Harold Brookfield (Australia-International Medal)

Citation for the Australia-International Medal
Harold Brookfield
Conferred Armidale, July 2005

Harold Brookfield completed a PhD thesis in 1950 at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, on post-eighteenth century urban development in coastal Sussex.  His long, diverse and distinguished academic career commenced with a period as assistant lecturer in Geography at Birkbeck College at the University of London, from 1948–1952.  A nearly three year period as lecturer in charge of the Department of Geography at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, followed.  Experiences in South Africa and Mauritius during this time stimulated what was to become an abiding interest in development and social justice issues.  In 1955, Brookfield moved to the University of New England in Armidale; subsequent positions were held at the Australian National University (ANU), as Professor at both Pennsylvania State University and McGill University in Canada, and as Chair of Geography at the University of Melbourne.  He also served as a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, and as a team leader of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme in Fiji.

By 1982 Brookfield had returned to a Chair at ANU, where he remained until his retirement.  Although officially retired, his productivity remains unabated.  For over a decade, his commitment to the United Nations University’s Project on People, Land, Management and Environmental Change (PLEC) has been a preoccupation and has resulted in continued publication of substantial works.

Inspiring several generations of students, Brookfield’s influence on the discipline of geography within Australia has been enormous.  He was appointed to the Research School of Pacific Studies at ANU in 1957 to undertake research about Papua New Guinea (PNG).  He actively recruited postgraduate students and, as a result, the numbers of geographers conducting research in PNG grew.  What was often called the ‘Brookfield School’ at ANU spawned many influential geographers.  As Brookfield and those geographers who worked with him moved from ANU to other institutions, and the compass of their research concerns extended from PNG to Asia and further afield, they encouraged teaching and research beyond ANU about confronting development issues; thus his influence spread.

Although much of Brookfield’s work has been unswervingly interdisciplinary in focus, his writings are in essence geographical.  His research is primarily dedicated to the study of rural societies and the environment in developing nations; the dynamic relationship between land and people is the central leitmotiv of his work and he remains resolutely committed to a unified geography which maintains its focus on the mutual interactions of peoples, their cultures and their natural environments1.  Brookfield’s ‘muddy boots’ approach to development geography emphasises field studies at the microlevel, draws on understandings from a range of disciplines, focusses on cultural ecology and promotes the comparative method rather than quantititative techniques or spatial analysis.  For Brookfield, geography is a process-oriented discipline, and in trying to answer ‘how’ as well as ‘why’ questions, he found it far easier to find answers at the local scale (Brookfield, 1984, 35).  His research thus pre-empted post-modern reflections that ‘there is no universal or unique understanding of development or the environment’ (Simon, 2003, 35).  This approach came to dominate development geography within Australia and beyond (Rugendyke, 2005).  Reflecting recently on his own work, Brookfield wrote that his abiding concern was the ‘… adaptation of the use and management of land to variability and change in society, economy and natural environment’; this he called the ‘soul’ of geography (Brookfield, 2004, 40).

A prolific writer, Brookfield’s publications are overwhelmingly concerned with matters ‘… of ordinary peoples and of reality’ (Waddell, 1997) and ‘… shaped around a search for pragmatic solutions’, while avoiding ‘… arid theorising, dogma, ever-changing semantics and political correctness’ (Connell and Rugendyke, 2005, 56).  His is a scholarship described as ‘… grounded in the real world that lies beyond academia … constructed out of the virtues of sanity and commonsense’ (Waddell, 1997).  Thus, from the halls of academe he was always ‘… drawn back to the practice and often times humbling experience of fieldwork in distant farmlands, forests, islands and mountains of the developing world’ (Connell and Waddell, 2005, 130), motivated also by dedication to geographical research which is socially relevant and contributes to greater social justice through addressing social and environmental problems.

The effects of Brookfield’s work have reached far beyond Australia.  In 1971 Brookfield’s work was described as influencing human geography in Britain by encouraging a new interest in the ‘outer world’ and a recognition that classical economics was often not relevant to people in other cultures, yet their actions were not irrational and were tied up with their environment and culture (Spate, 1971).  Development geographers around the world were influenced by the focus on micro-studies adopted by Brookfield and those who worked with him.  By 1978, the influence of Brookfield’s ‘New Guinea syndrome’ on cultural geography was compared to the influence of Sauer and his students on Mexico (Mikesell, 1978, 8).  As well, the significant impacts of Brookfield’s approach on an ‘… inward-looking North American geography, then largely obsessed with quantifying’ were described as ‘… an unpretentious but remarkably solid intellectual tsunami …’ (Waddell, 1997, 2).  Brookfield’s book ‘Interdependent Development’, written in 1975 and later lauded as a classic in geography (see Corbridge, 1996; O’Connor, 1996), started a ‘… theoretical backlash against the irrelevance of several geographical traditions’, and argued for a more historical and environmental perspective, based on empirical studies (Connell and Rugendyke, 2005, 58).  Importantly, Brookfield has been recognised outside Australia as a leader within the discipline in adopting a focus on behaviour and on perceptions of the environment (Johnston, 1991, 164).

That Harold Brookfield’s contribution to the discipline of geography, both within Australia and internationally, has been enormous, is incontrovertible.  As long ago as 1978, he was described as a ‘guru’ of development geography (McGee, 1978, 71).  Twenty years on, a former student, himself an eminent geographer, wrote that Brookfield’s ‘… writings strike at the very heart of the discipline of Geography’ (Waddell, 1997).  His writings have been read widely by academics from a range of disciplines and ‘a significant number have stood the test of time’ (Connell and Waddell, 2005, 129)2.  Indeed, the international standing of the wealth of scholarship attributable to Brookfield is evident in his selection as one of only three geographers to be profiled in a book about great development thinkers (Simon, 2005).  His important academic contribution has been acknowledged in a special edition of Asia Pacific Viewpoint in 2005 and in a new book (Connell and Waddell, forthcoming) in which geographers showcase work firmly in the tradition of development geography of which he was the architect.  Through his large body of publications, which continues to grow, and in the work of the generations of geographers who have been influenced by him, Brookfield’s contribution to the discipline is ongoing and far-reaching.

The magnitude of Brookfield’s influence on, and contribution to, the discipline of geography has been formally acknowledged in numerous previous awards, including election as a Fellow of the J.S. Guggenheim Foundation (1973); the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society for Geographical Studies of the Pacific region (1975); election as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Austalia (1977); a ‘Laureat D’Honneur’ of the International Geographical Union (1996); and acknowledgement of his work in cultural ecology with the Robert McC. Netting Award of the Cultural Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers (1997).  His outstanding contributions to the advancement of the discipline in Australia and globally have been now recognised with the award of the Australia-International Medal of the Institute of Australian Geographers, appropriately presented in 2005 at the IAG Conference in Armidale, in the place where Brookfield commenced over half a life-time spent in Australia.

Barbara Rugendyke


1. Brookfield’s work was not confined to rural studies, although these predominate. As well, his major works encompassed work on urbanisation and industrialisation in Malaysia (Brookfield et al., 1991: Brookfield, 1994) and on environmental change in Borneo and
Malaysia (Brookfield et al., 1995).
2. Connell and Waddell (2005, 129) suggest that these are Brookfield 1962; 1964; 1973; 1975; 1984; and Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987.


Blaikie, P. and Brookfield, H.C. 1987: Land Degradation and Society. Methuen, London.

Brookfield, H.C. 1962: Local study and comparative method: An example from central New Guinea. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 52, 242–254.

Brookfield, H.C. 1964: Questions on the human frontiers of geography. Economic Geography 40, 283–303.

Brookfield, H.C. 1973: On one geography and a third world. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 58, 1–20.

Brookfield, H.C. 1975: Interdependent Development. Methuen, London.

Brookfield, H.C. 1984: Experiences of an outside man. In Billinge, M., Gregory, D. and Martin, R. (eds) Recollections of a Revolution: Geography as Spatial Science. Macmillan Press, London, 27–38.

Brookfield, H.C. 2004: American Geography and one non-American geographer. Geojournal 59, 39–41.

Brookfield, H.C., Hadi, A.S. and Mahmud, Z. 1991: The City in the Village. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Brookfield, H.C. and Padoch, C. 1994: Appreciating agrodiversity: a look at the dynamism and diversity of indigenous farming practices. Environment 36, 6–45.

Brookfield, H.C., Potter, L. and Byron, Y. 1995: In Place of the Forest: Environmental and Social Transformation in Borneo and Eastern Malay Peninsula. United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

Connell, J. and Rugendyke, B. 2005: Harold Brookfield, 1926– . In Simon, D. (ed.) Fifty Key Thinkers in Development. Routledge, London, 56–61.

Connell, J. and Waddell, E. 2005: Introduction: that most remarkable of outside men – Harold Brookfield’s intellectual legacy. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 46, 129–133.

Connell, J. and Waddell, E. (eds) 2005: Between Local and Global: Environment, Change and Development in the Asia Pacific Region. Routledge (forthcoming).

Corbridge, S. 1996: Classics in Human Geography revisited, on Brookfield, H., 1975, Interdependent Development, Commentary 1. Progress in Human Geography 20, 85–90.

Johnston, R. 1991: Geography and Geographers: Anglo-American Human Geography Since 1945. Edward Arnold, London, New York, Melbourne and Auckland, 4th ed.

McGee, T. 1978: The geography of development: some thoughts for the future. Australian Geographer 14, 69–71.

Mikesell, M. 1978: Tradition and Innovation in Cultural Geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 68, 1–16.

O’Connor, A. 1996: Classics in Human Geography revisited, on Brookfield, H., 1975, Interdependent Development, Commentary 2. Progress in Human Geography 20, 87–88.

Rugendyke, B. 2005: W(h)ither development geography in Australia? Geographical Research 43, 306–318.

Simon, D. 2003: Dilemmas of development and the environment in a globalizing world: theory, policy and praxis. Progress in Development Studies 3, 5–41.

Simon, D. (ed.) 2005: Fifty Key Thinkers in Development. Routledge, London.

Spate, O. 1971: Spate on Spate. Transcript of a seminar presented to the Department of Geography, University of Papua and New Guinea, 1 October.

Waddell, E. 1997: The 1997 Robert McC. Netting Award, Harold Chilingworth Brookfield. Retrieved 10 December, 2004 from http://www.cwu.edu/geography/Brookfield.html.