Theory provides a framework for our thinking but, even in the most positivist account of science, it is not something fixed and immovable. Indeed, the postmodern view of theorizing as a continuous process emphasizes the transitory, as well as situated, nature of theory. Even our best-regarded theories are only provisionally warranted and there is always the possibility that once-abandoned theories may influence future theorizing. Theories are imaginaries, creations of the human imagination, and constitutive of the way we understand the world. Rethinking theory thus changes our world/s and profoundly influences research practice. Without Darwin, the bones of past inhabitants of the Earth are not evidence for evolution. Without Marx, social (and spatial) inequalities lose their significance as outcomes of the internal logic of capitalism.
Debates about what counts as a theory, as we have seen, are debates about conventions that govern how theories are warranted - what is considered adequate evidence and argument, and how that evidence relates to the principal propositions of the theory itself. These conventions reflect how we understand 'observation', which is always more complex than a naive gathering of the 'facts'. Further, conventions are contested since they rest on epistemological and ontological assumptions that are matters of philosophical uncertainty. In geography, the apparent clash between those convinced of the materiality of the world beyond representation and those who emphasize the situatedness of all knowledges turns on a debate about what can be said to exist and how we can acquire knowledge of it, in which even this dualism is subject to critical scrutiny.
Theorizing requires contemplation, seeing connections in the otherwise messy world of human experience. In this sense, theorizing entails 'a view from afar', not from some Archimedian point but a reflexive self-distancing that encounters a tension between reaching beyond particularities and recognizing the diversity and difference of people and places (Gregory, 1994). Understanding nature/culture in all its variety is the life-blood of geographical research, for explaining difference and diversity is geography's raison d'etre (McDowell, 2002). Thus, the tension recognized by Gregory has particular resonance across our discipline. Theorizing requires a critical engagement with all these debates, and without theory geographers would have little of significance to say about the world.
essay questions and further reading
1 Do assumptions about the nature of theory in physical geography conflict with a recognition that geographical context matters? Spedding's (1997) argument for reinventing geomorphology provides some support for an affirmative answer. Ken Gregory (2000: Chapters 1, 3) summarizes recent (postpositivist?) developments in physical geography, as well as outlining the positivist approach in science. However, note the tension between the general and the particular reflected in the discussions of Hirschboeck (1999), Meadows (2001) and Hall et al. (2002). What assumptions do physical geographers make about the nature of theory? And how do they deal with geographical context? Massey (1999) takes the argument further by suggesting that both physical and human geographers should rethink their notions of 'science' and space-time.
2 Do postmodern views of diversity conflict with theories of social justice? Derek Gregory (1994: 203-205) poses a similar question. McDowell (2002) discusses the implications of understanding diversity as a problem of/for theory. Both are key readings. Rather different solutions to the apparent conflict are offered by Harvey (1996: Introduction and chapter 12) and Howitt and Suchet-Pearson (2003). Harvey approaches diversity and social justice from a Marxist point of view that emphasizes class relations, whereas Howitt and Suchet-Pearson explore the idea of 'situated engagement' from the stance of postcolonial cultural geography. Note the way in which answers to this question are embedded within wider theoretical understandings. David Smith
(2000: Chapter 10) considers the 'postmodern dilemma' within a broader discussion of a geographically sensitive ethics.
1 This response, though not indefensible, is unlikely to find favour among geographers, especially in the light of the close alliance between theory and explanation/understanding and the current enthusiasm for theorizing in some areas of human geography.
2 Physical geography may also be seen as dealing with open systems, raising similar questions about how theories can be 'tested'.
3 In Kuhn's view, paradigm shifts are rare occurrences. A paradigm is much more than a local theory. Newtonian physics is a paradigm, according to Kuhn, because it provided a broad picture of the world. However, Kuhn has been criticized for not offering a precise definition of the term.
4 The quotation from Hubbard et al. (2002) above demonstrates how difficult it is to embrace postmodernism wholeheartedly since the notion of a 'distorted' representation requires some external referent against which a representation can be compared.
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The Uses of Geography
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