, then, is to ‘make visible the invisible, to make the private public, [and] to validate these organic connections as part of our sociological life…’ because such organic work is often treated as ‘private’, ‘invisible’ and/or separate from ‘our professional lives’ (ibid.). It is no coincidence therefore that it is in this more ‘organic’ sense that there has been some cohesion (and increasing appetite) around explorations of what constitutes new public geographies (Chilvers et al, 2006), increasing awareness of such engaging interventions as the People’s Geography Project, the Open University’s ‘Interdependence Day’ project, the Living Wage Campaign, and the development and recognition of a wide variety of ‘alternative’ forms of engagement and dissemination practice (including, for example, video work, radio broadcasts, interactive websites, podcasts, blogs, pamphlets, sticker campaigns and so on).

This seminar series strives to dramatically extend awareness, and understanding of the myriad ways in which geographers can (and do) engage with publics, and extend the potential for further meaningful engagements. It has the following main aims and objectives:

  • To make visible the invisible, to make the private public, [and] to validate the organic connections of these ‘new public geographies’ which can be characterised as being animated by, and representative of, an attitude, a position, an outlook, a stance or perspective of how to do geographies that engage, at least, if not more than what those geographies should actually be concerned with, issue-wise;
  • To encourage debate around, and furtherance of public geographies as strategic, overt, visible, authenticating, recognising, unrestrained, communicative, engaging, and necessarily outreaching. In striving to achieve this aim the series as a whole has the following key objectives:
  • To explore how best to connect and engage with a variety of publics;
  • To explore practical ways of enhancing a multi-faceted, effective and mutually beneficial programme of engagement, dialogue, mutual education and dissemination of geographical knowledge;
  • To reflect on the degree, meaningfulness and quality of public interaction, the extent to which anyone might actually want to a) listen to what academics/geographers have to say or interact with what they do, and b) respond to it, and to identify the best ways, approaches and practical examples of effecting such interactions; and
  • To identify and explore the potential for mutually beneficial links with different publics, the forms of approach, ways of doing, and more and less appropriate forms of engagement in each case, and to capacity build the resultant network and introduce new members, both new and more established, who would take the identified agenda forward through a number of future funded projects, interventions and activities.

This seminar series, therefore, will embody the need for interaction, engagement and conversation that underpins public geography as a whole, and will play a key role in furthering the ability of, potential for, and desire for geographers playing a role ‘out there’ with public(s) in years to come.


Written by Ian Cook et al

September 2, 2008 at 9:16 pm

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