50 Years Later

In September 1971 I arrived in Columbus from England to enroll in Geography at Ohio State. Initially, I was there as an MA student but then I stayed on and finally graduated with a Ph.D. in 1976. In 1975 I took a job at Syracuse University, even though when I first came to Ohio State I had no plan on staying in the United States. Graduate school certainly changed me in terms of job expectations and with respect to what I thought it was possible to study under the rubric of “geography.” In this piece, I want to address this question of the continuing impact of my time at Ohio State on my life and career in the years since.selfie of John Agnew

I must say that in the immediate aftermath of graduate school I was pleased to go to a department and to a university that was much more “relaxed” than Geography at Ohio State had been in terms of what was required of graduate students with all of its compulsory analytic and quantitative courses. This was to wane as I reflected on all I had gained by taking a course of study in which the educational whole increasingly appeared to me as greater than the sum of its parts. At face value, in the early 1970s Ohio State was one of the great centers of geography’s quantitative revolution, overthrowing all of what had long gone for geography. This was perhaps down to how much Professor Ned Taaffe had produced a curriculum at Ohio State that focused on the virtue of analysis and rigorous thinking even as it was packaged perhaps too simplistically in terms of opposing quantitative methods and spatial generalization to the excessively descriptive place accounts of what was viewed as “traditional” geography.

Indeed, I discovered that obscured by this sort of rhetoric were the achievements of many of the people I encountered at Ohio State whose work was open to making place accounts (emphasizing particularity and similarity but eschewing positivist generalization) more rigorous and comparative. I am thinking, for example, of Kevin Cox’s research on suburban voting behavior and so-called locational conflicts over public housing and various NIMBY land uses (my doctoral dissertation is an example of this inspiration), Emilio Cassetti’s contribution of an inferential statistics (his expansion method) explicitly based on searching for regional and local relationships between socio-economic variables that might differ significantly from place to place, and in the encouragement I had received from John Kessel in Political Science (within his course on Public Opinion and Political Behavior) in searching for regional differences in popular attitudes to foreign policy across the United States. These and others suggested in fact that geographical difference could be studied rigorously.

John Agnew and granddaughter playing chessSo, rather than looking back on my graduate school experience and seeing it as something completely different from what I did later, I came to see within a very short span of time that I had learned much that fed into what was to become my work on place and politics and, in fact, much of what I have done in the years since. The influences may have been serendipitous, like my showing up at Ohio State in the first place, but what I learned there was foundational for everything thereafter.


John Agnew 

Professor, Ladder Faculty


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