Batterbury, SPJ. 2005. Book review of "A Century of British Geography". Geographical Review 95(1):145-148


Johnston, Ron and Michael Williams (eds.) 2003. A Century of British Geography. Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press. Pp xvii + 674. $85.00 or £55 (cloth) .  ISBN 0197262864


Reviewed by -- Simon Batterbury, School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia. Draft version on



In Britain, geography was established in the universities a little over a century ago, firstly at Oxford, and then the LSE. Other universities followed, and today the majority of institutions offer degrees or degree options in  the discipline. While there has been some attrition and departmental closures over the last decade due to fluctuations in undergraduate student numbers and the pernicious effects of government assessments, the discipline has held it own as an established part of academic life. Britain is without doubt one of the main sources of geographic techniques and theories worldwide, and it is also well established in certain professions, notably planning, public policy, cartography and geographical information management. It is a remarkable statistic, but Britain graduates over 7,000 geography students a year, almost double the total in the USA. Geography is well represented in schools, and this is the major reason for its persistence in the universities. Generally “geographical literacy” is far more advanced than in the US. This is not surprising, if one considers Britain’s history and geographical position – colonialism, immigration, two World Wars and international mass tourism in the 20th century alone have made geographical knowledge desirable, if not essential.


How, then, to chart the history and the contribution of an important - but still a minor -discipline in the nation’s history? A Century of British Geography offers detailed (and often lengthy) contributions from leading scholars. It is well edited and nicely produced. It presents British geography in a broadly positive light, while lamenting some of its failures. The book contains twenty contributions, almost all of them written by established figures in the discipline, some of them Academicians. The weight of scholarship in the book in the book is certainly impressive, although the contributors are writing from “above”, not “below”. All but two are, or were, full professors and most are important ‘gatekeepers’ of geographical lore and practice. There are several former or current members of the Geography Panel of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which sits in judgment over the research strength of every geography department in the country, and helps allocate government funds to them based on research “excellence”. The chapters are erudite and sweeping, but they are by and large not radical, destabilizing, heretical, or contrarian. This may be a function of the book’s commissioned purpose: it is one of several volumes that have been published to mark the centenary of the British Academy, one of the country’s elite academic societies. Geographers have, however, maintained a scant presence in the Academy; the first Fellow, Clifford Darby, was elected in 1967 and there are presently only 18 geography members.


Two chapters on the history and institutionalization of the discipline, by David Livingstone and Ron Johnson, make fascinating reading. Their grasp of the minutiae of geographical thought is impressive. A section entitled “Environment” begins with a chapter by Ken Gregory, which highlights physical geography’s weak links to human geography. Ian Simmons summarizes eclectic research on pre-industrial human-environment relations in jaunty prose, while Michael Williams tells us what geographers have got up to in their interpretations of landscapes. Sally Eden’s chapter is measured and informative, and – depressingly - she finds British geography failing to emerge as a leader in understanding and tackling environmental issues. Up until the 1970s research was technocratic, science-driven, and politically conservative. Geographical contributions since then have been diffuse and “somewhat shapeless” (p234) and, I might add, often skirted the core issues that physical and human geographers might address together. Some of those contributions are taken up by John Thornes in a later chapter.


The next section deals with “Place”. Hugh Clout bemoans the lack of thorough place-based research in British geography today, as opposed to the systematic expertise and theoretical contributions that now predominate. A valid critique, but one that could easily be challenged – today’s de facto British regional specialists are the fluent and culturally sensitive geographers working in developing nations (especially in Latin America and Africa). Nigel Thrift’s and Doreen Massey’s chapter is a review and research treatise on concepts of place. Noting, quite rightly, that geography “lost its nerve” in the rush to embrace spatial science in the 1970s, they chart the move towards richer relational conceptions of power and networks in places. They make a side-swipe at American geography and its “allegiance to a Thoreauesque moral certainty and centeredness” (p286) and they challenge Clout’s regionalist nostalgia with their own agenda. Their conclusions are typically Thriftian – place should be seen as “contingent and more animated” (p294) the material world as “vibrant, quirky, overflowing”, and places resonate with “crossings and hybridities” (p296).  An agenda for theoretically agile human geographers, unless, like me, you find all this rather puzzling and insufficiently grounded.


The “scale” section is short, perhaps because of the lesser role played by spatial and regional science in Britain than in the USA, and the two chapters could have been merged with the preceding section. Johnston offers a rather dry account of spatial analysis, and Peter Taylor discusses different approaches to scale, in which British-based geographers like Erik Swyngedouw and the Open University team (Massey, Allen et. al.) have certainly excelled. The next section, “Geography in Action”, concentrates on some areas where academic geography has been applied or where geographical skills have found wider uses. These include mapping (Roger Kain and Catherine Delano-Smith, with some great color plates including Dudley Stamp’s Land Utilisation Survey of the 1930s).  Praise is offered to Brian Harley and David Woodward, inventive cartographers who were both British but moved to the US and died prematurely. David Rhind explores the uses of GIS and offers some insider’s observations on the Ordnance Survey, the national cartographic agency, and tries (unsuccessfully) to dispel the critics of GIS technocracy. Bob Bennett and Alan Wilson debate the role of applied geography but restrict this important field to applications in public policy, market dynamics and regions,  business activity and “voluntary and other agencies” (p464). This is coincidentally where I began as a British geographer, after studying at Reading with Mike Breheny and Peter Hall in the 1980s (doing policy studies of real estate and retailing decisions). But I soon took the view that “applied” geography encompassed much more – greater social relevance is to be found in geographer’s engagements with international development, community activism, environmental movements, hazards mitigation, and so on. Bennett and Wilson note David Harvey’s damning critiques of conventional applied work, but they omit discussion of the more radical and challenging applications that Harvey and others have made their own (p473).


These five sections would be enough for most edited volumes, but the book concludes with a further selection of papers entitled “Geography Moving Forwards”. There are chapters on contemporary environmental problems (John Thornes), disease (Andrew Cliff and Peter Haggett), urban geography (two chapters by Peter Hall and Ceri Peach), regions (Ray Hudson), gender (Linda McDowell) and ethics (David Smith). At variance with the section title, most of these look backwards across the last century, as well as forwards. That aside, there are some fascinating observations, particularly for those involved in the debates in question. I liked Hall’s ruminations on planning, and Hudson’s engaging discussion of uneven development in Britain and particularly Doreen Massey’s contributions (p589). McDowell signals persistent masculinism in academic geography, although things are improving. She also describes the attacks on Harvey’s Marxism by feminist scholars (p615).


Reading the book, one gets a sense of just how far British geographical ideas have evolved over the 20th century. The broad trajectory is similar to that experienced in North America, but with different events and ruptures - from the regional work of the pre-war period influenced by francophone and germanic scholars, into the gradual acceptance of quantitative techniques and modeling in the late 1960s, the Marxist backlash, and the fissioning of approaches and interests since the 1980s. Given the recent trajectory of the discipline, however, it is not clear from this book where it is heading in Britain, or what shape it may take. The editors chose not to expound on this and do not offer a concluding chapter, which would have been welcome.


While certain luminaries, like Halford Mackinder, Dudley Stamp, and Clifford Darby make the most frequent appearances in the text (alongside Doreen Massey as a modern heroine), the sheer volume of diversity of British geography comes across well. Certain authors, notably Peach and Smith, recognize the permeability of British geography – so many Brits work abroad, travel periodically to Britain, or are attached to it by instant communication. The present right wing imperialism of the US Federal government has encouraged more American geographers to seek jobs in the UK in the last few years, reversing an historic trend in the other direction, and this is a positive development. But there are many geographical voices outside the academic university departments that escape mention in the book. Johnston catches too few of these in his discussion (p79). They include those working in policy organizations like the International Institute of Environment and Development, the Policy Studies Institute, Property Market Analysis, and the Institute for Public Policy Research – as well as considerable numbers in international development, whether operating as university-based analysts or working for agencies and organizations. People like Tony Bebbington (Manchester), whose work has directly influenced the World Bank, are not working in a “relatively limited sphere of influence” (p80) as Johnston suggests - their impact is arguably wider than most academic geographers. And “development geography” does not rate discussion in the book at all, outside a very brief mention from Smith.


There is much to praise, but also much to criticize in British geography. McDowell and Smith are the only contributors to discuss the uneven conditions in which British geographical knowledge is produced, and this merited much more extensive debate in the book. The established, larger, and older university departments are generally thriving and cushioned from financial problems by large research incomes or high numbers of students. But the smaller and newer ones are threatened with closure or relegated to teaching roles, no matter how hard they try to escape their ascribed position. Little challenge to the academic pecking order is offered in this book, or any statements on how to resolve such inequality. Having been educated in British geography and taught there for many years before moving to the USA and then Australia, I have some insights. There is still an unfortunate territoriality operating between the major British geography departments. Each guard their traditions, and actively compete with each other for status, students and research income. The struggle is perhaps more urgent than in the USA where there is no RAE assessment or quality-based funding allocation by government, and rankings have far less importance. Ironically, it is the diffident British, not the outgoing Americans, which choose to advertise their best departments aggressively with statements like “five-star ranked for research” on their websites and in their brochures. The RAE now has geographers scrambling to reach the top of a greasy pole planted by an assessment culture, and it is unsurprising that some of the winners welcome the neoliberal competitiveness (and departmental closures and failed careers) that this situation creates, while others, like David Smith and myself, are wholly dismayed and disillusioned by it.


I suspect that the readership of this book will largely be drawn from the ranks of academic geographers in Britain, and some residing further afield. It is shorter and more focused than its American counterpart (Gaile and Wilmott’s Geography and the New Millennium, 2004) but it is still a large and compendious book. Only those with links to British geography are likely to read it in its entirety; but it offers a great many accomplished and well-presented insights to the broader community of scholars.