A Discipline of Synthesis?: An Investigation Into Geography's Subject Matter and Disciplinary Identities Through the Lens of Geographic Education




Rutherford, David J.

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Geography's variable foci and differing identities appear to exist in considerable isolation from one another, and although the discipline demonstrates potential to provide needed answers to pressing problems, many geographers believe that disciplinary disunity inhibits realization of this potential and threatens the health of the discipline in the competitive environment in which it must exist. Solving this problem entails energizing what some commentators have called the synergies that lie latent among geography's various disciplinary identities in order to advance a synthetic view of the ways in which human social relations and structures of meaning interact with aspects of the physical environment across space and place. As a step toward energizing these synergies, this dissertation sought to improve understanding of important characteristics of the discipline of geography. Specifically, the primary purpose of this research was to produce a theoretically informed, empirical investigation of the essential subject matter content and variable disciplinary identities that currently exist in the discipline of geography in the United States. To accomplish this purpose, the research employed a mixed-method design that drew from two bodies of theory: "curriculum analysis theory" for investigating the essential subject matter of the discipline and "structure of the disciplines" theory to investigate the variable disciplinary identities. Theoretical propositions indicated that curricula from the introductory undergraduate courses of human geography, physical geography, and world regional geography could serve as the data source for identifying and analyzing the subject matter and faculty disciplinary identities across the three broadly recognized sub-disciplines of geography - human, physical, and regional geography. Formal curricula, in the form of course syllabi, for the three introductory courses were subjected to a content analysis to identify and analyze essential subject matter. Collateral curricula that faculty possess as perspectives on the discipline as related to the introductory courses they teach were used to investigate the variable disciplinary identities in geography, and these faculty perspectives were obtained through an online survey that was analyzed using quantitative methods. Results of the research indicate: (1) limited commonality of subject matter exists between physical geography and the human and regional divisions of the discipline, and (2) significant differences in cognitive style exist between faculty members in physical geography and the faculty members in the human and regional divisions of the discipline. In addition, the research identified a small set of subject matter items and disciplinary perspectives that may serve to promote synthesis across the discipline. Results also served to refine and advance the theories that provided the basis for the research.



study of geography, philosophy of geography, curriculum


Rutherford, D.J. (2005). A discipline of synthesis?: an investigation into geography's subject matter and disciplinary identities through the lens of geographic education (Unpublished dissertation). Texas State University-San Marcos, San Marcos, Texas.


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