Four Years a Geographer

In September 2013 I stepped from the world of design history into the world of geography. Having completed an MA in the history of design at the Royal College of Art I began a PhD in the UCL Department of Geography. As I prepared to start my PhD I both relished and feared the potential of detailed discussions about spatial and social theory, was intrigued as to how my historical training would sit within a community largely concerned with contemporary issues, and felt empowered to introduce geographers to the potential of material analysis. Four years later I have completed my PhD and would readily call myself a historical geographer (yes that is a thing!). Although actually less able to provide a cohesive definition of what the academic study of geography is and having faced more opposition about the role of material analysis within geographical research than I anticipated, I am more certain than ever that the combination of design historical and geographical approaches can provide fruitful methodologies.

Having attended that Royal Geographical Society with Institute of British Geographers’ (RGS-IBG) annual conference last week I have been reflecting on my past four years of geographical study, specifically thinking about the differences between what I thought of geography when I started my PhD and now. Therefore, this post draws on my reflections on the 2017 RGS-IBG to reach some conclusions about my past four years as a design historian come historical geographer. What have I learnt about geography? What do I think design history can contribute to geographical research? How can geographical research contribute to design history?

Geographers don’t privilege theory as much as I thought. 

Design historians are no strangers to geographical concepts. Most design historians are well aware of the spatial debates within geography and regularly draw on geographical applications of the ideas of Henri Lefebve, Michel de Certeau and Michel Foucault. Indeed, the debt that design history owes to geography’s theoretical frameworks has often led design historians to conclude that geographers are principally tied to theoretical ideas and prize theory above empirical research. This is not the case. Many papers at the RGS-IBG explore empirical research via important spatial theories. However, while many of the papers I heard at last year’s Design History Society’s annual conference were peppered with direct references to specific spatial theorists, these ideas appear to be internalized and accepted principals within geographical research and are therefore hardly worth acknowledging (let alone name checking!).

Geographers still find archives daunting.

I have been surprised by how many of my PhD compatriots conducting contemporary research have also undertaken archival explorations. However, despite the huge field of historical geography and its innovative engagement with historical material, I have also become aware of how many of my colleagues researching contemporary topics are nervous about heading into the archives and are often unsure about what archival research actually is. On several occasions I have been asked: what you do in the archive, how you know what to look at, how you know you have looked at enough material, what you do with the material once you have collected it? etc. etc. etc. These questions bewildered me, surely archival research is much like contemporary fieldwork? You go, you observe, you identify patterns and construct arguments? However, I realised that the combination of time periods (stretching all the way to the contemporary) undertaken by my fellow students on the RCA History of Design MA had unsettled any distinction I might have previously placed between the historical archive and contemporary field work. Potentially because design historians tend to work with physical things, I think they are particularly adept at thinking about all the material they collect during their research as an archive and effectively engage with it as a body of research material, while continuing to identify each pieces’ specificities. Therefore, I have learnt to direct confused geography PhD students to design historical research that often effectively demonstrates how to simultaneously engage with historical and contemporary archives.

Geographers are much more self-reflexive than historians.

 Maybe because geographers tend to conduct research with contemporary subjects and communities and the resulting necessity of clearing research with university ethic boards, geographers are often more open about the reasons why they are conducting particular research and the problems their personal ideas and perspectives pose in their research projects. This reflexivity is of course not always a good thing. There are moments when geographers’ concerns for their positionality can result in therapy-esc discussions of researchers’ concerns and fears about their inability to be neutral within their research context. However, subtle reflections on historians’ research processes and positioning could be beneficial. I am sure that most (design) historians regularly ask themselves questions like why am I conducting this research? Do the things that I study speak to/contradict/unsettle a world view/aesthetic taste/personal memory I hold dear? Are their periods of time I am drawn to/avoid because of these attitudes? However, (design) historians rarely overtly discuss the personal answers to these questions and geographers’ discussions have made me ask why this is and what could we benefit from being more honest with each other about the motivations behind our research choices?

Geographers are often ambivalent about material culture studies.

 One of the most surprising things that I have found about working within a geography department and engaging with geographers has been the ambivalence they show towards material sources. Perhaps this is a result of moving from a design history department where it is taken from granted that material things are useful and credible sources. In contrast geographers can be suspicious of discussions about material culture, surprised and occasionally flummoxed when asked questions about material aspects of their research topics, and can often discuss the ‘materiality’ of various subject matters without at any detailed analysis of the physical design or material qualities of the subjects they are considering. Nevertheless, despite the ambivalence I have experienced towards material things within geographical research, I have also engaged with various geographers who wholeheartedly appreciate the importance of studying material things and are innovatively engaging design within their research methodologies to develop geographical research.

(Those who are interested might want to have a look at the Making Suburban Faith project (https://makingsuburbanfaith.wordpress.com/) and two articles already published online, which will become a special section of Area looking into the place of material culture within historical geography research: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/area.12378/full and http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/area.12345/full )

Four years on…

More generally the past four years have shown me that geography can be anything you want it to be. Geography’s human-physical divide resulted in me studying alongside students interested in topics as a broad as climate change, walking in the city, photosynthesis, expatriates and the role of social media in the 2015 election. Attending departmental lunchtime seminars and geography conferences also showed me how subjects such as material culture, spatial theory and self-reflection often provoke polarised responses from human geographers working in similar fields. This is perhaps a result of the diversity of approaches and methodologies used within geographical research.

Indeed, although geographers studying contemporary subjects remain nervous about conducting archival research and there is a prevailing ambivalence about material approaches within geographical research, geographers conduct archival research and engage with material sources more than I anticipated. In combination with geography’s breadth, openness and willingness to develop, this has resulted in geographical studies not only absorbing design historical and anthropological approaches to archival and material research, but also beginning to further develop these ideas with fruitful results. Therefore, design historians need to think beyond how geographical uses of spatial frameworks can help them analyse historical material practices and need to engage with how geography is now pushing the boundaries of historical and material research.

© Ruth Slatter, 2017