Geography Fieldwork is Not Mission Impossible, pp. 2 of 6


Many countries have locations that lend themselves excellently to conducting fieldwork – wide open spaces, exciting natural landscape, places with long historical development, and small class sizes. In contrast, the Singapore teachers’ operational context of the polar opposite – highly urbanised compact spaces, immaculately planned urban landscapes, and most importantly, large class sizes. Hence, many of the ideas or strategies proposed by scholars from other countries need to be customised and adapted before implementation.

Instead of approaching the conceptualisation of fieldwork from a site-specific perspective, I propose that geography teachers should start by understanding the purpose of fieldwork. The purpose of fieldwork in geography stems from how geography was constructed as a discipline, and how geography was used to understand and make sense of the world. Therefore, a brief understanding of the development of geographic thought is imperative.

Development of geographic thought and fieldwork

The word “geography” is formed from two words: “geo” and “graphy,” which means to write about the earth. For a long time till the early 20th century, geography was the domain of explorers. For example, the great Venetian explorer and trader Marco Polo provided detailed comments of the strange places he visited in the Far East. Recording of observations and experiences formed an essential part of exploration and adventure. This descriptive strand took a slightly different turn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the advent of environmental determinism. Among them, determinists like Semple, Ritter and Huntington attributed human traits as direct outcomes of the environments in which humankind lived. Hettner and Vidal de la Blanche and later Hartshorne, focused on the differences between places which influenced mankind giving rise to regionalism (Unwin, 1992). By the late 1930s, what emerged as criticism to an increasingly unscientific approach of regionalism gave rise to the quantitative revolution that was to follow.

Geography took a sharp turn towards the scientific method, in particular, the hypothesis testing, models and theories approaches as  adopted by the sciences. With the advancement of science and the race to space, empiricism and quantitative reasoning took over as the dominant mode of inquiry. The paradigm shift in geography meant that the methodology of fieldwork and data collection became de rigeur. Understandably, geography fieldwork began to take a slant towards positivistic scientific methods.

Countering the overtly positivist methods which critics claimed diminished human influence, a shift in geographic thought occurred yet again in the 1960s. The behavioural paradigm focused on decision-making by the rational, economic man. Fieldwork, therefore, reflected this change. Perception of places, and decisions for travelling based on cost-saving assumptions, for example, are examples of fieldwork popularly carried out in those times. Relph (1976) in his seminal work on “Place and Placelessness”, and subsequently Tuan (1974) highlighted the importance of a humanistic approach to geography, where the inner worlds of individuals are seen as real, and worthy of investigation.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, critical geography began to emerge. This emphasised the constraints of structures on human agency. Many studies included critical analysis of capitalism and its effect on labour, politics, and flows of labour and capital. Geography also took on a more applied nuance with the environmental problems and global issues in the last decade of the 20th century that resulted in an emphasis on providing solutions to the environmental crises affecting food production, access to fresh water, health and poverty. 

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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