What is it that Geographers do?

By Reginald Golledge

Most people have a very outdated image of geography. Recently, a non-geography member of the National Academy of Sciences suggestively asked, since we now either know where everything is or have the technical capability of finding out where things are, then why do we need geography?

This query reflects a common misconception--that geography is just the

Today we find geographers doing many "unexpected" things.
study of "what" is "where;" that is, that geography consists of the "lakes, bays, highest mountains, and largest cities" type of knowledge. Such may have been the case 60 years and more ago. But geography has changed from a "declarative" (or fact finding) discipline to an intellectual one dedicated to exploring spatial science.

Over the past 60 years, geography has developed a set of explicitly spatial theories of location, distribution, interaction, and processes and has invented a unique set of methods of spatial analysis and innovative multi-modal representational forms. The discipline uses place-based reasoning to solve a variety of problems relating to human-environment relations. The result is that today we find geographers doing many "unexpected" things. Let us examine some of them.

For example, there are more than 50 Specialty Groups in the Association of American Geographers that provide examples of the diversity of geographic skills and potential employability. Here we can only discuss a few of these.

2000 AAG Topical and Areal Proficiencies and Specialty Group Membership
The AAG Membership for 2000 totaled 6,150. In 1999 the membership total was 6,527. The following numbers of members have claimed these topical and areal proficiencies and memberships in AAG Specialty Groups.

Click here to view the AAG Membership table.

For those interested in computation and computer graphics, widespread employment possibilities exist. Many companies, such as Microsoft, have computer-mapping

Geographers trained in location theory ... have considerable market value.
divisions. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)--the leader in GIS software sales--employs many undergraduate and graduate geography workers. Other GIS companies (e.g., MapInfo, Map Quest, Blue Marble, and others) employ geographers with computer/cartographic and graphic skills. These businesses use geographers to help develop new products.

In many cases, geographers also are involved in developing educational materials for K-12 grades. ESRI has developed a "National Geography Network" for the sharing of ideas, data, and teaching materials. Organizations such as National Geographic employ geographers in the process of developing traveling information systems such as the museum exhibition "Earth2U." Rand McNally and other atlas and map publishing companies use geographers to help compile and update their many Atlas products.

In other private sector areas, geographers trained in location theory, market area analysis, consumer spatial behavior, and emergency services management (using location-allocation theory and models) have considerable market value. In real estate--where "location, location, location" is the prime directive--geographers trained in locational analysis, cognitive mapping, and intra-urban movement behavior are in demand. A growing marketplace for geographers exists in the Business Geographics area, particularly since GIS was expanded to deal with business graphics.

For decades, geographers specializing in urban or transportation geography have been successfully employed in local and state planning agencies. At the local level, geographers trained in urban analysis and city structure theory and modeling have helped develop strategic plans for future urban growth--particularly with regard to emerging residential developments including recreational areas and open space, schools, and safe roadways.

Transportation geographers help analyze traffic patterns and volume, locate and update mass transit facilities such as bus lines or light rail, examine spatial patterns of accident statistics, monitor air pollution levels and their environmental impacts, and prepare emergency evacuation and containment plans for use when hazardous spills occur.

School districts that may wish to expand or contract make use of economic and urban geographers trained in the methods of location-allocation procedures to find locations for new schools, suggest which schools might be closed with minimal effect on student travel behavior, or suggest which schools should be combined in the interests of economy or policies of social diversity. And, in the near future, many geographers will be using special spatial skills to help in the process of political redistricting.

Analysis of population growth or decline...is a strength of geography.
At the state level, geographers with training in settlement theory monitor the growth and decline of small towns, undertake economic and environmental impact analyses, and investigate changes in local, regional, and statewide economic bases by using spatially sensitive input-output models. Economic health is differentially distributed in most states, and geographers define and monitor emergence, growth, and decline of such processes. Likewise, analysis of population growth or decline--particularly via intrastate, interstate, and international migration--is a strength of geography.

Examining the regional effects of illegal immigration and transient international workers has become a major skill developed by today's geographers. Monitoring recreational and tourist movements has become more important as leisure time has increased, as "summer home" ownership has flourished (for example, "Frostbelt to Sunbelt" movements), and as an increasing concern and demand for sensible eco-tourism has flourished world wide. Regional knowledge of human-environment relations is a significant factor in learning how to effectively and conservatively combine human needs and environmental protection and is a force in geographic learning.

Federal statistics are developed for country, state, county, and city levels. Geographers are eagerly employed at the US Census Division of Geography,

Many potential employment opportunities exist for geographers.
in the Departments of Agriculture, Forest Service, National Parks, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Commerce, and Education. Government agencies such as the National Space and Aeronautical Administration (NASA), the Geological Survey (particularly its mapping division), FEMA, NIMA, and others all have employment opportunities for geographers in terms of analyzing and representing spatial data at various scales. Even the United Nations has a Geography and Cartography Division.

So, many potential employment opportunities exist for geographers. But what specific skills and abilities appear to be most employable outside the academic domain? In these times of advancing information technology, geographers have an ideal tool--GIS--that has rapidly diffused throughout the private sector and the government sector, and which provides well paid and interesting employment opportunities. Many GIS trained undergraduates have recently obtained jobs immediately after graduation with energy firms, pipeline businesses, and shopping center developers, at starting salaries in excess of $40,000 per annum (plus benefits, stock options, etc.).

Apart from GIS skills, environmental skills (ecosystems, endangered species, land conversion, landscape protection, hazard awareness, etc.) are valuable. Spatial analysis skills are important in areas involving location analysis, marketing, and studies of consumer behavior, with

There are very few areas of business and government where geographic training cannot be used.
qualitative analysis (e.g., use of focus groups, non-probability sampling) also being in demand. Water and energy resources analysis and development rely on training in hydrologic or snow melt modeling, as does working with water transfer and irrigation practices.

To summarize, there are very few areas of business and government (in both public and private sectors) where geographic training cannot be used. But! There is still an at-large image that geographers have little to offer. This is due to ignorance of what the discipline of geography does today.

Spatial skills and abilities are becoming important even in areas not traditionally recognized as needing geography experts--such as in health services and disease control. In some cases, job descriptions will not call for geographers, because personnel administrators are ignorant of what geographers do. But, as you read job descriptions, consciously match your geography training with the skills advertised. In an amazing number of cases, you will find that a good geography training today will have equipped you with the applied knowledge and skills to compete equally (or better) with many other disciplinary areas. And don't forget: NEVER be ashamed of being a geographer!

Published Tuesday, July 3rd, 2001

Written by Reginald Golledge

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