Remediating the inequalities of geographic knowledge production through ‘chromatographical’ visualizations

There has been significant academic coverage of the inequitable power dynamics of geographic knowledge production (c.f. Simonsen 2004; Ferenčuhová 2016).   By now, we are well-versed in the ways in which some representations and narratives win out over others.  We are attuned to the fact that the production of geographic knowledge is also a story of imperialism replete with racialized and gendered processes.  Emerging from this scholarship is the notion of a lopsided geography (Friedman 2016) characterized by the starkness of divisions between the core and periphery wherein some places are represented strongly and others remain largely absent.  Values and practices continue to be shaped by a Northern research agenda.  Additionally, the rich debates and discussions of strategies to decolonize knowledge tend toward the theoretical with few methodological interventions.

In our paper in Geo (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/geo2.38/full)  we attempt to redress some of these inequities by developing a new method for visualizing knowledge production which goes beyond formalized indicators. To illustrate, we chose first to focus on the location of selected dominant critical theories in Geography. By conventionally mapping two sites of theory production (critical GIS and critical urbanism), we demonstrate how normative methods reinforce lopsided geographies by relying narrowly on authorship and scholar affiliation. Our choropleth maps of these two theoretical strands in Geography double as a story of which places are being annotated and who participates in this process.  They also illustrate how conventional indicators silence the contexts informing the research.  The data is ‘extracted’ in one place (often in the Global South) and ‘processed’ elsewhere (often in the Global North).

Figure 1 conventionally represents the production of knowledge for critical GIS and critical urbanism (i.e. the number of country publications per every 10 active geography departments).  Critical theory, exemplified through these two schools of thought, mainly tends towards ‘Western-centrism’.   Production is dominated by the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa (as the exception). This result, generally, is consistent with our argument that the representation of knowledge through these conventional means suggests a ‘global intellectual divide’.

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Figure 1. Conventional representation of the sites of both critical GIS and critical urban theory knowledge production

To get at the heart of the inherent separations embedded in the representation of scholarly research production, we must acknowledge the uneven distribution of value between data production and the generation of theory.  The conventional map is in effect a series of bundled components that must be unpacked in order to bring to light the contexts that have generated both the data and subsequent  conceptual work.  We propose a ‘chromatological’ visualization whereby, just like in Chemistry, we extract the absorbed materials that are not currently visible or acknowledged.  The heuristic device of chromatography subjects the product (research, data and knowledge production) to a process of scrutiny which serves to ‘write in’ the separation. In other words, we separate the building blocks of critical geographic scholarship by articulating the absorbed components methodologically.

Figure 2 seeks to capture the multiple geographies involved across research processes.  Our chromatographical map is based on our review of the publications with more than 50 citations for both critical geography theories.  In it, we separated the conceptual and situated (empirically based) publications. Using the situated publications, we developed a table showing the frequency with which a country is used as a field site (i.e. where the researchers gathered their empirical data from and/or made their empirical observations). This counter mapping now shows countries such as India and China conventionally represented as part of the ‘silent side’ of knowledge production.

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Figure 2. Chromatographical representation of the sites of knowledge production for both critical GIS and critical urban theory

Our choromatological framework enacts a way of relational thinking currently obscured in discussions of geographic knowledge production.  The methodological alternatives described in our work conceptualize actors, field sites, and research products as a multiplicity of inter-scalar interactions.  Sites that were formally ‘off the map’ can now be recognized as new generative sites crucial to critical geographic scholarship.

Margath Walker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Geosciences at the University of Louisville. Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the State University of New York, Buffalo 

References

Ferenčuhová S 2016 Accounts from behind the curtain: history and geography in the critical analysis of urban theory International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 113–31

Friedman U 2016 The lopsided geography of Wikipedia The Atlantic 21 June

Simonsen K 2004 Differential spaces of critical geography Geoforum 35 525–8

Journal metrics and linguistic hegemony

Geography is a uniquely international discipline. It is concerned with describing and explaining the world in all its infinite variety. Geographical societies and university departments can be found in all corners of the globe, and the discipline’s practitioners often build careers on internationally collaborative research focused on distant places. Why, then, is the world of geographical publishing and performance measurement so skewed towards the publishing cultures of North America and northwest Europe?

This is the question which arises from a recent paper in Geo: Geography and Environment by Michael Meadows, Ton Dietz and Christian Vandermotten. The authors note the rise and the apparent embedding of a metrics culture in higher education (see for example recent discussions about the role of metrics in the UK’s assessment exercises for research and teaching). Metrics, such as journal impact factors and personal H-index values, have not only become popular ways of trying to describe the impact of publications and their authors – they have also become key adjudicators of academic careers, with measures such as the H-index seemingly holding ever greater sway over promotion and funding decisions.

When metrics become performative, when efforts to describe a system become part of the means by which that system is run, then pre-existing hierarchies and power structures tend to get reinforced. Meadows and colleagues argue that this is particularly the case in academic geography. They point out how the key databases from which the main metrics are derived – Web of Science and Scopus – massively underrepresent research being published outside of the networks of the major commercial publishers, and in languages other than English. Using a newly developed database of geography journals developed by the International Geographical Union, they present some disturbing statistics – of the more than 200 geography journals published in China, not one appears in the international journal rankings produced by these western organisations. Of the 27 geographical journals published in Germany, fewer than ten are represented on Web of Science.  Of the 108 geography journals published worldwide in Spanish, just three appear on Web of Science.

These huge disparities in how ‘quality’ academic research is identified, measured and ranked have significant implications not only for individual career trajectories, but for the discipline as a whole. The concerns and interests of Anglophone geography will continue to dominate so long as metrics and rankings reinforce the dominance of certain publication outlets, at the risk of marginalising alternative paradigms, arguments, or ways of working. As the authors note, “ranking and the dominance of particular leading journals may undermine innovation and alternative and critical thinking” (p5).

What is to be done? The authors note a number of positive developments, including alternative, more inclusive ranking systems such as that being developed at CERES in the Netherlands (see here in PDF). Open access is certainly part of the story as well, with the authors identifying something of a ‘Latin reaction’ to Anglophonic dominance with a widespread move to online, ‘green’ open access publishing models. How to fund open access publishing is still a live question of course, with different initiatives emerging to allocate costs for ‘gold’ open access publishing between research funders, institutions, and individual authors. Geo can be considered part of this broader experimentation.

But returning to the discipline geography more specifically, the authors conclude by addressing the IGU, whose new database underpins the authors’ arguments. They urge the IGU to explore the kind of multi-lingual publishing options being innovated in settings like Conservation Biology, with the organisation’s international reach potentially making it a powerful vehicle for new efforts to promote working and publishing practices which help to break down linguistic barriers. More broadly, the article prompts geographers to reflect on how a discipline so international in reach can make its publication practices more inclusive of linguistic, cultural and intellectual diversity.

Martin Mahony is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He also edits the Geo blog.