Thursday, July 24, 2014

Look out the window and imagine!

Image above: Plane Finder map the day after the 18 July Malaysian Airline tragedy. Ukraine is given a wide berth, but not by all! That day changed the geographic imaginings for many of us for ever about that art of the world.

Related links to Spatialworlds  
Spatialworlds website

Australian Geography Teachers' Association website    

Where am I??  

Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'

Looking out the window: near and far

"Humans conjure up powerful images of places--that is, the geographical imagination."
                                                                                                         Yi-Fu Tuan (1976)

Geography students should be looking out the window and imagining! In workshops and the classroom I use the great website called Plane finder to travel around the world and challenge the geographical imagination of individuals.  I ask participants to imagine they are on one of the planes shown on the Plane Finder screen and to then imagine the landscapes, settlements and cultures they are flying over and imagine the nature of these at their destination. These are questions we should be asking students all the time about the world to stimulate their geographical imagination. 

Here are some writings to help us get our head around the concept of geographical imagination. It can be confusing because the term “geographical imagination” is a popular catchphrase in the geographical literature with multiple interpretations, often unclear and highly intellectualised. In this posting I have distilled the concept to being a way of thinking about the world, considering the nature of places, their relative importance and the relationships between “our” places and “other” places. 

Derek Gregory believes that the concept involves:

"...mental images and socially produced discourses about cultures, spaces, and differences. How people see the world is influenced by many factors, including social class, education, and personal and political philosophies. The particular moments in history in which people live also play a major role in how they view the world around them. Derek Gregory explains that the geographical imagination plays a significant role in shaping much of the world's social and spatial thought. Through the geographical imagination, people (both individually and collectively) develop a sense of boundaries, which separate “our” spaces and places from other spaces and places. Geographical imaginations are thus central to the social and spatial constructions of identity."

Mark Twain wrote the following, as far back as 1878 on geographical imagination (although he did not call it that) and travel:

"The human imagination is much more capable than it gets credit for.  This is why Niagara is always a disappointment when one sees it for the first time.  One's imagination has long ago built a Niagara to which this one is a poor dribbling thing.  The ocean "with its waves running mountain high" is always a disappointment at first sight; the imagination has constructed real mountains, whereas these with swelling at their very biggest and highest are not imposing.  The Taj is a disappointment though people are ashamed to confess it.  God will be a disappointment to most of us, at first.  I wish I could see the Niagara’s and Taj’s which the human imagination has constructed, why then, bless you, I should see Atlantics pouring down out of the sky over cloud ranges, and I should see Taj’s of a form so gracious and a spiritual expression so divine and altogether so sublime and so lovely and worshipful that—well—St. Peter's, Vesuvius, Heaven, Hell, everything that is much described is bound to be a disappointment at first."                                                            —Mark Twain's Notebook

Mark Twain in these writings is challenging the accuracy and veracity of our geographical imaginings – that rarely do they match reality. Alan Marcus considers that geographical imagination is just a "part of the common experience of man” and defines it as "the spatial knowledge--real or abstract--that allows individuals to imagine place," 

It is as a significant, and mainly non-economic, component propelling migrants to leave places like Brazil for the United States and the English for Australia and also prompting some to return. Geographic Imaginings’ constitute an important aspect in geographic research, enriching our understanding of places and societies as well as the contested meanings people have towards spaces. No matter how accurate or fallacious our geographical imaginings are, they are real to us and influence our attitudes and behaviours to a great extent as we look out the window of our small part of the world and contemplate places far and near. The development of such imagining’s are influenced by our readings, what we watch, discussions with others and just our imagination based on an impression we gather about a place – often based on information we have no idea where it came from. Several concrete examples of the influence our geographical imaginations can be found in migration studies and tourism marketing:

Geographic Imagination and migration
In the late 1980s more than 1 million Brazilians left Brazil without returning. Today an estimated 2 million Brazilians live abroad, 1.2 million of them in the United States. Brazilians migrate for a variety of reasons, including the geographical imagination, as do many English migrants come to Australia because their geographic imagination of Australian has been developed through the TV shows Neighbours and Home and Away!

Geographic imagination and tourism
The marketing and development of tourist destinations offers a fertile ground for the exercise of geographic imagination. Tourism marketing distils the essence of a place, and imagines an identity that is attractive to tourists and residents alike. Such spatial identities, however, are seldom hegemonic and are often highly contested.

The Geographical Association in the UK has recognised the importance of geographical imagination in the teaching of geography for many years.  

Doreen Massey on geographical imagination:

'It is probably now well accepted, though it is still important to argue, that a lot of our "geography" is in the mind. That is to say we carry around with us mental images of the world, of the country in which we live (all those image of the North/South divide), of the street next door. The New Yorker's mental map of the USA, Ronald Regan's imagination of the world, became popular posters.
All of us carry such images, they may sometimes be in conflict or even be the cause of conflict, and digging these things up and talking about them is one good way in to beginning to examine what it means to think geographically'

Massey, D. (2006) 'The geographical mind' in Balderston, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association

Here are some activities which aim to stimulate the student’s geographic imagination.
* The Valuing places section of the GA site is a very useful summary and resource on geographical imagination
* Where will we live GA activities: examples of activities related to 'Geographical Imaginations?'

The Australian Geography Teachers' Association's (AGTA) GeogSpace website to support the Australian Curriculum: Geography also explores the concept of geographical thinking in its Thinking Geographically Support Unit. Nick Hutchinson, the writer of the unit created an excellent Illustration of Practice called; The Child as a Geographer which further developed the thinking on the concept of geographical imagination.

In conclusion, many go as far as to say that at the core of modern geographical thinking is the concept of geographical imagination and the associate concept of place (attachment and sense of).

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