Image of Professor Ron Johnston

Prof Ron Johnston.

BA MA ( Manchester), PhD (Monash), DU (Essex), LLD (Monash), DLitt (Sheffield), DLItt ( Bath), AcSS, FBA

Research interests in electoral and political geography, urban social geography, and the history of human geography.

RON JOHNSTON joined the School in 1995, having previously worked in the Departments of Geography at Monash University (1964-1966) and the Universities of Canterbury (1967-1974) and Sheffield (1972-1992) and as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex (1992-1995). He has honorary degrees from the University of Essex (DU, 1996), Monash University (LLD, 1999), the University of Sheffield (DLitt, 2002) and the University of Bath (DLItt, 2005). He has twice been honoured by the Royal Geographical Society for his research achievements (Murchison Award, 1985; Victoria Medal, 1990), and by the Association of American Geographers (1991). In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy and a Foundation Academician of the Academy of the Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, and was awarded the Prix Vautrin Lud by the Festival Internationale de Géographie. He was a co-editor of two major journals – Progress in Human Geography and Environment and Planning A – between 1979 and 2006.

Research Interests

My research and scholarly writing over the last 35 years has largely concentrated on three main areas.

I Urban social geography

My first research focused on urban social areas, looking at patterns of residential differentiation in Australian and New Zealand cities: this involved exploring new multivariate quantitative techniques for portraying those patterns, their changes over time, and movements between social areas, with later work examining how people perceive the characteristics of different social areas. At the aggregate scale this involved pioneering work using small-area census data and other sources and evaluating a range of multivariate statistical procedures, both for this particular research area and for human geography more generally: it resulted in new descriptions of the various dimensions of residential differentiation in the major cities of those two countries, of neighbourhood change there, and of the townscape characteristics of different types of social area. At the individual scale, it involved developing, administering and analysing questionnaire surveys for obtaining information on people’s perceptions of the characteristics of different areas within cities (‘mental maps’) and how they evaluated them as possible residential areas.

This work on social areas resulted in one book (an original overview of the subject), three edited volumes, 10 chapters in edited collections, and 33 papers in refereed journals. The explorations of quantitative methods applicable to geographical study resulted in a further book, two monographs, 5 chapters in edited collections, and 15 papers in refereed journals.

Another major project in this area (supported by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation) looked at the use of the planning system within the fragmented local government structures of United States’ metropolitan areas to promote social, especially ethnic, segregation; it concentrated on legal challenges to segregation and the Courts’ determinations in key cases regarding exclusionary zoning, school catchment areas and the distribution of public goods. This demonstration of how administrative balkanization facilitated segregation resulted in one monograph, 4 chapters in edited collections, and 7 papers in refereed journals.

I returned to this area of study in 1998 in collaboration with two colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney (Mike Poulsen and Jim Forrest). We have devised new (improved) ways of measuring ethnic residential segregation, and have applied these to cities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and England/Wales. Further work is planned using the census data collected in 2000-2001 and major comparative studies of the five countries are being published: 23 papers have so far appeared.

Linked to this, in 2004 I started collaborative work with staff in the Centre for Markets and Public Organisation, located in the Department of Economics at the University of Bristol, on ethnic segregation in English schools. This focuses on the changing ethnic composition of both primary and secondary schools, comparisons between school and neighbourhood segregation levels, school choice, and performance in the four national school ‘key stage’ tests. So far, four papers have been published from this work.

II The recent history and nature of human geography

In the early 1970s I initiated a continuing interest in the history of the academic discipline of geography since 1945. The work has three main strands.

  • The first involves charting the major changes in approach and methodology that occurred during the period and evaluating the relevance of various models of disciplinary progress to their understanding. The major output has been a major synthesis of the field (Geography and Geographers: Anglo-American Human Geography since 1945) which has gone through six editions over the period 1979-2004 (reflecting the growth, change and fragmentation of research in the discipline over the twenty-five years: James Sidaway joined me as a co-author for the sixth edition), has been translated into Bahasa, Portuguese and Russian, and was commended by the American Library Association as ‘one of the outstanding academic books for 1980/81’. In addition to the book, I have written a number of essays on the recent history of human geography, and entries on geography for major encyclopaedias, such as the Reader’s Guide to the Social Sciences, the International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was Managing Editor for the first four editions (1981-2001) of the Dictionary of Human Geography and am an editor for the upcoming fifth edition. With Michael Williams I co-edited a major volume – A Century of British Geography – to mark the centenary of the British Academy in 2003.
  • The second has involved promoting the importance of place as a key geographical concept within the social sciences and illustrating this from a range of contexts. Recognition of the importance of place as a context for social learning and behaviour derived from my original work on urban social areas and formed the basis for much of my later work in electoral studies: it was advanced in two major books: On Human Geography (1986), which was a personal evaluation of the trends in the discipline described in the first strand (a further volume is in preparation), and A Question of Place (1991), which advanced the argument regarding the centrality of place in geographical thinking.
  • The third strand involves biographical studies of individual geographers, as a means not only of illuminating their careers but also of evaluating how knowledge is created and disseminated in geography and – more importantly – which contributions have most impact. So far, papers have been published on Wreford Watson, Jean Gottmann, Robert Dickinson and David Smith.

The work in these three strands has resulted in 4 books, seven edited volumes, 34 chapters in edited collections, and 48 papers in refereed academic journals. These have provided a structure within which the recent history of geography is now widely set by other writers.

III British electoral studies

Since 1980 my empirical research has largely focused on the value of a geographical perspective in the study of electoral systems. Most of the studies by the group of researchers working with me have concentrated on three main themes in the British situation:

  • Spatial variations in voting. The ‘conventional wisdom’ among analysts of British elections until the 1970s was that there were no spatial variations in the pattern of support for parties, especially Conservative and Labour, which could not be accounted for by spatial variations in voter characteristics: once the latter were held constant, any separate geographical component to the voting patterns disappeared. Our work showed that: (a) logically this could not be the case, and uniform changes in a party’s support across constituencies necessarily involves spatial variations in its losses of and/or gains in support; (b) empirically, using a specially-adapted mathematical technique (the entropy-maximising method for generating maximum-likelihood estimates), there have been substantial differences within Great Britain in the voting behaviour of similar people (distinguished by their occupational class etc.) and in gross changes in party choice between elections, including tactical voting, depending on where people live; and (c) that these differences increased during the 1980s because of spatial variations in people’s perceptions of the economic situation and the extent to which they credited/blamed the incumbent government for that situation. Recently, this work has been extended in collaborative research on the neighbourhood effect, looking at voting patterns in small areas (specially-defined ‘bespoke neighbourhoods’) and linking these to patterns of politically-biased conversations. This work, combining aggregate and individual-level data in complex modelling strategies, has attracted two grants from the ESRC and been reported in 2 books, 9 chapters in edited collections, and 84 papers in refereed journals to date.
  • The impact of local campaigns. Another feature of the ‘conventional wisdom’ has been that, given the importance of the national media since the 1960s, local campaigns at the constituency level have no impact on general election results. Using published data on the amount spent by candidates, which have been calibrated against other measures of the intensity of local campaigns, we have shown this to be wrong: the amount spent by a party in a constituency is significantly related to its performance there, and to that of its competitors (the more that a party spends, the better its performance and the poorer its opponents’, holding a range of other factors constant). We have extended this work to cover tactical voting in the UK and split-ticket voting at MMP elections in New Zealand, Germany, Scotland and Wales – and the technical procedure involved (entropy-maximizing) has been developed in conjunction with political scientists at the University of Mannheim. This work has attracted grants from the Leverhulme Trust and the ESRC, and has resulted in 1 book, 2 chapters in edited collections, and 21 papers in refereed journals to date: it was also the basis of our evidence to the Neill Committee investigation into the funding of political parties.
  • The process of constituency definition. The map of Parliamentary constituencies is redrawn approximately every decade in the United Kingdom. At the time of the third redrawing (in the early 1980s) we wrote a computer program which simulates the Boundary Commissions’ tasks: its use provided substantial insights to how the Commissions undertake their work and make their decisions (the program was later adapted by the Australian Electoral Commission for its redistricting processes). During the fourth redrawing (in the early 1990s) we investigated the redistricting process in considerable depth, interviewing the Commissioners and their staffs and a majority of the Assistant Commissioners and reviewing all of the documentation, together with a detailed review of redistricting in the United Kingdom since 1832. This has shown changing emphases in the redistricting process over time (only part of which reflect changes in the rules under which the Commissions work) and has evaluated the relative success of the political parties in their attempts to influence the Commissions’ recommendations through the public inquiry procedures: it was written up (with Dave Rossiter and Charles Pattie) in a major book The Boundary Commissions. This work has attracted grants from the ESRC and the Leverhulme Trust, and resulted in 1 book (in press), 7 chapters in edited collections, and 25 papers in refereed journals and was the basis of our evidence to the Independent Commission on the Electoral System regarding the rules under which Boundary Commissions might operate under different electoral systems.

These three strands of work have provided substantial new insights to the operation of the British electoral system. We have brought them together in original work on the biases inherent in the system, and how they have operated (and been manipulated) during the last 50 years, work that was synthesised in our book on From Seats to Votes (co-authored with Charles Pattie, Danny Dorling and Dave Rossiter).

This work spread over three decades has been synthesised in a book – Putting Voters in Their Place (with Charles Pattie) – which is to be published in October 2006.

Alongside that work, I have explored two other themes: studies of the measurement of power in electoral systems, which have involved adapting methods developed for the study of power in committees and developing new indices of power that have been used to inform debates about electoral reform and proportional representation (one chapter in an edited collection and 16 papers in refereed journals); and studies of the political pork barrel in the United States, which illustrated how the distribution of public goods to different places reflected the electoral situation there (one book, on chapter in an edited collection, and 10 papers in refereed journals).