More than the sum of their parts – making interdisciplinary collaborations work

Type: Virtual Paper
Theme: Expanding the Community of Geography
Sponsor Groups:
Organizers: Angela Cunningham
Chairs: Angela Cunningham

Call for Submissions

In an article honoring the first century of the AAG and looking to its future, Skole (2004, p. 739) proclaimed geography as “a great intellectual melting pot and the preeminent interdisciplinary … discipline.” Geographers before and since have agreed, citing geography’s affinity to other fields in the diversity of its methods and topics while highlighting the field’s special contributions to scholarship (Baerwald, 2010; Livingstone, 1993; Massey, 1999). In the early twentieth century, geography as a discipline was ill-defined and often seen as “ancillary” to other fields; it was “dispensable” to the major universities that shuttered their departments in the middle decades of the century (Butlin, 1993, p. ix; Murphy, 2007, p. 124). By the 1970s, however, the influence of the discipline beyond its boundaries was ascendant. Geographic Information Systems tools and – eventually – the theoretically-informed methodologies of GISciences were incorporated into ecological and sociological research. The work of Hagerstrand, Harvey, Tuan, and Massey among others found eager extra-disciplinary audiences as the spatial turn caused a reconceptualization of the agency of space and as postmodern theory stressed the importance of context (Harvey, 1995; Murphy, 2007). In recent decades, the infiltration of spatial, place-based and scalar concerns into everyday life through the “ubiquity of location information” and locally-felt effects of global economic and environmental change have engendered a visceral appreciation of the importance of geography (Ricker et al., 2020, p. 352; Warf & Arias, 2008). Offering theories to think through the relationship of patterns and processes, and methodologies and technologies for analyzing and modelling these relationships, geography "has arguably played a major role in helping facilitate interdisciplinary inquiry" (Warf & Arias, 2008, p. 2).

Interdisciplinarity has been lauded for its benefits. It has been argued that the exchange of theory, skills and methods makes interdisciplinary work better able to solve real world problems than stagnant, field-constrained scholarship (Baerwald, 2010). Geographers, with their understanding of multiscalar relationships and human-environment interactions are perceived as being particularly well positioned to address the global and local causes and effects of climate change, rapid urbanization, resource scarcity, the spread of disease, the globalization of the economy and culture, and the lingering effects of colonialism (Skole, 2004). Interdisciplinary collaborations have been credited for raising the visibility and the financial viability of geography departments (Murphy, 2007); students educated in these departments and thus supposedly primed for adaptive, non-linear thinking are able to find employment in a wide variety of positions (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). Liu (2006, pp. 39–42) notes that while interdisciplinarity is "not … inherently progressive, emancipatory, or beneficial," it can offer alternative bodies of knowledge and systems of academic support for members of under-represented groups, and “can open up the discipline [of geography] itself by destabilizing its structural and intellectual hierarchies and expanding the scope and relevance of geographic research."

However, interdisciplinarity also presents a range of challenges:

• Given the divisions within geography, it has been argued that different types of geographers might find friendlier collaborations outside the discipline, ones in which all participants already share cultures of knowledge and are thus already prepared to develop integrated research (Rekers & Hansen, 2015; Rusca & Di Baldassarre, 2019). On the other hand, are topical and methodological boxes really an improvement over disciplinary boundaries?

• Barnett (1995) argues that scholars need to honestly assess the extra-disciplinary theories and methods they adopt; Rekers & Hansen (2015) add that we need to maintain a critical distance in order to do so effectively. Thus, do we really want our field to be a melting pot?

• Harvey (1995, p. 161) asserts "the geographical imagination is far too pervasive and important a fact of intellectual life to be left alone to geographers," but are there risks to geographers “los[ing] control of their defining subject of study” (Warf & Arias, 2008, p. 10)? In incorporating elements of geography practice into interdisciplinary work how do we ensure sufficient reference to the decades of internal debates and critiques through which that practice evolved (Ricker et al., 2020)? How do we “advocate for [our] discipline,” expand the community of geography, and ensure that geographers engaged in interdisciplinary work are not disadvantaged in matters of career advancement that are still discipline-bound (Baerwald, 2010; Liu, 2006; Rekers & Hansen, 2015; Ricker et al., 2020, p. 351)?

In short, engagements between geography and other fields hold much promise, but also leave many unanswered questions. This session invites you into a conversation to engage with them. Let us share what we have learned from our experiences spreading geographical thinking, critically incorporating other fields’ methodologies and epistemologies, and keeping this most interdisciplinary of disciplines relevant and strong.

Baerwald, T. J. (2010). Prospects for geography as an interdisciplinary discipline. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(3), 493–501.
Barnett, C. (1995). Awakening the dead: Who needs the history of geography? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20(4), 417–419. JSTOR.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U. D. of L. (2020, September 1). Geographers. Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Butlin, R. A. (1993). Historical geography: Through the gates of space and time. Routledge.
Harvey, D. (1995). Evaluation: Geographical knowledge in the eye of power: reflections on Derek Gregory’s Geographical Imaginations. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 160–164. JSTOR.
Liu, L. Y. (2006). On being ‘hen’s teeth’: Interdisciplinary practices for women of color in geography. Gender, Place & Culture, 13(1), 39–48.
Livingstone, D. (1993). The geographical tradition: Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. Wiley-Blackwell.
Massey, D. (1999). Space-time, ‘science’ and the relationship between physical geography and human geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 24(3), 261–276.
Murphy, A. B. (2007). Geography’s place in higher education in the United States. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31(1), 121–141.
Rekers, J. V., & Hansen, T. (2015). Interdisciplinary research and geography: Overcoming barriers through proximity. Science and Public Policy, 42(2), 242–254.
Ricker, B. A., Rickles, P. R., Fagg, G. A., & Haklay, M. E. (2020). Tool, toolmaker, and scientist: Case study experiences using GIS in interdisciplinary research. Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 47(4), 350–366.
Rusca, M., & Di Baldassarre, G. (2019). Interdisciplinary critical geographies of water: Capturing the mutual shaping of society and hydrological flows. Water, 11(10), 1973.
Skole, D. L. (2004). Geography as a great intellectual melting pot and the preeminent interdisciplinary environmental discipline. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94(4), 739–743.
Warf, B., & Arias, S. (2008). The spatial turn: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Routledge.


Interdisciplinary collaborations have been promoted as a way of breaking the shackles of field-bound academia and producing innovative solutions to the problems we face today as scholars and a society. Yet enacting best practice faces many challenges, both practical and philosophical. How do we profit from the breadth of collaborations while retaining the depth and richness of our own discipline? How do we make interdisciplinary collaborations work: For projects? For academic communities? For individual scholars? This call for papers invites answers to these quandaries. Papers authored by geographers and non-geographers are encouraged, as are papers that address teaching as well as research. In the age of Covid-19, it would be particularly interesting to hear strategies of collaboration when the social relations, spatial proximity and serendipity on which collaboration so relies have been hindered.

For more information or to submit an abstract, please make contact before November 6:
Dr Angela R Cunningham


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Sarita Panchang*, Research Associate, Social Research & Evaluation Center, Louisiana State University , Lauren Drakapulos, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Geography, University of Guelph, Canada, Meghna Marjadi, Doctoral candidate, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, UMass Amherst, Zach Koehn, Early Career Fellow, Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, Lian Guo, Doctoral Candidate, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, UMass Amherst, Dustin Robertson, PhD Candidate, Urban Studies, Tulane University, Locating geography in transdisciplinarity: a case study of subsistence fishing on the urban American Gulf Coast 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Angela R Cunningham*, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, Universite du Luxembourg, Mariella De Crouy Chanel, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, Universite du Luxembourg, Helena Jaskov, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, Universite du Luxembourg, Sean Takats, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, Universite du Luxembourg, Lorella Viola, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, Universite du Luxembourg, “Handmaiden to history”? A conversation on geography in a digital history center 15 12:00 AM
Discussant Anne Knowles University of Maine 15 12:00 AM

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