Tracking a Discipline's Evolution

Geography scholars examine every dissertation going back to 1888 to see how the field has changed.

September 16, 2014

Two Kent State University professors frustrated by the lack of analytical data on the evolution of their discipline have compiled all of the field’s doctoral dissertations into a database to track growth and changes in the field.

Professors David Kaplan and Jennifer Mapes hope their study will provide geographers with a comprehensive overview of shifts in the regions and topics of interest from the ground up.

Some findings were as they expected. Dissertations related to more analytical work, such as geographic information systems, have grown more popular in the past few decades, for example.

But even some of the most basic data compiled in the study have proved interesting, Kaplan said.

When he and Mapes started this study, they’d ask colleagues at conferences and meetings how many dissertations they thought there were in geography.

“People really had no clue,” Kaplan said.

They do now, thanks to Kaplan and Mapes's compilation. There have been 10,290 dissertations, dating back to 1888.

And in recent years, there have been about 300 annual dissertations in geography. That’s a lot for a small field, Kaplan said.

Kaplan and Mapes’s database includes the title, author, date and university, and they’ve started to turn the data into graphs to visualize the information.  The first of several articles on the recent is scheduled to be published in Geographical Review early next year.

They already knew that one of the most important changes in the field was the introduction of more quantitative analysis and spatial science, Mapes said. Yet their data shows that trend didn’t catch on in dissertations until the 1970s and early 1980s, whereas books on the study of geography have pegged the introduction to the 1960s.

The data also show changes in the types of universities that were producing Ph.Ds, with a much more diverse group of universities today, Kaplan said.

In the 1920s, there were about 13 institutions with programs, and 80 percent of the 97 degrees granted came out of a handful of schools. That’s compared to 73 institutions with programs in the 2000s, and only 18 percent of the 3,238 degrees granted in that decade came from the highest-producing universities. In fact, some of today’s key players in geography doctorate degrees weren’t even offering degrees a few decades ago. The University of California at Santa Barbara, for example, didn’t have a single dissertation before 1980. Now, it’s one of the top producers, Kaplan said.

On the other hand, institutions such as the University of Michigan and University of Chicago, both key players in the early decades of the discipline, no longer have doctorate programs.

There was a trickle of geography Ph.D.s granted in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a small peak in the 1930s. Then the field grew steadily after World War II, before dropping in popularity in the 1980s. The numbers have spiked in recent decades.

The steady rise in the number of people pursuing doctorate degrees in geography mirrors an overall increase in the number of doctorates in all disciplines.

Still, it’s impressive to see how many dissertations have been produced in recent years, Mapes said.

She put together a graph that lists the name of every person who’s written a dissertation. Kaplan, who earned his Ph.D in 1991, falls in the middle of the more than 100-year-old list, she said.

The study maps which universities have high percentages of dissertations focused on domestic or foreign regions, and also shifts in which regions of the world were popular topics for dissertations.

Canada and Europe were runaway winners in the years prior to 1931. Both fell sharply thereafter, especially Canada. East and Southeast Asia, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, are on the rise.

The data also show the field’s abiding interest in Latin America, Kaplan said. That’s the only region that’s remained popular in each time period since the 1930s.

Much of the focus so far has been on the words within the dissertation titles and how they’re used. Geographers today like to explain the field as a study of space and place, Mapes said. But those words didn’t become popular in dissertations until the 1960s.

Geography is a relatively young discipline in terms of university academics, and for much of its history, geographers have struggled to define what exactly the discipline includes, said Keith Woodward, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

So for a historical perspective, this type of database would be helpful looking at a timeline of how geographers defined their field, Woodward said.

In a broader sense, it would be fascinating to correlate geopolitical shifts to the types of topics and theories being argued in dissertations, Woodward said.

A database of dissertations could provide a glimpse into what academics are interested in and how their focuses shifts as de-colonization and globalization occurs, Woodward said.

During World War II, for example, several faculty members of the UW-Madison geography department were key players in projects visualizing the space of conflict in Europe, Woodward said. After the war when they returned to teaching and advising students, they did so with a perspective on globalization that was influenced by their experiences in war.

Right now, Kaplan and Mapes are looking at the gender of dissertation authors. Historically, men have outnumbered women in geography doctorate degree programs, more so than in other social sciences such as psychology or sociology, Kaplan said. 

He and Mapes are looking to see whether women have been more likely to pursue one area of geography than another and whether certain schools attract more female Ph.D.  candidates in geography.

They also want to create an algorithm that would let them dig deeper into the text each dissertation's abstract, instead of only the title. And Kaplan thinks it would be interesting to create a map of the authors of dissertations to see which colleges they come from and whether they ended up in academe.

Kaplan and Mapes aren’t aware of any similar studies in other disciplines that track dissertations as far back as they did. But they think it would benefit other academic fields to replicate their efforts to map out which issues were popular and when.

In sociology, for example, has research shifted from urban studies to more dissertations on health? Or is Sigmund Freud still commonly cited in psychology dissertations?  

“These are the kinds of things that would be fascinating,” Kaplan said.


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