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Geography as a science: a new research agenda

The then-established views regarding the nature of geography were set


out in two large volumes in the early 1950s: Geography in the
Twentieth Century (1951), edited by Griffith Taylor, and American
Geography: Inventory and Prospect (1954), edited by Preston James
and Clarence Jones. However, by then there was growing unease
in North America and the United Kingdom with the dominant
orientation of the discipline. It was seen as overemphasizing vertical
(or society-environment) relationships and largely ignoring the
horizontal (or spatial) relationships that characterized societies in
which movement and exchange were so important. Geographers, it
was argued, should pay more attention to spatial organization of
economic, social, and political activities across the environmental
backdrops. Too much effort was spent, as George Kimble expressed it,
drawing boundaries that don’t exist around areas that don’t matter…from the air it is the links
in the landscape that impress the observer, not the boundaries.

Studies of areal functional organization were inaugurated, both for


their intrinsic interest and because of their value; one pioneer, Robert
Dickinson, argued that functional regions around towns and cities
should be used to define regional and local government areas.

There was also a growing belief that the methods for defining regions
were out of line with the scientific approaches characterizing
other disciplines. Some felt that geographers had not contributed well
to the war effort: Edward A. Ackerman, a professor of geography at
the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1955 (and later head of the
Carnegie Foundation), claimed that those working in the U.S.
government’s intelligence service had only a weak understanding of
their material and portrayed them as “more or less amateurs in the
subjects on which they published.” He argued that geographers should
follow not only the natural sciences but also most of the social sciences
and should adopt more-rigorous research procedures.

Although there were moves in those directions in a number of places,


the arguments were focused in 1953 by a paper in the

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prestigious Annals of the Association of American Geographers that
strongly criticized what Ackerman called the “Hartshornian [i.e.,
regional] orthodoxy.” Kurt Schaefer, a German-trained geographer at
the University of Iowa, argued that science is characterized by its
explanations. These involve laws, or generalized statements of
observed regularities, that identify cause-and-effect relationships.
According to Schaefer, “to explain the phenomena one has described
means always to recognize them as instances of laws”; for him the
major regularities that geographers study relate to spatial patterns
(the horizontal relationships identified above), and so “geography has
to be conceived as the science concerned with the formulation of the
laws governing the spatial distribution of certain features on
the earth’s surface.”

Schaefer codified what an increasing number of geographers were


thinking, identifying a need for a major reorientation of—if not
revolution in—its practices. The main thrusts occurred elsewhere. One
of the most influential early centres was the University of
Washington in Seattle, led by William Garrison and Edward Ullman.
Their students, such as Brian Berry, William Bunge, Richard Morrill,
and Waldo Tobler, became leading protagonists of the new geography,
which rapidly spread to other universities in the United States, such as
Northwestern, Chicago, and Ohio State in Columbus. It soon reached
the United Kingdom, with initial centres at Cambridge and Bristol.

Much inspiration for these shifts came from economists, sociologists,


and other social scientists, who were developing theories of spatial
organization and using quantitative methods to test their hypotheses.
The human geographers who followed their lead promoted in their
practices what became known as the “quantitative and theoretical
revolution.” So too did physical geographers, who, for example,
switched their focus from simply describing landforms to searching for
scientific explanations of how they were created.

Three main arguments underpinned this paradigm shift in


geographical practice. The first was that geography should become
more scientifically rigorous, adopting the experimental science model
(positivism) already in use by economists. The goal included deductive

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reasoning, which led to hypothesis testing with the goal of producing
explanatory laws. The second was that such rigour required
quantitative methods to provide precise descriptions and exact,
reproducible research findings—unequivocal lawlike statements.
Finally, with such a shift in disciplinary practices, the applied value of
geographical work would be appreciated—in, for example,
environmental and city and regional planning. Geography should be
the science of spatial arrangements and environmental processes.
Success in this promotion of geography as a science was crucial in
winning recognition for the discipline in the United States from
the National Science Foundation in the 1960s, initially as part of a
Geography and Regional Science Program.

The success of those promoting change was assisted by the expansion


of higher education. More students were going to colleges and
universities, and new institutions were being founded. More
geographers were needed to teach the subject, and many of those who
were recruited preferred the novel approaches. The “revolutions” were
to a considerable extent generational. The larger number of practicing
geographers also precluded a small number of individuals imposing
their views on the discipline; instead, there was encouragement to
experiment and explore new topics and approaches. Furthermore,
universities were increasingly emphasizing their research as well as
teaching roles, and the new generations of geographers were more
active as researchers than their predecessors. So more was done by
more people, leading to greater specialization. Soon geography
increasingly fragmented into specialist subdisciplines.

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