Values in Applied Geography

At each stage of the research process the applied geographer is faced with a number of methodological and ethical questions. Decisions are required on defining the nature of the problem, its magnitude, who is affected and in what ways, as well as on the best means of addressing the problem. All of these require value judgments on, for example, the acceptability of existing conditions (what is an acceptable level of air pollution? or of infant malnutrition?). Values are also central to the evaluation and selection of possible remedial strategies, including comparative analysis of the benefits and disbenefits of different approaches for different people and places. In some cases, the applied geographer may seek to minimize such value judgments by enhancing the objectivity of the research methodology (e.g., by employing a classification of agricultural land capability to inform a set aside policy). In most instances, however, it is impossible to remove the need for value judgment. The impossibility of objective value free research is now axiomatic.

One issue of particular concern refers to the values that condition the selection, conduct, and implementation of research, a dilemma highlighted by the aphorism ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’ Some advocates of public policy research by applied geographers, express this in terms of doubts over whether government departments will commission necessary research into the effectiveness and consequences of their own policies and a real danger that constraints will be imposed over publication, especially if this contains criticisms of the sponsors or explores politically sensitive areas. Applied geographers must beware of any restrictions imposed by research sponsors and be aware of the ways in which their research results may be used. Applied geographers must seek to ensure that their work contributes to human welfare. In practice, this goal may be approached by careful selection of clients and research projects, by ensuring freedom to disseminate results and, where possible, through engagement in the implementation and monitoring of relevant policies or strategies.