The Value of Applied Geography

A fundamental question for those working within the framework of applied geography concerns the value of a problem oriented approach. We have examined this issue already in our discussions of useful knowledge and the relationship between pure and applied research but we return to it here to address the specific critique of applied geography that has emanated from Marxist theorists. While the power of the Marxist critique has been much reduced by its own success in exposing the value bases of research, it still offers a useful perspective on the value of applied research.

The essence of the Marxist critique of applied social research is that it produces ameliorative policies that merely serve to patch up the present system, aid the legitimation of the state, and bolster the forces of capitalism with their inherent tendencies to create inequality. For these radical geographers participation in policy evaluation and formulation is ineffective since it hinders the achievement of the greater goal of revolutionary social change.

In terms of praxis, the outcome of this perspective is to do nothing short of a radical reconstruction of the dominant political economy (a position which, as we have seen, may also be reached from a different direction by some postmodernist theorists). Although the analytical value of the Marxist critique of capitalism is widely acknowledged, its political agenda, and in particular, opposition to any action not directed at revolutionary social change, finds little favor among applied geographers. To ignore the opportunity to improve the quality of life of some people in the short term in the hope of achieving possibly greater benefit in the longer term is not commensurate with the ethical position implicit in the problem oriented approach of applied geography.

Neither does the argument that knowledge is power and a public commodity that can be used for good or evil undermine the strength of applied geography. Any knowledge could be employed in an oppressive and discriminating manner to accentuate inequalities of wealth and power but this is no argument for eschewing research. On the contrary, it signals a need for greater engagement by applied geographers in the policymaking and implementation process provided, of course, that those involved are aware of and avoid the danger of cooptation by, for example, funding agencies.

Furthermore, access to the expertise and knowledge produced by applied geographical research is not the sole prerogative of the advantaged in society, but can be equally available to pressure groups or local communities seeking a more equitable share of society’s resources. Examples of the participatory tradition of applied research in urban geography range from the advocacy planning practiced in several US cities whereby professional planning expertise is provided to minority groups lacking the financial ability to purchase such services, to nongovernmental organization (NGO) sponsored grassroots social action by marginalized communities in cities in the Third World.

Applied research involves the formulation of goals and strategies and the testing of existing institutional policies within the context of ethical standards as criteria. This should not imply a simple system maintenance approach to problem solving. Indeed, it is often necessary to take an unpopular anti-establishment position, which can result in a major confrontation. For practical examples of this we may refer to the recommendations of the British community development projects of the 1970s, which advocated fundamental changes in the distribution of wealth and power and which led to conflict with both central and local government; as well as more recent policy oriented analyses of poverty and deprivation in which the identification of sociospatial patterns is used to advance a critique of government policy.