Marvin Overby has been described as the Political Science department’s "utility infielder" in American Politics, and over the years his expertise has only spread. His research interests range from legislative procedures in the U.S. House and Senate (and Canadian Parliament, too) to the politics of minority groups. And his interests continue to grow.
Going far beyond maps, as one might presume, “Geography is the study of human-environment interactions,” explains Soren Larsen, Assistant Professor of Geography at MU. The discipline as a whole covers activity ranging from physical geography (e.g., wind erosion and weather patterns), techniques (e.g., modeling air pollution with GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, to understand the interactions between humans and the environment), and something called human geography, a subfield that focuses on the political, economic, cultural, urban, and regional elements of human-environment interactions. Human geographers cast their eyes on “the impact of the environment on human behavior,” as well as “the impact of human activity on the environment.” Within human geography Larsen specializes in cultural geography. While traditionally that may have entailed mapping the distribution of various cultural traits to track changes over space and time, cultural geography today is much more process-focused, drawing heavily upon the methodologies and theories of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
At first, when asked about collaborative research, Larsen joked that cultural geographers “usually fly solo,” because the projects are so time- and field-intensive. Yet Larsen has been involved in a number of collaborations. He worked closely with the Cheslatta people in British Columbia on various projects. At the Colorado field school he shares ideas with a cultural geographer, a GIS specialist, and a physical geographer. And he also collaborates with Matt Foulkes, a population geographer from MU’s Geography department, and Ann Bettencourt, a social psychologist from the Psychology department. Larsen has recently begun collaborating with Jason Dittmer, a geography colleague at Georgia Southern University, to compare the U.S.-based Captain America books with those of Captain Canuck, its Canadian parallel. Using content analysis, they have found these comics shed light on matters of nationalism, national identity, and cultural values, as well as responses to cultural change.
“There is a land claims treaty process that is going on in Canada,” Larsen reports, “but generally the native people in the province of British Columbia are very dissatisfied with it because it asks them to do things in terms of Western court procedures as opposed to their own indigenous ways of knowing and establishing these things. The Cheslatta are among two-thirds of the native bands that are withdrawing from the treaty process completely—as a matter of protest and also as a matter of expediency” as they seek to join forces with other groups. As a matter of fact, the lumberyards in Columbia will likely contain Cheslatta forest products that derive from this band of 500 individuals partnering with a multi-national timber firm.
“One of the most fascinating things I discovered in the course of my research,” reflects Larsen, is that both the Anglo and Cheslatta residents seem to use scales “in which they construct their identity for different purposes.” More specifically, he notices that, generally speaking, “when an outside force comes into the area . . . they call themselves Southsiders . . ., forming this unified front” against outside firms and corporations that tend to harvest the resources and then just leave. Their collaboration proved successful in preventing a new dam from being constructed, and “their success has bred more collaboration in these coalition politics.” Yet Larsen also noticed that when that outside force is removed, “they tend to fall back into their distinct little cultural groups”—Anglo and Cheslatta.