The Concept of Useful Knowledge

The concept of useful knowledge is of central importance for applied geography but is problematic for some practicing geographers. Those who do not see themselves as applied geographers may interpret the concept as indicating a corollary in the shape of geographical research that is less useful or even useless. This would be a misinterpretation. The concept of useful knowledge should be seen as an expression of the fundamental ethos of applied geography rather than a design to alienate ‘nonapplied’ geographers. The use of the concept of useful knowledge makes explicit the view that some kinds of research are more useful than other kinds. This is not the same as saying that some geographical research is better than other work – all knowledge is useful – but some kinds of research and knowledge are more useful than other kinds in terms of their ability to interpret and offer solutions to problems in contemporary physical and human environments. For ‘nonapplied’ geographers, the idea of applied geography or useful research is a chaotic concept which does not fit with the cultural turn in social geography or the postmodern theorizing of recent years.

The philosophical disjuncture between applied geographers and other geography practitioners is illustrated most clearly by comparing the applied geographical approach with the alternative postmodern perspective. One of the major achievements of postmodern discourse has been the illumination of the importance of difference in society as part of the theoretical shift from an emphasis on economically rooted structures of dominance to cultural ‘otherness’ focused on the social construction of group identities. However, there is a danger that the reification of difference may preclude communal efforts in pursuit of goals such as social justice. A failure to address the unavoidable real life question of ‘whose is the more important difference among differences’ when strategic choices have to be made represents a serious threat to constructing a ‘practical politics’ of difference. Furthermore, if all viewpoints and expressions of identity are equally valid, how do we evaluate social policy or, for that matter, right from wrong? How do we avoid the segregation, discrimination, and marginalization which the postmodern appeal for recognition of difference seeks to counteract? For some commentators the failure to address real issues would seem to suggest that the advent of postmodernism in radical scholarship has done little to advance the cause of social justice. Discussion of relevant issues is abstracted into consideration of how particular discourses of power are constructed and reproduced. Responsibility for bringing theory to bear on real world circumstances is largely abdicated in favor of the intellectually sound but morally myopic premise that there is no such thing as reality. Decoupling social critique from its political–economic basis is not helpful for dealing with the shifting realities of life. Some postmodern writers have acknowledged the dangers of cultural theorists retreating from the empirical world into an ‘in house’ dialog set within an ‘immaterial world’ of limited relevance to ‘material world’ events. Notwithstanding such cautionary codas, in terms of real world problems, for many applied geographers, much postmodern thought would appear to condemn us to inaction while we reflect on the nature of the issue. As we shall see below, a similar critique may be leveled at the Marxist critique of applied geography which was preva lent during the 1970s and 1980s.

These views do not represent an attempt to be prescriptive of all geographical research but are intended to indicate clearly the principles and areas of concern for applied geography. It is a matter of individual conscience whether geographers study topics such as the iconography of landscapes or the optimum location for health centers, but the principle underlying the kind of useful geography espoused by most applied geographers is a commitment to improving existing social, economic, and environmental conditions. In this there can be no compromise – no academic fudge; some geographical research ‘is’ more useful than other work. This is the focus of applied geography.

There will continue to be divergent views on the content and value of geographical research. Such debate is healthy and raises a number of important questions for the discipline and for applied geography in particular. The concept of ‘useful research’ poses the basic questions of useful for whom?, who decides what is useful?, and based on what criteria?. The related questions of values in research, and the nature of the relationship between pure and applied research are also issues of central importance for applied geography.