Doing No Harm

*The original post for this article is available here on the AAG website


There is a remarkable disconnect between the many forms of violence stalking the earth, and a lack of attention to and critical reflection on violence by geographers. Arguably, at least in the United States, violence is now so pervasive, at every scale, that we take it for granted. For humans, this ranges from domestic and sexual violence, to mass shootings, acts labeled as terrorism, and warfare (to name just a few). For the more-than-human world, human actions also have increasingly violent effects on species and ecosystems. Geography needs to transcend this disconnect: not just to study geographies of violence, but more importantly to examine the role of Geography in shaping violence. This is essential if we are to challenge its pervasiveness in the name of developing a pro-peace agenda.

From its beginning as a discipline, Geography has been valued by politicians and the military for its potential to shape state violence. It was an important tool for prosecuting colonialism, and until quite recently warfare concerned the occupation and control of geographical space. The spatialities of warfare shifted dramatically with the Vietnam War, as military victory came to be seen as controlling hearts and minds rather than land, but they still matter. Geospatial technologies are essential to the targeted killings from smart bombs and drone warfare. They ease consciences by further separating perpetrator from victim, and make possible the capacity of the U.S. administration to ‘surgically’ eliminate even its own citizens deemed unworthy of prosecution for alleged crimes against the nation-state. The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has identified ‘human geography’ as essential to troop deployment—reminiscent of the controversial Human Terrain System project that forced the American Association of Anthropologists to think carefully about how ethnography can facilitate violence. The Cultural Knowledge Consortium, a joint and interagency effort of the U.S. Government and Department of Defense, is exploring the utility of VGI (volunteered geographic information). The recently disclosed massive National Security Agency surveillance, authorized under the umbrella of the Patriot Act, raises profound privacy concerns precisely because communications data now can be geolocated quickly and precisely.

A related set of questions surround geographical research receiving military and defense funding. Some of this may seem benign (I attended two NATO funded workshops in the 1980s with no obvious military application), but this is undoubtedly a slippery slope. The American Geographical Society is collaborating on a recent large grant from the Department of Defense Minerva Project, to study indigenous communities throughout Central America. Funders’ institutional agendas always shape the research questions asked, and thereby the possible answers, with potentially deep implications for affected communities and places. I thus applaud the current AAG practice of not applying for defense or military research funding; this should become AAG policy. Academics face increasing institutional and personal pressure to seek external funding, and the military is one of the very few growth areas of discretionary funding in the U.S. Federal budget. How will such developments shape disciplinary research priorities and their alignment with means of violence?

Notwithstanding inevitable political and policy disagreement about the necessity, goals and tactics of any war, Geography’s entanglement with military agendas, everywhere, raises profound questions for us all as professional geographers. The phrasing could be stronger, but according to the AAG Statement of Professional Ethics: “research should be conducted only after careful consideration of three fundamental principles: (1) Respect for persons and communities…. (2) Equity…. (3) Beneficence: The maximization of benefits and the minimization of harm from research.” How do we square such ethical obligations with research that is bound up with military agendas and other potentially violent actions? This question demands sustained attention from the Association, engaging across the full spectrum of disciplinary expertise and perspectives. It is part of a broader debate, about whether current principles designed to protect human subjects (the ‘common rule’ that determines IRB procedures in the U.S.) are adequate to the task of ensuring that scholarship is consistent with respect for the integrity of human and more-than-human dignity. Indeed, it is time to revisit the AAG Statement of Professional Ethics (revised in 2009, in light of controversies surrounding a previous research project in Oaxaca—see John Agnew’s June 2009 AAG presidential column), engaging also with our Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group’s declaration on research ethics.

More localized forms of violence are much less joined at the hip with Geography, but nonetheless are intensely geographical in nature and consequence. Gun violence is shaped by geographically variegated attitudes toward gun ownership; inter-scalar and inter-jurisdictional variation in regulating the possession and sale of, and access to guns, and where they can be carried (with U.S. mayors leading the current opposition to gun violence); and by the uneven geographies of shootings themselves. Interpersonal violence plays out through the localized geographies of homes and neighborhoods, shaped also by broader spatio-temporalities of gender, sexuality and racial formations. Geographies of more-than-human violence add complex issues of environmental and climate justice and geo-ethics. Geographical research in these various areas has been uneven, with much still to be done. 

The goal of geographical research into violence can and should be far more ambitious than unpacking its geographies and ethical dilemmas. Just as research into environmental justice seeks to go beyond monitoring inequities to seek and advocate for alternatives that obviate the problem (e.g., production without toxics instead of Toxic Release Inventories), so research into violence can bring attention to radical alternatives: pro-peace geographies. “Do no harm” seems a little jaded these days, given its association with Google—one of the more surveillant institutions on the planet. Yet Geography is highly unlikely to attain Google’s influence, and it is not a bad starting point for us.

As I sign off, I want to thank you for the opportunity to serve on your behalf this past year. I have enormously enjoyed the opportunity to meet so many of you for the first time through the regional meetings, and I much appreciated your interest in the plenary session on “Emerging Asias” at the Los Angeles meeting. I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity afforded by the monthly newsletter columns to speak directly to the Association, to cajole and occasionally vent, and to read your responses and interchange with a number of you around my musings. See you in Tampa next April!

Let me know what you think. 

Eric Sheppard


Eric Sheppard is a Professor in the Department of Geography at UCLA


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