The Importance of Direct Experience: A Philosophical Defence of Fieldwork in Human Geography

Max Hope

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    126 Citations (Scopus)
    272 Downloads (Pure)


    Human geography fieldwork is important. Research has shown that when students ‘seeit for themselves’ their enjoyment and understanding is enhanced. In addition it helps develop subject-specific and transferable skills, promotes ‘active learning’ and links theory to ‘real world’ examples in a ‘spiral of learning’. Stressing the socially constructed nature of knowledge and identity, however, Nairn (2005) has made a valuable critique of the assumption that human geography fieldwork gives students direct and unmediated access to ‘the truth’. Drawing on qualitative research with students in New Zealand she shows that their fieldwork experience, rather than enhancing their understanding, reinforced misconceptions they held prior to the trip. Using evidence from an action research project on the student experience of human geography fieldwork in the Western Isles of Scotland, this paper argues that while fieldwork can reinforce preconceptions in the way Nairn describes, this is not inevitably so. Fieldwork can give us direct experiences thatchallenge our preconceptions. The reality of others can ‘call us to attention’ in ways that make them matter to us. This ‘enhanced affective response’ helps deepen our understanding of the wider world and our place within it. It is for this reason that fieldwork remains a valuable mode of learning for human geography students.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)169-182
    JournalJournal of Geography in Higher Education
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - May 2009

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