On Metatheory

Like members of other disciplines, geographers have routinely felt it necessary to define their discipline, and to differentiate it from others; but in the 1960s this process of definition became increasingly one of redefinition, as the question 'What is geography?' seemed to take on a new urgency. For some time a standard answer had been that geography was the study of the way in which the earth is divided into different regions (Hartshorne, 1939). But a new generation of geographers claimed that this was an old-fashioned view, one that went with an old-fashioned world. From their point of view, geographers needed to recognize that geography needed to become a science, rather than the descriptive enterprise laid out in Freeman and Raup's illustration in Figure 10.2; and they needed to recognize that this required that it become theoretical. It was not enough to describe the economic or biological phenomena on the earth's surface; one needed to develop means for explaining them theoretically.

Although there has over the years been a tremendous amount of discussion and discord among philosophers and historians of science about just what a theory is, geographers in the 1960s by and large sidestepped that work and adopted a simple and pragmatic definition. Elaborated in classic works like David Harvey's Explanation in Geography (1969) and William Bunge's Theoretical Geography (1962), it was often drawn from work in related fields, such as economics. On this view, a theoretical geography needed to be one that started from observations gathered from the world ('I see an object with these characteristics', where the objects might be a person, a plant, or a body of water). These observations were then categorized ('All of these bodies of water are perennial streams', or 'All of these individuals are recent immigrants'). And the relations among those types of objects were captured in an abstract structure, so 'The streambeds of perennial streams are all alike in these ways, because of these factors,' or 'All immigrants go through these phases as they become permanent residents of a new place'). Finally, the theory itself, a structure of abstractions describing the relationships among various sorts of objects, can be tested against new observations. Although theories need not be mathematical, when geographers spoke of the need for theory, they very often meant that geography needed to be quantitative, that it ought to use statistical methods (such as the calculation of means or of regression coefficients), or that the theories themselves needed to be in the form of mathematical structures (as in the gravity model, where I = dnpi p2).

From the point of view of its advocates, only by adopting the use of theory could one begin to make connections among the work of people in other subdisciplines and other disciplines. Moreover, the turn to theory was necessary because of the state of the world - the old world of regions was fading and being replaced by a new spatial world in which goods and people and ideas were increasingly mobile; because of the state of knowledge - which was increasingly interconnected; and because of the state of academic and scientific disciplines - where to remain a traditional descriptive discipline was to risk obscurity and death. Geography needed to be spatial, theoretical, and integrated with other sciences.

Although in the 1960s and 1970s geographers did not use the term 'metatheory', in retrospect, these arguments were just that, metatheore-tical arguments. Here, as elsewhere, the term 'meta' refers to that which is beyond or above. For example, metaphysics in a sense steps back from physics, and looks broadly at what physics is, at its structure and presuppositions (or, in contemporary usage, looks at the limits or possibilities of existence). Similarly, a 'metatheory' is a theory about theory; it sorts, characterizes, and explains theories according to their structures or goals.

There are others, but in geography special attention was at that point given to three metatheoretical divides. First, from a metatheoretical point of view, one might distinguish between theories that attempt to describe the world as it is, and ones that create abstract images of the constituents of the world, and model the behaviour of those constituents. So in the first case one would have theories that take the flows of industrial commodities and using statistical methods describe their interrelations; in the second case, one might ask about the decisions that a purely rational and all-knowing individual would make about what to ship where and in what way. In a way, the first models the real, the second the ideal. And indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, one major criticism levelled by younger geographers was the metatheoretical argument that geography was 'stuck' in the real, while science operated by peeling back everyday appearances in order to discern the ideal structure that lies behind.

We see just this argument in the famous Hartshorne-Schaefer dispute, as discussed by Castree and Burt in Chapters 4 and 7. There, newcomer Fred Schaefer (1953) took on Richard Hartshorne, whose book The Nature of Geography (1939) was seen by many as a kind of grand summation of the discipline. Schaefer argued that far from doing the right thing badly, Hartshorne was doing the wrong thing entirely. He claimed that no one ought to be doing regional geography in the way that Hartshorne had been doing it, and that geographers ought instead to be engaging in work that sees the fundamental geographical unit as the individual person or object, and that sees interrelationships among those elements as definable in abstract and mathematical and spatial terms.

Many of the advocates of the view that geography ought to be a spatial science held that one of the failings of traditional geography lay in its inability to be objective, in its overt introduction into geography of evaluative or normative notions. But others in this era championed the introduction of such values. Works as otherwise different as Anne Butti-mer's Values in Geography (1974) and David Harvey's Social Justice and the City (1973) took issue with quantitative and spatial geography's claim that values ought to be excised from geography, and argued that all science ought to make explicit the ways in which it incorporates and promotes particular sets of values. So a second metatheoretical divide was between accounts whose goal is to describe the way in which the world works, and those that are normative, describing the ways in which the world should and could work.

In the 1970s there emerged what one might term a counter-revolution against the new, spatial and theoretical, geography. There, humanistic geographers began to argue that geography was not about - or at least, not simply about - region and space, but rather about place (Tuan, 1974; Relph, 1976). This counter-revolution was typically non-theoretical; it shared that with earlier regional geographers. But in another way it claimed that both older regional geographers and newer spatial geographers were off the mark; it argued that central to understanding the workings of the world is not the way the world is - in either the descriptive way advocated by regional geographers or the theoretical way championed by the new spatial scientists. Drawing on works by scholars like Max Weber, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Peter Winch, it argued that one needs to begin, at least in the human side of the discipline, with an understanding that people act not on the basis of how the world is, but rather on the basis of how they believe the world to be. This was the third divide, between those who believed that one could in principle discover -or create - knowledge that was from a God's-eye point of view, and those who believed that everything that we know and might know is inexorably the product of human thought, perception, and action.

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