Human and physical geographers

After world war 2 there was a growing dissatisfaction with regional and human environment tradition despite efforts made by Hartshorne (Discussed later). During the 1950s there was an increasing concern with physical processes and the development of quantitative models in physical geography, there was also a rising focus on climate change and growing acceptance of plate tectonics. All representing an increasing concern with process, quantifiable measurement, laws and models and an awareness of the spatial-temporal environment within geography. Process studies still dominates geography at present, geographers are now beginning to think about how they can contribute on a bigger scale.

Scientific knowledge and rigour A similar concern with the development of geography as a theoretical and empirical science was also encountered in human geography especially noticeable in the United States. (The Place of Geography) Schaefer and Christaller emerged as leaders of these intellectual changes to transform geography into a more recognised discipline in the wider academic circles. In the last 50 years there have been a number of scientific revolutions. Scientists have sought greater rigor to empirical methods.The principle behind which was that statements that had any meaning were those which could be verified by scientific methods. Alternatively Karl Popper insisted that science was about falsification rather than verification.

A Changing Discipline The status of scientific knowledge has been reduced by philosophers, historians and cosiologists contributing to the intellectual market. There has been a growth in thematic geography which has led to the increasing separation of sub-disciplines of human and physical geography. The emphasis was still on empirical and descriptive geographies. Regional and environmental areas were still studied but became increasingly old fashioned. There was also increasing focus of field work and local study

Geography has more recently been characterised as a spatial science; with quantification essential to investgation, and laws and models to predict generalisations. By the 1970s human geography was characterized as the study of spatial organization expressed as patterns and processes. (Taafe 1970) Humanistic geographers were beginning to question methods of research noting a divide between the needs of human and physical geographers. Hartshorne wrote one of the most influential books of the first half of the 20th century The Nature of Geography emphasizing the society-environment interrelationship and its regional variations.

His central claim on geography is its integrative or synthetic purpose. His critics argued that this was simplistic and an ideology, many commentators believed that in a much less integrated discipline especially in areas such as areal differentiation. Hartshorne can claim credit for the development of spatial science he looked at space through maps to disclose ‘the functional integration of phenomena’ and ever insisted on a ‘correlative discipline’. (Johnston et al 1994)

The analytical insights concepts and theoretical framework of Geography has also been influenced by the works of Karl Marx (1818-83). It was not until the early 1970s that Marxist geography emerged to critique the currently dominating paradigm of spatial analysis. Marxism not only provided insights into capitalism but also refreshed methodological approaches in geography; it paved the way for radical divisions between human and physical geography to form. Through theory based on empirical reality Marx introduced structural alternatives to the discipline. Geographers learnt that an explanation of surface features could be achieved through describing underlying features. (The Place of Geography) A criticism of Marxist geography is that it focused to heavily on theory and philosophy and not enough on practical synthesis. Johnston (1986) would argue that is has ‘Not impacted that heavily on the discipline’.

Marxist Geography emerged as a response to particular avenues of study called paradigms. Thomas Kuhn, an historian of science, popularised the notion of the paradigm as a means of explaining why a discipline changes and how the production of ideas comes about. He sought to characterise geography using a succession of overlapping paradigms. Kuhn suggests a combination of long periods of stability in certain activities and interests and brief intense revolutions formed on anomalies which overthrow ideas.

He does not, however, even though he modified his views between first and second editions of his work, take in to account proper networks of change, and a single paradigm does not always dominate within human geography. Fashion may be just as likely to influence direction, just as powerful individuals and funding have. Livingstone (1991) suggests that threads of ideas lead to changes in direction of research and are subject to circumstance. Another criticism is that his definition of paradigm is ambiguous throughout. Kuhn has since acknowledged that he made his work unnecessarily difficult. (Johnston et al 1994)

Darwin introduced ideas about development and emphasized the relationship between species and their environment. Darwin’s theories of natural selection lead to explanations of population change, accounting in terms of nature for the growth or reduction in an organic group. Darwinism influenced an array of disciplines from anthropology to biogeography emphasizing once again a shared nature of Geography. Stoddart (1981) indicates the ways in which Darwinism percolated into geography through notions such as relations between organisms and the environment, change through time and selection and competition.

Logical Positivism Darwinism has been seen as a triumph of science over religion, a move to epistemology positivism. Another form of positivism that took hold and shaped the history of geography was Logical Positivism. Unlike earlier versions of positivism (a philosophy of science), logical positivism recognised only two types of statement as scientifically meaningful: a) empirical (or synthetic) statements, truth established by verification and b) analytical statements of logic and mathematics, which were judged to be true by definition. This central principle of verification is the focus of critique of logical positivism. Popper (1979) insists that principles of falsification rather than verification have a more significant place in geographical study. Most geographers resist this label and disagree that it represents the scientific method.

Influences of Scale and Funding Scale and funding have also contributed to the history of physical and human geography. All geographical findings need to be interpreted in terms of scale to reveal true results. Even Columbus and Cook were sponsored by European nation states eager to exploit discovered resources. (Holloway et al 2003). Funding has encouraged a divergent history of physical and human geography by providing integrated multidisciplinary activities as a pre-requisite for funding. An example of a major programme of this nature is the recently completed Terrestrial Initiative in Global Environmental Research investigation in which physical geographers worked alongside other a rang of academics from other disciplines.

There is also a growing emphasis on giving funding for applied research and involvement with policy issues (Thrift and Walling 2000) These two elements will be key to the disciplines future; geographers must contribute on a wider scale to help solve international and global problems whilst aiming research at areas of funding. Figure 1 (Castree et al (2005) illustrates the geographies and knowledge that have developed from legacies of differences, have been repeated and recycled in different ways at multiple scales and yet are inevitably interwined.


In reality physical and human geography are rarely detached from each other. To fully comprehend a geographical issue there is a need to draw from both areas of the discipline. Practical problem solving requires unity issues and ethics combined with scientific rigour. Real events have brought specializations in geography and other academic disciplines but have also brought some areas of study closer together. Combined geography has the power to legitimate, excuse and rationalize what other disciplines cannot.

As the oldest form of intellectual enquiry Geography in the UK has always been one; tradition has it that there is a definite shared history. An academic could not deny that there have been fragmentations, different paradigmsof geography throughout history and at certain times physical or human geography have dominated but they have not existed exclusive of one another. The two often have different methodological approaches. Physical geography has found itself increasingly in contact with earth sciences and human geography with sociology, economics and cultural studies.There is a strong argument that despite attempts to unify geography, diversity and divergence have replaced disciplinary cohesion.

Volume of knowledge is expanding rapidly with geography as in other disciplines forcing specialization as technologies make previously unanswerable questions a possibility further pressure is put on academics productivity. (Castree et al 2005) Geography does lack some coherence as perhaps suggested by Castree: ‘Boundaries between fields are porous’ and the number of aspects of geography that appear to be relatively unrelated has grown over time. This essay should have outlined that in order to fully understand the history of geography it needs to be placed in its wider intellectual context.

A knowledge of geography’s history allows it to be used as a cultural product or political resource. The practical outworkings of theory are sometimes overlooked but it is important to remember that the application of geography has been fundamental to it’s intellectual development. This history helps us better to see the present state of geographical affairs and undoubtedly the future of geography is tied to it’s past.

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