the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2009 November 4


Reflections following David Livingstone’s ‘The geographical tradition’ and John Agnew’s ‘Space : place’


Geography is an integrative discipline, as Dick Hartshorne notes; it has the ability to bring multiple fields together. That is manifested partly in the way geography embraces fields like political science, history, anthropology, and various other of its fellow “social sciences”. It is manifested as well in its existence across social and natural sciences, giving the field a human and a physical side. But Hartshorne also identifies an additional dichotomy within the discipline, that of systematic and regional geography. The former deals with general spatial questions; the latter is the study of a particular area. This brings us close to the dichotomy that John Agnew1 analyzes, the contrast between space and place.

The space – place distinction, as Agnew relates, is typically one of the general versus the particular. The dualism of terms is often interpreted in other ways: objective – subjective, global – local, modern – traditional, present/future – past, progressive/radical – nostalgic/reactionary. These last may suggest an automatic left – right association as well, but for Agnew there is no natural political association; and indeed, there is a strong tradition on the left of interest in the subjective, the special stories of each, the local and the small, subsistence agriculture and the locavore diet, as opposed to the overbearing force of the large and the impersonal and, needless to say, the globalizing.

In some ways, though, all of these associations are problematic. The scalar association, global – local, might be on the most solid ground, but the global is general only a posteriori — because, in effect, we only do geography on Earth. It is perfectly possible to study spatial generalities without reference to Earth, and to study particularities with reference to Earth, since it is, in the end, a particular planet. An objective – subjective association might represent the way certain people use ‘space’ and ‘place’, but it does not correlate with the general and the particular. And the modern – traditional, present/future – past dichotomies are more akin to the scalar association, but even that kinship is suspect; innovation emerges from a specific place, not from a formless ubiquitous cloud. Some places are more like the future, and next to them, the globe as a whole is more like the past. (Of course, the globe as a whole is, considered by itself, exactly like the present.)

To the list of dichotomies in geography we can add nomothetic and idiographic, the former intended to establish general laws, the latter to describe particularities. It is reasonable to say that systematic geography is entirely nomothetic, while regional geography is primarily idiographic. There is, however, some overlap between the two:

 Nomothetic ————————————————————————— Idiographic

 Systematic geography —————————————————— Regional geography

Regional geography can, in other words, be in pursuit of universal laws. In fact, most geographers, regardless of orientation, are confining themselves to a particular area, and yet would like, in the end, to contribute to general knowledge, and the specific focus must rather be viewed as a strategy to investigate and understand something general about the world. However, this is (perhaps) better viewed as systematic geography; the overlap region of nomothetic regional geography would then apply to the attempts to understand and explain regional idiosyncrasies in themselves.


Livingstone entitles his eighth chapter ‘The regionalizing ritual’; despite this, regionalization only appears with the discussion of A.J. Herbertson and Herbert John Fleure, and to a limited extent Patrick Geddes. Herbertson proposes, in fact, a master regionalization — he attempts to divide the entire world into “natural” regions. Though these regions are largely based on physical properties (especially climate), ‘natural’ refers instead to the notion that there is an inherent regionalization in the world, one that only need be discovered. Fluere’s own attempts emphasized human regions, and introduced the uncertainty of the zone de bordure, an important matter to keep in mind when considering all regions and the general process of regionalization.2

The chapter is, though, very much about regional geography, particularly as Hartshorne defines it, and John Fraser Hart following him. It is about the particular, the idiographic, and, in the usual parlance, place, hence the subtitle (‘Geography, place and particularity’). Livingstone, as throughout his book, produces a narrative parade of figures, and he begins, obliquely, with Carl Sauer’s endorsement of the European tradition of the regional monograph. Franz Boas, the anthropologist and human geographer, discussed mostly as a precursor to Sauer, is described as a champion of historicism and particularism against environmental determinism. Sauer is described likewise, and as an advocate of the study of cultural regions, though, crucially, not of mere description. Alfred Hettner is said to endorse something similar, the study of specific regions, a Ritterian “regional synthesis” distinguished as Länderkunde and facilitated through the Länderkunde Schema, a methodical regional description, subfield by subfield. Otto Schlüter advocated the study of the Kulturlandschaft, basically today’s “built environment”. Paul Vidal de la Blache envisioned a synthesizing discipline (including across the human-physical divide), but very much based on the study of regions and their particularities; he championed genres de vie (glossed by Livingstone as “functionally patterned modes of living” [p267]) as the result of these particularities. Regional geography flourished in Edinburgh under Geddes, for a variety of social reasons (the presence of cartographic companies, the nature of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Royal Society of Edinburgh). It eventually lost, however, the purposeful approach of Geddes, and became mere description. It was, to close the loop, Herbertson who reclaimed the spirit of Geddes, according to Livingstone.

Being himself, Livingstone notes the association (in Germany) of descriptive studies with nationalistic, even racial supremacist, ideology (“blood and soil”), and that in France, regional study was incorporated into a civic and nationalist program (for example, by Jules Simon in basic education). He notes that when Frédéric Le Play examined local particularities, he inspired some of his followers into, apparently, environmental determinism.3 It is normal, perhaps, for nationalism and patriotism to gravitate towards particularism, and specifically towards regional geography, since there is (notably in the modern day) an association that nationalists are desperate to make with a particular region. That does not mean that there is a natural association in the other direction, or that regional geography should be tarnished by the association. And environmental determinism may likewise associate naturally with geographic particularism, but that is only because it is the extreme subset of environmental conditionism, which is both appropriately associated with geographic particularism, and a normal and creditable thing for a geographer to believe. It might even be a requirement of the trade. Id est, geography matters.


In the geography of the 1960s, according to Agnew, space (or the nomothetic) became favored over place (or the idiographic), particularly the region. A reaction to that (Agnew cites Edward Casey) emphasizes particularity and the human experience, which is associated with place; this is in some sense a defense against “placelessness”. This is essentially the same placelessness that Agnew (2005b) recognizes in the theory of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, a smooth world with a population alienated in a lack of differentiation and identity.

Agnew identifies three meanings for ‘place’: fixed location within space; locale of everyday life; and sense of place or community. These concepts seem appropriately grouped under the theme of place; it is unclear, though, how he identifies these as three different points on the nomothetic-idiographic spectrum. And he identifies four approaches to bring some of these three back together: a humanist approach that emphasizes human agency to relate places; a neo-Marxist approach that imagines space as abstract and representing (of course) capital and power, with place as its object of colonization, and the resistance to this; a feminist approach that emphasizes difference and plurality; and a contextualist approach that emphasizes epistemology and the particularity of place as affecting our understanding. It is, again, unclear as to why these approaches to reunite elements of the concept of place are needed at all.

But Agnew’s broader point is a valid one. Space and place should not be seen as an either/or matter, as a dualism in which we must reject one or the other, much less deny the existence of one or the other. They are both valid considerations within geography, and within theory. However, there can have been little chance of space being rejected. The argument is whether there is room for particularity.

Hart, delivering 1981’s presidential address at the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers and therefore using a rare and invaluable platform, spends this token on a plea for reemphasizing particularity, in the form of regional geography, which he calls “the highest form of the geographer’s art”. This prompts a rather forceful and none too gracious response from, apparently, the entire geography faculty of the University of California Santa Barbara. The charges that Reginald Golledge and his colleagues make against Hart are probably not as simplistic as they seem, but even the most generous interpretation is that they are speaking defensively against anyone else who might react to Hart simplistically. Hart’s distinction between science and scientism is appropriate; he is not disparaging the former, despite the claims of the ultraquantificationists of Santa Barbara, and it seems difficult to claim that he is without willfully disregarding much of the speech. That he praises regional geography over other (that is, systematic) geography can be taken as a debatable preference, a justifiable conservatism (or even reaction, in the sense of a return to a cherished but vanished past), or even an exaggeration in response to the (perceived) seizure of the field by the forces of scientism; but Hart is not as dismissive of the other side as they are of him. And he has a point.

That point is rather key to geography. To repeat it, geography matters. Place matters. Not all places are interchangeable, and so it is necessary to study and understand the contribution of particularity. Hart is advocating, and attempting to make room again in the discipline for, the examination of specific regions as an acceptable field of study. There is certainly nothing unscholarly about this. Linguistics places value on those who study rare dialects and prepare grammars. History rewards those who delve into the facts of the past and tell a particular story. Certain zoologists, especially primatologists, make careers out of documenting special behavior. And anthropology almost lionizes field work among remote peoples, whose primary purpose is the recording of life, culture, and society. Of course, an eye to the implications of such descriptive work for general knowledge, and in particular the accepted wisdom of the discipline, is always a useful service, to the discipline as well as to the scholar’s career. But descriptive work has value. Livingstone notes, for example, the utility of the assembly of information produced by Boas, as he had earlier with such explorers as Humboldt. While merely descriptive work may not (though sometimes it may) qualify for a dissertation, most scholars will not spend their postdoctoral careers producing novel theory, or making decisive critiques of existing theory, and yet it often takes a trained scholar to produce much of the information — the analyzable data — on which theory will eventually be based.

Livingstone quotes Darryl Forde as saying that “human geography demands as much knowledge of humanity as of geography” [p289]. I would second the statement, and extend it broadly. Geography can bill itself as the spatial science; but it is also, traditionally, the study of the world. It demands as much knowledge of the world as of the general processes of spatial relations — much more, in fact.


1. All references to Agnew are to ‘Space : place’ (Agnew 2005a) unless noted.

2. As he often does, Livingstone brings the discussion of Fleure back to race. Fleure, he states at one point, is an anti-racist, but based on Livingstone’s own tales, this must ultimately apply only to prejudice between certain European races.

3. With that, only one of Livingstone’s usual bugbears is missing; but it happens that a major figure influenced by the work around Le Play was Geddes, whom Livingstone promptly ties to Lamarckism.


John Agnew. (2005a) ‘Space : place’, p81-96 in Cloke and Johnston, eds.
—————. (2005b) ‘Hegemony: the new shape of global power’. Temple University, 2005.
Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston, eds. ‘Spaces of geographical thought: deconstructing human geography’s binaries’. Sage, 2005.
Reginald G. Golledge, Richard Church, Jeffrey Dozier, John E. Estes, Joel Michaelsen, David S. Simonett, Raymond Smith, Terence Smith, Alan H. Strahler, and Waldo R. Tobler. ‘Commentary on “The highest form of the geographer’s art” ’, p557-8 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v72 n4 (1982 December).
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. ‘Empire’. Harvard University, 2000.
John Fraser Hart. ‘The highest form of the geographer’s art’, p1-29 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v72 n1 (1982 March).
Richard Hartshorne. ‘The nature of geography: a critical survey of current thought in the light of the past’, in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v29 n3,4 (1939). Reprinted by the Association of American Geographers, 1961.
A.J. Herbertson. ‘The major natural regions: an essay in systematic geography’, p300-10 in the Geographical Journal, v25 n3 (1905 March).
David N. Livingstone. ‘The geographical tradition’. Blackwell, 1992.


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