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Teaching secondary geography
Teaching secondary geography

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1.2 Contested concepts in geography

Lambert and Morgan (2010, p. xi) issue some health warnings with regard to concepts: they ‘see concepts as sites of contestation’, observing that they are likely to have ‘multiple meanings that cannot be reduced to a single straightforward definition’. They observe that ‘Geography is a discipline that involves creating concepts in response to changes in the natural world’. Equally in a dynamic subject some concepts, such as regional geography, fall out of favour only to re-emerge again.

Activity 3 Contested concepts

Timing: Allow about 50 minutes

Part 1

Spend 10 minutes using a search engine to research the history of the following concepts that are commonly used in geography:

  • biodiversity
  • globalisation
  • sustainable development.

Are there other concepts you can think of that have emerged or significantly changed recently?

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Comment

There will be a long list of possible answers but you could have answered something like this:

Biodiversity provides an example of the recent ‘creation’ or construction of a concept. This term was coined in the mid-1980s by a group of conservation ecologists. It links the variety of genes, species and ecosystems in a way that had not been done before.

(Humphreys and Fall, 2014, p. 186)

Conceptualisations of climate change, development and regional geography have all changed through time and vary between different actors. This is explored in more depth in Part 2.

Part 2

Listen to Doreen Massey’s (2006) lecture, ‘Is the world really shrinking?’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (from 2 minutes 30 seconds to 23 minutes 15 seconds). (Alternatively, you can read a transcript.)

As you listen, note examples of the complexity of concepts and how they can change through time and between different people.

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Part 3

For each of the concepts listed in Part 1 above, identify two different people who would attach very different meanings to them. Think of how they would define or frame these concepts and the reasons for their differences. For example, these could include social (age, experience, values), economic or political factors.

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For example, ecosystem scientists might define biodiversity to include genetic, species and ecosystem diversity and view ‘nature’ as having intrinsic value. A multi-national company might define biodiversity in relation to ecosystem services that benefit humans (timber, pollination, medicinal plants) and some economists quantify the economic value of these in terms of dollars or pounds.

It is important to be aware of the contested nature of concepts. Be alert to alternative ways of thinking as you research topics and as you teach. Encourage students to develop, explain and question their own geographical conceptualisations and those of others. Have strategies to elicit and address misconceptions.

Reflection point

Are you clear about the differences between an alternative view and a misconception?