Mapping the big population geography issues

This week, we invite Professor Allan Findlay to share his thoughts on his recent award of Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers.

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

A very generous note was circulated to the study group last week listing some of the factors behind the announcement last week of my Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. It is humbling, as noted in the words of Scotland’s bard Robert Burns, ‘to see oursels as others see us’. While hugely grateful at an individual level, my overwhelming hope on hearing about the RGS award was that everyone in POPGRG will see it as a wider recognition of the work undertaken by all research group members. Indeed, quite rightly, most of the text of the note that was circulated related to joint research ventures involving large numbers of members of the research group. Three decades ago, this included POPGRG members who joined me in producing the stream of work that emerged from the RGS Working Group on Skilled International Migration. More recent examples of shared ventures have included the ESRC’s Centre for Population Change, or the group of us who made an input to the UK government’s Foresight Panel on Migration and Global Environmental Change. Meanwhile, although I had the privilege of being founder and long-standing editor of the journal Population Space and Place, this was a joint venture not just with co-editors, but with hundreds of POPGRG members who helped the journal by acting as referees. I therefore repeat my suggestion, that the RGS award is a reflection of the work of the wider POPGRG community. None of us stands alone in the work we do, and I hope you all feel that the award, in part at least, values your contribution to making population geography.  

Given the award, Fran Darlington-Pollock asked me to make a short contribution to the POPGRG blog, reflecting on what I would recommend as the research group’s priorities for the future, in light of my research experience of the last four decades. My response would be simply ‘keep on researching the big population geography issues’.

Of course, ‘keeping on’ is not ‘simple’ for at least three reasons. First, our understanding of population ‘knowledges’ has changed massively since I started publishing population papers in the 1970s (see Fran Darlington-Pollock’s earlier blog, to think again about the context of being a population geographer in a post-truth world). The need to confront fake news about population geographies has never been greater. That will be a huge ongoing challenge, but even greater is the task of recognising the problematic nature of how we produce and disseminate knowledges about population. 

This leads to the second reason that mapping big population pictures is not easy. This is to understand how research as a social practice has changed. If we are to be credible in the expertise that we offer as population geographers, we need to be more critically reflexive than ever before about what it means to ‘do’ research.  Which populations are we seeking to represent, how do we engage in representation and how do we disseminate our research findings to ensure that they make a difference not just within but beyond the academy?  I commend POPGRG for all that they have done to address these questions in recent years.

“None of us stands alone in the work we do… and the vibrancy of the group gives me great hope for the future of population geography”

Third, we need to think big about the social context and the social structures within which we work as population geographers. Our responsibility must be to continue to be bold in bringing population issues to the fore in the wider social science and humanities community, and indeed in the wider academy and beyond. The success of the study group has always been greatest when it has been outward looking: 1) engaging with other disciplines like demography (let us never forget or ignore the immense methodological strength that demographic methods have offered to Population Geography), 2) interacting with colleagues from other countries helping us to gain a more balanced global perspective, and 3) addressing what Chris Philo once called ‘real world’ population issues. By this he meant that outside the academy, people have no difficulty in identifying big topics that have a strong population dimension, and we cannot afford to be silent on these matters. This is where we have the greatest potential to make ‘our’ work count as population geographers. For me, two of these  issues have landed on my desk in the last month – first, the need to write a paper challenging the lack of academic understanding of how asylum seekers arrive on our shores shown in Priti Pratel’s so-called New Immigration Plan (with its frightening proposal to create a two-tier asylum system) and to present an evidence base to refute many of the assumptions of the New Plan. The second issue has been the invitation to identify which population vulnerabilities are the ones requiring most urgent attention as we approach COP26 later in the year. I am sure as you read this, you will also have good examples from your own life spheres of the big issues (no doubt including demographic aspects of the current pandemic) where it has been important to make the population geographer’s voice heard.      

Summing up, when I suggested POPGRG needs to ‘keep on tackling the big population geography issues’, it was no accident that I started with the words ‘keep on’. POPGRG members are already doing an amazing job and the vibrancy of the group gives me great hope for the future of population geography. Keep up the good work everybody, and keep your focus on the key population issue of our times. I wish you all well.

Allan M Findlay (University of St Andrews)


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