As anyone who talked to him, or head him lecture or present a paper would quickly find out, Ron Johnston had an uncanny ability to weave a reference to Swindon, his home town, into the discussion, no matter what the topic. Those name-checks for the town (and its football team) revealed much about Ron. More often than not, they were wryly humorous and self-deprecating: Ron’s lively sense of humour was a large part of his personality. But they were also apposite to the point being made, and illustrated his strong appreciation of the importance of place, in a very concrete form, in human affairs. Throughout his highly distinguished academic career, he was devoted to tracing the ramifications of space and place.
One of the leading and most cited human geographers of his generation, Ron’s interests (in an era of narrow specialism) were wide-ranging. He worked on urban social structure and segregation, the world trade system, the politics of the environment, the political geography of public policy and the state, and quantitative research methods in geography. But he was particularly noted for his contributions in two areas: the history of human geography; and the geography of elections.
A remarkably prolific writer, he was author of 40 books and monographs (several of which went to multiple editions) and around 800 refereed academic papers, as well as many book chapters and articles. He also edited numerous collections. Perhaps the most notable of these was The Dictionary of Human Geography (his co-editors included geography luminaries Derek Gregory, Peter Haggett, David M Smith and David Stoddart). First published by Blackwells in 1981, the dictionary quickly became the standard reference work of its kind, noted for the breadth, depth and quality of its encyclopaedia-style entries, an extraordinary number of which Ron wrote himself. So far, it has gone to 5 editions (Ron and Derek acting as lead editors for every revision).
For many in the discipline, he is perhaps best known as one of the leading historians of academic human geography. First published in 1979, his magisterial study of the development of Anglo-American human geography since 1945, Geography and Geographers, became one of the leading accounts. It was translated into several languages and eventually ran to 7 editions, the most recent appearing in 2015 (from the 6th edition in 2004, James Sidaway joined Ron as co-author). In part, the book’s longevity and popularity reflected not just the extraordinary range and depth of Ron’s coverage, and the remarkable degree to which each subsequent edition kept abreast of a rapidly expanding and changing discipline. But it also came from the clarity and intellectual force of the argument. The book provided not simply an account of ‘who said what’, but also of how key debates and trends shaped and changed the discipline, and of how this related to both the sociology of knowledge and to how individual academics responded to the pressures and demands of their increasingly professionalised occupation – a revelation for many students.
Ron’s interest in geography’s historical and philosophical underpinnings became a central thread in his work. In books such as On Human Geography (1986) and A Question of Place (1991), he wrote powerfully of the importance of place and context in human societies. This also informed much of his empirical research, especially on electoral geographies.
As an undergraduate in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he encountered and was enthused by the quantitative revolution which was then reshaping human geography by introducing scientific rigour and advanced mathematical and statistical techniques into what had previously been a rather staid and descriptive discipline. His early focus was on questions of urban social geography, using data to analyse and understand urban morphology, residential structure and segregation. This formed the basis of his PhD (awarded in 1967). It also led to his first major book, Urban Residential Patterns, published in 1971. Throughout his career, he carried out important work on the measurement of social and ethnic segregation in cities, building on and extending the work of scholars such as Ceri Peach.
Increasingly discontented with the atheoretical nature of much work in the field, he took note of the radical turn in geography in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was quick to see the significance of David Harvey’s 1973 book, Social Justice and the City: it became a centrepiece of the urban geography course he taught when he came to Sheffield University in 1974. While his work remained empirical in focus, it was not empiricist, but was increasingly driven by an appreciation of theoretical debates (reflected in, for instance, City and Society, first published in 1980). Urban social geography formed the core of his empirical work until the early 1980s, and he continued to publish in the field thereafter.
But from the late 1970s on, his research increasingly turned to electoral geography, which became his main empirical focus for the remainder of his career. He had first become interested in the field in the late 1960s for somewhat negative reasons. The impetus came from an important 1969 paper by Kevin Cox, setting out a theoretical model explaining why voters’ decisions might be influenced by the geographical contexts in which they found themselves. Initially sceptical (in line with then conventional views in psephology, he assumed how people voted would be influenced by their personal political beliefs and socio-economic circumstances), he set out to prove Cox’s argument wrong. Much to his surprise, however, he found that, on the contrary, so called ‘neighbourhood effects’ on voting remained persistent, even when individuals’ personal circumstances were taken into account: otherwise similar people living in different local contexts often voted differently. Geography was indeed an influence on vote choice.
Intrigued, he delved further into the field, conducting important work on neighbourhood effects, the influence of local economic conditions on vote choices, constituency campaigning, and the interaction between geography and election rules. With Peter Taylor, he wrote Geography of Elections (1979), a major work of synthesis and a foundation for much of his subsequent psephological work (much of which is summarised in a book he and I published in 2006, Putting Voters in their Place).
Though he made important contributions in many areas of electoral studies, his work on constituency campaigning and on electoral systems proved especially influential. For many years, elections analysts and professionals held that, with the advent of national television election coverage, campaigns in individual constituencies no longer mattered. Rather, it was the national campaign which swung voter opinion. Ron realised in the 1970s that publicly available (but seldom analysed) data on election spending by parties’ constituency candidates could serve as a proxy for their campaign effort and so would permit a test of local campaigns’ efficacy. His work on this topic, summarised in books such as Money and Votes (1987) and Money and Electoral Politics (2014), was important in overturning the orthodox picture. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, constituency campaigning (especially by non-incumbent candidates) did indeed affect election outcomes. Other things being equal, the harder candidates worked on their local campaigns, the more votes they received and the fewer votes their rivals took. The effects were seldom large (though they could be for some parties, such as the UK’s Liberal Democrats) – unsurprising as many people know how they will vote long before elections, based on other influences and reasons. But they were enough to make the difference between winning and losing in marginal races. And, he went on to show, wise parties, realising the dividends from local campaigns in first past the post systems, increasingly directed their campaign efforts at more marginal seats rather than at seats where they stood little chance of success or at seats where they were bound to win. The analysis of local campaign effects is now a thriving subfield of electoral studies.
In his work on electoral systems, Ron focused in particular on questions of electoral bias and redistricting in first past the post plurality systems familiar to UK voters. It is well known that first past the post systems tend to be biased against smaller parties with evenly spread support (in the UK, the Liberals and their successors have often found themselves in this position), and that first past the post often exaggerates the wining party’s share of seats compared to its share of the vote (for instance, no party has won over 50% of the vote in any post-war British election, but with only a handful of exceptions, each election has produced a one-party majority government with over half the seats in the Commons).
This disproportionality, at least between the two largest parties in the polity, is not in itself a problem as long as all parties experience the same rewards in seats for the same vote shares. More pernicious are situations in which elections become systematically biased in favour of a particular party, such that, even if the parties win the same share of the votes, one wins more seats than the others. This can arise through malpractice (partisan gerrymandering in US elections). Or it can occur as an accidental by-product of other aspects of the electoral system. Early in his career, Ron came across and extended a method developed by Ralph Brookes, a New Zealand political scientist, for measuring electoral bias between two parties in a first past the post competition. Applying it to elections in the UK, he showed that for much of the postwar period, there was no systematic bias between Labour and the Conservatives (though some other parties were discriminated against). As constituencies aged, Labour tended to pick up a slight advantage, as the areas it was successful in tended to lose population and voters relative to the areas the Conservatives were popular in (hence meaning it took more votes to elect each Conservative MP than to elect Labour MPs). But periodic reviews of the constituency boundaries to take into account changing electorates largely addressed this issue.
But in elections between 1992 and 2005, bias (substantially) advantaged Labour relative to the Conservatives. Some of this bias was a consequence of relative population change, and of Scottish and Welsh over-representation. However, Ron demonstrated that most of the pro-Labour bias in those years came from turnout, third party effects and greater campaign efficiency (focusing on gaining votes in marginal rather than safer seats). What is more, he also showed that in more recent elections, the Conservatives have begun to beat Labour on efficiency, to such an extent that since the 2015 election (even without the adoption of constituencies drawn under redesigned rules), the Conservative-Labour bias now favours the Conservatives.
Alongside his work on electoral bias, Ron also studied the processes by which constituency boundaries are regularly redrawn to take into account changing population geographies. Work on the UK Boundary Commissions (in books such as 1999’s The Boundary Commissions , written with David Rossiter and myself) showed the sometimes unintended consequence of politically impartial review procedures. His expertise in this area meant he was frequently called on as an expert witness by policymakers seeking to revise the law surrounding boundary reviews. This culminated during and after the passage through the UK Parliament of new legislation on the review process in 2011, which set strict limits on the range of constituency electorates Boundary Commissions could propose. During the 2011 legislation’s passage through Parliament, Ron appeared on numerous occasions as an expert witness before Parliamentary Committees, and continued to do so after the legislation had been passed, advising and commenting on attempts to revise the legislation in order to mitigate some of its unintended effects. His expertise was widely recognised by all sides in the debate. His efforts to help both the public and parliamentarians to appreciate the likely unintended consequences of the new legislation and how they might be mitigated were recognised in 2011 when the Political Studies Association named him as its Political Communicator of the Year. For a time, too, he served as a Deputy Commissioner for the Boundary Committee for England.
Ron was born in Swindon in 1941. A wartime baby, his father was serving with the British army in France, and saw his new son only once before being posted to the Far East, where he was captured in the fall of Singapore and spent the rest of the war in Japanese PoW camps. During the war years Ron was brought up by his mother and her parents, who owned the village Post Office in Chiseldon, just south of Swindon. One of his earliest memories was of being introduced, aged 4, to a strange man who he realised was his father, newly returned at the end of the war. His parents were to take over the Post Office, and he spent his childhood and adolescence there, building up a strong sense of identification with Wiltshire in the process. He never lost his Wiltshire burr and remained a dedicated (if often disappointed) supporter of Swindon Town FC.
A bright child (he was one of the first in his village to pass the 11+ exam), he attended the Commonweal Grammar School in Swindon. Although he performed well academically, the possibility of going to university was not considered – either by Ron or by his teachers – until well into his Sixth Form. His father and geography master had met and both encouraged him to consider it – a decision helped by the realisation that several of his friends, whose grades were no better than his own, were already applying to universities. Geography had been one of his favourite subjects at school (fed by a fascination with maps), so he applied to study that subject. Having opted to study Latin at O-level rather than sciences, and having then failed in that subject, only a few university BA Geography courses were open to him. He applied to Leeds, Southampton and Manchester. The latter offered him an unconditional place, which he accepted, taking up his place in 1959. Manchester proved an important move: it was there that he encountered his two loves: empirical research; and Rita Brennan, a fellow student. Married in 1963, theirs was a close and happy relationship.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were years of intellectual change in academic human geography. Traditional, highly descriptive, regional geography approaches were increasingly challenged by a new generation of scholars who sought to bring scientific rigour and sophisticated statistical data analysis to bear. But the ripples of this ‘quantitative revolution’ barely registered in Manchester’s still very traditional BA course. It wasn’t until he began casting round for a topic for his undergraduate research dissertation that Ron (largely under his own guidance) came seriously into contact with the ‘new wave’, encountering work on central place theory. Graduating with an upper second class honours BA in 1962, he stayed in Manchester to study for a research MA in geography, supervised by Walter Freeman. His MA (on population change in rural Nidderdale) gave him an opportunity to immerse himself further in the quantitative revolution, and he taught himself how to carry out statistical analyses. The MA work formed the basis of some of his earliest published papers, a sign of things to come. Data analysis was to remain a cornerstone of his empirical research for the rest of his career.
Obtaining his MA in 1964, Ron took up a post as lecturer in Geography at Monash University in Melbourne. The post offered not only a paid job (important for a newly married couple) but also an opportunity to travel to Australia, and to study for a PhD. He and Rita moved to Melbourne in 1964. In the process, he further honed his statistical skills and taught himself computer programming in order to handle the large amounts of data his project demanded (these were the days before off-the-shelf data analysis software, so writing code from scratch was essential: Ron wrote his own code, and at one point had the only program in the Antipodes capable of conducting a full factor analysis).
On completion of his PhD and now with a young family (Chris, born in 1964, and Lucy, born 1966), Ron moved to New Zealand to take up a lectureship in Geography at the University of Canterbury. This proved a happy and successful move (he was rapidly promoted to senior lecturer in 1969 and Reader in 1973). His research grew (taking in interests in spatial structure and the world trade system – both resulting in further books), as did his circle of friends and collaborators (many of whom he remained in touch with – and continued to work with – for the rest of his life). But in 1974, Ron was offered and accepted a Chair in geography at the University of Sheffield, and the family returned to the UK.
While in Sheffield, electoral geography and the history of the discipline became the main focuses of his research. From 1982 to 1985, he was Honorary Secretary of the Institute of British Geographers, and he served as its President in 1990-91. He also became increasingly involved in university administration. Between 1982 and 1985, he served as head of the Geography Department. He then chaired the University’s Academic Development Committee, then the main planning body for the institution, for most of the period from 1985 to 1992. And in 1989, he was appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, one of the institution’s most senior positions. This was a period of retrenchment in universities, and difficult decisions had to be taken. Ron did not shirk these. But he was very aware of the implications for colleagues, and gained a reputation for fair-mindedness and care, guiding the university through some difficult years.
In 1992, he was appointed Vice Chancellor of Essex University. While he was an active and effective VC, university administration became increasingly frustrating and in 1995, he took the decision to return full time to research and teaching. Bristol University appointed him to a Chair in Geography. The Geography Department there proved a congenial and welcoming academic home, and his research continued to flourish. He remained on Bristol’s staff till his death.
From the 1980s on, his work was increasingly recognised and he received numerous awards. He received two of the Royal Geographical Society’s top awards: the Murchison Award (in 1985) and the Victoria Medal (in 1990). The Association of American Geographers awarded him Honors in 1991 and in 2010 gave him its LifeTime Achievement Award. In 1999, he received the Vautrin Lud prize, often described as Geography’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. A founding Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, he was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1999, and from 2007 acted as editor of its Proceedings. Monash, Essex, Sheffield and Bath Universities all conferred him with honorary doctorates. And in 2011, he received the OBE for services to scholarship.
In a busy life, he did not shirk the less glamourous but essential roles of academic life, working tirelessly and prodigiously for academic journals (as editor and as a frequent and insightful referee) and for learned societies. Many colleagues and students benefited from his mentorship and advice.
Somehow, amidst his extraordinary volume of work, Ron found time for church bell ringing. Introduced to it as a young boy by his grandfather, change ringing became an important part of his life. An activity demanding total mental and physical concentration, it allowed him to switch off, for a time, from the pressures of academic life. But, typically for Ron, he rang to a high level and was for a time President of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Perhaps inevitably, he also researched and wrote about bell ringing (he claimed that one of his books on the subject, An Atlas of Bells, had sold more copies than any other book he wrote).
A remarkably energetic and imaginative scholar, Ron’s work ethic was prodigious. He was researching, writing and planning new projects into the last weeks of his life. But he combined this with personal warmth, and deep humanity and generosity of spirit. Throughout his career he built strong friendships and collaborative partnerships which stood the test of time, largely because of the care and interest he took in others (he was a generous and active mentor for many colleagues), and because of both his good judgement and his very active sense of fun.
While the outside world knew him as a major academic, Ron’s family was probably the most important thing in his life, and was a source of huge pride and happiness for him. He is survived by Rita, his children, Chris and Lucy, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
By Charles Pattie
An obituary for Ron was also published in The Guardian.
A full obituary for Ron has been published in The Geographical Journal.
Ron Johnston (1941 – 2020), (c) Chrystal Cherniwchan
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