Attempting to make sense of the theoretical choices within geography is never easy. This is all the more so because it was only very recently, the 1970s, that geographers began to engage in a discourse that appealed to some of the common distinctions that had been at the centre of debate in the philosophy of science, and then the philosophies of the social sciences and of history. In part, for that reason, attempts to connect the literature in geography with that elsewhere are always more difficult than they would otherwise be. One can, nonetheless, look at the theoretical positions adduced in the 1970s and 1980s and see individuals and groups as having taken stands in favour, say, of individualism over holism, or in favour of seeing science as neutral, rather than as expressive of particular values. To do so is to engage in a metatheoretical inquiry.
But in the 1980s, under the banner of postmodernism, some geographers in effect denied the relevance or importance of metatheoretical inquiry. They did so by claiming that the metatheoretical enterprise was in fact not an inquiry into a set of permanent and timeless categories - as had been argued within the philosophies of science and the social sciences - but was instead an artifact of a particular era, the modern era, from which we were in the process of emerging. One needed, they countered, to look at the world, and people's accounts of the world, as always expressing a particular point of view, as always situated. If for many who pressed the metatheoretical approach it was possible to imagine a science without an author, a science that emerged from an interplay between the world and a modest witness, for the postmodernists there was always, in a sense, an author - though that did not mean that the author had control of the text.
In this piece I have described the move from modernist to postmodernist geographies as one in which metanarrative attempted to vanquish metatheory. If scholars differ in their judgements of the success of that undertaking, it is surely true that it has as a consequence become increasingly difficult to maintain the modernist view that some day science will fulfil its destiny and become unified.
Although it does seem clear to me that the fulfilment of this dream of a unified science - or even a unified geography - has become increasingly difficult to count on, it is only fair to note that for many geographers, and others, the idea of a modernist science and the belief in the utility of metatheoretical analyses remain very real indeed.
In a sense, we see here a battle between those who believe in the primacy of conceptual analyses and those who believe in the primacy of historical analyses. How might we adjudicate that dispute? In a set of provocative pieces in the 1960s and 1970s philosopher Louis Mink (e.g. Mink, 1978) argued that there can be no adjudication. Rather, he argued, we live in a world in which there really are three main types of intellectual discourse, philosophy (or conceptual analysis), history (or narrative analysis), and science (or causal analysis). As Mink saw the matter, each attempts to comprehend the others; there is a philosophy of science and a philosophy of history, a history of science and of philosophy, and even a science of philosophy (cognitive science or psychology) and of history (perhaps sociology, or even economics). If each claims primacy over the others, none can in fact establish that primacy without making assumptions that the others would not make.2
This to some is an intellectually appealing position, but it remains one that for many is emotionally unsatisfying. Just as to many people metatheoretical analyses retain their power, so to others does the postmodern idea that today's science, too, will pass, and the idea that one must be more true than the other. What does seem likely is that the ideals of a science unified through a universal theory will continue to come up against those forces - including the desire for a unified discipline3 - that foster the demotion of theory into theories.
essay question and further reading
If we believe that there cannot be a unified, theoretical geography, but rather can only be a series of stories and voices, does it make sense to talk about progress within geography? Here consider the essays in Sack (2002), especially those by Vale, a biogeographer, and Lowenthal, a historical geographer. See also Bassett (1999). How do these authors deal with the issues raised by Michael Dear (1988) and Trevor Barnes (1996)?
1 This view, that there is something 'beyond' modernism, was not entirely new. By the 1970s architects had begun to develop a family of styles that they termed 'postmodern', and social theorists like Jürgen Habermas had begun to explore the concept at around the same time (Habermas, 1981). But drawing on influential works by Fredric Jameson (1984) and Lyotard (1984), geographers in the late 1980s began systematically to explore the concept (see Dear, 1988; Harvey, 1989; Soja, 1989).
2 Mink here echoes a similar claim made in 1917 by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who in an article on 'The Superorganic', claimed that anthropology and history share a method, of looking directly at phenomena, while science always involves looking past the phenomena, with an eye to underlying processes.
3 Note that the idea of a unified discipline resonates with the romantic idea that one might bring together into some larger social and moral whole the isolated, modern, individual scientist (Tinder, 1986).
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The Practice of Geography
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