Geographical Region Research Paper

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Region is a concept of great significance that has a long and storied history in geography. When the discipline was becoming an organized field of study during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and North America, regions were its principal subject matter. Two conceptions of the geographical region vied for legitimacy. The region’s importance was eclipsed during the 1960s by new systematic and quantitative approaches. Regional synthesis did not disappear, but ceased to provide geography’s unifying framework. By the end of the twentieth century, geography lost confidence in spatial science and unifying concepts and frameworks of most sorts. The region was rehabilitated and enjoyed something of a vogue as geographers and others refocused attention on the nature and meaning of space and place.

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1. Regions For Everyone

Region is a concept both familiar and useful to fields of knowledge ranging across the arts and sciences. Distinctive resource endowments, climatic activity, and plant and animal life, along with widespread patterns of human occupance all differentiate the earth’s surface. That differentiation is the basis for identifying and naming regions: alpine forest; coal fields; wine country. Areas of the human body, too, are commonly referred to as regions; one of the most frequent physiological uses of region is in reference to the human brain, with distinct regions said to control discrete neurological functions. The essence of regions is the areal continuity (whether on the earth, the human body, or some other object of study, such as a painting) of some specified facts of interest to the observer (whether it be agricultural practices, digestion, or brush stroke). Regions of all sorts are identified on the basis of areally associated common characteristics.

Despite its widespread parlance, region enjoys a special relevance in geography because of the concept’s dictionary definition of and popular association with the earth’s surface. Regions, ipso facto, are geographical regions. As a field of knowledge widely perceived to study the earth’s natural and human variation, geography is similarly understood to rightly ‘own’ regions as its logical and meaningful object of study. Geography certainly has devoted itself to the continuing transformation and differentiation of global nature and society. Yet the discipline has had a problematic relationship with the region: an on-again, off-again love affair with its putative object of study.

2. The Region In Geography

The region has been such a troubled concept owing to geography’s hybrid status as, at once, a natural and social science. When the great disciplines were borne during the late nineteenth century, geography came into being with its shoulders rubbing kindred disciplines of geology and anthropology. Geology laid claim to the scientific study of the origin, history, and structure of the earth, while anthropology claimed an equally scientific status for its study of the origin, cultural development, and behavior of humans.

Geography was the study of the earth and life on earth, especially human life and its capacity to change the face of the earth. More than a little geology, a little anthropology, geography on the continent, British Isles and in North America identified itself as the study of the relationships and interactions between nature and culture. Halford Mackinder, a founder of British academic geography and great champion of the regional approach, lamented in 1887 ‘one of the greatest of all gaps … between the natural sciences and the study of humanity.’ He went on to insist that it was ‘the duty of the geographer to build one bridge over [this] abyss …’ (cited in Livingstone 1992, p. 190).

This early history of the discipline bore direct consequences for the conceptualization of regions, for what better place, quite literally, to examine such connections than in areas ostensibly characterized by common natural and human features—which is to say, than in regions? Geography neither invented the region nor wrested it away from a rival discipline. Rather, the region fell into the discipline’s lap as the obvious focus for its pursuits.

The study of regions seemed a natural fit with the new discipline of geography not merely by default, however. Geographers attracted to the study of what were then called ‘man–land’ relations tended to focus, if not lavish, their attention on rural areas in an often deliberate rural bias. Well into the twentieth century, most people around the world lived in rural areas or small towns and to some extent, surely, geography was simply following demography in its preoccupation with the countryside. But more will-full considerations were also at play. The countryside offered an ostensibly more transparent scrim for observing interactions between nature and culture: it was easier to parse a relationship between soils and climate on the one hand, and cultivation, settlement, and even religious practices on the other in the countryside than to try to make analogous sense of the nature–culture nexus in burgeoning cities of the day. Livingstone (1992, p. 264–6) further suggests that geographers seeking a moral compass for their work deliberately sought out rural areas because of the perceived superiority of rural values in a rapidly changing world. Anti-urbanism was a conscious strategy, often fraught with political overtones, as was the case with regional geography in Germany and France. From the start, regional and rural geography were synonymous.

Early in the twentieth century, when geography was being established as a university discipline in Western Europe and the United States, the study of regions took place in service to geography’s larger purpose of bridging the natural and human sciences. Regions were thought to disclose nature–culture relations with quintessential clarity and were a basis for the most hotly contested debates of the age, namely over the relative weights of nature and culture in determining the character of people and places. Regional geography supported a variety of positions about the degree and direction of what was somewhat delicately called environmental influence. Taking cues from a stringent reading of Darwin’s principles, Huntington (1924) found evidence of a determining environmental influence on the fate of world regions through the instrumentality of race and intelligence, a determinist position staked out earlier in the influential work of German geographer Ratzel (1896–8). Elsewhere, a more nuanced approach was developed in France by Vidal de la Blache (1926). ‘To him, the regional articulation of life-style consisted in the material expressions of human–land relationships’ (Livingstone 1992, p. 267) which he explored in a series of essays about French pays. Vidal emphasized society’s variable role in modifying nature and was concerned with investigating how different natural realms gave rise to what he called genres de vie, or different ways of living.

2.1 The Region Is Geography

A subtle shift took place in the early twentieth century in the status accorded geographical regions. Debates over environmental influence waned with the inevitable rejection of crass determinism and the emergence of a possibilist consensus built around Lamarkian notions of human adaptation as an active rather than passive response to nature. Under these changing conditions, regions were no longer the mere handmaidens of research but came to be the discipline’s raison d’etre. Regions held a newly intrinsic interest. In Germany, Alfred Hettner promulgated ‘… the principle of chorology—the explanatory investigation of terrestrial reality divided into a series of component regions—’ as the only way ‘geography could retain both its physical and human components because it was precisely in their dialectic that particular places acquired regional character’ (Livingstone 1992, p. 263).

In the United States, two very different regional concepts competed for acceptance and legitimacy. The first was contained in the work of Sauer and the so-called Berkeley school of (cultural) geography. Borrowing from Germanic anthropology, Sauer translated the anthropologist (and Berkeley colleague) Alfred Kroeber’s ‘culture area’ into the geographers’ ‘cultural landscape’—synonymous with then-contemporary meanings of region. In Sauer’s conception, regions existed as organic wholes, awaiting discovery and interpretation through intensive geographical field work. Also presumed was the inherent uniqueness of regions in terms of the presence and combination of natural and cultural features. The Sauerian tradition rejected grand theorizing in favor of a particularism that found perfect expression in richly textured and seemingly exhaustive cultural landscape studies (Sauer 1963).

The rival regional concept was associated with areal differentiation as enunciated by Hartshorne in his exegetical The Nature of Geography, published in 1939. Contra-Sauerian particularism, Hartshorne rejected the heretofore common notion that regions existed as organic wholes. Regions might be observed and perhaps even experienced in a harmonious, holistic fashion, but otherwise such holism was ‘not inherent in the world which the geographer studies — neither in the world of nature nor in the actual world which nature and man together have made’ (Hartshorne 1961, p. 362). While denying regions an independent ontological status, Hartshorne sought to guide their study on to firmer ground. ‘(F)or him, the regional project consisted in determining how ‘‘particular elements and complexes of elements are related to those in others’’ ’ (Livingstone 1992, p. 310)—such particulars including relief, vegetation, climate, land use, etc. Hartshorne called for a formal process of areal differentiation to define geographical regions based on one or another consciously chosen geo- graphical particular. Such a scheme would lay the systematic basis for areal classification (e.g., the agricultural/climatic/religious/botanical regions of the world), comparison, and mapping.

Until the mid-twentieth century, these two regional concepts uncomfortably co-existed with each other. ‘In the first (Hartshornian) view, regions were a form of areal classification, and in the second (Sauerian), regions were relatively unique areas of the earth that possessed a geographic individuality’ (Entrikin 1991, p. 16). Hartshornian regions enjoyed a wider purchase in the discipline because they insinuated themselves easily in the discipline’s burgeoning systematic subfields of cultural, social, and economic geography.

By all accounts, during the 1940s and 1930s regional geography turned formulaic, with material synthesized and presented in a numbingly predictable format, beginning with the physical environment (landforms and climate) and then moving through several layers, as it were, of human occupance (settlement patterns, house types, farming practices, barn and fence types, etc.). While some scholarship rose above this narrow groove, sadly much did not. ‘(A)s clearly illustrated by many of the regional texts that appeared during those decades, the result was a rather tedious catalogue of factual material within an uninspiring framework’ (Johnson 1991, p. 40). Like an overly tended hothouse flower, regional geography withered at the very moment it enjoyed the discipline’s central place.

2.2 The Region Is Dead! Long Live The Region!

By the 1960s, many geographers openly questioned whether the region could any longer provide an integrative framework of study. The criticism leveled at regional geography was often upsparing, as when Peter Gould characterized it as ‘shabby, parochial, and unintelligent’ (cited in Johnston 1991, p. 40) and easily caricatured. Gould’s comments contributed to a wider assault on regional geography by a new generation of geographers seeking to redefine the discipline as a spatial science. Through the very real weaknesses of the traditional regional approach, and the sheer hubris of geography’s so-called young turks (such as Gould), spatial analysis decisively eclipsed regional synthesis as the discipline’s heart and soul. Suddenly the strenuous disagreements about particularism and areal classification sounded oddly antiquarian compared with the clarion and oh-so-modern call of the quantitative revolution.

Amidst this upheaval, regional geography did not vanish. Quantitative methods lent the Hartshornian region something of a new lease on life. Those working in the Sauerian tradition simply ignored the spatial science gold rush and continued advocating their cultural landscape approach in what became something of a lively, though curious, intellectual backwater. But the region generated little in the way of theoretical or methodological debate until the late 1970s. By that time, the euphoria surrounding spatial science had run its course and quantification was finally understood as a tool, albeit a powerful one, rather than geography’s raison d’etre. A new methodological pluralism overtook geography and the region once again began inspiring fierce discussion and debate—the news of its death having been vastly overstated.

The 1980s witnessed a resurgence of interest in regional geography emanating from two disparate sources (Pudup 1988). The first was practitioners of traditional regional geography who shared an unwavering belief that geography’s modus i endi remained regional synthesis. Emblematic of the revivified tradition was the election of two of its chief contemporary practitioners, John Fraser Hart and Peirce Lewis, to the Presidency of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) during the 1980s. Both used their AAG presidential addresses to celebrate traditional regional approaches. Hart called regional geography ‘the highest form of the geographer’s art’ and the discipline’s long neglected unifying theme: ‘I know of no other theme that is even remotely so satisfying as the idea of the region. All of the different strands of geography converge when we try to understand regions, and we need the concept of the region in order to understand why we need the diverse and variegated systematic sub-fields of geography.’ (Hart 1982, p. 18). Three years later, Peirce Lewis echoed Hart’s sentiment in another spirited defense of synthetic description which he considered ‘a kind of rough and ready definition of geography: describing the earth’s surface and trying to make sense of it.’ (Lewis 1985, p. 47).

Such ‘back to basics’ calls could be dismissed as pure nostalgia were it not for the equally spirited discussions about regions arising from a very different quarter—geographers who sought to rehabilitate the concept and create a ‘reconstructed regional geography.’ The new regional scholarship was pioneered, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a generational changing of the guard. Skeptical about both spatial science and regional synthesis, geographers coming of age in the 1980s brought to the study of regions a deep engagement with theoretical debates and philosophical discussions ranging across the social sciences (Thrift 1983). They also brought to the study of regions a consciousness borne from being living witnesses to dramatic changes wrought by globalization (Massey 1995, Allen et al. 1998, Storper 1997).

The study of regions underwent a profound trans- formation. Regions ceased to be a topic interesting chiefly to geographers and historians and became an object of fascination in mainstream social sciences. Economists, political scientists, sociologists and, of course, geographers began asserting ‘that the region might be a fundamental basis of economic and social life ‘‘after mass production.’’’ That is, since new successful forms of production—different from the canonical mass production systems of the postwar period—were emerging in some regions and not others, and since they seemed to involve both localization and regional differences and specificities (institutional, technological), it followed that there might be something fundamental that linked late 20th century capitalism to regionalism and regionalization’ (Storper 1997, p. 3). The apparent fin de siecle tendency toward regionalization of economic and social life, in places like ‘the third Italy,’ Baden-Wurttemburg, and Silicon Valley, was wildly at odds with post-World War II era expectations of global integration and homogeneity. The global village seemed to be giving way to a world of regions.

3. The Regional World

Reconstructed regional geography radically departs from traditional regional synthesis. Gone are assumptions of organic holism and naturalism, or that geographers take unmediated cues from the physical environment in discovering neatly packaged regions. Rural bias has given way to a plurality of spatial possibilities, including rural and urban but also sub-and ex-urban regions, as in the case of ‘edge cities’ like Orange County, California. Economic processes of trade and investment are accorded far greater importance in regional transformation, if not central importance, in contrast to traditional regional geography’s emphasis on culture and its tendency to either ignore or collapse most aspects of social life into the material expressions of culture. Indeed social relations, understood as ‘always inevitably spatialized’ (Allen et al. 1998, p. 138) take on an unprecedented significance in the new regional geography. Regions are socially constructed and open to deconstruction through social relations both in-and outside the region. The brave new regional world is an unstable one: ‘… that process of construction is constantly evolving. The spatialities of our lives are the product of continual negotiation, the outcome of the articulation of differentially powerful social relations …. Any settlement of social relations into a spatial form is likely to be temporary. Some settlements will be longer lasting than others’ (Allen et al. 1998, p. 138). Finally, regions are also discursively produced through cultural representations that imbue meanings differentiating one region from another, e.g., a ‘core’ vs. a ‘peripheral’ region.

‘What is said’ about a region can powerfully shape the form and content of its social relations and what literally takes place there. Another obvious change is the new regional geography’s nomenclature. Perhaps because ‘region’ carries such bruised and battered baggage, concepts like space, place, locality, and even territory are typically used interchangeably with region. The long-standing question of the region’s appropriate geographical scale appears moot.

But not all the hoary questions have gone away. As the twentieth century turns into the twenty-first, geographers continue to wrestle with how to understand regional difference and uniqueness. That places differ from one another—and not just in their landforms and climate—can no longer be assumed, as was the earlier luxury, but has to be explained in a world governed by recognizably systemic processes of global capitalism. In this regard, regions continue to be human places where geographers explore relations between the general and the particular. And because such questions by definition defy agreement, the regional enterprise is guaranteed a long and storied future.


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  2. Entrikin J N 1991 The Betweenness of Place. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  3. Hart J F 1982 The highest form of the geographer’s art. Presidential address. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 1–29
  4. Hartshorne R 1939 The nature of geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 29: 1–469 (1961 The Nature of Geography. Edwards, Ann Arbor MI)
  5. Huntington E 1924 The Character of Races, as Influenced by Physical Environment. Natural Selection and Historical Development. C Scribners Sons, New York
  6. Johnson R J 1991 A Question of Place. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  7. Lewis P F 1985 Beyond description. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75: 465–78
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  11. Ratzel F 1896–8 The History of Mankind. Macmillan, London
  12. Sauer C O 1963 Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  13. Storper M 1997 The Regional World. Guilford Press, New York
  14. Thrift N 1983 On the determination of social action in space and time. Society and Space 1: 23–57
  15. Vidal de la Blache P 1926 Principles of Human Geography. Lowe and Brydon, London
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