Carl Ortwin Sauer Research Paper

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Carl Sauer was one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century, not only in geography but also in a wider intellectual sphere. However, because of his wide-ranging thought, speculative sweep, and world perspective over a number of subjects, it is difficult to define his contribution to the social and behavioral sciences precisely and easily. But one can say that some of his underlying concerns were about scholarship, independence of thought, opposition to academic bureaucracy, a sympathy and identification with rural folk, concern for cultural diversity and environmental quality, and a distaste for the technological and scientific ‘fix,’ particularly the solutions offered by the emerging social sciences after 1945.

He was born in Warrenton, Missouri on December 24, 1889 of German parents, and because of his background and three years of schooling in Calw (near Stuttgart) he was influenced by German culture and literature. He completed his graduate studies at Chic- ago University in 1915 under the geographer Ellen Semple Churchill, the geologist Rollin D. Salisbury, and plant ecologist Henry C. Cowles, the latter two of whom made a lasting intellectual impression on him. He then taught at the University of Michigan until 1923, when he moved to geography at Berkeley where he taught for 34 years (32 as Chair) and established one of the most distinctive graduate schools of American Geography that would always be associated with ‘cultural geography.’ After he retired in 1955 he enjoyed 20 remarkably productive years that saw the publication of four books and a score of influential papers, all distinguished by big and speculative ideas, that were the fruits of a lifetime’s reflection and unhurried reading. His reputation soared so that an ‘aura of sage, philosopher-king, and even oracle surrounded him’ (Hooson 1981, p. 166). He died in Berkeley on July 18, 1975.

1. Cultural Geography

Sauer rebelled against the sterile environmental determinism of contemporary geography with its emphasis on humans as response mechanisms to physical factors. If nothing else, his experience in the Economic Land Survey in the Michigan Cutovers had shown him that humans radically transformed the earth, often for the worse, and in the process created cultural landscapes. In his search for a new, humane geography, cultural anthropology seemed to offer a means of dealing with the diversity of humankind and its cultural landscapes through time. On arriving in Berkeley he found natural soul-mates in the anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Robert H. Lowie. The concept of ‘culture’ subsequently pervaded all his teaching and writing. In The Morphology of Landscape he distilled an almost wholly German geographical literature, established the primacy of human agency in the formation of cultural landscapes ‘fashioned out of the natural landscape by a cultural group,’ and the importance of a time-based approach. In addition, he placed great importance on observation and contemplation in the field—a Verstehen or empathetic understanding and intuitive insight into behavior or object in order to achieve ‘a quality of reasoning at a higher plane’ than the tangible facts (see Sauer 1925, Williams 1983).

Sauer wrote ‘Morphology’ in order to ‘emancipate’ himself from determinist thinking and, with a few more papers on the cultural landscape of the mid-west frontier, he put the epistemological game behind him and started substantive field work on early settlement and society in Lower California, Arizona and Mexico. During the 1930s he produced many works, including Aztatlan and The Road to Cibola both published in a new monograph series Ibero-Americana that he founded in the same year with Alfred Kroeber and the historian H. E. Bolton. (For these and many other of Sauer’s publications see Leighly 1963.) These investigations drew him into the controversy about New World plant domestication and plant origins, and into collaboration with botanists, archeologists and ethnologists, whom he found congenial intellectual company.

2. Widening Horizons

All the time Sauer’s horizons were getting wider, his ideas more speculative, and his ethical values more refined. Toward the end of the 1930s he wrote a slight, but ultimately influential, paper which was a sustained and biting critique of the destructive social and environmental impact that resulted from the predatory outreach of Europe, which had few counterparts at that time except, perhaps, in the writing of Karl Marx (Sauer 1938). He drew inspiration from the work of George Perkins Marsh on the human transformation of the earth and Ernst Friedrich’s concept of Raubwirtschaft, or destructive exploitation (see Marsh [1865] 1965, Friedrich 1904). His experience and knowledge of Latin and Central America and their history suggested to him that the Spanish conquest had led to a devastating and permanent impoverishment of the land and of its cultures and societies. Disease, warfare and enslavement had disrupted traditional value systems. Thus, the diffusion of technologically superior societies could affect humans and their culture just as much as it could physical resources.

But two works more than any others established his world reputation and heralded a remarkable decade of multifaceted yet interrelated speculative understanding of the place of humans on earth. First was Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (Sauer 1952a) that flowered later into a string of publications into the human uses of the organic world, and early humans in the Americas from the Ice Age onward. Unfortunately, radiocarbon dating came too late to inform Sauer’s writing, but although he may not have provided the answers, he defined the questions brilliantly.

Second, in 1956, with the collaboration of Marston Bates and Lewis Mumford, he masterminded the Princetown symposium on ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth,’ the theme of which thereafter became his overriding interest. (See Mumford, Lewis (1895–1990).) All his learning and concerns culminated in this volume, and in his chapter ‘The Agency of Man on Earth’ (Sauer 1956). The capacity of humans to alter the natural environment—the ‘deformation of the pristine’—the cult of progress and waste that stemmed from mass production (‘commodity fetishism’), and the alien intrusion of humans into world ecology, were included. In contemporary terms, the theme was the degradation of the environment, and it was an early and influential statement. It also hAdvanother dimension: globally, the ‘imperialism of production’ was as bad as the old, colonial imperialism, and might ultimately be no better than Marxist totalitarianism; mass culture was eliminating not only biological diversity but also cultural diversity, and older and less robust societies. Somehow, humans had to rise above this mindless, shortterm exploitative mode. ‘The high moments of history have come not when man was concerned with the comforts and displays of the flesh but when his spirit was moved to grow in grace.’ Therefore, what was needed was ‘an ethic and aesthetic under which man, practising the qualities of prudence and moderation, may indeed pass on to posterity a good Earth’ (Sauer 1956, p. 68).

His simply articulated ideas had a resonance with many activists and intellectuals, as well as Californian avant-garde poets and literati, who extolled his work as an example of cultural and ecological sensitivity and respect, tinged with deep historical insight and scholarship, and made attractive by his simple and pithy language. He also tapped a deep spring of feeling during the 1960s and 1970s at the time of Vietnam and student unrest with their concerns at the limits of the earth and technological political power. Yet Sauer was a complex mix. He was congenitally nonconformist but deeply conservative, and although profoundly concerned with conservation was never formally an ‘environmentalist,’ and indeed, he thought the movement was little more than an ‘ecological binge.’

3. Distrust Of The Social Sciences

Sauer had a deep distrust and distaste for the behavioral and social sciences. Although he eschewed methodological and epistemological discussion, his writing, and particularly his personal correspondence, reveal that he was ‘a philosopher in spite of himself’ (Entrikin 1984). Culture history became his model of social science, and it was drawn from the natural sciences, not the social sciences. He was basically a pragmatist who was influenced by the writings of the German cultural geographers Friedrich Ratzel and Eduard Hahn, and by the methods of geology and anthropology and their emphasis on the provisional character of working hypotheses which were no more than a means to an end. His later association in Berkeley with people who worked on ‘tangible things,’ like plant ecologists, agricultural scientists, botanists (e.g., Ernest Babcock), experts in the evolution of population genetics (see Wright, Sewall (1889–1988)), and geneticists reinforced this.

He argued for a theoretical and methodological pluralism that stemmed naturally from the inherent diversity of nature and culture. The natural science idea of a dynamic balance and diversity that arose from organic evolution was embedded deeply in his thought, and he felt that the modern world had disrupted these processes so that it was out of balance. Hence his deep distrust of US capitalism and all bureaucratic systems which would destroy diversity and local community. Liberal social scientists who designed, planned, and directed community life were more likely to destroy than enhance it by imposing universalizing concepts of social organization, and by ignoring the inherent pluralism and diversity of nature and culture that stimulated the naıve curiosity about the world which was the essence of geography. Theoretical and normative social science as practiced by economists, sociologists, and political scientists, grated on him with its exaggerated confidence in the statistical and the inductive, and its ‘dialectic atmosphere.’ Their focus on the present precluded a better insight into the origins and evolution of any topic, and gave ‘an exaggerated accent on contemporaneity.’ His social science was based firmly in history and geography—this was culture history.

During the late 1930s he talked jokingly of the two patron saints of social scientists—St. Bureaucraticus, who represented rationalism and professionalism in US academic life, and St. Scholasticus, who represented social theorists who sought normative generalizations about humankind and society. Consistently, these ‘Sons of Daedalus’ were the target of his criticism because their well-funded procedures and programs emasculated the independence of the impressionable younger scholars (Williams 1983).

His address, ‘Folkways of the Social Sciences’ was an eloquent, if not audacious, plea to social scientists to ‘give back the search for truth and beauty to the individual scholar to grow in grace as best he can’ and to reinstate time and place into the study of the USA (Sauer 1952b).

Sauer’s other bete noire—mass production—promoted the homogenization of society, not only in the USA but globally, as the USA firmly assumed the position of superpower during the 1950s, with what he saw as a disdain for the ‘lesser breeds.’

Sauer was aware that he was ‘out of step’ with his colleagues and intellectuals, and spoke of himself as an ‘unofficial outsider’ and even as a ‘peasant.’ This has been typified as part of the antimodernism that characterized early twentieth century US intellectual life. But it went much deeper than that; his ideas anticipated society’s fears and disenchantment with progress, science, the elimination of diversity, and the degradation of the environment. Perhaps the ultimate relevance of Sauer’s work was in his groping towards a rapprochement between the social sciences, the humanities and the biological life sciences. By being behind he was far ahead.


  1. Entrikin J N 1984 Carl O. Sauer: Philosopher in spite of himself. Geographical Review 74: 387–408
  2. Friedrich E 1904 Wesen und geographische Verbreitung der ‘Raubwirtschaft.’ Petermanns Mitteilungen 50: 68–79, 92–5
  3. Hooson D 1981 Carl Ortwin Sauer. In: Blouet B W (ed.) The Origins of Academic Geography in the United States. Archon, Hamden, CT, pp. 165–74
  4. Leighly J (ed.) 1963 Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  5. Marsh G P 1965 Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, Lowenthal D (ed.). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  6. Sauer C O 1925 The Morphology of Landscape. University of California Publications in Geography, Berkeley, CA, Vol. 2, pp. 19–53
  7. Sauer C O 1938 Destructive exploitation in modern colonial expansion. Comptes Rendus du Congres International de Geographie, Amsterdam 2 (Sect. 3c): 494–9
  8. Sauer C O 1952a Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. Bowman Memorial Lectures, Series 2. American Geographical Society, New York
  9. Sauer C O 1952b Folkways of social science. In: The Social Sciences at Mid-Century: Papers Delivered at the Dedication of Ford Hall, April 19–21, 1951. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN
  10. Sauer C O 1956 The agency of man on earth. In: Thomas W L (ed.) Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. Chicago University Press, Chicago, IL, pp. 49–69
  11. Williams M 1983 The apple of my eye: Carl Sauer and historical geography. Journal of Historical Geography 9: 1–28
  12. Williams M 1987 Carl Sauer and man’s role in changing the face of the earth. Geographical Review 77: 218–31
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