Peter Smailes (Distinguished Fellowship)

Citation for Distinguished Fellowship of the IAG Peter Smailes
Conferred Hobart, June 2008

Australian geography has rarely had a more passionate defender of the discipline and a more rigorous practical exponent of its relevance to society than Dr Peter Smailes. Peter has been a dedicated servant of Australian geography and of the Institute of Australian Geographers Inc. for over forty years. Since the early 1960s Peter has not only become one of this country’s foremost rural social geographers but he has assiduously promoted the IAG’s mission through his conscientious and innovative teaching and supervision and his intellectually rigorous, practically-oriented research. It is this service that we wish to acknowledge and reward with a nomination for a Distinguished Fellowship of the Institute of Australian Geographers Inc..

A native Yorkshireman, Peter arrived in Australian in 1960, his first academic posting being a tutorship in geography at the University of New England in Armidale. Here, Peter began work on mapping the social organisation of rural space: how the strength with which people form attachment to place and to the nested urban hierarchy could be translated into relatively discrete territories ‘on the ground’. This interest would become an integral theme of his future research career. It formed a keystone for his later work on the social sustainability of rural communities, particularly in the light of the profound economic and political restructuring processes that marked the late 1980s and 1990s. This concern – care even – for rural people, as individuals and as communities, and the often deep bonds they develop with place can possibly be traced back to Peter’s roots in North Yorkshire. From his childhood through to his early adult years, Peter witnessed the dramatic effects of successive waves of modernisation upon the rituals and traditions of village life. Peter lived through and observed these changes with clear eyes, noting both the improvements that technological revolutions in telecommunications, farm machinery and transport could bring to hitherto remote populations, but also the socially and culturally corrosive effects of these innovations. This concern for the lot of rural people and the communities they formed deeply moral and empathetic concern for the lot of rural people and the communities they formed – at once both deeply moral and emphathetic – runs like a golden thread throughout his teaching and research.

Peter and his young family moved to Adelaide in 1963 where he took up a Lectureship in the Department of Geography at the University of Adelaide. He was a crucial member of the rapidly expanding Department under Professor Graham Lawton. He taught courses on Social Geography as well as contributing to general first and second year courses. He gathered around him a strong group of honours students and made important contributions to the growing Australian literature on Central Place Theory as well as to the understanding of change in rural South Australia. He and his family moved to the University of Oslo between 1970 and 1974 to be close to his wife’s family (in Denmark) as well as his own (in the UK). Many of the issues in rural Norway have a strong resonance with the Australian situation and Peter continued his research in this context. However, he couldn’t stay away from Australia and returned to a position in the Flinders University Geography Discipline in 1975 and 1976, before a further two-year stint in Oslo from 1977.

In 1979 Peter returned to the Department at the University of Adelaide, where he continued as a tenured staff member for the next 25 years. Reflecting his strong belief that geography’s strength, relative to other humanities and science disciplines, is its capacity to offer an integrated perspective on the relationships between human society and the physical environment, Peter was always a highly versatile and innovative teacher. For example, during his time at the University of Adelaide he co-ordinated and lectured in units

in population geography, rural social geography, social geography and soil geography. In short, and in the Adelaide tradition of teaching geography as a holistic discipline, he was the complete geographer. One of the hallmarks of Peter’s career has been his single-minded commitment to the rigorous teaching of the fundamentals of geography. A firm believer in geography as a theoretically-informed but ultimately practical discipline, Peter saw field camps as the avenue by which concepts and ideas set out in lecture theatres could be applied and tested out in real communities, farms and country towns. In addition, of course, the commitment to field-based teaching – another hallmark of a University of Adelaide geographical education – provided invaluable experience in, for example, questionnaire survey design and interviewing techniques. Many of us remember these as exciting times in which we came face-to-face with the complex social, economic and environmental issues discussed in lecture theatres and around tutorial rooms, seen through the eyes and words of the rural people wrangling with these same forces as part of their everyday lives. Simultaneously, we gained a solid grounding in the field research techniques we would need for subsequent Honours and postgraduate research. In short, Peter Smailes formed one of the pillars of the teaching and supervision of human geography at the University of Adelaide and was throughout his time there an enthusiastic, dedicated, innovative and rigorous teacher and defender of the discipline and his home department.

Of course, while Peter’s influence as a teacher and supervisor is known and has been felt by many of us, it is through his research that he is perhaps better and more widely known. He has established himself as one of the foremost geographers in the field of rural social and demographic change in this country and beyond.

Through a careful reading of Peter’s research output it is possible to discern the influences of some of the shifting paradigms that have moulded the outlook and practice of human geography over the last fifty years. We can see, for example, the impact of the quantitative revolution – particularly that strain most influenced by Peter Haggett – in much of his early work, including the papers on the origins of the country town network in New South Wales and South Australia and his ground-breaking analysis of the nature of the economic linkages between the farm sector and country towns in the South Australian Mid- North. This was succeeded and overlain by his deeply qualitative, almost phenomenological, research into the place attachment of the rural people of South Australia, clearly influenced by the scholarship of Relph, Tuan, Buttimer and others. Later, there were forays into agrarian political economy in his documenting of the profound structural and biophysical forces pressuring Eyre Peninsula (South Aust.) farming families and their communities. More recently, Peter’s versatility, mental acuity and practical experience were recognised in his involvement in the joint Australian Research Council/Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia funded project on capitals in Australian rural communities.

However, to cram such a rich a varied career into a linear trajectory is to greatly simplify Peter’s philosophical outlook and practical commitments as well as his many intellectual achievements. One of the enduring features of Peter’s research is an intelligent, sophisticated, though frequently non-automated, spatial analysis. Working for much of his career in a pre-computing and GIS environment, Peter’s research and teaching have always been focused on, inter alia, the precise measurement of the spatial distribution of social, economic and demographic phenomena and the effective communication of this understanding to peers, students, policy-makers and the broader public. For example, Peter used an innovative ‘moving window’ methodology to convert raw questionnaire responses into isolines of, for example, travel times from all parts of the South Australian rural ‘settled areas’ to Adelaide between the 1960s and the 1990s in order to measure changing levels of accessibility across the State. Similarly, he used this approach to show how rural community morale varied geographically across the State. From this, we can easily discern that Peter had (and continues to have) an absolutely rigorous approach to methodology. This attitude can also be seen in his ongoing contribution to the formation of spatial units (such as Collectors’ Districts) that better match the physical layout of communities on the ground. These interventions have provided substantial benefits to all researchers, government departments and the wider public.

While Peter is undoubtedly a quiet achiever, he has also nevertheless been a resolute public advocate for

South Australian rural communities. He has made important submissions to State Government inquiries into the level and nature of rural poverty in 1994 and into local government reform in 1995 and worked for many years to advance the cause of Eyre Peninsula communities and organisations for better local services. This has been no mean feat in a metrocentric society and polity such as South Australia. Peter’s leadership in rural geography research is also evident in his role in establishing the Rural Geography Study Group within the IAG, joint with Mike Roche from Massey University in New Zealand. A truly joint Australian and New Zealand body, Peter was the study group’s first convenor. More recently, in his immediate post-retirement years Peter has played a prominent role in promoting geography across South Australia through his many office-bearing roles in the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia (Inc.), including a term as President from 2004 to 2006.

In 2006, the intellectual merit of the corpus of knowledge built up by his research was recognised with the award of the Doctor of Philosophy for his thesis, ‘Redefining the local: The social organisation of rural space in South Australia, 1982-2006’. The thesis drew together three decades of original research, focused upon the vital role of local place-based attachment by rural people in the formation and maintenance of South Australia rural community life, and the extent to which this nexus had been ruptured by the major political, economic and technological changes of the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, Peter’s arguments in defence of South Australian rural society were finely nuanced, avoiding any accusation of nostalgia or romanticism. His normative and moral vision for Australian rural life can best be summed up using his own words from a 2000 article in Australian Geographical Studies:

… what is of much more interest to me as a social geographer is the persistence of rural people’s primary identification with communities centred on very small places even when these places are rapidly losing many (not all) of their economic functions. I believe that the cultural patterns of Australian country life, warts and all, form a part of the national heritage which should not be lightly abandoned in the rush toward economic rationalism. Certainly there are some substantial warts … but I believe we should seek to manage change so that the best features of rural community life can adjust to a different spatial scale in response to lower population density and higher mobility, rather than being rubbed out in the general cultural homogenisation of society.

The academic merit of his PhD thesis was also recognised with the award of the John Lewis Medal for Excellence in Postgraduate Research by the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia (Inc).

To our minds, Peter Smailes has played an integral role in promoting the discipline of geography in this country, and thus, the mission of the Institute, through his scholarship, teaching and his services to society over four decades. Yet, as one who deliberately eschewed self-promotion and the blaze of publicity, his work has for too long lacked the recognition that we believe it has deserved. With this nomination, we hope to have repaired this omission to some small degree.

Dr Neil Argent, Prof. Matthew Tonts, Prof. Graeme Hugo, Prof. John Holmes.