Geography and the British Association for the Advancement of Science

Project Details


The project examined the connections between the science of geography and the geography of science, in Britain, using a detailed empirical study of the British Association for the Advancement of Science as its focus. The work thus drew upon - and drew together - theoretical and conceptual work in the history of science, the history of geography and on the social construction of science in science studies. The project was graded 'Outstanding' by the ESRC evaluators. The 2010 book 'Geography and Science in Britain, 1831-1939' was the first major study of the BAAS in over 25 years.

Layman's description

This was a project examining the connections between the science of geography as it emerged in Briatin during an age of professionalisation and institutional formation, and the geography of science (the conception that science is shaped and constituted by the social and institutional circumstances found in partiuclar places and sites). Because the British Association for the Advancement of Science took its annual meetings to different towns and cities throughout Britain from its foundation in 1831, its records of these meetings and the content and conduct of its scientific papers provide a means to bring together these two concerns around science and geography and to test them empirically. A major book (2010) and papers in 2006, 2008, and 2010, illustrate the rich and complex findings concerning these connections.

Key findings

1 Geography in the BAAS was the key site and institutional space for geography's development as a science, not the RGS, until c.1860s;

2 There are precise and situated connections between the making and shaping of the content of science, and of geography as a science, in relation to different towns and citie: that is, place determined and influnced what science there was undertaken and was held to be;

3 The BAAS helped modernise geography as a science;

4 The BAAS long suffered from public perceptions over the nature and scientific content of its constituent sections. Because this was so, there developed a clear schism between the BAAS figures who saw the meetings as about promoting science as a civic and cultural good, and public audiences who turned to the BAAS meetings for social entertainment, not always for education and learning. geography was seen as a 'popular' subject, even the 'Ladies' section' by virtue of its many relatively undemanding papers, and the culture of explorers' talks certainly added a layer of celebrity interest (but not of taxing science) to the geography (section E) meetings;

5 The BAAS was critically important to the emergence of 'modern' human geography in its complex management of the relationships between ethnology, anthropology and biology within sections C, E and H;

6 The BAAS was a vital force in the promotion of the physical sciences of earth measurement (for example in the terrestrial magnetism debate), but, as the mathematical and other sciences became distinct in method and focus, BAAS work in section E certainly, gave way to exploration, to concerns about the different features of 'modern' human geography and moved away from its earlier connections with the distributional and locational sciences of botany and geology in particular;

7 The BAAS overseas meetings were key devices for imperial and colonial scientific outreach, in which geography (Section E) was a central feature;

8 The work pointed to the significance of this connection between the BAAS and the geography of science/science of geography and showed what might be possible for other such institutional studies in other national contexts (for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science), or for other bodies and societies within Briatin (most probably for the nineteenth century).
Effective start/end date1/02/0531/07/07


  • ESRC: £98,417.00