The Coastal History Blog 24: “Port Geography at the Crossroads”

Cloistered subfields predictably produce cloistered scholarship. Cloistered scholarship is, as a rule, quite dull.  Why, then, does cloistering exercise such a fatal attraction for so many academics?

A new article in the Journal of Transport Geography confronts this dilemma in an unusually honest way.  “Port Geography at the Crossroads”—co-authored by nine academics based variously in Canada, France, Belgium, the UK, the USA, and China—is an open letter from a subfield in crisis. [1] The authors express their regret and frustration in language not often seen in social science journals.  They reproduce e-mail exchanges in which mainstream journal editors curtly brushed them off.  They describe tense meetings between port geographers and human geographers at conferences, likening them to “despairing attempts to bring former, long-separated couples back together.” [2]

After embracing “hard positivism” for decades, port geography can look back on a long series of missed opportunities. According to the co-authors:

  • the subfield is known for “monographs which were largely descriptive in nature” or informed by economic theory at the expense of other theoretical frameworks
  • “port geography has paid inadequate attention to the human components of ports, such as passenger terminals or dock workers”
  • “the urban impacts of port reform have been largely absent” in the port geography scholarship
  • the field “’has traditionally been characterized by political innocence to say the least’”; “critical” approaches of any sort have been rare [3]

Port geography, the authors admit, needs to change. Port geography should change.  After all, by definition, port geography encompasses a host of topics and themes that are of wide interest.  They even offer a Venn diagram illustrating how their subfield could act as a natural crossroads and portal where many disciplines could meet and interact.  Yet, in practice, most of those topics and themes are not ones that actual, currently existing port geographers write about much. There’s a disconnect between what the subfield says it includes, and what the subfield really covers.  Engaging with those new sources and research questions would change port geography beyond recognition.  Would it really be port geography if it pursued x method, or took on a, b, and c topics?  Such change is hard to contemplate, yet the need for change remains.  Thus they go round in circles, and the questioning begins anew.

What is the root of the problem? Why do others not join? Why do practitioners not venture out to meet them?  The port geographers observe that their subfield is highly technical; using an economist’s term, they refer to the “high entry cost” for novices and transdisciplinary border-crossers.  This, I think, is an unfortunate choice of words.  All academic subfields have a high entry cost (that’s part of what makes them academic), and to suggest otherwise comes across as condescending.

On a more substantive level, though, if a subfield ossifies, goes stagnant, or becomes perceived as irrelevant, is the technical abstruseness of its subject matter really to blame?

Let’s suppose we are considering a different subfield, say, the study of popular music in the 1960s. We won’t understand what Brian Wilson was up to all those months in his studio working on Pet Sounds unless we have some experts with a pretty amazing level of specialized knowledge about the recording techniques of the period.  We also need scholars who can think about the music business as a business.  If The Sound of Music soundtrack outsold the Beatles over the 1960s as a whole, that’s something we need to know.  We also, clearly, need big-picture historians who can tell us—despite that robust performance by The Sound of Music soundtrack—what the Sgt. Pepper album was all about, how the Beatles album covers changed the way we photograph rock groups, and overall what the Beatles meant—how they captured or expressed the spirit of their age.

To affirm the need for one of these types of scholars is not to devalue or disparage the other types. However, it is typically the big-picture, synthetic, and transdisciplinary academics who offer the overarching, usefully debatable propositions.  They are also, usually, the ones who communicate the relevance of the subfield to what we like to call, for convenience, “mainstream” historians.

Imagine, though, what our study of the 1960s would look like if the specialists believed that their case studies and empirical work, as a model of caution and rigor, refuted the very need for big-picture historians and their airy speculations.  We might fill shelves with what some like to call, approvingly, “fine-grained historicism.”  Yet what sort of scholar is best positioned to tell the difference between fine-grained historicism and simple myopia?  We need someone who can see the forest as well as the trees.

That big-picture scholarship is going to get done, one way or another. If an influential scholar insists that your John Lennon biography is “not music history” (what’s all that politics and sex and religion doing in there?) you’ll start looking for another rubric, or make one up yourself.

In the case of port geography, that’s exactly what happened. By the time that the port geographers were ready to call for more pluralism, a new attitude, and a new openness, Mobility Studies was so far along on its independent trajectory that it had its own journal, Mobilities. You can read an overview of that new subfield here (introduction to the special issue is open access at this time). [4] Mobility Studies doesn’t police its borders. It is finding so many allies and making so many connections that it appears, at first glance, to have no center at all.  This, however, seems to be a recipe for intellectual vitality.  Meanwhile, port geography has, since the 1970s, “dragged itself even further from [its] mother discipline, making fewer efforts to rebuild the connection.” [5]

Perhaps, when we speak about intellectual ecologies, we should add something new to Isaiah Berlin’s foxes and hedgehogs. Does your subfield behave like a potted plant, or is it a vigorous, rambling vine?



[1] A.K.Y. Ng, C. Ducruet, W. Jacobs, J. Monios, T. Notteboom, J.-P. Rodrigue, B. Slack, K. Tam, and G. Wilmsmeier, “Port geography at the crossroads with human geography: between flows and spaces,” Journal of Transport History 41, pp. 84-96.  A pdf version of this article is available with no paywall here if you register for free. Thanks to for making this generally available. They tweet @PortEconomics .

[2] I used of the open access pdf version of “Port geography,” which is paginated differently from the published version cited above. This quotation appears on page 32 of the pdf version.

[3] “Port geography” pdf, bullet point items quoted from pages 27, 32, 23, and 16 respectively.

[4] Anyaa Anim-Addo, William Hasty, and Kimberley Peters, “The Mobilities of Ships and Shipped Mobilities,” Mobilities 9, no. 3 (2014), 337-349.  William Hasty is on Twitter as @Hasty_Tweets .

[5] “Port geography” pdf, 32.

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