Michael Webber (Griffith Taylor Medal) Citation

Nomination for the Griffith Taylor Medal Michael Webber

Institute of Australian Geographers, 2011

Professor Michael Webber is an internationally renowned geographer. His research has created and influenced geographical knowledge, and he has contributed greatly to contemporary Australian Geography through his teaching, supervision, and leadership.

Professor Webber graduated from Cambridge with a BA in Geography with First Class Honours and a College Prize, and he was awarded his PhD from the Australian National University in 1967. His PhD dissertation, published as a monograph (Impact of Uncertainty on Location), was influential in geographic research on urban and regional development for more than two decades, and is a highly cited publication. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Professor Webber was a world leader in mathematical modeling of urban and regional development, a field of research that gave rise to contemporary research on spatial analysis and geographic information systems.

Dissatisfied with the explanatory power of modeling to explain the larger causes of social and spatial (in)justice, Professor Webber then began, in the early 1980s, to research the causes of industrial restructuring in advanced economies (such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and the USA) and the implications of this restructuring for workers and communities. This research was both theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich, and included the largest empirical economic geography project in Australia, on restructuring of the Australian Textile, Clothing and Footwear industries (with Sally Weller). It also gave rise to Webber’s highly cited book The Golden Age Illusion, co-authored with his ex PhD student David Rigby, now of UCLA.

From the 1990s onwards Professor Webber has developed a third major strand of research, on the emergence and effects of capitalism in rural China. In this research he has combined his theoretical and empirical skills in novel ways to chart the effects of China’s economic transition on workers and households in rural China. He has learnt to speak, read and write in Mandarin to enable this work. Extending this research, Professor Webber has combined with colleagues and students in Geography at Melbourne University to investigate associated issues, such as agrarian change, migration, resettlement, and water resource management in China. This research has produced three books, including the forthcoming Making Capitalism in Rural China (Edward Elgar, London).

Professor Webber’s research is strongly motivated by a desire to understand and ameliorate the effects of capitalism on workers and their communities. It is research that has been conducted in ways that have been empirically rigorous and theoretically informed. And it is research that has been published with the most prestigious of publishers and journals. Professor Webber has published 15 books, 30 book chapters, and 105 articles in international peer-reviewed journals. This work has been cited over 900 times in the ISI citation index, and it has been cited by geographers and non-geographers alike, proving to the latter the importance of geographers and their research to understanding social change.

Thus, the breadth, quality, and impact of his research places Professor Webber among the world’s leading geographers, and he has few peers within Australian Geography. This is further confirmed by the seven major Australian Research Council grants he has held since 1990, his membership as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia since 1989, and his service on the editorial boards of many of the world’s top journals in the discipline, including Antipode, Economic Geography, and Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Yet Professor Webber’s research is not his only contribution to the discipline. For over twenty years his teaching has inspired students at the University of Melbourne. Through the design and inspirational delivery of popular subjects explaining geographies of capitalism, development, and political economy, Professor Webber has sent into society many thousands of graduates who understand the causes and consequences of social injustice, and who respect and comprehend the discipline of Geography.

Professor Webber is also an outstanding supervisor of graduate students, having been the primary supervisor of 31 PhD dissertations. Many of these research students have continued on to be active academic geographers, and among them are Professors at UCLA, Ohio State University, the National University of Ireland, the University of Guelph, Macquarie University and the Universities of Melbourne and South Australia. He remains a mentor to many of these former students, and a revered and trusted colleague to all those he has worked with.

Finally, Professor Webber has performed numerous leadership roles in Australian Geography. He was the longest serving Chair of Geography at the University of Melbourne (from 1985-2003), during which time the Department grew in size and influence to become one of the nation’s leading Geography programs, and a highly respected department within the University. Through his conduct Professor Webber established a departmental culture based on the principles of excellence and fairness, and this culture is an enduring feature of the Geography program at Melbourne University. Professor Webber also served as President of the Institute of Australian Geographers from 1990-1992, and as Vice-President (from 1989-1990, and from 1992-1994).

The Griffith Taylor Medal is awarded to those who have made a distinguished contribution to Geography in Australia, and for the reasons we have outlined, we deem Professor Michael Webber to be a most worthy recipient.

Proposed by:

Jon Barnett, Professor, Resource Management and Geography, The University of Melbourne.
Katherine D. Gibson, Professorial Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy, University of Western Sydney.

Seconded by:

A/Prof Brian Finlayson, Honorary Principal Fellow, Resource Management and Geography, The University of Melbourne.
Dr Natalie Jamieson, Associate Director, Office for Environmental Programs, The University of Melbourne.