Discussing Discourse in Population Geography

This week, we welcome a blog post from Peter Forde, a final year Geography student at the University of St Andrews. His research interests focus on forced migration, with a particular interest in the interaction of climate and mobility. He is interested in how language is used to construct categories such as “climate refugee’s and how this fits into wider discourses of security, environmentalism, and humanitarianism. He can be contacted at psf2@st-andrews.ac.uk.

 As a sub-discipline, population geography has aged well- one only has to compare the purely quantitative focus on demography of the 1960s with the wide range of approaches to studying population today to see how the sub-discipline has developed. This development has been accompanied by an expansion of what can be considered the “object” of population geography- while migration still makes up a core of the sub-discipline, it has been joined by a host of research on health, gender, and more which are now rightly considered “population geography”. However, while these developments are certainly steps in the right direction to a modern population geography, I believe more can be done to incorporate a critical engagement with the population which population geography studies. And I think this can be achieved by recognising the importance of discourse within population geography itself, and the discourses which it produces.

“What would be helpful for population geography is more self-reflection on the discourses”

Across geography, the influence of poststructuralism is clear. Many critical studies rely on Foucault’s definitions of discourse, knowledge, and power as their foundation for building theoretical frameworks and carrying out analysis (Foucault 1972). This has been drawn upon by several works exploring discourse analysis as a geographical research method (Waitt 2005). Indeed there are many studies within population geography which critically analyse discourse(s), such as the recent work of Caitríona Ní Laoire on the selective engagement of young people with discourses of hypermobility in Ireland (2020). This blog is not to say there is anything lacking in such studies or to call for all other studies to adopt a similar approach. What would be helpful for population geography is more self-reflection on the role that it has in constructing and maintaining certain discourses. Much of population geography is littered with “official” definitions- from refugees to migrants, to terms such as fertility, mortality and morbidity. From the earliest level of geography education in schools, these definitions are taught as some of the core objective building blocks of population geography. While there are more critical approaches emerging which interrogate how these categories and labels are constructed, they rarely seem to link this construction to the wider sub-discipline of population geography.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I am currently researching my dissertation which looks at the role NGOs play in constructing the discourse surrounding “climate refugees”. Something that has struck me is the vast amount of research into climate migration and “climate refugees” that focuses on narratives, language and discourse (Hartmann 2010, Bettini 2012). It seems that much of what is normally referred to as a policy or legal debate is in fact a debate of discourse, language, and meaning. One of the most insightful studies was that of Elizabeth McNamara, published in Population and Environment (McNamara 2007). A discourse analysis was carried out using interviews with UN ambassadors and diplomats, in order to interrogate the role of discursive politics in preventing the creation of policy for environmental refugees. The study revealed that the dominant discourse on environmental refugees within UNHCR was that they were not ‘real’ refugees, and existed outside the mandate of UNHCR. This categorisation of environmental refugees as non-existant or irrelevant was only possible because of the language and discourse that surrounded them.

More recent studies show that this debate of discourse and language continues today (Mascia 2020). This topic is just one example of the power that discourses can have over populations. It also helps reveal how intrinsic population is to discourse studies- many discourses are about populations or categorisation of populations, but even those that are not still require populations of individuals and institutions to reproduce the discursive practices which create meaning. This is why population geography is so uniquely situated to study these discourses and engage with other studies which address them. Another important lesson from the example of climate refugees is how discourses often have power to shape and influence policies which have direct impacts on the population. It is therefore important for population geography to be aware of the responsibility that it has in constructing categories of meaning for populations, through its research and methods. For these reasons, population geography is not only well placed to continue critically engaging with and reflecting on the discourses it produces, but it has a duty to do so. 


Bettini, G. (2013) Climate Barbarians at the Gate? A critique of apocalyptic narratives on ‘climate refugees’ Geoforum 45 pp.63-72

Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language Pantheon Books, New York

Hartmann, B. (2010) Rethinking Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality and the Politics of Policy Discourse Journal of International Development 22 pp.233-246

Mascia, R. (2020) Complications of the Climate Change Narrative within the Lives of Climate Refugees Consilience 22 pp.31-38

Ní Laoire, C. (2020) Transnational mobility desires and discourses: Young people from return-migrant families negotiate intergenerationality, mobility capital, and place embeddedness Population, Space and Place 26(6)

McNamara, K.E. (2007) Conceptualizing discourses on environmental refugees at the United Nations Population and Environment 29 pp.12-24

Waitt, G.R. (2005) ‘Doing Discourse Analysis’ in I. Hay (Eds) Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography  Oxford: Oxford University Press pp.163-191 

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