Every space we move through is embedded with all kinds of meaning. It is very important to understand how those spaces are created, what meaning we attach to them and how we develop as individuals through them.

Karen Morin

Karen Morin's newest book, Civic Discipline: Geography in America, 1860-1890, explores the roots of American geography. Her critical look at the commercial interests that dominated the field 150 years ago raises questions that still resonate today.

The American Geographical Society was founded by businessmen in the mid-1800s. From their vantage point in New York City, these men wanted information about new frontiers around the globe not just for the sake of knowledge itself, but to make investment decisions, says Morin. What route should new railroad lines take through the interior of the country? What areas along those lines were most promising for development? What natural resources could be mined from Africa or the Arctic?

"My underlying thesis is that these businessmen were pushing exploration and interests around the globe for commercial development purposes," she says. Such a conflation of interests raises complex questions, including those regarding corporate and government funding of research, says Morin. "We need to think very carefully, for instance, about how the knowledge produced in universities is being used. Who is to ultimately benefit?" 

While Civil Discipline explores a decidedly masculine side of geography, Morin's earlier book, Frontiers of Femininity: A New Historical Geography of the Nineteenth-Century American West, focuses on the feminine. In a collection of essays, she examines the tensions and unique insights provided by nineteenth-century, female British travel writers as they traveled through North America.

In asking questions about gender, geography and history, Morin's work illustrates the breadth of her field. Far more than memorizing place names, geography encompasses complex questions about space. "Every space we move through is embedded with all kinds of meaning," says Morin. "It is very important to understand how those spaces are created, what meaning we attach to them and how we develop as individuals through them. I've always loved thinking about place and how place shapes who we are as people."

Posted October 2012

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