Reply To: Human geography

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:47 AM

    The paradigm of classical human geography

    Human geography, as it is constituted at the end of the last century, presents itself as a discipline full of dynamism and imagination, which, however, encounters some difficulties in clearly defining its object. Its devotees work as naturalists: they intend to be objective and not attach too much importance to ideas, representations and imaginations. They describe human groups, analyze their activities, and draw up an inventory of the transformations produced in the environment and of the man-made structures (houses, fields, fences, etc.). This positivist concern is particularly evident in Jean Brunhes, author, in 1910, of the first treatise on human geography in the French language: he recommends sticking to the primary facts of human geography, those of the productive or destructive occupation of the land, and only cautiously mentions the properly social or ethnographic aspects of the analysis.

    These uncertainties manifest themselves in the multiplicity of definitions then given of human geography. For some, this discipline examines how humans have established their dominance over the earth’s surface: this means sticking to some of the evolutionary assumptions, emphasizing the ‘vertical’ relationships between humans and the environment and the historical perspective. But man is no longer seen as at the mercy of the natural environment: he learns to master it by respecting its laws, according to the classical formula. At the time when the last great waves of European pioneers invade the new countries, the theme of subjugation of the natural world appears seductive. It is often present in American authors: Isaiah Bowman is the first to emphasize the geographical particularities of the ‘frontier,’ the fronts of tillage and the societies that settled on them.

    After the October Revolution, Soviet geographers and some communist scholars in other countries found the theme of the conquest of nature a congenial subject and one that conformed to the orthodoxy defined by the party; however, there was no shortage of criticism pointing out the biased nature and shortcomings of this approach. Man’s conquest of the planet does not take place in a linear fashion: advances are sometimes followed by retreats, and initial successes generate difficulties due to the often irreversible degradation of valued environments.

    Doubts arise, moreover, that the evolutionary approach may create obstacles to human geography. This is thought by those who refer to the ancient purposes of geography, namely the description and study of the regional differentiations of the earth’s surface: within the framework of the discipline thus understood, human geography has the task of specifying the role of man in the formation of landscapes. This idea, which achieved great success in Germany thanks to the work of Otto Schlüter, is at the heart of the analysis of Landschaft, concerning both physiognomic elements and their spatial organization (in fact, the German term includes both the meaning of ‘landscape’ and that of ‘region’). In the United States the idea is taken up by Carl Sauer, founder of the Berkeley School, which is concerned with reconstructing, through the evidence provided by landscape archaeology and present-day Indian civilizations, what America was like before the arrival of the Europeans. The ecological dimension features prominently in this German-American version of the traditional conception of geography.

    In France, the idea of emphasizing the role of man in the differentiation of the earth’s surface is equally embraced, but with a different orientation: rather than studying the transformations produced by man in the environment and carrying out minute surveys of the various plant species, there is a focus on examining the way in which men organize space, and the research is more concerned with the analysis of regional realities than with understanding landscapes.

    This return to the classical conception of geography, with fleeting references to human endeavors, does not satisfy those who are sensitive to the complexity of human achievements. These include Albert Demangeon, according to whom human geography studies the distribution of humans and their works on the earth’s surface. It matters little whether this presence constitutes a homogenizing or differentiating factor: what matters is to examine all forms of human activity and every manifestation of them. Of all the formulations of classical human geography, this is the most suitable for those who wish to broaden the investigation of the social, economic and political mechanisms operating in associated life. Demangeon was very attentive to them, and in the wake of his conceptions the great mutation of the 1950s and 1960s could be implemented more smoothly.

    At the beginning of the century, the work of geographers is strongly marked not only by a naturalistic approach but also by a strong physiocratic economicist slant: what matters most to them to describe are the wealth-producing activities, and in particular those related to the enhancement of land through crops and livestock. There are good reasons for this: increasing production is one of the dominant themes of the time, and agriculture affects far larger expanses of land than industries or services. But some authors react to the dominant economism, and among them is, at the end of the evolution of classical geography, Maurice Le Lannou. For him, human geography studies the Earth as man’s habitat and defines how he is settled there: it is a science of the man-inhabitant. This ‘strong’ formula had considerable influence. In Le Lannou’s intentions it does not challenge the pre-eminence of positive methods, which are concerned almost exclusively with the material aspects of existence and spatial organization; but the idea of the man-inhabitant leads one to concern oneself with the way in which men perceive the Earth, choose their dwelling there and organize the territory in which their lives take place. One senses in this the possibility of an opening to humanistic interests: Le Lannou’s definition, like Demangeon’s, opens the way for new developments.