GeoInspirations: Alastair Bonnett - Defining Geography Beyond the Map

September 5, 2018
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Dr. Alastair Bonnett, a geographer and educator at Newcastle University in the U.K.

In my travels promoting geography and geospatial technology over the years, I have often quoted Dr. Bonnett and have read all of his books. His writings in articles and books such as “What Is Geography?have long impressed me for his ability to cut to the heart of what geography is, and also, why it matters. He says that geography is a study of survival and order — our attempt to find understanding and order in and of our world. I respect his attachment to place and to finding meaning in ordinary places near and far, as he does in his latest book “Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias.” He is equally skilled at writing for the general public and for academics. I also respect his ability to say quite a bit in few words. Therefore, it is my pleasure to bring him to the attention of the readers of Directions Magazine. 

I asked Dr. Bonnett to describe his background and current position. “I’m a professor of social geography at Newcastle University in the U.K. Social geography, at least these days, is sociologically focused geography, so we look at sociological topics – like gender, for example - but from an international and comparative perspective. However, over recent years I’ve been trying to reach new audiences and write about my passion for place, especially strange, alluring and lost places. This new work isn’t ‘academic’ – no long bibliographies – and hopefully is pretty easy to read, but I think it’s just as ‘intellectual,’ in the sense of being full of ideas and arguments, as anything I’ve done before.”

When I asked Dr. Bonnett what convinced him to enter the fields that he ended up pursuing, I found that I could really identify with his response. “To be honest, it was growing up in a small town on the outskirts of London, a town that was rapidly expanding, being transformed into a dormitory settlement and then a suburb. New roads ploughed through the fields, houses spread across the fields, new types of business replaced old ones. Even the accent of the people changed; the old country accent disappeared and soon everyone was speaking with a London twang. It was like living through a revolution. This is hardly a unique experience; most of us have witnessed the same kind of rapid changes. What it drove home to me is that place matters and that it is changing fast. So geography seemed like an important and urgent thing to me, and it still does.”

What most inspired him during his career? “I came across the books of Yi-Fu Tuan, the Chinese American geographer, as a student. He writes about the experience of place in an open, creative and profound way – I’d never read anything like that before. His book “Topophilia” is about place being something into which we pour emotions – which we love but also sometimes hate – and it opened up a door for me. “Place and Placelessness by Edward Relph had a similar effect. It’s not been a consistent journey for me. Geography allows you to pursue many interests. I’ve written books on both ‘white identities’ and nostalgia, both from an international and comparative perspective, as well as works on stereotypes of the West from the same kind of angle. These topics might appear a bit eclectic – they probably are – which helps explain why I also ended up writing a book called “What is Geography?” to try and pin down what this ‘discipline’ actually was. My answer was that it is the world discipline, with two basic pillars, international and environmental knowledge. So geography’s broad – it’s a big project – but also very necessary – indeed vital – in an age of connection, globalisation and environmental crisis. But I also keep coming back to Yi-Fu Tuan, as a kind of anchor. It wasn’t just what his books said that mattered to me but also that they were well written, both fluent and enthralling. Writing geography isn’t just a technical exercise; it’s also a craft that demands attention to the art of communication.”

What project or initiative is Dr. Bonnett the proudest of being a part? “I was invited to Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 2014 to give some public talks about micronations, which are tiny attempts to declare sovereignty, often outrageous, even comic, but with a serious side. I was really struck, humbled really, by how important this topic was to my audiences – there was a real sense, a desire, to think and talk about ways people could govern themselves. I was even approached by groups of ‘micronationalists’ for advice on how to set up their own mini-country. One was a would-be ‘nation’ of poets and one a would-be nation of people who spoke Elvish (the language from Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings). Sounds odd but they were super serious. They didn’t need me of course and I wasn’t much help to them but the memory of those conversations continues to fascinate me. The desire for autonomy – for a creative, free life on one’s ‘own place’ – is hard to underestimate, and not just in Russia.”

I asked Dr. Bonnett, “What is the most important thing you think we need to work on as the geography/education/science/geospatial community?” to which he replied, “First, I think it has to be the changing nature of place. More precisely, how people’s relationship to place is changing in what can sometimes seem to be an ever more uprooted world. I’m not sure we quite have the language for this yet. Sometimes talking about ‘why place matters’ can become very waffly very quickly. The challenge is to find ways of thinking about place that are substantive and hit home.”

“There is a second agenda I’m interested in, and that is engaging the diversity of geographical knowledge and traditions. Rather than just thinking about geography as something that is created in the West and then worrying away at how the West sees ‘the rest,’ getting to grips with, for example, Asian and African ‘geographical imaginations,’ in all their diversity, seems to me a necessary task for twenty-first century geographers.”

What is his advice to a new professional in these fields? “The community you’re part of is a lot bigger than you may realise. There are so many ‘ordinary’ people, all over the planet, that care deeply about geographical issues and want to hear from us. So, where you can, reach out and talk to them.”

Dr. Bonnett offered this quote:

“We are a place-making and place-loving species.” -- Italo Calvino, inInvisible Cities  

To learn more about Dr. Bonnett, see:

Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and our Search for New Utopias  by Alastair Bonnett.

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies  by Alastair Bonnett  

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