Whats in a Name The Vicissitudes of Science in Geography

It's no accident that many geographers have called the discipline a 'science' since its late nineteenth-century inception. The word is not simply an innocent description of a particular set of intellectual practices and principles. It is a highly loaded term that has been used to deliberate effect by those who are 'for' and 'against' it. The key to the word's power is that it is uniquely associated with the ideals of truth, objectivity and accuracy. As Alan Chalmers (1990:1) put it: 'scientific knowledge is [seen as] proven knowledge'. However, there are different routes to 'proven knowledge' and different geographers have offered their preferred versions of 'science' in order to out-flank other ways of doing geography. Rhetorically, the word has thus been a useful weapon that geographers have wielded in response to pressures emanating from outside the discipline and as a means of effecting intellectual change within the discipline. The term performs 'boundary work', dividing scientific 'insiders' from supposedly lesser non-scientific 'outsiders' (Gieryn, 1983). Let me explain.


In most Western countries, geography did not exist as a teaching and research subject in the mid-nineteenth century. What was then called 'geography' was a hotchpotch of mostly factual information, a good deal of it the result of European ventures into Africa, Asia and the Americas. Though useful in the service of colonialism, this information was largely banal and descriptive: it amounted to an exhaustive catalogue, captured in books and maps, of soils, climate, resources, land-forms, cultural practices, and the like. What is more, with the era of colonial conquest coming to an end by the late nineteenth century, geography's continued existence was by no means secure. Geography's early proselytizers - like Mackinder and A.J. Herbertson in Britain, and William Morris Davis in the USA - thus wanted to put this nascent subject on a firmer intellectual footing. They dubbed the new school and university discipline they sought to create a 'science', partly in order to align it with prestigious disciplines in the 'natural sciences' such as chemistry and geology. These were empirical subjects whose raison d'etre was the scrupulous study of the material world so that its true workings could be revealed. The people who studied these subjects had made a succession of profound discoveries about nature's inner workings. Their reward was the admission of these subjects onto school curricula and their recognition as university disciplines at a time when Western governments were expanding their educational and research base. Geography, in seeking to emulate this success, was to find its academic niche as that science which studied two related things: namely, human-environment relationships and regional differences. Like other sciences, geographical knowledge was to be the product not of dogma, not of opinion, not of mysticism, not of theology, nor of metaphysical beliefs: instead, it was to be the objective result of careful observation (accurate description and classification) with a view to explaining how the material realities of people, environment and region came to be. As the President of the Royal Geographical Society put it, 'by applying thought to the facts . . . observed, we seek . . . for the causes of which the observed phenomena are the result, and the conclusions thus obtained constitute science' (Strachey, 1888: 149).

The first professional university geographers (working from the 1890s onwards) tended to understand the term 'science' in what we would nowadays call a vernacular fashion. That is, they operated with a nontechnical and non-specific definition of science similar to the dictionary definition mentioned earlier. Use of the term was simply a means to make a broad distinction between geography and other evidence-based fields of study, on the one hand, and the arts and humanities on the other. For example, in one of the great geographical works of the mid-century, Richard Hartshorne's The Nature of Geography (1939), the author made frequent and casual reference to geography as a science in the sense that the knowledge the discipline produces is 'distinct from either common-sense knowledge or from artistic and intuitive knowledge' and aspires to be 'as accurate and certain as possible' (ibid.: 343). But beyond this, the book says little of substance about science, with Hartshorne even admitting at one point that he 'would gladly us[e]... some other term than ''science'' ' if one could be found.

Geography as a spatial science

The precursor to a more sustained and serious attempt to make geography a science was the Second World War. Many geographers were drafted into the military and intelligence services and quickly found that their knowledge and skills were found wanting. Before the war, school and university geography - in the English-speaking countries at least -was a rather dilettantish subject. Geographers tended to be generalists rather than specialists. They were trained to know a bit about everything from meteorology to transportation patterns as these things combined in different regions. But this training was inadequate to the demands of fighting a war where precise, in-depth analysis of accurate information was required. As the American geographer Edward Ackerman reflected in 1945, the war had exposed geographers as 'more-or-less amateurs in the subject on which they published' (1945: 124), with one later commentator indicting the pre-war discipline's 'bumbling amateurism and anti-quarianism' (Gould, 1979: 140). Indeed, soon after Ackerman wrote, Harvard University president James Conant insisted that 'geography is not a university subject' (Livingstone, 1992: 311) and Harvard's geography programme was closed down.

The stage was set for a major shake-up in the practice of geography. And this shake-up was undertaken in the name of making geography a 'real science'. If the discipline was to contribute, through its research and teaching, to the rebuilding of war-torn societies, it needed to be scientific in more than the minimal sense claimed by Hartshorne and his predecessors. This more scientific geography would embrace three related things: namely, what is sometimes called the 'scientific world-view', a standard investigative procedure (the so-called 'scientific method'), and a desire to carefully measure, using statistics and other quantitative techniques, geographical phenomena. In short, geography would mimic, not just the general ideals of the natural sciences - namely the quest for truthful knowledge of the material world - but also the whole apparatus of beliefs and practices that made that quest possible. Later we will see that this first serious attempt to make geography a science fell short of many of its ideals, at least according to its critics. But in the late 1950s and through to the early 1970s a whole generation of human and physical geographers became thoroughly enthralled with the idea of making geography a 'spatial science'. After germinal papers by the American geologist Arthur Strahler (1952) and geographer Fredrick Schaefer (1953), as well as the inspiration from studies of spatial diffusion by the Swedish geographer Torsten Hagerstrand, a string of manifesto-like books followed: these included William Bunge's Theoretical Geography (1962), two books by the young British geographers Richard Chorley and Peter Hag-gett (Frontiers in Geographical Teaching [1965] and Models in Geography [1967]), Haggett's Locational Analysis in Human Geography (1965), David Harvey's Explanation in Geography (1969) and, in the USA, Richard Morrill's The Spatial Organization of Society (1970) and Adams, Abler and Gould's Spatial Organization (1971). Certain geography departments rapidly became known for their scientific research in human and physical geography, notably those at the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, Washington, Cambridge and Bristol. As PhD students graduated from these departments, they went on to spread the scientific gospel in other universities where old-style geography still prevailed. In less than a decade the result was a 'scientific and quantitative revolution' (Burton, 1963) in Anglophone geography. Some 60 years after the modern discipline's founders had first deliberately appropriated the term 'science' to describe their subject, a new generation of geographers used it in a different, more substantive way in order to persuade outside bodies (such as governments) that geography was a 'serious' and 'useful' subject, and also to effect intellectual change within the discipline.

Spatial science under attack

Yet their victory, if one can call it that, was relatively short-lived. From the early 1970s the idea that geography could be a spatial science came under attack, not only by those who were never fans in the first place but also by several of its former advocates. The criticisms were, for the most part, made by human geographers who questioned whether their side of the discipline could be a 'social science'. Chief among them was David Harvey, whose Social Justice and the City (1973) paved the way for Marxist geography. At the same time, figures such as David Ley, Yi-Fu Tuan and Anne Buttimer pioneered what became known as humanistic geography. It is not necessary for us to examine these two approaches here (interested readers should consult the relevant chapters in Peet, 1999). What's important is that both turned the label 'science' to their own specific ends. For Harvey and several other Marxist geographers, the problem was not that human geography couldn't be scientific but that the particular version of science expounded in the 1960s (sometimes called 'positivism') was deeply flawed. In other words, they argued for a different kind of scientific human geography to that which Harvey and his generation had advocated in the previous decade. They did so because positivism, in their view, failed to correctly explain the world it claimed to objectively analyse. What is more, it became clear by the early 1970s that many of the scientific geographers had been researching what seemed to be rather trivial topics - like the optimal location of supermarkets. In an era of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, labour unrest and student revolts, Marxists (and other so-called 'radical geographers') argued for approaches that would properly analyse the key issues of the time - such as developing world debt, environmental degradation and inner city poverty.

Yet others remained unconvinced, though equally resistant to positivism. For them any substantive attempt to make human geography 'scientific' was problematic from the start. Humanistic geographers argued that while scientific approaches might be appropriate for studying the material world of rivers and manufacturing industries, they were wholly inappropriate for exploring the 'lifeworlds' of sentient human beings. These geographers argued that there was a need to comprehend people's complex attachments to place and local environment. Such a comprehension came from an empathetic engagement with one's research subjects via in-depth interviews, focus groups, ethnographic immersion and other qualitative methods. What this meant was that 'science' was something of a dirty word when it came to researching the humans in human geography. Though humanistic geographers had few reservations about the vernacular definition of science, they strongly questioned whether the two substantive versions championed in the 1960s and from the early 1970s were valid approaches in human geography. They were, in effect, anti-science on the grounds that human geographers should seek to understand and interpret different people's thoughts and feelings rather than try to explain their actions as if they could be encompassed within some over-arching law, theory or model.

While these human geographic debates unfolded, physical geography continued to work broadly within the model of science laid down in the 1960s. This is not to say that physical geographers rigidly applied this model. On the contrary, through trial-and-error, and by engaging with new philosophical and methodological developments in the physical sciences, these geographers adapted it to the practical imperatives of researching complex and dynamic physical systems (see, for example, Haines-Young and Petch, 1986). But these modifications notwithstanding, physical geographers in the 1970s and 1980s never criticized science as deeply as some of their human geography colleagues did. Since then they have continued to modify their research practices and are still, for the most part, happy to label their field a science (witness Richards' quotation at the start of this chapter). One can speculate on why there has been a continued faith in the scientific nature of the physical half of geography. For one thing, the whole idea of science is still very much associated with the natural sciences, and physical geography, like those sciences, studies the natural world. At the same time, physical geographers have long had to compete with geologists, chemists, biologists and physicists for research funding. In order to do this effectively it has been important for these geographers to convince their rivals that their discipline is a 'proper science'. Not to label their field a science would, quite simply, give out all the wrong signals. Meanwhile, not all (perhaps only a few) human geographers today use the word science when describing their research for reasons I stated in my introduction.

In this section I have traced some of the changing ways in which the word 'science' has been appropriated and rejected by human and physical geographers. I have done so in order to show how rhetorically powerful this word has been and also to set the scene for the substantive discussion of science that will now follow. What my all-too-simple (indeed caricatured) history has shown is that geographers have, since the discipline's foundation, used the term 'science' in quite calculated ways. Though the word's meanings have changed, what has remained constant is its strategic use by geographers to respond to outside pressures and to instigate internal disciplinary change.

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