The concepts of process and form are pivotal to inquiry within contemporary physical and human geography. In the past 50 years, the discipline has exhibited an increased concern for enhanced 'depth of understanding' of processes or process mechanisms underlying empirical manifestations, or forms, of geographic phenomena. Process-based understanding is viewed as the key to developing adequate comprehension of how physical and human systems change in form or are sustained in dynamic, yet enduring configurations. It also is perceived as enriching the theoretical content of the discipline. Because processes or process mechanisms are unobservable or difficult to observe, inferences about processes rely heavily on theoretical analysis. The extent to which a discipline relies on theory in the development of new understandings of the world plays an important role in communal assessments of its intellectual quality. This factor certainly has contributed to geography's development over the past 50 years. Virtually all appeals for, or assessments of, conceptual change within geography, from Davisian to process-based geomorphology, from spatial science to Marxism, and from Marxism to postmodernism have emphasized the value of such change in enhancing the discipline's 'image' within the realm of the earth or social sciences. Conceptual change may have as much to do with sociological concerns as it does intellectual interests.
Although both sides of the discipline have turned toward process-based understanding, as a whole, geography is still entrenched deeply in the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter that has dominated science since the advent of mechanistic materialism in the seventeenth century (Urban and Rhoads, 2003). Physical geography rests largely on a mechanistic materialist foundation of Newtonian physics with its conception of space as an inert 'container' with absolute dimensions. Human geography, on the other hand, while partly embracing mechanistic materialism within the context of 'positivist' spatial science, has largely embedded inquiry within conceptual contexts that emphasize human processes. Human geographers largely subscribe to theoretical notions based heavily on the 'mind' side of mind-matter dualism. Human processes - social, political, economic, cultural - are seen not only as primary to understanding the structure of society, but as consummate. Environmental influences on human behaviour, if they occur at all, always are mediated strongly by socio-cultural processes.
The continuing influence of dualism on contemporary geography indicates that the discipline still is embedded within Enlightenment thinking, postmodernism notwithstanding. Although postmodernists may argue that they have transcended such thinking, such claims cannot be applied to the discipline as a whole. Moreover, even within postmodernism, elements of Enlightenment thinking can be discerned. Many postmodernists are interested in relations between underlying causal processes and empirical manifestations of these processes, while allowing for multi-theoretical, highly contextualized understandings of these relations. Nevertheless, the contemporary notion of process-form connections largely emerged within the context of the mechanistic materialism of the seventeenth century, when process-form relations largely were reduced to 'locomotion' or simple rearrangement or material transformations of material bodies. Under this conception, the notion of 'force' or 'causal mechanism' emerged as primary in producing change, i.e. as the basis for 'process'. Strict empiricist interpretations of force or causal mechanisms are noncommittal regarding ontology, whereas realist interpretations view such forces or mechanisms as actual existents. Relativists, including humanists and postmodernists, may deny any claims of ontological status or allow for multiple ontologies, but in either case embrace the epistemic richness provided by unequivocal multitheoretical explanations of causality. Such a view derives at least in part from idealist philosophies, including that of Kant, which arose in response to mind-matter dualism instigated by mechanistic materialism.
Cause-effect thinking remains a deep-seated presupposition in a wide range of contemporary geographical inquiry and this thinking is often expressed in terms of process-form relations. Such a perspective contrasts greatly with, for example, the Aristotelian view of the world wherein form is primary and process emanates from form without the need for a causal relation between the two. Under this conception, process and form are inextricably interwoven, and being and becoming involve holistic, irreducible self-actualization at multiple scales of time and space. Although the Aristotelian view of the world may seem irrelevant in the light of the findings of contemporary natural science, such is not the case. Contemporary science, especially quantum and relativistic physics, has established a remarkable theoretical framework for empirical predictability at the expense of a difficult, varied and highly contentious ontological interpretation of this framework.
What are the implications for geography? The discipline always has looked elsewhere for philosophical and methodological inspiration and this trend seems likely to continue. Process-form conceptions are only one element of a largely derivative conceptual foundation. Breaking out of this derivative mould may be beyond the capacity of the discipline, but it probably also is not necessary. The future of geography will be guided by sociological factors as much as it will by intellectual ones. Philosophy, however, is not irrelevant to this future for it often can be a source of inspiration for innovation by those seeking to become the discipline's next 'fashion dude' (Sherman, 1996).
essay questions and further reading
1 How far do you agree with the view that process-based studies rescued physical geography from its state of 'serious decline' in the 1950s? Good background material to this question can be found in Gregory (2000) and Huggett (2003), while you should also read Strahler (1952), Chorley and Kennedy (1971) and Rhoads and Thorn (1996a).
2 Contrast the way concepts of process and form appear in spatial science and Marxist geography. Start with Johnston (1986; 1997), and follow this up with Abler et al. (1971), Harvey (1974), Scott (1985) and Soja (1980). You might also read Schaefer's (1953) original paper.
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