Physical and Human Geography writing styles

Physical and Human Geography writing styles

Adapting your writing style between different disciplines is a challenge that any undergraduate faces – reports, essays, posters, and pamphlets all require different approaches. In geography however, there is an additional challenge: the differing requirements of academic styles between physical and human geography. This is often a source of some confusion.

I am not an expert on human geography style, but I have seen the same mistakes repeated by undergraduates when writing cross discipline or physical geography pieces. Though sometimes this is an essay writing issue, I think that at least sometimes there is a misunderstanding on style. Most of these problems origin of differences about where the authority of research comes from.

The source of authority
In the social sciences, the authority of any text comes mainly or a lot from the person. For instance, it is at least as much the fact that Marx said something that is important, as much as the philosophy. By contrast, in the physical sciences, it is the data that is the source of authority. However influential a person is, if they make an assertion without data to back it up it isn’t likely to go down well.

Because of the issue of authority above, there is a difference in a way that quotes are used in these two disciplines. For human geography, quotes are frequently used because the exact phrasing is important to the philosophy being explained. For physical geography, quotes are only really ever used if both the person saying the words and the exact phrasing matters. Almost the only time that this is the case is when an influential researcher says something considered quite outrageous. It is almost an insult to put a physical researcher’s assertion in quotes (I say almost, because I think this is debatable). It gives a distance from the person writing it and this distance is respectful in human geography. In physical geography the distance is more like distancing yourself from something because you don’t want to be associated it.

One of the initial things that needs to be done when presenting any writing is deciding how you’re going to structure the content. Common strategies are by topic, by author, or by philosophy. The latter two make more sense usually for human geography, whereas the former often makes more sense for physical geography. This is less definite, and will vary a lot depending on the subject matter, but can be a guide.

Expectation of literature depth/breadth
This is again, slightly controversial, but generally I think that human geography calls for a detailed reading of a smaller number of texts (that are often longer, books say rather than journal articles). Physical geography, by the time you are at third year level, generally requires selective reading to gather evidence from a number of sources.

Never cite it. Always go to the source. There. Now, that being said, there are times in physical geography when wikipedia is not a bad place to start to understand some of the basic concepts. Definitions of concepts, like when the Pleistocene was (that are frequently unreferenced), are easily found on Wikipedia. This is fine for things that you can point to and are in a sense ‘definite’, or at least have limited controversy and/or are often reviewed by wikipedia editors. For social science or philosophical concepts, wikipedia is at best a poor substitute and and worst downright misleading. For the physical sciences, it can be quite useful. Still never cite it though.