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Geography Research PaperThe practice of geography—literally ‘earth writing,’ from the Greek geo and graphein—goes back at least 2000 years, but it has a much shorter history as an academic discipline, with little formal presence in universities before the twentieth century. There have been many attempts to define it: one widely accepted in the mid-twentieth century saw it ‘concerned to provide accurate, orderly, and rational description and interpretation of the variable character of the Earth surface’ (Hartshorne 1939, p. 21). Its focus remains areal differentiation, but it has moved beyond cataloging and description to analyzing and providing explanatory accounts for the nature and implications of the material character of the earth’s surface and its use by people and societies. Its key concepts are space, place, and environment, each studied at a variety of scales.

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Although most definitions and university departments of geography embrace both physical and human worlds, studies of the two are now substantially separate components of the discipline. This research paper focuses on human geography, that part normally affiliated to the social and behavioral sciences.

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1. Intellectual Origins of Geography

As a source of information about the earth, geography has been important to all societies. It was part of the curriculum at Cambridge and Oxford Universities by the late sixteenth century, for example, taught for its practical value with two main themes. The provision of locational information involved cartography, on which a wealth of early material in many cultures has been identified. Alongside was chorology, the description of physical environments and their inhabitants. Geographers portrayed the different parts of the world, meeting the needs of traders, diplomats, and the military and also whetting the curiosity of the ‘educated classes.’

Although geographical material was widely disseminated and used, there was no formal discipline with institutional status in universities. This was countered in the nineteenth century by societies founded to promote the dissemination of geographical knowledge (Livingstone 1992): many were closely linked to imperialist projects and actively promoted exploration of extra-European terrae incognitae. The first university chairs and departments were established by royal decree in Germany in the 1870s; they were to prepare school teachers, as part of the creation of an educated citizenry, and to sustain colonial and military enterprises. Similar successful campaigns elsewhere included the Netherlands, where the first established chair was in ‘colonial geography,’ and in England, where the Royal Geographical Society provided financial assistance to establish departments at Oxford and Cambridge, although the first honours degrees in geography were awarded at Liverpool, in 1917. The departments were small but provided the foundation for substantial expansion after World War II, when there was a geography department in nearly every British university and a graduate school in 27 United States’ universities.

2. The Creation Of A Discipline

The subject matter taught in these new departments focused on the inter-relations among peoples and environments, as conceived by several important German and French geographers (such as von Humboldt, Ritter, Ratzel, and de la Blache: Livingstone 1992). Geographers sought a unique intellectual rationale within the academic division of labor, increasingly so as universities adopted the German tradition of marrying teaching with research. Of the six trends that Freeman (1961) identified up to c.1950 (encyclopedic, educational, colonial, generalizing, political, and specialization), the generalizing trend became increasingly important, with individual specialization as a necessary consequence.

The emerging practice of geography was strongly influenced by its milieux (Livingstone 1992). Debates in the first half of the twentieth century crystallized around the concept of the region. Hartshorne (1939, p. 462) presented geography as:

… a science that interprets the realities of areal differentiation of the world as they are found, not only in terms of the differences in certain things from place to place, but also in terms of the total combination of phenomena in each place, different from those at every other place.

Regions possess unique characteristics based on their inter-related physical and human environments, and regional geography aimed (Wooldridge 1956, p. 53):

… to gather up the disparate strands of the systematic studies, the geographical aspects of other disciplines, into a coherent and focused unity, to see nature and nurture, physique and personality as closely related and interdependent elements in specific regions.

This identifies two long-recognized strands in geographical practice: the systematic, focusing on particular subject matter, and the regional, concentrating on specific areas.

There were common elements to geographical practice in those countries where it was established early: Hartshorne’s 1939 essay exemplified the strong German influence on American geography, for example, and much regional geography was based on classic French work. The links between the different language realms weakened after World War II, however (Johnston and Claval 1984): the remainder of this research paper focuses on the English-speaking world.

2.1 A ‘New’ Geography

Systematic specialization increasingly dominated the expanding discipline in the mid-twentieth century, with two significant intradisciplinary divides: a split between physical and human geography: and the creation of separate specialisms within each. Regional geography declined in importance as a research field, but remained important in the discipline’s teaching. The early systematic strengths were in historical geography, particularly strong in the UK (led by Darby and his major work on the Domesday Book: Darby 1977), and cultural geography in the USA, led by Sauer (1952) and with strong links to anthropology. Economic, political, and social geography were small enterprises until the second half of the twentieth century.

Two strongly linked developments in the 1950s 1960s—termed ‘quantitative and theoretical revolutions’—generated an explosion of interest in both physical and human geography. Quantitative methods were adopted to handle spatial data, but the ‘revolutionary’ component within human geography involved explicit consideration of theory, notably location theories whose key element was a geographical variable—space, usually represented as the cost involved in moving people, goods, and information. Classic works on the location of agricultural land uses industry and retail establishments (notably Christaller’s central place theory were appropriated and formed the basis for a ‘new geography,’ a spatial science whose goal was identifying and accounting for spatial order. This was largely North American in provenance, initially focused on a few departments (Johnston 1997), but the approach soon infiltrated other parts of the discipline, assisted by two seminal British anthologies (Chorley and Haggett 1965, 1967). Further spatial theories were added—on the diffusion of innovations and the widely-applied gravity model for studying flow patterns—and the entire corpus was synthesized in influential text books, notably Haggett (1965) and Abler et al. (1971).

The expansion was accompanied by increased specialization. Economic geography spawned subdivisions of industrial, agricultural, transport, and development geography, for example; urban geography grew a substantial subsector in urban social geography and was paralleled by interest in rural geography; social geography begat population and medical geography; and political geography was both revived and spawned electoral geography. The shared goal was the discovery of spatial order—in both individual behavior patterns and their outcomes in the built environment.

Although diverging systematic interests reduced links between physical and human geographers, they explored common ground in techniques of spatial analysis and approaches to knowledge. The switch from an ideographic focus on unique characteristics of places to a nomothetic search for spatial order largely occurred in a philosophical vacuum, but some geographers promoted the positivist approach to knowledge production (Bunge 1966, Harvey 1969).

These shifts occurred when the discipline was expanding rapidly within universities. Their promoters achieved major intradisciplinary changes by portraying spatial science as meeting contemporary needs among the burgeoning, increasingly quantitative and theoretical, social sciences. They presented the regional approach as outdated: the concepts of areal differentiation and region were retained—though employed in different ways.

2.2 ‘-Isms,’ Schisms, And ‘Turns’

Although some promoted this ‘new geography’ as surpassing its predecessor, there was no complete revolution to a new hegemonic paradigm in the Kuhnian sense. Not all geographers were won over, and some continued to teach and research in their established ways—sustaining the traditions of historical, cultural, and regional geography which were foundations for later responses to the ‘shock of the new.’ Those responses criticized spatial science on two main grounds. The first attacked location theories for narrow economism, for privileging profit-maximizing (translated geographically as transport-cost-minimizing) as a determinant of decision-making and so denigrating the wide range of cultural and other influences on behavior. Spatial science, it was claimed, removed free will by assuming that humans react to stimuli in predetermined ways while its elevation of space as the predominant influence on locational decisions led to a derogation of place. Some critics explored alternatives to positivism—such as phenomenology, idealism and existentialism—in work categorized as humanistic geography.

The second set of criticisms concerned spatial science’s approach to explanation. Location theories, it was argued, could not account for the major contours of the geography of development and underdevelopment at various spatial scales, of inequality and injustice, wealth, power, and discrimination. Explanation required understanding how economic systems, especially capitalism, work and involved more than adding the costs of transport and communications to neoclassical economic models: such explanation could be achieved through Karl Marx’s writings. Harvey’s (1973) collection of essays initiated a series incorporating space to Marxian thought (notably Harvey 1982) and stimulated others during a period of social tensions over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Their work became known as radical geography.

Although both critiques attracted adherents, many were as dissatisfied with each as they were with spatial science. As Gregory (1978) demonstrated, whereas some spatial scientists strayed very close to naive economic determinism, much humanistic geography approached another extreme of voluntarism, tearing the individual out of context, while some radical geography offered little more than an alternative economic determinism. Much effort was spent in the late twentieth century integrating aspects of humanistic and radical geography.

3. The Contemporary Geography

Sheppard (1995) divided human geographers into two main groups—spatial scientists and social theorists; strands of contemporary geographical scholarship that operate somewhat independently (Johnston 1997). Some recent textbooks in the ‘social theory mold’ dismiss spatial science as part of a discredited past (as in Peet 1998), whereas a volume promoting geography within the US scientific community concentrated on it (plus physical geography: NRC 1997). Attempts at comprehensive overviews include anthologies which lack integration (e.g. Gaile and Willmott 1989, 2001) while the editors of a volume on the ‘pervasive themes’ and ‘common elements within a discipline whose practitioners are in danger of for- getting their shared heritage and ideals’ concluded that not only had they failed to bridge the human–physical divide but they also feared a similar divide was opening within human geography (Abler et al. 1992).

3.1 Spatial Science

Spatial science remains a substantial component of contemporary human geography. It is strongly quantitative, but the formal (geometrical) location theories based on a single causal variable (space) have largely been abandoned: the search for spatial order neither anticipates the discovery of regular structures nor seeks universal laws of spatial behavior. Sayer (1984) drew an important distinction between extensive and intensive research: the former seeks empirical regularities whereas the latter explores the causal chains responsible for particular outcomes. Much spatial science is extensive research, a necessary precursor to many detailed investigations; by not eschewing empirical generalisations, it identifies significant features and trends in the mass of numerical data which characterize modern societies.

In the 1950s–1970s geographers assumed that standard statistical procedures could be applied unproblematically to analyses of point, line, flow, and area patterns. This was challenged by work on spatial autocorrelation, which identified a range of problems and proposed new methods of spatial data analysis (e.g. Haining 1990). Other issues identified included the modifiable areal unit problem. Some geographical analyses study the characteristics of populations aggregated by areas (such as census administrative units), but there is an extremely large number of ways in which such places can be defined, involving both scale (how large are the areas?) and aggregation (how many different ways can areas of the same size be created?) effects. Openshaw (1985) showed that different aggregations can produce divergent statistical results, creating problems in deciding which to employ. There are also related geographical examples of ecological fallacies—assumptions that results for a particular dataset can be generalized to others at different scales and/or aggregations (including individuals). Various procedures for attacking these problems and providing robust solutions are exemplified by essays in Longley and Batty (1996), many significantly assisted by developments in computing power (including applications of artificial intelligence) and stimulating the conception of geocomputation to describe such work in both physical and human geography (Longley et al. 1998).

The most significant technological developments have been in geographical information systems (GIS: Longley et al. 1999), combined hardware and software for the organization, integration, analysis, and display of spatially-referenced data, with the powerful display media underpinning the growth of visualization strategies. These systems have revolutionized spatial analysis and led to the identification of a geographical information science: traditional studies can be undertaken much more readily and quickly; exploratory studies are increasingly feasible, and large-scale modeling strategies integrating datasets collected on different spatial templates made possible.

Much contemporary spatial science, including GIS, is applied in a wide range of public and private sector contexts—as in spatially-targeted niche marketing strategies based on small-area classifications (geodemographics). This has partly been in response to changes in the economic context for universities: the pressure to increase nonstate income has stimulated ‘applied research’ and has seen the development of such skills as a major selling point in the attraction of students to read for geography degrees (see NRC 1997).

3.2 Social Theory

Although spatial science remains a substantial component of the discipline, to many human geographers approaches involving social theory form the disciplinary mainstream (as in Massey et al. 1999). Humanistic and radical geography have metamorphosed into new forms, although some maintain allegiance to the latter—notably Harvey (1989) and his continued reworking of Marxian approaches for understanding the contemporary world.

Work within this umbrella category focuses on understanding difference. Place now takes precedence over space among the main geographical concepts (on the tension between the two, see Taylor 1999): places provide contexts within which differences are produced and reproduced. But places are not fixed containers; like spaces, they are produced and continually reproduced by human action so that whereas in spatial science space is an exogenous independent variable (though modifiable, as in transport network developments), in social theory it is both independent and dependent variable (as stressed in Martin’s 1999 critique of the ‘new geographical economics’ which relates more to the spatial science of the 1970s than to either strand of contemporary human geography). The interactions between people and places spaces continually transform both, introducing a geographical component to the structure-agency dialectic for which Giddens (1977) sought a resolution in his structuration theory, very influential in human geography in the 1980s. People make their own histories, but within constraining enabling spatial contexts— locales, or settings for interaction. (Giddens 1984 was one of the few social theorists who not only used spatial metaphors in his writings but was also influenced by geographical work, notably time geography—e.g. Hagerstrand 1982—which draws attention to the geographical constraints on how individuals pursue personal and collective projects.)

A very important stimulus to recognition of the role of context locale in the production and reproduction of difference came from feminist geography. Initially launched to highlight the discrimination against women within a male-dominated discipline and the consequential many silences in what geographers studied, this expanded into a much wider critique of ‘single-factor’ approaches (such as Marxist’s concentration on class and the economic infrastructure) that ignored important other societal cleavages (Women and Geography Study Group 1984, Rose 1993). People viewing society from different positions create separate identities of self and other, which are potential foundations for identity politics. The class struggle is not the only one within capitalist society, and others (based on sexual orientation, race and religion, for example, as well as gender) cannot be folded within it.

Other stimuli came from postmodernism, which also emphasized difference and rejected the search for grand theories. Dear (1988) and introduced it to geographers as a way of addressing the contemporary condition, exemplified in the argued transition from a Fordist regime of accumulation, characterized by mass production of uniform commodities for mass consumption, to post-Fordism, characterized by small niche markets and consumption for status as well as use (sometimes called flexible accumulation). Harvey (1989) countered by arguing that this shift, involving the production of new spaces and places, is but the latest response to a crisis of capitalism.

More important has been the impact of the various strands of poststructuralist thought derived from the humanities and social sciences. Poststructuralists argue that human subjectivity is not given but rather produced in contexts. So much of that production process is spatially and temporally contingent that truth and knowledge are contingent too, varying through time and over space in a range of situated and local knowledges that form the resource foundations for structuration dialectics and identity politics. Representation of these contingencies is crucial to social conduct, and poststructuralists stress the importance of language not only as the communication medium involved in creating human subjectivity but also as a social construction itself, with variations that are fundamental to the creation and understanding of difference (i.e. in the relationship between the signified and the signifier and in its interpersonal transmission— the hermeneutic process). Language is just one means of communicating understandings, however, and as well as interpreting written texts geographers have focused on other images (works of art, films, landscapes) implicated in the creation of situated knowledges—as in Harley’s (1989) seminal work on deconstructing maps.

Said’s (1978) book on the Western creation of a ‘mythical East’ was an important stimulus to geographers’ studies of the roles of images of places and spaces in the creation and transmission of meanings and identities. They have embraced the postcolonial movement which challenges not only the political and economic components of colonialism and imperialism but also their roles in creating imaginative geographies at variance from those of the peoples who experienced that external power and are creating alternative geographies, knowledges, and identities through their own writings.

Many of these arguments were introduced through cultural geography but not confined to it and have been instrumental in reducing some of geography’s fragmentation. Several parts of the discipline have experienced a ‘cultural turn’: the perceived interdependence of cultural and economic processes, for example, has stimulated broader studies of production, exchange, and consumption (Lee and Wills 1998); critical geopolitics emphasizes the ways images of the world are created, transmitted, and underpin geographies of power and conflict (O’Tuathail 1996); and writing on nonrepresentational theory focuses on the transitory, the ‘billions of happy or unhappy encounters’ (performances) which characterize the daily interactions among people, places, environments, and ‘things’ but are never recorded represented in the traditional source materials for geographical scholarship (Thrift 1996). At an extreme of spatial scale heretofore ignored, geographers are also exploring the body as a site of identity-formation, as the most intimate of ‘personal spaces’ or ‘the geography closest in’ (Pile 1996).

Research within this area is both catholic and eclectic in its substantive interests. Space and place are being theorized in a wide range of contexts and scales. There are increasing links with other social science and humanities disciplines experiencing a ‘spatial turn,’ both in their use of spatial metaphors and in their appreciation of the roles of space and place in the structuration of people and societies.

Such work is very far from most spatial science and there is little methodological or philosophical common ground: one area of interaction, however, has emerged from critiques of the representations of the world created within GIS (Pickles 1995) and, more broadly, in cyberspace (Kitchin 1998). Social theory also lacks an ‘applied’ element as generally appreciated by those promoting geography as a ‘relevant’ or ‘saleable’ discipline (hence the absence of much on social theory in NRC 1997). Critical human geography is increasingly used to categorize work committed to emancipation, however, clarifying ways in which space and place are manipulated in the creation and maintenance of power relationships. This has a strong moral ethical component, concerned not only with how geographical research and teaching are conducted but also with evaluating what is right and wrong, good and bad (Smith 1994, Sack 1997).

One area of traditional geographical interest revived by social theorists is the study of people–environment interactions, on which there has been a continuing stream of studies on various aspects of environmentalism, human impacts on the environment (Turner et al. 1990), environmental policy, and political economy approaches to environmental problems and issues. Poststructuralists argue that nature is a social construction—work on nature–culture interrelationships must take account of the cultural constructions of nature even the binary nature: culture categorization sets up an unreal opposition since each is part of the other. Writing on society–nature interrelationships has thus been substantially broadened, expanding from the technical issues involved in the production of ‘environmental problems’ and the political ones in their ‘solution resolution’ to raise fundamental questions regarding the role of humans in nature. Some argue that studies of the environment can integrate physical and human geography (Simmons 1997) and present a major opportunity for geographers to undertake relevant research.

4. Conclusions

Human geography is a large, expanding, and vibrant discipline, characterized like most others by fragments and tensions: its extent and the nature of the expansion can be appreciated by comparing the four editions of The Dictionary of Human Geography (Johnston et al. 2000). It has an established niche without the academic division of labor; its core concerns remain those crystallized over a century ago; and its basic concepts remain place, space, and environment. Within those general characterizations, however, the discipline has changed markedly in recent decades, not only in what it studies but also in how and why. Buttimer (1993) has suggested that throughout their discipline’s history geographers have regularly shifted among four foundational metaphors (mosaic, machine, organism, and arena)—without the academic revolutions that are central to Kuhn’s (1970) paradigm model of scientific progress. Contemporary spatial science employs the mosaic metaphor with its emphasis on spatial order (without the earlier determinist overtones when the machine metaphor was employed to ‘explain’ those mosaics), whereas social theory concentrates on organism and, especially, arena—the spatial contexts, or places, which are involved in the production of human-ness while being produced and reproduced by humans.


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