Reply To: Human geography

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:47 AM

    The acquisitions and limitations of classical geography

    Classical geography makes two main contributions to the social sciences in the making. First, it teaches how to develop cartographic representations of statistical series, suggesting correlations that would otherwise go unnoticed: André Siegfried founded electoral geography by analyzing the distribution of votes in western France over a fifty-year period. Second, geographers contribute largely to the advancement of field research, although they are not alone in doing so, having been preceded in this area by sociologists. While other scholars, however, merely interview people and examine the equipment they use, geographers teach how to observe the shapes of camps, the fences that mark them, and the settlements, their dislocation and typology: archival records are not the only source of news. As Krysztof Pomian has argued, the “Annales” school was deeply influenced by this new approach. Human geography reveals, beyond the divisions produced by political events and administrative necessities, the existence of deeper and more stable forms of organization and structuring and the persistence of thickening: the most significant regional divisions often disregard official boundaries. Finally, human geography harkens back to the current of thought, inaugurated by the physiocrats and soon to be discontinued, that humans live only by what they derive from their environment; in other disciplines, however, there is too often a tendency to forget this reality.

    Moreover, classical geography encounters certain limitations, which eventually lead to its validity being questioned. Not all of its shortcomings are its own fault, because ecology only makes decisive progress between 1930 and 1940, and until then geography continues to make the best use of the conceptual armamentarium available at the beginning of the century, which is beginning to be outdated. The main insufficiency lies in the naturalistic approach, to which is due the lack of importance given to the analysis of social, economic and political mechanisms and their spatial implications. Geographers ignore the theory of localization, the results of which, on the other hand, are already well established. Walter Christaller, the only geographer in the 1930s who uses criteria similar to those of the economists, will be discovered twenty years too late.Sociologists do not ignore the material basis of societies, but they distrust the deterministic approach of the first evolutionary geography and hold it against the geographers of the second generation, who for their part also reject it: between human geography and social morphology in the manner of Durkheim and Halbwachs the misunderstanding is total. Nor is there a better fate in the United States for the work of Park, Burgess and the Chicago School of Urban Ecology. Political geography is devoted to advanced peoples–to Ratzel’s Kulturvölker, the only ones capable of establishing states–but it remains very much on the surface: its devotees are so entangled in the problems of frontiers, territories, and capital cities that they fail to analyze the phenomena relating to location, the way they are perceived by those responsible for political life, and their effects on the course of world history. Only the best succeed: Mackinder, Siegfried, Bowman and, despite his questionable ideological biases, Haushofer.

    The inability of classical human geography to fully explore modern industrialized and urbanized societies finds explanation in the dominant naturalistic mindset. Occasionally such an exploration is successful, for example in Demangeon’s monographs on the British Empire, Baulig’s on the United States or Siegfried’s on the great Anglo-Saxon democracies; however, the theoretical basis for systematizing the remarkable insights of these authors is lacking.The most original contribution of classical geography must be sought in the field of regional studies. Since antiquity, the purpose of the discipline had been to illustrate the peculiarities of various places, what they have in common with others and what they differ from them in: the geographers of the early twentieth century are devoted precisely to delineating the personality (this is the term they use) of places, landscapes, cities, regions, and nations. To this end, in the case of a complex territory such as that of France, Vidal de la Blache highlights how unity and singularity arise from the association of heterogeneous but complementary elements; the resulting combination is so original that it can only exist in a single specimen. Personality also reflects the quality of natural environments; in the case of France, what facilitates synthesis is the intimate intermingling of environments along with the transitions they allow: their composition into a coherent system is inherent in their very nature.

    But at the turn of the century, geography has not yet developed any theory that satisfactorily explains the specificity of the simplest units: to render this aspect of reality we rely on literary sensibility and talent, which can sometimes yield good results, but from a methodological point of view amounts to a declaration of failure.

    Through its attention to the expressive dimension, early twentieth-century geography opens itself up, without being aware of it and without elaborating a theory of it, to the lived experience of the world: that of geographers, but also that of the inhabitants of the regions described, insofar as they are attentive to the way places are named and different regional entities are perceived. In spite of this interesting attempt, geography as it was then practiced was incapable of studying the industrial world and of developing simple guidelines for those who aspired to organize and transform the existing. Indeed, despite the naturalistic desire to work on a positive basis, it was, rather than scientific knowledge, a cautious and marginal exploration of fields that would be investigated in later developments.