Reply To: Human geography

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:48 AM

    The new objects of study in geography

    At a time when the transformations of developed countries were accelerating and the Third World was taking off, geographers ill tolerated that they could not make proposals: they felt that the organization of the territory was their responsibility, but they were not consulted. Indeed, the politicians and engineers in charge of arranging equipment and services to cater for larger populations with higher incomes and greater mobility demanded a clear assessment of the evolution of demand over the next five, ten, twenty or thirty years, so that they could predict, for example, what the increase in traffic on a certain route would be: they would then know whether the existing road network would be adequate for the new demand, whether it would have to be improved in certain sections or whether a new route would have to be adopted. By the late 1940s geographers are still unable to make such projections, unlike economists and engineers, and even sociologists who render similar services in the fields of housing demand and recreational and educational services. At the turn of the century, geography was oriented toward the analysis of the ‘vertical’ relations that humans weave with their environment, from which they derive a part of what is indispensable to them and where they unload what they have stopped using; it did not, however, dwell on circulations, that is, on the flows and movements that connect ‘horizontally’ human groups with each other. For geography to become applicable to today’s world, a reconversion was necessary: according to the thesis that Edward Ullman was then expounding in Seattle to a group of brilliant students at the University of Washington, emphasis needed to be placed on the social aspect of geography, rather than its ecological dimension. For the ‘Young Turks’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s, human geography must study the role of distance and remoteness in the functioning of the social machine. Thus, the phenomena of circulation and mobility, which affect large human aggregates and result from a multiplicity of decisions, interconnected by feedback loops, come to the fore.The analysis of these phenomena can take advantage of the tools provided by recent advances in statistics, and in particular chorological statistics. The concatenations of influences and feedbacks are susceptible to a theoretical interpretation that needs to be tested. The ‘new geography’ (this term became established in the late 1960s, but the change had already been underway for a decade) is both quantitative and theoretical and makes extensive use of location theory, often taking it as a model. The social ecology of the Chicago School suggests to geographers under Brian J.L. Berry a rapid theoretical deepening of the problems posed by urban spaces and fabrics. Geographers, economists and sociologists work on a common work in which it becomes difficult to distinguish the contribution of each, as evidenced by the success of ‘regional science,’ which attracts anyone interested in the problems of the insertion of society in space and the organization of territory.

    The acquisitions soon accumulated by the new geography of the 1960s and by regional science, which differs little from it in the field of economics, are considerable. The influence of distances explains the observable regularities in the spread of innovations and in periodic or permanent migrations. The central districts of cities serve as meeting places, that is, as commutators of all social relations: this highlights the logic obeyed by urban ‘poles,’ the networks they form and the regional structures dominated by exchange life.In the late 1960s, as theoretical reflection deepened, it became clear that the specific task of geographers was to study the spatial dimension of socioeconomic systems. Advances in ecology are now linked to the use of the conceptual model of the ecosystem; by associating the two approaches it will be possible to recover the naturalistic aspect of the discipline, inappropriately neglected precisely when the demands of society were becoming more insistent in this field. The new geography thus conceived analyzes the spatial dimension of social systems and their integration into ecosystems that they profoundly modify. All this leads to a science of global spatial organization that is now the focus of many among the pioneers of the new geography, especially in France, where the regional tradition is strongest.

    The theoretical interpretations that have been proposed or systematized in the last thirty years have in common that they dwell mainly on regularities: their contribution to regional analysis consists in knowing what is repetitive and nonspecific. This is a remarkable advance, but one that leaves many geographers dissatisfied, who are sensitive to the atmosphere of places and what makes them distinctly different from one another, at least in some respects.In the late 1970s some Anglo-Saxon authors rediscovered this problem. The movement started in North America, where shortly after 1970 people began to question the ‘sense’ of places, at the initiative of specialists in the historical and cultural approaches, which had long been present on the margins of the new geography. Ten years later the question is of interest to many scholars who until then had dealt only with facts repeated in large numbers, and who now find themselves in a blind alley: they have in fact brought out regularities about whose value there is no doubt, as statistics show, but whose usefulness is limited, since from the existence of a general correlation between event A and event B it cannot be deduced that in every place where A occurs B also occurs. For this to happen certain ancillary conditions must intervene, which are not met everywhere. The mechanical application of general models thus bumps up against the particular character of individual localities, as research in electoral geography of the kind Siegfried had shown since the beginning of the century: it is true that right-wing votes come mainly from affluent circles and left-wing votes from the working world, but traditions and memories give some areas a different character than one would expect.

    For many young researchers today, human geography has the task of analyzing the spatial dimension of social systems and the way they use the specificity of places to enable the development of certain activities, which in turn reinforce that specificity.In Anglo-Saxon countries, Marxists, whose role had been established during the 1970s, began at the beginning of the following decade to become aware of the inadequacy of their theory in relation to the geographical situation in the world today. Under the influence of Roy Bhaskar’s realist philosophy, they discover in the influence of places on the occurrence of phenomena a reason for not renouncing their faith: the Marxist schema is now a general framework that is not required to explain events in their particulars, since the latter always depend on multiple causes. Geography, which until then had no place in the pantheon of Marxist social sciences, becomes indispensable: its task is to provide the intermediate theories that complement the megatheory constituted by Marxism itself. Allan Scott and David Harvey’s reflections on the economic role of localities fit into this perspective.

    During the same period, those responsible for territorial organization faced numerous difficulties. Until the early 1970s, Western economies had developed spontaneously, and planning had been responsible for directing to this or that less-favored region investments that would spontaneously locate elsewhere; a vast repertoire of incentives, regulations, and controls had made it possible to achieve their chosen objectives more or less well. With soaring oil prices and the ensuing crisis, development came to a halt and deindustrialization hit many once prosperous regions full force. In the new conjuncture, the usual formulas lose all validity: the problem is no longer in getting entrepreneurs to change their settlement choices, but in creating entrepreneurs. In spite of the recession, in some cases this goal is achieved, but there are no clear rules manifested in the way this happens: it all depends on individuals and the conditions they encounter on the ground. There are general factors that make it possible for businesses to spring up, but they are only one of the necessary conditions: local energies make the difference. Development arises from below: this is the substance of Walter Stöhr’s doctrine.

    Those who rediscover as a central theme of reflection the differentiation of the earth’s surface thus have different orientations, but in each case their contribution is interesting. Even through the vicissitudes of its evolution, the original intent to comprehensively describe the reality of the Earth retains its value.