Michael R Curry

Geographers speak of themselves as being involved with 'theory' perhaps more than ever before. On the face of it, this seems both a simple matter and one that is obviously true. For most of us, hardly a day goes by in which we do not either hear, read, utter, or write the term. But here, as elsewhere, the very commonness of the term should raise a cautionary flag. And, indeed, if we reflect on our own use of the term, we see that it is routinely employed in a wide range of ways, ones that in many cases seem unrelated, or even contradictory.

My task here is not to delineate the proper use of the term 'theory', nor to describe how the term is in fact used, how theories are constructed, tested, and applied within the discipline of geography (see Chapter 15 in this volume by Graham). Rather, I shall concern myself here with the ways in which geographers have over the past 30 or so years developed an awareness of and interest in theory, and as a consequence of metathe-ory, of the very general features that are shared by, that underlie, or that ought to underlie different theories. But we shall see that if for a time it seemed as though metatheoretical analysis might lead geography on the path to a more conceptually integrated discipline, by the 1980s it had come to be challenged by the claim that the whole idea of a metatheory was merely an ideological construct, one that developed within and now supported a particular set of social formations. On this, sometimes termed a 'postmodern' view, the very idea of a coherent discipline was rejected, replaced instead by the view that we have, and can only have, many theories.

What follows will be in two parts. First, I will point to what is surely a central feature of geography, the ways in which we typically conceptualize the relationships between the world, how we know about it, and who we are. These ways of thinking about geography and geographical knowledge are so common that they are seldom commented upon; they are taken to be natural. Yet one can hardly make sense of the discipline without paying attention to the ways in which it is organized. Second, I shall show that the first way of thinking has been fundamental to a view in which geographical knowledge is a kind of edifice. On this view different approaches to geography may be sorted into types, and those types are differentiated in terms of their meto-theoretical features. Here we shall see that the attack on metatheory and the rise of an alternative understanding of the nature of geography emerge out of an increasing understanding of the extent to which all human knowledge (from the most mundane to the most abstruse) is a product of people situated in particular places at particular times. From this newer point of view, the very idea that anyone could take up a standpoint that would allow him or her to judge the differences between theories without at the same time appealing to and buying into a theory was sheer arrogance. From that point of view, we need to understand that we are all in the thick of things, making judgments about the world from a particular vantage point, from a place. This, in fact, has a further implication: this alternative way of thinking about geography and its parts suggests that the idea that geography will one day become a discipline unified by a web of well-articulated concepts and facts is simply a pipe-dream.

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