Bristol geography has a long and proud history as an intellectually vibrant, research-intensive department at the centre of geography in the UK and internationally renowned. It is the only Geography department in the country that has come in the top category across all the RAE's that have been undertaken since 1986. The School of Geographical Sciences' ground-breaking research, which has inspired many revolutions in the field, moves from high latitudes to infectious diseases, post-structuralism to soil erosion, environmental remote sensing and personal finance.
Geography has been taught at Bristol since the very earliest days of the university, but the department was formally established in 1919 with Walter Jervis, a founder member of the Institute of British Geographers, appointed as first assistant geography lecturer and later the first professor. Jervis' pioneering work focused on understanding both the climate and geomorphology of Greenland and Iceland, very prescient research that continues to this day in the Bristol Glaciological Centre, given the current concerns about climate change in high latitudes to non-representational theory in the social sciences.
It was during the 1960's, a period of great turmoil in the academic discipline, that Bristol geography's international reputation was established. This period was known as the “quantitative revolution”, and Bristol led the revolution with ground-breaking contributions from Professor Peter Haggett, who applied geographical ideas to understanding the changing geography of infectious diseases. Winner of Royal Geographical Society and American Geographical Society gold medals, the Anders Retzius medal, the Vautrid Lud prize and the Lauréat d'Honneur from the International Geographical Union, with six honorary degrees in Law and in Science from universities on both sides of the Atlantic, Haggett continues to be an active emeritus professor and quantitative social science research remains a major research focus.
The School of Geographical Sciences is also renowned for research in both physical and human geography. In the 1980's and 1990's the School played a vital role in several human geography revolutions, headed by Professor Nigel Thrift, one of the world's leading human geographers and social scientists. Through his attention to subjectivity, representation identity and practice, Thrift's work is most readily associated with post structuralism. Working with Dr. JD Dewsbury, Thrift developed “non-representational theory”, which stresses performative and embodied knowledges.
Non-representational theory is a radical attempt to wrench the social sciences and humanities away from an emphasis on representation and interpretation by moving from contemplative to practice-based models of thought and action. Thrift, an Academician of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences and now vice-chancellor of Warwick University, stimulated the field of human geography to move beyond a reliance on Marxism to engage with and develop of new perspectives.
In 1983 the Remote Sensing Unit was founded, under the directorship of Eric Barrett, to serve the University as a whole. The RSU had five main research areas: hydrometeorology (especially satellite-improved rainfall monitoring), passive microwave data analysis, monitoring natural vegetation and agricultural crops, land use assessment, and geoinformation systems. The RSU became a University Resesearch Centre in the early 1990s and was folded by the School of Geographical Sciences soon after Eric stepped down from the directorship in 1995.
1985 saw the arrival in Bristol of one of the most eminent and influential physical geographers of his generation. Professor John Thornes was a highly original researcher and passionate exponent and exemplar of geographical field work. His inventive development of theory and models, particularly for soil erosion, had a major influence on the development of geographical research in semi-arid areas. Recipient of The Royal Geographical Society's 1996 Patron's Medal and the Linton Medal of the British Geomorphologists Research Group in 1998, Thornes served as President of the Institute of British Geographers in 1992. But the award which perhaps gave him his greatest pleasure was an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Murcia in 2005, recognising not only his seminal dryland research contributions but also his championing of Anglo-Spanish academic links over many decades, and which continue until today.
Since joining the department in 1995, Professor Ron Johnston has focused on the value of a geographical perspective in the study of electoral systems. Johnston's research group concentrated on three main themes in the British situation: spatial variations in voting, the impact of local campaigns, and the process of constituency definition. Their work has provided substantial new insights to the operation of the British electoral system, the biases inherent in the system, and how they have operated (and been manipulated) during the last 50 years. Johnston, the recipient of the 1985 Murchison Award and the 1990 Victoria Medal for his work, was also honoured by the Association of American Geographers 1991 and awarded the 1999 Prix Vautrin Lud by the Festival Internationale de Géographie. Additionally, he was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association of American Geographers in 2009.
In the late 1990's, Professor Elaine Kempson added a new research area with the establishment of the Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC). Conducting policy-focused research on all areas of personal finance, the PFRC performs studies of financial exclusion and inclusion, credit use and over-indebtedness, financial capability and financial decision-making, and money management and savings. Using a unique combination of both large-scale quantitative and in-depth qualitative methods, these studies have directly fed into government policy. Kempson, awarded a CBE in 2007 for services to the Financial Services Industry, is a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee, the HM Treasury Financial Inclusion Taskforce and the BERR Advisory Group on Over-Indebtedness. In December 2007, she was appointed to the Financial Ombudsman Service board as a non-executive director, and until recently was also a non-executive director of the Banking Code Standards Board.