You Go Where You Know - Pacific Standard

You Go Where You Know

Who you are predicts where you will go in the city.
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(Map: pockygallery/Shutterstock)

(Map: pockygallery/Shutterstock)

As a graduate student at a major research university, I taught a lot of undergraduate courses. Armed with large grants, professors could buy out of the obligation. That left introductory courses to me to design as I saw fit. I took advantage of the opportunity, rewriting "World Regional Geography." This required class made undergrads learn a lot of geographic information as well as geographic knowledge. I wasn't interested in the trivia. On the first day, I made students fill out a political map of the world, demarcating every nation-state. That would be the last time they would ascribe a place name to some funny shape.

You put a blank political map in front of most people, they will struggle to identify large swaths of geography. They will feel humiliated that they don't know the geographic equivalent of 1 + 1 = 2. They are illiterate. They are data points.

The countries my students know appear to be remarkably free of such atrocities. Is there a connection? Welcome to World Regional Geography.

Geography isn't the "science" of obscure crossword clues. When I distributed the blank map, I was conducting a survey of my students. I collected their efforts. Analyzed the results and presented my findings to the class.

Africa, an entire continent, barely exists. Pacific Island nations are invisible and a good place to test atomic bombs because no one lives there. I then overlay a map of conflict and human rights abuses. The countries my students know appear to be remarkably free of such atrocities. Is there a connection? Welcome to World Regional Geography.

Geography as social science inquiry is at its best when analyzing how people perceive place. The proper identification of a place name is one way to measure how people make sense of their environment. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, we have a new way to measure world regional geography. For the academically inclined, read "Indigenization of Urban Mobility." More accessible, read "The Emerging Science of Computational Anthropology." What's the difference between how locals and non-locals experience a city?

The thrust of this paper betters the research methodology using mobility data. The authors prove empirically that non-locals experience Chinese cities differently than locals do. Duh.

Take that algorithm and run with it. Overlay other data on those patterns. How do non-local geographic patterns correlate with gentrification? You might forget the name of the place affected. But at least you know your geography.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.

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