Historical Geography Research Paper

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Partly because of its richly diverse and spatially variable traditions, historical geography is not amenable to ready definition. While it is concerned with the study and reconstruction of past geographies and understanding processes of ecological and landscape change, its remit also includes the political, cultural, and economic interactions between past and present. Thus historical geography examines how our interpretations and representations of the past are constructed in contemporary circumstances and shaped by current needs. There are, however, significant differences between societies in the traditions of historical geography and the ways in which it is currently construed, researched, and taught. This research paper deals less with the history of historical geography than with certain of the prevailing trends in its current status as an academic project. A discussion of the nature of contemporary historical geography is followed by an assessment of three themes, which permit an elaboration of this general context. These are: interconnected historical geographies; differential historical geographies; and the past in the present.

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1. The Nature Of Historical Geography

Two overlapping perspectives long dominated traditional approaches to historical geography. First was an intensely academic concern, epitomized, for ex-ample, through the work of H. C. Darby in Britain and Ralph Hall Brown in the USA, with the scholarly reconstruction of past geographies for their own sakes. The second, encapsulated, for instance, in the work of Andrew H. Clark in North America, emphasized vertical themes, the essentially spatial changes and continuities that occur through time and help explain the present. More recently, however, historical geography has been revitalized by the wider concern throughout the social sciences and humanities with the relativity of knowledge. Thus the fundamental assumption informing much current historical geography is that representations of the past are constructed in the present to serve the demands of contemporary societies. The content and methodology of this work, particularly in the anglophone world, also reflects the theoretical shifts in many of the social sciences away from the ‘objectivist fallacy’ of positivist models of research and knowledge production (Wishart 1997). Conceptualizing the past as a resource for the present also inevitably invokes notions of contestation as various groups compete for ‘ownership’ of the past. Consequently, much current work in historical geography acknowledges the situated nature of research and the political difficulties of reconciling contested interpretations of the past in multicultural societies.

While this work builds on historical geography’s long-standing empirical focus on topics including industrialization, rural settlement and land ownership, agriculture and agrarian change, migration and population patterns, urbanization, and transport networks, it is also moving in new directions. Many contemporary historical geographers, informed by perspectives such as feminism, poststructuralism, antiracism, and postcolonialism, share concerns about questions of power and meaning with other researchers more readily located within the traditional systematics of cultural, economic, political, and social geography. The key themes evident in much recent historical geography include: a more overtly theorized exploration of the material, political, and symbolic dimensions of travel and exploration; imperialism and colonialism; nationhood and state formation; and ideas of nature and environmental change (Graham and Nash 1999, Nash 1999).

The exploration of the philosophy, content, and methodology of historical geography has itself a long tradition (Butlin 1993). This introspection has often been anxious, not least when faced with the positivistic revolution in geography in the late 1960s, a paradigm shift to which historical geography seemed ill equipped. The delineation of the boundaries between historical geography and geographical history has also occasioned much debate, often driven by a perceived need to stake out precise disciplinary territories. For example, Guelke (1997) and Donkin (1997) have expressed their fears at the deconstruction and potential disappearance of historical geography. To them it lacks an academic core, defined particularly through the ways in which people relate to the earth. Nevertheless, much current historical geography is concerned less with the establishment of precise boundaries within geography, or between geography and history, than in engaging in the arguably more valuable task of creating a body of work that is both geographical and historical. In addition, concerns over the erosion of historical geography by other systematics within the subject, or its dilution through the influences of other disciplines, ignore the interdisciplinary and hybrid nature of both past and present historical geography. Where traditionally it drew on archaeology, economic and social history, ecology, and social theory, it now interacts with feminism, environmental history, postcolonialism, and cultural history.

Thus in his capacity as editor of the Journal of Historical Geography, Michael Heffernan (1997, p. 2) argues for an historical geography that is ‘a haven of intelligent eclecticism.’ He offers ‘an alternative and more optimistic prospectus for the future’ to those ‘who worry that eclecticism breeds conceptual chaos and threatens the intellectual integrity of historical geography as an academic project.’ Heffernan sees it as a hybrid discipline open to the widespread contemporary questioning of ‘the conventional intellectual categories through which the modern world has been interpreted and conceptualized.’

While this eclecticism is undoubtedly reflected in a more cultural historical geography, that content should be no less concerned with the material shaping of places, spaces, landscapes, and lives, even if the need to ground historical geography in material contexts of power, politics, and economics is sometimes neglected. The past is a political resource and its control is fundamental to issues of hegemony and empowerment in societies. If historical geography is about the interplay between the past and the present, between symbolic and material worlds, it must also be open to the hard-edged realities that, for many people, ‘history hurts.’

2. Interconnected Historical Geographies

Interconnectedness possesses at least three separate dimensions. First, the history of historical geography itself reflects complex webs of intellectual interconnections, which have produced different outcomes in different places. It is also true, however, that linguistic and intellectual parochialism often limits the potential of these interconnections. Second, historical geography possesses a lengthy tradition of locating regional studies within broader processes operating at macrospatial scales, and of paying attention to both the specificities of the local and their interaction with wider economic, cultural, and political domains and institutional structures. Finally, there are interconnections between places—for example, the modern networks of communication, transport, or trade that connected Europe and its imperial sphere of influence—but also in the kinds of geographical discourses and practices that have structured the ways in which the relationships between places or regions are understood.

2.1 Interconnections Within Historical Geography

Ogborn (1999, p. 99) argues that a key dimension to interconnectedness is that of showing how and why issues, ideas, and intellectual interactions ‘cross connect and reshape a kaleidoscopic interdisciplinary terrain.’ Thus cultural and material geographies combine, for example, to produce environmental histories that are also histories of power, colonialism, and imperialism (Wynn 1997). That historical geography is seeking to understand the social or cultural construction of spaces, knowledges, and powers also impacts on the discipline itself, which has been, and remains, a spatially variable process. The contents and methodologies of historical geographies vary both through time and across space, reflecting the current —if transient—trends defining the broader intellectual climates within which they are practiced. Consequently, the subject matter of contemporary historical geography in the anglophone world is dominated by the cultural turn in human geography and by the poststructuralist emphasis on situated knowledges. The early modern and modern periods are preferred to the medieval and the contingent to theories of a past shaped by cyclical processes of historical transformation of varying temporality. Marxian theories of world systems and modes of production that emerged from long-term cycles of history and their periodic crises (e.g., Wallerstein 1974–89) are deeply unfashionable in a discipline that has often embraced Foucault’s dictum that nothing is fundamental with uncritical enthusiasm.

The temporal and spatial variability in historical geography is nowhere better illustrated than in the contrasting perspectives on landscape, historical geography’s oldest and most enduring concept. For example, the evolution of British historical geography has, in many ways, been dominated by efforts to provide alternative directions to the source-driven methodology used by H. C. Darby in his systematic reconstruction of past landscapes. Although open to vertical themes and the cycles of history behind geography, Darby’s methodology invoked an empirical dependence on the inevitably elitist context of cartography and documents, and consequently excluded dimensions of power and culture in the societies and landscapes reclaimed. In some contrast, the French geographer, Paul Vidal de la Blache (1926), emphasized the significance of ordinary people and their environment: to him, the region was not simply a convenient framework, but rather a social reality (Claval 1984). Vidal’s belief that landscape reflected a harmony between human life and the milieu in which it was lived was also fundamental to the work of the Berkeley geographer, Carl Sauer. For him, the richest source of evidence lay ‘in the material content of the cultural landscape,’ the ‘task of human geography [being] nothing less than comparative study of areally localized cultures’ (Conzen 1993, p. 28).

Vidalian ideas were also crucial to the geohistoire of the French Annales school, and its concerted attempt to map and explain the complex reality of human life by reference to local and regional studies. They also underpinned the geographical philosophy of Ireland’s most influential geographer, E. Estyn Evans, partly explaining why Irish historical geography evolved along a very different trajectory to that in Britain. This was one in which the meanings of historical place and landscape were seen as fundamental to a people’s genetic and cultural identity, albeit conceptualized in overtly more anthropogeographical terms than through the traits of polyvocality and hybridity that attend identity studies today. As in Sauer’s methodology, the critical evidence was that of the visible and material landscape. Similar ideas also influenced the study of landscape in North American, Scandinavian, and Australasian historical geographies, and clearly retain a contemporary resonance and vibrance, given the hybrid and multi stranded processes that link the discursive and material worlds, which constitute the raw resources of historical geography.

2.2 Local Particularities And General Processes

Historical geography has long been concerned with the processes of historical specificity and historical transformation across space and through time. The intellectual attraction of the ‘grand’ structuralist models lies in their identification of general power related processes, which interact with the specificities of local place to produce an almost infinite chiaroscuro of individual outcomes and experiences. Historical geography becomes the product of this complex hybridity and polyvocality of places and peoples, while the contingent is reconciled—as societies seem to require—with temporal structures that create explanations of change, meanwhile observing a cultural and political need for continuity and social memory. The outcome is spatial and temporal diversity, which historical geography has long sought to reconcile with generality of process through a methodology of regionally based analysis.

This is perhaps most coherently encapsulated in a French geohistoireseeking to explain a country defined by diversity in which unity—as elsewhere in Europe— was achieved only by force, civil war, and the creation of ethnic nationalisms. Vidal de la Blache argued that it was this diversity—rooted in the physical environment—which paradoxically provides France with its identity. The country’s unity evolves from a beneficent force of commonality, derived from the ways in which social life combines with—and transcends—its divisions through time. This relationship was encapsulated in the idea of the pays (literally an area with its own identity derived, not only from divisions of physical geography, but also from ethnic and linguistic divisions imposed on a region by its history) as the geographical mediation of synthesis and continuity, the product of human interaction with the environment over many centuries.

In his monumental (if unfinished) investigation of the identity of France, Fernand Braudel (1988–90) takes up the same theme. He sees a patchwork France, a jigsaw of regions and pays in which the vital thing for every community is to remain other from the next tiny patrie. But Braudel, recognizing a similar fragmentation elsewhere, was also critical of Vidal’s exceptionalism: ‘Yes, France is certainly diverse … it is a diversity which breaks up, divides, and sets one region against another.’ But it is not an ‘unparalleled’ diversity: ‘Germany, Italy, Britain, Spain, Poland can all lay claim to diversity’ (Braudel 1988–90, p. 669). So too can smaller countries. Pursuing the same symbiosis of physical environment and human society, Evans (1981) believed that even fractious Ulster could seek unity in a diverse past to which all its present inhabitants might subscribe.

Although Braudel and Evans saw the natural world as providing the backdrop to this human diversity, both also recognized the decisive contribution of the economy and social intercourse. Moreover, diversity itself was more apparent because it often reflected what Braudel referred to as l’histoire e enementielle, short-term episodic history or the history of events. Behind all that, however, lay l’histoire structurelle, the long-term changes of la longue duree, ‘the slow speed of the secular trend, moving scarcely at all’ (Braudel 1988–90, p. 678). The real essence of this European conceptualization of diversity lies in the ways in which these different histories, trajectories of time, and social change and geographical particularities have fused in varying ways to produce distinctive places and peoples.

The same theme of region and regionalism—albeit differently expressed and generally lacking the Marxian connotations of geohistoire—is also a fundamental feature of North American historical geography. Clark’s immensely influential emphasis on historical change was expressed through a methodological approach that was ‘explicitly historical, attentive to the economic basis of regions, devoted to field and archive, well integrated with professional history, analytically adventuresome, and bookoriented’ (Conzen 1993, p. 61). The outcome, readily apparent in much historical geography in both the USA and Canada, was a heavily empirical emphasis on regional spatial patterns, which often conspicuously failed to ask fundamental questions regarding broader social, political, and economic relationships (Wynn 1993).

2.3 Interconnections Between Places

This final dimension to interconnectedness refers both to the physical linkages between places, but also to the ways in which the relationships between places and regions are understood in geographical discourses and practices. It is concerned with the ways in which technological developments and their exploitation allowed particular countries to achieve at least a transient hegemony in the world system. Hugill (1993) argues that the post medieval nations that developed and marketed new technologies best were the nations that rose to world power, revolutions in transport and communication technologies actually constituting the moments of transformation from one world economy to another. Globalization is not a recent process, the creation of European imperial empires effectively leading to the integration of large areas of the world into the emerging national space economies of Europe. These global networks and flows of information, capital, people, culture, plants, animals, and objects that linked the world in the past continue to rebound on its present, not least through the persistent patterns of disparity that mock the concept of global free trade.

If imperialism and colonialism were hierarchical, they also represented reciprocal networks of influence and power. European nationalism and the emerging nation-state system were framed within these imperial rivalries and later exported to the former empires. Thus the resistances to imperialism made anti-imperial citizens as well as imperial ones (Ogborn 1997). Moreover, a consideration of the connections between places also involves stressing the ways in which the historical geographies of colonial countries themselves were shaped by colonialism. The commonplace interpretation of the historical geography of colonialism as the imposition of the dominant logic of the colonial political and cultural economy unto non-Western time and territory, requires destabilization (Yeoh 1996). The difficulty in so doing, however, lies in the lack of knowledge about colonized groups, given the asymmetries of the historical record.

One final dimension to the ways in which the interconnections between places help shape geography concerns the linkages between geographical education and the making of citizens. Imperialism and colonialism also entailed political, intellectual and cultural, as well as material, domination. Historical geographers have extended the contention that imperial ideologies remain at the heart of modern Western culture to explore the linkages between the cultures of geography and imperialism. Thus ‘knowledges of geography are themselves part of often complex geographies of knowledge’ (Ogborn 1997, p. 416). Hence it can be argued, for example, that both popular and formal geographical education in Britain and notions of Britishness were constructed in direct opposition to imaginative geographies of other places and peoples (Graham and Nash 1999).

3. Differential Historical Geographies

Inevitably, the previous discussion has already touched upon the general argument that despite the interconnected nature of world systems, the processes of social change through time, with which historical geographers are concerned, are still experienced differently by peoples in different social groups and places and articulated in different ways. Moreover, these dissimilar knowledges are articulated at a variety of scales ranging from the local to the global. The first dimension to this issue to be considered here concerns problems of social inclusion and exclusion. Second, however, it is also the case that knowledges themselves are rarely consistent and contemporary historical geography is itself internally differentiated or even contested between different ideological and methodological imperatives.

3.1 Social Inclusion And Exclusion

Narratives of the relationships between places are characteristically defined through processes that privilege particular accounts and peoples while marginalizing or excluding others. Contemporary historical geography recognizes that earlier generations did not sufficiently understand the privileging of Europe in their accounts and is aware of the need to avoid the naturalization of Western models of modernity and development. Again, Conzen (1993) identifies the ‘startling silences,’ including slavery, the African American experience, and the results of war, in American historical geography. The combined importance given to gender and racism in contemporary social and cultural theory helps explain the polyvocality and hybridity of contemporary historical geography. Just as racism ensured that colonized indigenous peoples were excluded from the narratives of empire, all human geography has traditionally privileged masculine discourses and conceptualized modernity in masculine, middle-class, urban, and Eurocentric terms (Nash 1999). Women—especially rural women—were equated with the authentic and premodern, while, in contrast, the modern was associated with a male-directed logic of rationalization, objectification, and developmental progress. Thus traditionally women have been largely invisible and misrepresented in historical geography, while men have ‘monopolized the transmission of history’ (Lowenthal 1998, p. 48).

However, it is important not to equate marginalization and exclusion with gender and race alone. A contemporary historical geography has to be open to the nuances of multiple resistances, and to the enduring importance of class, ethnicity, and nationalism as criteria of identity. The implication of the past in the construction of identity narratives is but one example of the way in which historical geography has become a more pluralist and disputed enterprise since the beginning of the 1970s. There are many different modernities and many diverse dimensions to othering and otherness.

3.2 Historical Geography As A Contested Enterprise

As noted in the discussion regarding the interconnectedness of historical geographies, the result of differentiation may be knowledges that are internally inconsistent and contested between opposed ideological and methodological imperatives. Heffernan’s ‘intelligent eclecticism’ does not preclude disputation, inevitably so because of the privileging of particular perspectives within the geographical discipline itself. If a methodologically diverse historical geography traditionally seemed eclectic, its focus on areal differentiation, modernist notions of development and progress along continuities from past to present, and its reliance on empirical, material evidence drawn from the landscape, did link it to many of the principal strands that defined the emergence of geography as a discipline.

In the 1960s, however, the positivist revolution seemed to have little to offer historical geography. Largely lacking the means to meaningfully quantify data and indulge in model building, its practitioners found little resonance in arguments that geography was a formal deductive science charged to describe and understand the real world. The important exception to this generalization was the reversal of historical geographers’ traditional aversion to the urban realm, although this was expressed—as the prevailing zeitgeist demanded—through a commitment to the morphological and functional relationships of the historic city and to its modeling. Questions of power and social relationships remained peripheral as they had in the regional studies of the rural world.

Given historical geography’s vulnerability to this paradigm shift, Harris’s (1978) argument that an understanding of the synthesis of regions, places, and landscapes might come from the development of an historical mind that could encompass experience, memory, imagination, and reflection was a welcome harbinger of the revitalization of historical geography by the cultural turn in geography in the late 1980s and 1990s. It is still important, however, to be aware of the dangers of cultural exceptionalism in what remains a polyvocal enterprise. While the cultural theme was dominant in British historical geography and, if to a lesser extent, throughout the anglophone world for much of the 1990s, its content and methodologies do not define historical geography as a global enterprise, or even describe the research of many historical geographers within the English-speaking world. The privileging of the cultural perspective at the expense of alternative methodologies and languages disguises the survival of enduring issues in historical geography— frontiers and borderlands, migration, settlement morphology, settlement—the city in particular—as an indicator of cyclical social change and social relations, placenames, and the making of the physical environment.

Again, despite its openness to previously disenfranchised peoples and their narratives, the cultural turn in historical geography is often neglectful of power and economy as they control material lives. To some extent, the denigration of the material world is a result of the extension of the source materials used in researching contemporary imaginative historical geographies to encompass a diverse range of written and artistic representations and texts—diaries, biographies, novels, poetry, and paintings. This otherwise welcome development has, however, led to a denigration of traditional sources of data such as the material physical and human landscape. Ironically, the contemporary emphasis on nuanced qualitative readings of texts and representations is paralleled by the previously unimaginable power of Geographical Information Systems and Remote Sensing methodologies to handle and manipulate huge repositories of statistical historical data.

Historical geography now possesses the technological means of far more effectively addressing its traditional responsibilities of reconstructing past environments, spatial analysis, and regional differentiation. Often, however, these tasks have largely been abandoned to a technologically proficient historical archaeology, which combines historical archival research with excavation and geophysical evidence of past societies in both terrestrial and maritime landscapes. More important, historical geography now also possesses the capacity, but has largely shirked the challenge, of producing and managing integrated masses of geographical information, which would substantially enhance understanding of social change through time but also elucidate the regional and local specificities that underpin the constructs of identity through which peoples project and comprehend their relationships with place. Intelligent eclecticism can encompass the deconstruction of the empirical and the abandonment of the objectivist fallacy, but must remain open to using far more elaborate means of processing of historical data, not least to avoid these being subverted by an apparently enhanced capacity for objectivism.

4. The Past In The Present

Finally, historical geography is also increasingly informed by the ways in which the past is remembered and represented in both formal or official senses and within popular forms, and the implications, which these have for the present. It is in this respect that the past can be most clearly visualized as a domain of contested meanings, perhaps the most significant way in which contemporary historical geography differs from the archival, ‘objective’ reclamation of the past that characterized its previous existences. Interpretations of the past are seen as being context bound and power laden, an issue briefly explored here through a consideration of the functions of heritage (Graham et al. 2000).

4.1 Heritage And Its Functions

The stories and places of contemporary heritage, and the ways in which they are told and described, often represent the most overt examples of the contemporary politics of the past in the present. Heritage is that part of the past selected in the present for contemporary purposes, be they economic, cultural, political, or social. If heritage knowledge is situated in particular social and intellectual circumstances, it is time-specific and thus its meaning(s) can be altered as texts are re-read in changing times, circumstances, and constructs of place and scale. Consequently, such knowledges are inevitably fields of contestation of meaning and function. As such, the past can be visualized as a resource but simultaneously, several times so. Clearly, it is an economic resource, one exploited everywhere as a primary component of strategies to promote tourism, economic development, and rural and urban regeneration. Heritage— variously defined—is the most important single resource for international tourism although the economic commodification of the past can so trivialize it that arguably the result may be the destruction of the heritage resource which is its raison d’etre.

But heritage is also a knowledge, a cultural product, and a political resource and thus possesses crucial sociopolitical functions. In particular, the past validates the present by conveying an idea of timeless values and unbroken lineages and through restoring lost or subverted values (Lowenthal 1998). Hence there are archetypal national landscapes, which draw heavily on geographical imagery, memory, and myth. Continuously being transformed, these encapsulate distinct home places of ‘imagined communities,’ comprising people who are bound by cultural—and more explicitly—political networks, all set within a territorial framework that is defined through whichever traditions are currently acceptable, as much as by its geographical boundary. Such national traditions are narratives that are invented and imposed on space, their legitimacy couched in terms of their relationship to particular representations of the past. So important are these that peoples cut off from their past through migration or even by its destruction in war, often recreate it, or even ‘recreate’ what could—or should have been there—but never actually was. Inevitably, therefore, the past as rendered through heritage also promotes the burdens of history, the atrocities, errors, and crimes of the past which are called upon to legitimate the atrocities of the present. Consequently heritage is always a duality—a resource of economic and cultural capital. This is less a dialectic than a continuous tension, these broad domains generally being in conflict with each other.

5. Conclusion

A hybrid and interdisciplinary historical geography has thus widened its interests alongside history itself. As historians increasingly explore popular forms of history today as well as cultural sources for the past, historical geographers have also extended what counts as source material in researching contemporary imaginative historical geographies. These include objects, practices, and discourses of popular culture as well as the past itself. If this makes historical geography more cultural, it should not make it any less concerned with the material shaping of places, spaces, landscapes, and lives, or with issues of empowerment and economy. These current intersections reflect the ways in which historical and cultural geography have overlapped in the past—in the study of landscape for example—just as they do in the present, whatever the labels academics chose to define their research interests. The opposition between an empirically grounded historical geography and a purely qualitative cultural geography is clearly reductive and redundant. Similarly, the contemporary emphasis on the ways in which the past features in the present does not make the work of historical geography any less concerned with happenings of history. Rather, historical geography is about the interplay between the past and the present, between symbolic and material worlds.


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