Conclusion Newtons Apple

This chapter has been almost entirely about physical geography. This will disappoint the editors, who were, no doubt, hoping for a more balanced assessment of the topic. But like the cobbler sticking to his last, it seemed safer for me to keep to the world I know, rather than venturing into someone else's. My world is one of water and soil. That is not to say that I'm not interested in people or in how my scientific knowledge can be used to better people's lives - far from it - but in research terms it's a question of emphasis.

Some geographers, especially on the human side of the subject, will not accept my argument that geography is a scientific enterprise. They believe that scientific method is inappropriate to the subject matter of geography (as discussed in Chapter 4). I can see the difficulties of the participant-observer: having to examine a world of which we are an integral part, not disinterested spectators. Nevertheless, the narratives of humanistic geography seem subjective and anti-theoretical to me, promising little more than a return to the exceptionalist tradition. Apparently there are no regularities we can bring to each new situation, except ourselves. Sometimes it is claimed that the human world is so much more complex than the physical world that no generalities are possible; I may have missed something but ecosystems and drainage basins are pretty complicated structures too. The complexity of human response does not in itself seem to me an excuse for abandoning all attempts to generalize. Ron Johnston (1985) posits a scale stretching from the 'voyeuristic' geography of place in the exceptionalist tradition, to the arid, placeless spatial science of the positivist tradition: the latter assumes that all is general, whereas the former assumes that nothing is. Johnston concludes that, as is so often the case, a middle ground is needed. You might conclude that I am far out in the scientific desert therefore - but there is the odd oasis of hope: my research is firmly grounded in places chosen as field sites, as well as space, and conclusions drawn from specific sites do help improve theories and illuminate future studies.

Physical geographers must address the unique as well as the general, taking interest in the exceptional event as well as in the regular and predictable. We do - the notion is inherent in our examination of outliers in regression analyses, for instance. But even when we approach something as rare as the 1952 flood in Lynmouth, England, we do so in a context of knowledge about the hydraulic of river channels and their associated bedforms. Physical geographers must also acknowledge contingency, the particular history of the site in question. Savigear's study illustrates this well: in some respects the rather specific cliff-scree sequence, the product of Holocene sea-level rise, stands apart from the more general conclusions about slope evolution as informed by the Kirkby model.

Notwithstanding its attempts to follow a scientific approach, physical geography remains, in some ways, an infant science. Twenty years ago, I reflected that much of our fieldwork remains empirical, just another case study, attempting simply to describe the response of yet another small catchment (Burt and Walling, 1984). There has been progress, I think, with more active collaboration between field scientists and theoreticians, and planned research projects aimed at producing useful generalizations. No doubt though, many studies remain largely site-specific and only loosely connected to the wider theoretical context. We tend these days to have very sophisticated measurement techniques; what may be sometimes lacking is a rigorous scientific framework within which the data are collected. While things have moved forward, helped in part by computerization, Dunne's (1981) lament remains partly true, as we seek to place ourselves properly between the two poles of idiographic and nomothetic. It is also a fitting conclusion:

Science progresses through the making of generalizations in the face of the complexity of nature. But if Isaac Newton had reported his reaction to a falling apple in the manner that we commonly use, he would have described the gauging station by which he was sitting, the uniqueness of the weather patterns during the preceding three years, the particular apple, and his plans to spend the next three years sitting there to observe other apples, in the hope that at the end of his data collection program, he or someone else would be able to decide what it all meant!... We need to plan our next research projects with the express intention of developing some useful generalizations that will expand the theoretical framework of the science. More emphasis needs to be placed on planning field measurement programs that will generate the critical data required for modelling rather than just the data that are easy to obtain. Such planning requires that from the outset the study should be designed either by someone skilled in both theory and fieldwork or by a partnership of such interests. (Dunne, 1981:114)

essay questions and further reading

1 Reflect on your own studies, perhaps a dissertation or project you are working on or have recently completed. Following Marshall (1985), ask yourself to what extent you have achieved a scientific approach:

(i) Have you clearly stated the problem?

(ii) Have you (or has someone else) formulated an appropriate theory?

(iii) Have you derived some hypotheses that can be tested?

(iv) Have you collected relevant data and carried out empirical tests?

(v) Have you evaluated your results, and provided an explanation in terms of the causal mechanisms operating at your site?

2 Is geography an idiographic or nomothetic discipline? This chapter and the references below will help you answer this question, and a good account of the philosophical issues concerned can be found in Entrikin and Brunn (1989). Marshall (1985) and Harvey (1969) are good places to start. Think about how geography compares with other disciplines, physics, history or anthropology, for example?


Anderson, M.G. and Burt, T.P. (1978) The role of topography in controlling throughflow generation. Earth Surface Processes 29, 331-334.

Anderson, M.G. and Burt, T.P. (1990) Geomorphological techniques - part one: introduction. In Goudie, A.S. (ed.) Geomorphological Techniques, 2nd edn. Unwin Hyman, London, pp. 1-29.

Bambrough, (1967) Plato, Popper and Politics. Barnes & Noble, New York.

Brown, H.I. (1996) The methodological roles of theory in science. In Rhoads, B.L. and Thorn, C.E. (eds) The Scientific Nature of Geomorphology. Wiley, Chichester, pp. 3-20.

Burt, T.P. (1989) Storm runoff generation in small catchments in relation to the flood response of large basins. In Beven, K.J. and Carling, P.A. (eds) Floods. Wiley, Chichester, pp. 11-36.

Burt, T.P. (2003) Some observations on slope development in South Wales: Savi-gear and Kirkby revisited. Progress in Physical Geography 27, 581-595.

Burt, T.P. and Walling, D.E. (1984) Catchment experiments in fluvial geomorphology: a review of objectives and methodology. In Burt, T.P. and Walling, D.E. (eds) Catchment Experiments in Fluvial Geomorphology. Geo Books, Norwich, pp. 3-20.

Church, M. (1984) On experimental methodology in geomorphology. In Burt, T.P. and Walling, D.F. (eds) Catchment Experiments in Fluvial Geomorphology. Geo Books, Norwich, pp. 563-580.

Dunne, T. (1981) Concluding comments to the Christchurch Symposium on 'Erosion and Sediment Transport in Pacific Rim Steeplands'. Journal of Hydrology NZ 20, 111-114.

Entrikin, J.N. and Brunn, S.D. (eds) (1989) Reflections on Richard Hartshorne's 'The Nature of Geography' (Occasional Publications of the Association of American Geographers). Association of America Geographers, Washington, DC.

Gould, P. (1985) The Geographer at Work. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

Haggett, P. (1965) Locational Analysis in Human Geography. Edward Arnold, London.

Hartshorne, R. (1939) The Nature of Geography. Association of American Geographers, Washington, DC. Harvey, D.W. (1969) Explanation in Geography. Edward Arnold, London. Johnston, R.J. (1985) Introduction: exploring the future of geography. In Johnston,

R.J. (ed.) The Future of Geography. Methuen, London, pp. 3-24. Kirkby, M.J. (1971) Hillslope process-response models based on the continuity equation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Special Publication No. 3,15-30.

Kirkby, M.J. (1984) Modelling cliff development in South Wales: Savigear reviewed. Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 28, 405-426. Kirkby, M.J., Naden, P.S., Burt, T.P. and Butcher, D.P. (1993) Computer Simulation in Physical Geography, 2nd edn. Wiley, Chichester. Marshall, J.U. (1985) Geography as a scientific enterprise. In Johnston, R.J. (ed.)

The Future of Geography. Methuen, London, pp. 113-128. Savigear, R.A.G. (1952) Some observations on slope development in South Wales.

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 18, 31-52. Schaefer, F. (1953) Exceptionalism in geography: a methodological examination.

Annals of the Association of American Geographers 43, 226-249. Sparks, B.W. (1960) Geomorphology. Longmans, Green & Co., London.

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