In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Geography and Islands

  • Introduction
  • Journals

Geography Human Geography and Islands
Jonathan Pugh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0230


Work on islands has long played a critical role in the development of many academic disciplines that overlap and are intimately connected with the discipline of geography. Islands were central to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and have subsequently been for the development of ecological, sustainability, and resilience approaches that are prevalent in geography in the 2020s. Islanders were the focal points for Margaret Mead’s and Marylin Strathern’s developments of the discipline of anthropology, concerns for Indigenous geographies, and the counterpositioning of nonmodern reasoning to European or Western frameworks of reasoning. Islands and islanders have also long been a key focus for many who have critiqued the forces of colonialism, such as Édouard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite, Sylvia Wynter, and Derek Walcott, whose work is extremely influential for Critical Black Geographies. More recently, engaging islands and islanders shaped Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s and Epeli Hau‘ofa’s influential reappraisal of how academic research itself can and should do better, reorienting toward more geographically appropriate Indigenous perspectives. What this is already telling us is that any bibliography compiled under the title of “Geography and Islands” needs to work beyond the boundaries of neatly defined academic disciplines. The focus is the geographical form, the island, and associated island cultures, and thus geographers who study islands regularly step outside fixed disciplines. Thus, this article presents a range of references that are categorized by way of key early-21st-century island themes and topics that will be of particular concern to geographers. Here, the decades since the late 20th century have seen the rise of a more distinct or focused field of academic inquiry, which has come to be known as “island studies.” The key characteristics of this field are its diversity, interdisciplinarity, openness, and extremely rapid growth—geographically, intellectually, and in the broad range of topics and subjects being engaged with in the 2020s. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the term “island studies” did not have much purchase. In the 2020s, due to the strong repositioning of islands within broader concerns—such as human-nature relations, current developments in environmental and resilience approaches, the ongoing legacies and effects of colonialism, Indigenous geographies, migration patterns, mobilities and movements of humans and nonhumans, geopolitical tensions and strategies, and the Anthropocene, as just some examples—the figure of the island has moved considerably more to the center of many debates (and particularly those debates that concern geographers). This article therefore also reflects the sense of dynamism, as well as the interdisciplinary nature, of work with islands as an exponentially developing field of research.

General Overviews

A number of overview publications and textbooks for island studies have been produced since the late 20th century that are directly relevant to those concerned with various facets of island geographies. Perhaps most influential, at least from a European perspective, are the edited texts of Godfrey Baldacchino (Baldacchino 2007, Baldacchino 2018), and such publications as Baldacchino 2004, Depraetere 2008, McCall 1994, Royle 2002, and Ratter 2018. These include such key foundational topics as island typographies and classifications, origins, ecology and environments, colonialism, economy, tourism, migration, development, societies, communities, resilience, sustainability, and work on the concept of “nissology” (which has come to be known as “the study of islands on their own terms”). Edmond and Smith 2003, Hessler 2018 and Meleisea and Schoeffel 2017 are examples that focus on critiques of understandings of islands under the modern and colonial gaze and provide useful overviews of a range of non-Western and Indigenous perspectives.

  • Baldacchino, Godfrey. “The Coming of Age of Island Studies.” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 95.3 (2004): 272–283.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9663.2004.00307.x

    One of the most cited papers to focus on “island studies” as a field of research; defines island studies as the study of islands on their own terms and tracks the rise of island studies across the disciplines.

  • Baldacchino, Godfrey, ed. A World of Islands: An Island Studies Reader. Charlottetown, PEI: Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, 2007.

    Still one of the most engaged textbooks on island studies; explores many aspects of islands and islander life: from definitions and typologies to the role of islands in theories of evolution, island flora and fauna, archaeology, development, political economy, tourism, and sustainability, for example.

  • Baldacchino, Godfrey, ed. The Routledge International Handbook of Island Studies: A World of Islands. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    Including an extremely useful overview from Baldacchino, this more recent textbook includes, among other subjects, chapters on island geomorphology, zoology and, evolutionary biology; the history, sociology, economics, and politics of island communities; urban islands and cities; tourism, well-being and migration; and island branding, resilience, and “commoning.”

  • Depraetere, Christian. “The Challenge of Nissology: A Global Outlook on the World Archipelago, Part I; Scene Setting the World Archipelago.” Island Studies Journal 3.1 (2008): 3–16.

    An important paper that develops an understanding of “nissology” as being about “the study of islands on their own terms.”

  • Edmond, Rod S., and Vanessa Smith, eds. Islands in History and Representation. London: Routledge, 2003.

    Still regularly engaged as a classic, in which various contributors examine island imaginaries and realities within and against the European imagination.

  • Hessler, Stephanie, ed. Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018.

    A useful edition to debates around islands and islanders that brings a broad range of Indigenous perspectives to the fore, focusing on islanders within transforming environmental, social, and colonial relations.

  • McCall, Grant. “Nissology: A Proposal for Consideration.” 太平洋学会学会誌 63 (1994): 93–106.

    An island-studies classic that develops and provides eight characteristics of “nissology” as the study of islands on their own terms.

  • Meleisea, Malama, and Penelope Schoeffel. “Forty‐Five Years of Pacific Island Studies: Some Reflections; Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania Distinguished Lecture.” Oceania 87.3 (2017): 337–343.

    DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5166

    Examines the rise and characteristics of Pacific island studies as an important field of research.

  • Ratter, Beate M. W. Geography of Small Islands—Outposts of Globalisation. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-63869-0

    Bridges natural, social, and cultural science to examine the physical development and cultural, political, and economic particularities of islands.

  • Royle, Stephen A. Geography of Islands. London: Routledge, 2002.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203160367

    Working at the intersection between academic and more-popular audiences, examines the many different facets of islands and islander life—from shape, size, and flora and fauna, to economic development, population, politics, tourism, communications, and services, for example.

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