ArcNews Online

Winter 2006/2007

"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers

The International Geographical Union: New Roles and Relevance

Doug RichardsonAs geography becomes more central to understanding and analyzing a rapidly globalizing world, the collective interaction of scholars, researchers, and practitioners from many nations and regions is becoming not just a pleasure but a necessity. The International Geographical Union (IGU), an evolving organization that occupies a unique niche in geography's panoply of institutions, plays an historic role in attempting to meet this need.

The IGU—and all of us interested in geography—have been fortunate to have had the leadership of Ron Abler at the helm of the IGU, as its Secretary General, for the past six years of the organization's search for an identity and a viable modus operandi for the 21st century. During Abler's tenure, which just ended with his recent retirement, the IGU has undertaken necessary structural changes to streamline its bureaucracy. It also has enhanced the influence of geography in international science, primarily by nurturing and strengthening linkages to major international science and social science organizations. Abler also has identified, prioritized, and grappled with some of the key obstacles IGU faces in assuming the role of a truly international organization capable of understanding and acting in concert with geographers from all corners of the discipline and all continents of the world.

Ron's experience, energy, and leadership abilities were invaluable to IGU during this stage of its development, both to its recent accomplishments and in identifying critical needs for its future viability and relevance. And although the position of Secretary General is an unpaid appointment, Ron recently wrote that serving the IGU "has occupied me more than full time since 2000." Please join me, on behalf of the AAG, in congratulating Ron Abler for his extraordinary work and many contributions while at the IGU, a fitting capstone to his lifelong career of supporting geography in myriad ways.

Succeeding Ron Abler as Secretary General of the IGU will be Woo-ik Yu of Seoul, South Korea. Dr. Yu is Director of the Institute for Korean Regional Studies and Professor of the Department of Geography at Seoul National University. Foremost among the challenges facing Woo-ik Yu, and identified as priorities by Abler, will be broadening the participation in IGU by geographers from low-income countries. This participation has always been very low and has actually declined rather than grown during recent years.

To accomplish its objectives of international geographic study and cooperation, the IGU organizes International Geographical Congresses every four years. Regional conferences are held every two years between major congresses. The IGU also sponsors Commissions and Task Forces for the study of specific problems or for the accomplishment of a task that requires international collaboration.

The IGU's upcoming meetings will be held in Tunis, Tunisia, in 2008; in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2010; and in Koln, Germany, in 2012. The 31st International Geographical Congress in Tunis will be hosted by the Association of Tunisian Geographers from August 12 to 15, 2008. The theme selected for the congress is "Building Together Our Territories," a topic intended to embrace physical, human, and environmental concerns and to demonstrate the integrating role of geographic science toward reflection and common action. A major parallel theme is the "Evolution of Geographic Thought." Within the main themes there will be technical subthemes, such as Physical Geography; Economic Geography; Urban Spaces; and Concepts, Tools, and Geographic Techniques.

The AAG provides substantial financial support to geographers for travel to IGU meetings through an AAG program entitled "Enhancing Scientific Leadership and Geographic Research Through International Collaboration," which is supported by the National Science Foundation. I urge you to consider attending one of the upcoming meetings and perhaps becoming involved in one or more of the IGU Commissions, which focus on topics ranging from indigenous peoples to applied geography.

The IGU also maintains a coordinative office called the Home of Geography in an historic villa in Rome. The space there houses IGU archives, a small conference room, and offices for several staff members. The villa is located in a pleasant park near the Coliseum in Rome, and the IGU conference room is available for use by geographers from around the world upon request. The AAG has provided financial support to assist the IGU with the cost of maintaining these facilities.

It is clear that the IGU is evolving and attempting to adapt to changes in the world of geography, as well as to changes in the geography of the world. While the IGU has long suffered a reputation as a "Eurocentric club," in recent years it is beginning to show signs of transcending that parochial focus and limitation. International geography requires a robust and inclusive international organization if we are to contribute to the needs of the world in meaningful ways, and IGU has the potential to be a leader in this process. The progress made during the last several years of Ron Abler's tenure at the IGU is encouraging, and we hope this trajectory will continue as we all work together to help create an organization that is truly international and focused on the needs of geographers and societies on all continents. We welcome Woo-ik Yu to his new position of responsibility in this important organization and pledge the support of the AAG to help make the IGU's potential a reality in the years ahead.

You can learn more about the IGU by visiting or by attending the AAG's upcoming Annual Meeting in San Francisco (April 17�21, 2007), during which many activities relating to the IGU—and, more broadly, to international research and collaborative activities in geography—will take place.

Doug Richardson

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