Physical Geography: A Human Geographer’s Perspective

Physical geography: two words that have caused me endless amounts of dread pretty much since I first started studying Geography way back in year seven. Before starting my degree, I associated physical geography with fleeces, cargo pants, walking boots, technical jargon, equations and a multitude of other stereotypes you might think of. Two years into my degree, most of these stereotypes appear to hold true: you can tell a physical geographer from one who took all human modules in second year by their lecture attire; equations are distinctly absent from my all-human-module lecture slides; and physical dissertations being undertaken by my friends tick all the stereotypes cultivated from GCSE field trips (think rivers, volcanoes, beaches…).

But! This does not mean that the vast array of sub-disciplines within physical geography can be pinpointed to a small collection of hyperbolic exaggerations and simplistic dichotomies. Whilst the decision to take all three human papers during second year was honestly not in the least bit tough, and the thought of taking a physical paper genuinely makes me want to cry, physical geography is not all bad and does have some upsides… however small they may be!

When asked if I am a physical geographer, my vehemently declared “No!” is accompanied by an aggressive shaking of my head and exclamatory raising of my eyebrows as if this is possibly the most objectionable thing someone could accuse me of being. But why do I do this? Why do I consider such a large part of a discipline that I am so passionate about completely dull and uninteresting? Perhaps because I associate physical geography with science and maths; subjects that I never found engaging or exciting at school. Maybe the dull school fieldtrips to coastal tourist destinations measuring the extent of footpath erosion made me apathetic to all things physical geography. Maybe the seemingly male dominated world of physical geography makes me feel like this is a discipline that I not only don’t belong to, but also cannot be a part of. Maybe my distaste for physical geography stems from the fact that I grew up in a household where discussions centred on law, history and politics rather than geology, biology and physics. Or, perhaps, the simple reasoning behind all of this is that I just do not like physical geography: I never have and I highly doubt that I ever will. Plus, by making it quite clear that I am largely apathetic to the ‘delights’ of physical geography, I am generally able to tactfully avoid questions that assume I have endless amounts of knowledge on how weather is determined or the formation of volcanoes. However, my strong desire to define myself as a human geographer does not mean that I cannot see the merits of physical geography; in fact, believe it or not, there are aspects of physical geography I enjoy! Rather, by identifying as a human geographer I am able to better grasp a sense of belonging in such a diverse discipline and make sure that no one expects me to answer any general geography questions during pub quizzes!

Thus far I have painted a pretty negative picture of physical geography. Whilst I did spend most of first year dreading physical geography essays and the mind numbingly dull supervision reading, and I would rather read an article on the cultural politics of austerity than coastal geomorphology, I do not wish to wholly denounce physical geography. Physical geography is clearly so much more than rocks, volcanoes, rivers and coasts; just as human geography is more than capital cities, countries and flags. But more importantly, physical geography is not just contained in studying elements of the natural world in total isolation from other processes. It is this interface between the human and natural world that I, as a human geographer, find fascinating about physical geography research. Even the most ardent physical geographer will acknowledge that much of their work focuses on this boundary between how natural processes are influenced, and have influence upon, the global community; indeed, funding for physical research is often framed in a way to ensure that the findings will be of significance to the human population.

Therefore, even as a human geographer it is possible to enjoy aspects of geography that would traditionally be conceived of as falling under the umbrella of physical geography. It is hence naïve, as others may do, to conceptualise physical geography as a less academically rigorous science subject which allows people to ‘pretend’ to be scientists. As geographers we are all used to unflattering stereotypes that reduce our degree to colouring in maps or learning the flags of countries off by heart (disclaimer: we only do that at A-Level and move onto actually making the maps and colouring them in at University!). But in the world of physical geography, these negative connotations of a somehow ‘dumbed’ down version of a natural sciences degree simply do not hold true and, quite frankly, are an unfair reflection of what physical geography really seeks to do. Physical geography is so much more than just the stereotypical assumptions and moves beyond a clinical look at elements of the natural world. Even as someone who is not afraid to voice my dislike for physical geography I am nevertheless capable of acknowledging the utility of physical geography in understanding how fragile interdependent relationships across the globe function.

I seem to have a bit of a love/hate relationship with physical geography: some of the unflattering stereotypes surrounding physical geography really need to go and the crucial work that physical geographers undertake should be acknowledged. However, I still maintain that you can spot a physical geographer a mile off purely based on their outfit choice: no human geographer walks around in an outfit that looks like they have just finished a 10 mile hike! But, all joking aside, even as an ardent human geographer it is possible to value the work that physical geographers undertake; without them we may not know half of what we do about areas such as climate change, coastal management or biodiversity. Although I know that my DoS (he probably knows this too!) will never be able to convince me that glaciers are really fascinating, and that I will never be a fully-fledged physical geographer (partially because I don’t own a pair of cargo pants), I really don’t hate physical geography that much. The reality is that there is much more that binds us together than tears us apart. From the perspective of a human geographer it is easy to reduce the complexity of physical geography to disparaging stereotypes, but the truth is that I may be a tiny bit jealous that they get to play around in science labs and scale mountains whilst I’m sat quantitatively analysing austerity datasets and doing ethnographic studies of cyclists on King’s Parade!

By Catriona Parpworth


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