Regional Geography Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Regional geography is a field of study which strongly contrasts with systematic geography. While the latter is concerned with the distribution of certain characteristics, such as landforms, climate, vegetation, and human activities, over the surface of the earth, regional geography looks into the relationships these phenomena have within the different regions. The prime interest in the systematic fields of geography is to describe the patterns certain phenomena display over the entire globe and to elucidate the (general) rules that govern these patterns. Regional geography, on the other hand—at least in the mainstream thinking of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is not interested in general rules but, on the contrary, in the singularity or the specificity of regions. Thus, traditional regional geography is characterized by a synthetic view of the world, i.e., it tries to put things together in a regional context, and by the (epistemological) conviction that it needs to view the world as a mosaic of idiosyncratic, singular entities—the regions.

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This understanding is deeply rooted in most people’s everyday consciousness of the ways in which the world is structured. Thus, when we think of the American Midwest we conjure up images of commercial agriculture, endless cornfields, livestock production, and a predominance of white middle-class Protestants, whereas when we think of the Sahara or Central Australia we probably imagine little vegetation, heat, and dryness, and an environment hostile to most life-forms. The fact that people tend to be regional geographers in their everyday consciousness may be attributable to the fact that most of them were taught geography at school. It can also be seen as a strategy of the individual to simplify a complex world by structuring it along the lines of regional entities. Whichever the reason, the fact that we do tend to think in idiosyncratic ways helps to explain the lasting success of regional geography—at least in the form of regional monographs. In our age of extensive travel over the entire globe these monographs are useful backdrops for our encounters with strange environments, since they allow us quickly to attune to (rapidly) varying circumstances.

As an academic endeavor, determining geographers’ shared conviction as to what constitutes the essence of the discipline, regional geography was not a lasting success story. However, after a period of strong rejection in the 1960s and 1970s there were signs of a renaissance in the last decades of the twentieth century. The following sections of this research paper deal with the mixed press regional geography encountered in the past, with recent developments, and with the— possible—future(s).

2. Historical Development

Although regional geography can be traced back to ancient Greece, the ‘classical’ period was that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The external factors explaining the success of geography as a discipline and of regional geography as its center at the time were the rapid exploration (and exploitation) of the interior of continents, the setting up of a regular or more efficient administration in many countries, and the stronger ties that were forged between countries and places. All this necessitated the generation and dissemination of (geographical) knowledge, much of which was of a place-specific nature. Before geography was set up as a university discipline later in the nineteenth century, naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt (together with Aime Bonpland) ventured to study hitherto unexplored parts of the world. Von Humboldt supported a holistic understanding of (his) academic explorations: in his extensive research papers on South America, which covered more than 9,000 pages, for instance, natural and human phenomena were seen in context.

Thus, regional geography is associated with the early beginnings of geography as a university discipline and it was, in the case of von Humboldt, informed by the Enlightenment, as von Humboldt concerned himself critically with the situation in the South American colonies. However, later in the nineteenth century a holistic understanding of the (natural) sciences became increasingly marginal because they were undergoing a process of continuing specialization. In geography, on the other hand, the holistic approach experienced a sustained success as it influenced much of the mainstream methodological thinking well into the twentieth century.

In the German-speaking countries the Austrian Viktor Kraft (1929) offered his very influential epistemological analysis of the object, the aims, and the methods of geography. Following a neo-Kantian line of argument Kraft subdivided the discipline into ‘general,’ i.e., systematic, geography (as a nomothetic science), and regional geography (‘Landerkunde’—as an idiographic science). In line with this view, it was maintained that the study of regions is the prime object of geography (an object truly exclusive to the discipline), that therefore regional geography is at the core of the discipline, and that, consequently, systematic geography and its branches are ancillary sciences. Moreover, regional geography had an integrating role to play as it incorporated physical as well as human geography under one epistemological roof. The fact that regional geography thus gave unity and an exclusive object to geography explains why it remained the hegemonic methodological discourse well into the twentieth century.

In Germany, Hettner (1927), amongst others, had successfully codified regional geography along the lines of Kraft’s neo-Kantian epistemological reflections so that it occupied a pivotal position within geography from the 1920s onwards. In the USA, Richard Hartshorne’s The Nature of Geography (1939) gave a similar importance to regional geography. The view that regional geography had an overarching, integrating role to play, however, came under in- creasing attack in the 1950s and 1960s when the spread of an analytical-pragmatic and nomothetic paradigm reached the community of geographers.

In essence, practitioners of regional geography were accused of unscientific working practices, of gathering—and not analyzing—facts, and of emphasizing the ‘individuality’ of spatial units, the regions. The critics whose discourse on the philosophy of science was informed by logical positivism (cf. Harvey 1969) and critical rationalism pointed out that regional geography was lacking a theoretical foundation on which an explanation of empirical evidence could be grounded. Part of the criticism was directed at what the critics regarded to be a premodern frame of mind of regional geographers, who saw the world as a well-ordered mosaic (of regions) which the regional geographer’s ‘art’ had to put together, at the implicit geo-determinism and at the exclusion of social practices from academic work.

By the 1960s and early 1970s a nomothetic discourse had asserted itself in geography which was to form the mainstream methodological underpinning of the discipline for the next decades (Hanson 1999). As a consequence, from then on regional geography only played a minor role until the last decades of the twentieth century. This minor role, however, mainly expressed itself in the low esteem that regional geography enjoyed in the eyes of those geographers whose frame of mind was shaped by an understanding of academic work deeply rooted in logical positivism and critical rationalism. This state of affairs was sharply contrasted with the fact that at the same time many regional studies were being published (Gregory 1988). This is why it is not possible to infer from the (then) dominant paradigmatic understanding of the discipline the performance and the relevance of regional geography in the wider society.

The peripheral position of regional geography in academia during the 1970s did not change, despite the attempts of individuals to put it on a (new) epistemological foundation. In Germany, Wirth (1978), for example, in his endeavor to resurrect regional geography takes up certain key elements of critical rationalism as developed by Popper. According to Wirth, regional geography should be treated as a historical science which deduces singular events from general laws (which in the case of regional geography can be taken from the systematic fields of geography) and special antecedent conditions (which result from the unique situation under investigation). This approach will not only render a description but also provide the academic with an explanation of empirical phenomena. This view challenged other academics, notably Bahrenberg (1979). The dispute that evolved between the two antagonists did not, however, have a widespread impact. The fact that a broad discussion on the significance of regional geography did not take place at the time may have its roots in the repercussions of the ‘quantitative and theoretical revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in the growing inner diversity of the discipline as a whole.

3. Recent Trends: The Emergence Of A ‘New Regional Geography’

In the 1980s there was a development, primarily taking place in the French and English-speaking countries and in The Netherlands, which can be characterized as a trend back to the study of the specific, a renaissance of regional (human) geography (Gilbert 1988, Pudup 1988). This tendency can be seen as a reflection of a number of developments.

3.1 The Background

To begin with, a positivist mode of explanation in general and spatial analysis in particular were seen to be insufficient tools for geographical studies. The criticism leveled at the mainstream geography of the 1960s and 1970s was that it neglected humans as intentionally acting beings (‘structure–agency– debate’) and that it tended to reduce space to an entirely social construct (‘spatial exorcism’). Second, ‘space’ and ‘place’—key geographical concepts— gained in importance in the neighboring disciplines. This had repercussions on geography. Now geographers were able to point out that distinguished scholars, such as the sociologist A. Giddens, were borrowing from geography. And third, in the light of the crisis of the ‘grand narratives’ of humankind, such as religion, communism, science, etc. (and of ‘grand theories’ in the academic world), in the age of postmodernity there was an overall social trend which gave more importance to the special specific (idiographic), and which acknowledged a greater diversity in regional cultures, ways of life, etc. Hence, a totalizing view as to the ways in which societies, economies, cultures, etc. should be seen and understood came under increasing pressure.

Regional specificity had reinstated itself on the methodological agenda because it was recognized by a growing number of academics that, as Massey (1984, p. 120) points out,

just as there are no purely spatial processes, neither are there any non-spatial social processes. Nothing much happens, bar angels dancing, on the head of a pin. … The fact that processes take place over space, the facts of distance and closeness, of geographical variation between areas, of the individual character and meaning of specific places and regions—all these are essentials to the operation of social processes themselves.

3.2 The Different Approaches

According to Gilbert (1988) there are at least three different approaches dealing with regional specificity that can be distinguished in the recent endeavor to promote a ‘new regional geography’: the political– economic, the humanistic–phenomenological, and the structurationist.

The political–economic approach is very much inspired by the tradition of dialectical materialism in Marxist geography. It focuses on the ways in which (global) mechanisms of capitalism take effect on the ground, in particular on the ways in which the division of labor is spatially structured in capitalist societies. This understanding of the spatial operation of capitalism is in essence based on two main premises: it rejects the notion of a linear realization of systemic processes in different spatial contexts (‘regions’) and it assumes a dialectical relationship between the systemic framework (of economic development) and the locally and regionally specific development trajectories. Hence, regions are not just spatial backdrops against which overall developments take place, they are the specific sociospatial, historically contingent context (‘layer of history,’ Massey 1984) which determines the specific pathways of capitalist development in the varying particular and the overall contexts.

According to Gilbert (1988, p. 219) the term ‘region’ is given a substantially different meaning and therefore a ‘new regional geography’ differs markedly from the traditional understanding: ‘The traditional concern with the people nature relation has widened to include society as the prime agent in region formation. Thus, the substance of regional geography has become the triangular relations between people, society and nature.’

The humanistic–phenomenological approach can best be understood as a multilevel change of perspective. It is a break with the established positivist methodology and it marks a different approach of the academic toward social reality. In their critique, Van der Laan and Piersma (1982, p. 416f.) emphasize the reductionism of quantitative geography which in essence meant that human beings were treated as ‘things, as non-intentional materialistic research objects.’ As a consequence—and in direct opposition to the positivist notion of explanation—the proponents of a humanistic approach place the intentionally acting human being at the center of academic inquiry. Furthermore, academics are to discard their ‘classical’ perspective as outsiders and to assume an insider’s view of social reality in the sense of comprehending, understanding the meaning of social acts and the intentions of agents (Buttimer 1979). Only through this shift will social practice be rendered intelligible.

The humanistic approach looks into the cultural meaning of the ‘region’ which is being conceived of as the expression of a specific—culturally embedded— relationship between people and their spatial environment. The distinguishing quality of this relationship is the awareness of a shared culture among the population, and the associated distinct identity of that population as it is noticeable to outsiders. This relationship also encompasses the resultant feeling within the population of belonging to ‘their’ region.

According to the programmatic considerations of its proponents, a humanistic–phenomenological approach has as its focal point individuals, their everyday view of the world, and the meaning which they attribute to their environment. However, the individual is not seen as a solitary agent but as a carrier of a shared cultural identity.

The most striking characteristic of the structurationist perspective, which is mainly based on Giddens’s (1988) theory of structuration, is the dialectical understanding of the ‘region’ as the outcome and the producer of social practice. The ‘region’ is regarded as a specific spatial and temporal constellation of social relationships, and at the same time as a medium for these social relations. Pohl (1993) very aptly speaks of a ‘co-reacting catalyst.’ Behind this view is a comprehensive definition of the ‘cultural region’ in which elements of the political–economic approach are also incorporated.

3.3 Their Conceptual Connections

These different conceptional approaches do not in any way form coherent edifices of knowledge, nor are they as clearly demarcated as these few observations may suggest. Additionally, they are not at all canonized by the scientific community of geographers, particularly outside the French and English-speaking countries. Notwithstanding these qualifications, there are a number of issues which link the different approaches on a conceptional level: it is the understanding of the term ‘region’ and of the central epistemological dimensions ‘individual’ and ‘history.’

One of the outstanding arguments in the discussion is the ontological status being ascribed to the ‘region.’ According to a number of proponents of a new regional geography, regions are not only empirically important—as analytically relevant constructions of the academic—they are also the outcome of human history and therefore of an ontological nature (Pickles 1986). This is why the individual and history are at the core of a new, reconstituted regional geography. Another point which many advocates of a new regional geography agree with is the assumption that ‘regions’ are a persistent feature of societies. Contrary to the modernist conviction that regional differences will be eroded in the process of social modernization, these differences are assumed to remain, as spatial differentiation is seen as a central element of society (in the sense of social relations being spatially and temporally contingent phenomena). Such a notion of the ‘region,’ however, has little in common with the chorological view according to which the ‘region’ is an expression of the opposition against (or the inertia inherent in) the homogenizing trends of modernization. The third notion which runs through the debate is the structural analogy of the three approaches. What is meant here is the mentioned dialectical concept of the regions being both the result and the ‘medium’ of social relations. As a co-reacting catalyst, the region has emergent powers as ‘social relations within the region develop because of the specific way individuals and groups relate within the particular regional space’ (Gilbert 1988, p. 215).

One distinctive feature of the debate about a new regional geography is the fact that it has a heavy theoretical and conceptual slant, whereas empirical studies are scarce. The existent empirical work does not exhibit a uniform approach toward method, but rather a certain methodical pluralism or voluntarism. There are basically two empirical approaches. Whereas one group of academics works historically by reinterpreting regional developments which have taken place (cf. for instance Gregory’s outstanding work Regional Transformation and Industrial Re olution: A Geography of the Yorkshire Woollen Industry, 1982), the focus of the other group (‘locality research’; cf. Cooke 1989, Harloe et al. 1990) lies on the present and on the examination of the consequences of (global) economic restructuring on ‘localities.’

3.4 Unresolved Issues

After a fairly intensive (conceptual) debate in the 1980s and early 1990s the interest in a reconstituted regional geography waned somewhat in the late 1990s. The reasons behind this trend may have been a certain fatigue after a period of intensive debate, the fact that many geographers who have migrated to other fields of interest in the discipline do have strong reservations about (prejudices against) ‘regional geography,’ and the problematic or unresolved issues of the debate. All three are inter-related in various ways, and they need to be taken seriously if regional geography is to have a future as a stimulating, academically rewarding pursuit.

The interest of geographers—like that of other academics—usually is arrested by methodological debates which have the potential to renew the cognitive and the social system of which academics are members. However, fatigue sets in if these debates fail to live up to the expectations of the scientific community. In the case of a new regional geography this may be due to the fact that the promise of modernization was not convincing enough, both to those who took part and to the grant-giving bodies (who are operating on a system of academic self-control; thus colleagues with reservations about regional geography decide on submitted research proposals). As the new methodological direction is characterized not by one but by several approaches, it is hard to find sufficient collective support within the scientific community of geographers. What is more, despite their innovative and stimulating new ideas, these approaches have inherent shortcomings which weaken the case for a new regional geography.

To begin with, there is, typical for a ‘young’ paradigm, the need to clarify the usage and meaning of key concepts and terms. This is particularly so in the case of the ‘locality’ debate, in which the usage of the term ‘locality’ leaves much to be desired. Most importantly, the usage of that term reproduces the casual handling of concepts that was typical of the ‘old school’ and that had received so much—deserved— criticism. Terminological constructs are taken as starting points without confronting these with the terms relevant for both the life world (‘Lebenswelt’) and the social systems. It was not the process and the outcome of the socially constructed spatial coding which was on the agenda but rather the examination of social interaction within the boundaries of the previously demarcated study areas (‘localities’). This, however, bears the danger of reifying (predetermined) spatial concepts and thus of wasting a chance for epistemological progress.

This problem refers to another unresolved issue: the inadequate interaction between theory and empirical evidence. In the case of the locality studies, this becomes apparent due to the exclusive focus on the level of the locality and the exclusion of national or global economic development trajectories and their analytical framework. Because a new regional geography—rightly—assumes that phenomena cannot be explained by themselves, a stronger effort needs to be made to interrelate empirical description and theoretical abstraction.

The last point to be discussed here is as fundamental as the previous issues. What are the implications of a regional geography which is conceived of as a social science, thus relinquishing the former claim of giving unity to geography (by integrating physical and human geography)? Will a social scientific understanding of regional geography therefore lead to a loss of disciplinary unity? There can be little doubt that this issue is an important one as geographers have to compete with academics from other disciplines for funds, etc. Showing disciplinary unity can help to underscore the importance of the discipline and thereby demonstrate the importance of academic subjects as social systems which can effectively organize funds, support, and the like. However, as a cognitive system, geography has to approach the question of disciplinary unity via a different route. Unity is no value in itself, of course, so the issue at stake is whether there are social developments which suggest a holistic approach. One key area to be dealt with in such a way is the crisis of late modern societies effected by ecological and other human-made problems. Because of the complexity of these issues a comprehensive approach has to be taken in order to resolve the problems involved. Serious as these matters may be, they offer a chance for academics to cooperate in various ways: amongst colleagues of the same subject, on an interdisciplinary level, and with the wider public. Only a concerted effort can help to come to grips with the numerous dangers inherent in the modern world we live in and which we helped to create.

4. The Prospects Of Regional Geography

The future of geography as a whole and of regional geography as one of its branches will very much hinge on the ability of geographers to contribute to these and other socially relevant issues. Such an argument is based on pragmatic and normative considerations and not, as was the case with traditional regional geography, on the methodological neo-Kantian assumptions outlined above (the latter, however, having the normative implication as to how the subject, the methods, etc. of regional geography should be seen).

After the paradigmatic shifts in the twentieth century which first brought traditional regional geography into disrepute, and then questioned the hegemony of a positivist mode of explanation (‘spatial analysis’), we now live in an era where the grand, all-encompassing theories have lost their authority and where different analytical frameworks (methodologies) coexist. It has become clear that there is not one way of coming to grips with the complexity academics (have to) deal with. It is understandable that the proponents of a positivist mode of explanation, in their wish to be accepted as equals by their colleagues from other (positivist) disciplines, broke with the regional tradition in the 1950s and 1960s. However, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, this development can now be seen as a certain stage in the development of the discipline which has evolved as the disciplinary discourse progressed. As

Hanson (1999, p. 136) points out, there is now

a greater willingness to acknowledge complexity and to engage multiple approaches to understand that complexity. There is now a greater acceptance of the notion that people create knowledge rather than discovering objective truths … and that taking advantage of what is useful in each of a number of approaches can yield greater understanding than does adhering only to one.

What are the implications of these considerations for the future of regional geography?

Taking up the line of argument presented by Hanson, an enlightened methodological understanding of a modern regional geography cannot afford to dismiss lightly any conceptual framework, as different perspectives may yield different facets of knowledge. If regional geography is to be taken seriously as a competitive academic subject, it needs to engage in the methodically controlled generation of knowledge, and it needs to do that by probing the relevance of different methodological approaches. This is no easy task as different understandings of what science is (or should be) about rest upon different epistemological and methodological assumptions, for instance on contrasting concepts of knowledge or causality. But the options are much less attractive. Additionally, it needs to be pointed out that along with such a postmodern methodological understanding comes the inherent danger of warranting an ‘anything goes’ attitude (including a regional geography without or with implicit theory). A competitive regional geography, however, needs to take on board an explicit reference to theory, and it needs to take seriously the reciprocal relationship between theory and empirical evidence, as this is an important mechanism for expanding the theoretical foundation of the discipline.

At this point the above-mentioned pragmatic and normative considerations need to be reconsidered again. This is so because any definition of competitive research would be incomplete if it did not reflect the social contexts in which research agendas are being drawn up or in which research results are being applied. It is important that the value-free stance of traditional regional geography is given up because it would be a self-deception to believe that regional geography can do without explicitly referring to or incorporating normative issues. As academic disciplines are an intrinsic part of society, they need to reflect the origin and the legitimacy of research topics and the use of research results. But which questions are to be raised and which problems are to be tackled by regional geographers? A systematic discussion of this issue has not yet taken place. However, it needs to be addressed in the context of a concerted effort to bring to life a ‘new’ new regional geography as a theoretically informed empirical project (Thrift 1998). The debate of the 1980s and 1990s broke new ground and generated a number of stimulating (conceptional) ideas from where the debate could be taken.


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