This paper presents a brief history of geography in the United Kingdom, how it was institutionalized, referring to external impacts on research and teaching.
Although geography has a long history in the United Kingdom as an intellectual activity, extending back to the Age of Exploration in the late 16th century, it has only been institutionalized as an academic discipline in universities since the end of the 19th century. Geography was established as a discipline offering an integrated study of complex reciprocal relationships among human societies and physical components of the Earth.
By the early 1960s, quantitative and theoretical revolutions were having considerable impacts not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom. Since then, geography has become a popular subject in elementary and secondary education, as well as higher education, in the UK.
Although spatial science expanded rapidly in the 1960s, and continued to do so in the early 1970s, it never became part of the mainstream of human geography. Some fundamental critiques of the positivist approach led to the emergence of humanistic geography and radical geography. The following decades were turbulent for human geography—exciting but confusing—in part because human geographers were busy exploring new ideas. Then, the GIS revolution occurred in the late 1980s in the USA and the UK, which greatly affected geography. Around the same time, as new aspects of social and cultural geography came to be sufficiently established, differences between spatial science and new social and cultural geography became apparent.
By the end of the 20th century, geography was firmly established in UK universities. Geography is taught to a large number of students and attracts many applicants to universities. However, changes in funding regimes and school curricula have influenced education and research. One major change in UK geography in the 1990s can be found in its research orientation. Previously, geography was an integrated area of study, based on physical and human geography, and its focus was on how much a university department could cover in terms of disciplines. However, after a new funding regime, called Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), was introduced, all geography departments came to be graded according to the quality of their research.
External assessments of both research through the RAE and teaching through QAA have greatly affected how geography is practiced. Although UK geography remains an apparently successful and vibrant intellectual discipline, it might have suffered from fragmentation. Like all disciplines, geography has become fragmented and diversified in recent decades, because of its greater breadth and depth of knowledge. Based not only on substantive but also on epistemological and methodological differences, it is usually divided into physical and human geography. Moreover, human geography can be distinguished by the two major approaches of spatial analysis and social theory. This is because geography has become a community of sub-communities and individual departments, responding to research and teaching assessments.
Despite fragmentation, geography in the United Kingdom continues to develop in the university and school systems, and has a substantive international reputation for the quality of its scholarship.