the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 7


Geography was from the beginning scientific. Science as we understand it was only a slow development, barely recognizable in its infancy. It lacked many of the characteristics we associate with it today. Without needing to fit into our modern conception, it is easy to see why traditional geography was a companion to nascent science, and quite one of its brightest components. Geography was about exploration and discovery, about studying natural phenomena and recording data, as Alexander von Humboldt had done. No one could doubt that the pioneering naturalists were scientists of their day, and many of the naturalists were geographers per se. Charles Darwin, one of the models and heroes of modern science, was an intellectual descendant of Humboldt. Darwin’s fellow theorist of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, is best remembered for work that can only be described as geographical.

Geography as a discipline was also, though, a hybrid, of physical and human, it is true, and of systematic and regional. These disparate elements of the discipline could not all develop alike; what held them together was a spatial approach, and the naturalism of a Humboldt was likely to be largely foreign to many human and regional geographers. Any modern geography department — and this reflects the tradition of the field — can have scholars whose work belongs more generally to the natural sciences, the social sciences, area studies, and even the humanities.

It is to be expected that the tools that were developed for some of the natural sciences are worthless to humanistic geography. No one expects a literary critic to use instruments or run multivariate regressions. Without the spatial approach, the discipline could long ago have fractured, and communication among the subfields was bound to get harder. This is fundamentally no different from the results of hyperspecialization throughout the academy, though.

As science and geography were developing from the same social milieu, though, something remarkable was happening to science. By our own time, science has become a secular religion, closer to a universal belief system (faith, even) than any of the aspiring revealed religions could ever realistically dream to be. Science has become an unchallenged and unchallengeable way of knowing (and ‘SCIENTIA’ actually means “knowing”). This has at least two causes. The first is that science is largely beyond the ability of most individuals to understand. It is specialized, technical, complicated; even the educated layperson cannot follow the bulk of an academic journal article in physics or chemistry. The second is that science has produced, essentially, miracles. It has given the world amazing achievements that have no accessible explanation. The layperson can only marvel at technological innovations, to learn to use them when they are made sufficiently user-friendly, and eventually to depend on them, and likewise depend on specialists to fix them, to update them, to replace them with the next dazzling thing.

Science and scientists have enormous prestige in our society. Nearly all are widely respected. Many are praised routinely. Not a few are showered with riches. When a scientist speaks, the masses listen. Often scientists can speak on subjects, such as politics, for which they have absolutely no expertise, and still draw a respectful audience, comparable, perhaps, to Hollywood stars — quite the company to be in. Who wouldn’t want to be a cross between a priest and a movie star?

For similar reasons — the mystery of what it does, and the results it produces — science holds a privileged place in the academy, particularly as regards funding. Research grants go to scientists. Expensive new facilities go to scientists. Courses in the sciences are typically required for all graduates. The dean or the president might be more likely to be scientists; if they are not, they are more likely to defer to scientists on anything that touches remotely on the mystery and power of science.

The Hartshorne-Schaefer debate, as David Livingstone has it, was prompted by Dick Hartshorne’s (apparent) declaration of geography as chorology, with the region as its distinctive object of study (as language is for linguistics, the mind is for psychology, and so forth). This subject and study could seem vague, flimsy, and idiographic to a scholar educated in the methods and ideology of modern science. Fred Schaefer argued (like Hartshorne, in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, but some fourteen years after ‘The nature’) for a quantitative approach, and found a ready audience among younger geographers who were similarly trained, and similarly desirous of the “rigor” of quantification. And, it must be stressed, similarly hungry to bask in the glow of science.* Over time, departments were made over in the image of science, whether the natural sciences for physical geography, or the more quantitative social sciences like economics for human geography. And, this, of course, created self-perpetuation; those who are trained to use statistical tools and models will seek out reasons to continue using them, and will teach them to their own students.

Two important later critiques of this Quantitative Revolution came from John Fraser Hart and Donald Meinig. Hart was speaking as the past president of the AAG at its annual conference — a prestigious platform from which to make a point so unfashionable. Hart proclaimed regional geography “the highest form of the geographer’s art”. He celebrated the descriptive, and exhorted his colleagues to make the study of a particular region — which one was not important, just so that there be one — a life’s goal. Such expertise, gained after long, careful study, was to him invaluable, both for the audience and indeed for the scholar. Hart also argued forcefully against those who had largely driven regional geography from the discipline, complaining of “scientism”, which drove the pathetic attempt to devalue what had always made geography unique, in pursuit of the glory of science. The address drew immediate criticism from quantification devotees such as the faculty at UC Santa Barbara (Reginald Golledge, for example). Meinig, a year later, made an address calling for geography to cultivate the sensibilities and skills of the arts. He was particularly interested in the cultivation of humanistic geography, and, like Hart, disturbed by the insecurity of the discipline, that it sought the reputation of science while neglecting what could be, in many ways historically were, its native strengths.

It would be safe to say that the Santa Barbara faction had the upper hand in the debate with Hart, and retains it to this day. Quantitative methods are central to much of geography, even human geography. And this has allowed geography to claim the mantle of science. Whether the claim has been granted is a different matter; I don’t see that it has. Yes, as Meinig notes, universities can recognize geography courses as fulfilling a science requirement, which has brought students and money and helped retain faculty. But such victories are small, petty even. Had geography been accepted as a science, it would not be, as Meinig and Hart observe, so incredibly defensive and insecure. Every year at UCLA’s commencement, this fact is made apparent. Geography is a real discipline, we protest; it is not just memorizing states and capitals. Quantifiers can, if they choose, feel satisfied with the integrity and purposefulness of their work. But they have not succeeded in acceptance to Science. What other scientists spend so much time insisting that they are scientists?


* Among these were Peter Taylor and David Harvey, both eventually Marxists, Harvey eventually even a particularist. According to Livingstone, Harvey later identified McCarthyism as a reason why some scholars favored quantification: the numerical certainties were a defense against suspicion of politicization.


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).
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.
David N. Livingstone. ‘The geographical tradition’. Blackwell, 1992.
Donald W. Meinig. ‘Geography as an art’, p314-28 in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, v8 n3 (1983).
Fred K. Schaefer. ‘Exceptionalism in geography: a methodological examination’, p226-49 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v43 n3 (1953 September)


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