An Attenuated Separation

Interdisciplinary relationships are a reminder that traditional university disciplines are historical constructs that do not necessarily promote innovative teaching and research. Some disciplines have long shared a measure of organic integrity, but the 'newer' social sciences did not. Geography, together with anthropology, sociology, and political science, occupied a poorly articulated middle ground between the natural sciences, history or philosophy, and language studies. That intermediate space, never a monopoly of the academy, remained open or accessible to educated elites that drew from and contributed to a reservoir of information and ideas.

Under the banner of 'geographia', in its etymological sense, ancient Greek, Roman, and Islamic travelers and writers shared their experiences and knowledge with an educated public, intensely curious about the 'world'. From Herodotus to Idrisi, they created a durable genre of 'places, people, and events', that met the intrinsic human need to know about 'how the world looks', about 'what other peoples do and how they behave', and about 'where things happened'. Contributing to a sense of roots, lineage, and identity, such reflections developed into culturally grounded metanarratives that cast the individual as an observer of similarities and differences in physical and human landscapes.

Given the exponential growth of educational interest and activity during the late nineteenth-century, 'geographia' benefited from broad interest, sponsorship, and applicability to new commercial and political needs. The scientific survey of Napoleon in Egypt (1799–1801) led to the formation of geographical societies in major cities, with meetings that drew increasing attendance and funding for university positions in geography. Governments and wealthy patrons financed a spate of expeditions around the globe, to 'discover' and explore, with predictable feedbacks for popular enthusiasm and geopolitical strategies. Business travelers abroad led to the appearance of ponderous 'handbooks' and slim primers about foreign places and peoples that became part of school curricula.

The emerging discipline was empowered by adventurous travelers who calculated geographical coordinates, measured temperatures in rainforests, recorded geological structures, pressed plant sheets, and brought back storerooms full of ethnographic 'curios'. Not all were missionaries, and some 'shot their way across Africa'. Leopold II of Belgium, who presided over the realworld set for The Heart of Darkness, used part of his tainted wealth to build the incomparable Africana collection of Tervuren. Distasteful or unethical as the process and some of its actors were, the era of Victorian exploration produced a wealth of empirical data. It also placed a premium on fieldwork and engaged the academy in outreach via regular public lectures, serious travel publications, and a strong body of university courses presenting distant lands or unfamiliar but intriguing proximal regions.

During the 1880s, it became apparent that the classical era curriculum could not do justice to either the systematics of human geography or the accumulating wealth of ethnographic material. Then, in a space of two decades, different solutions were found. In Germany, geography diversified to accommodate human geography and, temporarily, ethnography (Vo?lkerkunde). But in the USA, a separate field of anthropology emerged with the momentum of a German expatriate.