GG3012 (NS) Lecture 3:

The rise and fall of Regional Geography (c. 1920 to c. 1960)

(Aka: Hartshorne vs. Schaefer; ‘Regional’ vs. ‘Systematic’ Geography; ‘Idiographic’ vs. ‘Nomothetic’ Geography)


Between the two World Wars Anglo-American Geography was forced once again to re-invent itself to try to uphold its status as a credible university subject. Its position as the science of Empire was of little use at a time when the empires of the major powers were in decline, with debate increasingly focused on internal issues, such as urban poverty and unemployment. With the demise of environmental determinism Geography lacked a ‘big idea’; as a result it lost ground to emergent, ‘scientific’ and ‘relevant’ disciplines such as economics, sociology, meteorology and engineering hydrology.

Geography’s strategic response in the 1920s and 1930s was, with hindsight, little short of disastrous. Forced to choose for itself a new tradition, (Anglo-American) Geography set itself up as the science of areal differentiation: the study of what and why it is which makes certain places similar, and other places different, which enables us to define/distinguish between regions. This idea prioritised the survey/fieldwork tradition within Geography: the emphasis on a subject led by ‘hard facts’ (‘empiricism’, if perhaps not quite ‘positivism’ - see next lecture) supposedly guaranteed a scientific programme distinct from what were now seen as the embarrassing mystical speculations of environmental determinism.

This new identity did not convince. Although briefly popular, thanks to the influence of powerful figures such as Hartshorne and Sauer, many people, both within and without Geography, refused to accept its scientific pretensions. As the enthusiasm/demand for academics to pursue relevant and useful science grew, regional geography increasingly came across as an anachronistic, overly-descriptive subject of little practical use. The advocates of Geography as spatial science gathered their weapons, and prepared to attack...


Useful quotey bits:

Botany is the study of plants, and geology that of rocks, because these categories of fact are evident to all intelligence that has concerned itself with the observation of nature. In the same sense, area or landscape is the field of geography, because it is a naively given, important section of reality, not a sophisticated thesis. Geography assumes the responsibility for the study of areas because there exists a common curiosity about the subject. The fact that every school child knows that geography provides information about different countries is enough to establish the validity of such a definition...

...the objects which exist together in the landscape exist in interrelation. We assert that they constitute a reality as a whole that is not expressed by a consideration of the constituent parts separately, that area has form, structure and function, and hence position in a system, and that it is subject to development, change and completion. Without this view of areal reality and relation, there exist only special disciplines, not geography as generally understood. The situation is analogous to that of history, which may be divided among economies, government, sociology, and so on; but when this is done, the result is not history.


The morphology of landscape



The synoptic, comparative view of phenomena, the carefully cultivated habit of seeing woods rather than trees... the geographical method is an indispensable road to truth, different from, but supplementary to that pursued by the analytical sciences...


The geographer as scientist



…regional geographers may perhaps be trying to put boundaries that do not exist around areas that do not matter...


The inadequacy of the regional concept



It would be good if we could again approach the earth with unhampered curiosity and attempt to satisfy that curiosity by whatever means the problems we encounter suggest. In particular, we should discard a restriction that has long been laid upon us: the prohibition of concern with processes. Let processes be restored to the central position they deserve: physical processes in physical geography, historical processes in cultural geography. Let us resume the fresh and frank quest that Hinman announced nearly seventy years ago: "to trace the operation of the laws of nature upon the earth". The land, the sky and the water confront us with questions whenever we look at them with open eyes. These questions, and the privilege of sharing in the quest of answers to them, are part of our birthright.


What has happened to physical geography?



The present conditions of the field indicate a stage of development, well known from other social sciences, which finds most geographers still busy with classifications rather than looking for laws. We know that classification is the first step in any kind of systematic work. But when the other steps, which naturally follow, are not taken, and classifications become the end of scientific investigation, then the field becomes sterile...

...It seems to me that as long as geographers cultivate its systematic aspects, geography’s prospects as a discipline of its own are good indeed... I am not so optimistic in case geography should reject the search for laws, exalt its regional aspects for its own sake and thus limit itself more and more to mere description.


Exceptionalism in geography



I was, and still am, excited by Schaefer. Now you may present me with formal proofs (1) that all German geographers are deaf, dumb and unable to write and (2) that Schaefer was cruel to little children, and I would still be excited by Schaefer. Excited simply because Schaefer seemed to know in some crude way of the world of science of which geography is a part.




...mid-twentieth century geography formalised the ideals of its Victorian forebears... The concern with the discovery of general laws, or at least with the formulation and verification of particular theories, was an important one because it indicated that the methods by which other sciences had secured intellectual recognition might work for geography as well. What was more, those methods appeared to provide an essential technical foundation for the elaboration of private and public policy. Geography could now prescribe ‘the optimum means of achieving a given set of social objectives’, so that more research funds could be attracted from corporations and the state itself. In short, the Victorian Pantheon was refurbished.


Ideology, Science and Human Geography





Big words of the week:

A bit of a cop-out here! I have not tried to define terms, but have set terms up against each other as a series of dichotomies. These encapsulate the rhetoric of the spatial science school: I have tried to set the list out so that (relatively) neutral terms appear at the top, and give way to increasingly value-laden terms towards the foot of the list. Dichotomies such as these inevitably mis-represent the two opposed positions, but it was (and is) what people were prepared to believe which was important. Further details of the debate can be found by looking up appropriate words in The Dictionary of Human Geography (which tries to provide a balanced view), as well as in the reading.

Big idea of the week:

THE TWO CULTURES. This was the title of a public lecture given in 1959 by the prominent scientist and novelist C. P. Snow, which gave rise to intense debate in academic circles, and received widespread international attention - largely because its central argument captured the ‘spirit-of-the-age’. Snow’s theme was the usefulness or otherwise of different academic, and their related social, traditions. Snow identified two distinct cultures (yet another dichotomy for you to think over!): that of the ARTS (or the "literary intellectuals") and that of the SCIENCES. Snow saw the sciences as a powerful force for social and economic change, whereas he saw the arts as anachronistic, self-indulgent, and pretty much useless. Confronted with major issues such as poverty, the scientist got up and did something about it; the artist locked himself away in his ivory tower, and wrote a book celebrating the nobility of such suffering! Snow’s message was clear: faced with the realities and demands of the modern, post-war world (he had first thought of entitling his lecture The Rich and the Poor), science was the way to go.


Key reading

Once again, Livingstone provides perhaps the best single summary. You may as well read the whole of Ch. 9 while you’re at it, as the rest will be recommended key reading for the next lecture on the ‘Quantitative Revolution’. The three pages taken from the introduction to Part IV of the ALR volume provide as good a summary of the wider social and political context as you will find. Johnston’s book provides an alternative source of information - probably rather easier to read than David Livingstone.


Supplementary reading

For the old:

Sauer’s paper sets out his vision of how geography should be done, by which he hopes to establish a new identity and prestige for the discipline. In short, he advocates a framework of study designed to elucidate the inter-relationships of certain phenomena within a selected area (region) by means of fieldwork conducted according to certain preconceived categories. Wooldridge (prominent British geomorphologist; adherent of Davisian denudation chronologies) offers a (not that different) view from physical geography. His lecture is less rigorous than Sauer’s in that it does not specify rules which are to dictate how to do geography. Unlike Sauer, he admits the possibility that valid geography may be conducted along systematic lines, but claims nevertheless that this still involves some kind of mystical geographic content based on "spatial context". What this is exactly is not clear: to my reading, Wooldridge, anxious to distance the discipline from the ‘traditional’ sciences, seems to offer little other than blind faith in the descriptive synthesis of data arranged in space. If you’re interested, you can read and decide for yourself...


For the new:

Schaefer’s classic paper is a methodological attack on regional geography - effectively it is a manifesto for a switch to an explicit law-seeking approach to geography. Kimble’s paper questions the relevance of the region as a framework for substantive research - he argues the region is a fictional entity of little value to geographers seeking to come to terms with the modern world.


The wider context:

Harvey, writing from a Marxist perspective, argues that the post-war success of geography relates to its role as a servant of the ‘corporate state’. The evolving post-war capitalist structure required some means by which it could legitimise its intrinsic spatial inequalities; geography was able to provide explanations of such inequalities, supposedly in terms of ‘natural’ laws, and so took its chance (i.e. sold out!) to establish itself as a secure academic discipline which attracted prestige and research funding. You need not accept in full Harvey’s political argument, but the message that the ‘new’ geography was in the right place, at the right time, with a seductive range of new ideas to play with, is appealing.


This week’s useful add-on:

So - did the character of Geography really change? Here is list of Aberdeen thesis titles, the first batch taken from the years prior to 1953, the second taken from the Class of 1973. The choice of 1973 is not entirely arbitrary - I assume that 20 years represents sufficient time for the full impact of the ‘Schaefer Revolution’ - if, indeed, such a thing did occur - to make itself felt on undergraduate teaching. You may draw your own conclusions; however, to my mind, the switch from the traditional regional monograph to more specialised studies - particularly case studies designed to illustrate certain issues in systematic geography (housing, transport, population, glacial geomorphology...) - is clear. If nothing else, thesis titles certainly became longer!


Department of Geography, University of Aberdeen




Mainland of Orkney

Dee Valley and Bordering Uplands

The Basin of the Middle Don

The Upper Deveron and its Tributaries


The Lower Don Valley, Volumes 1-3 (!)

The Urban Communities of West North America

Northern Banffshire

Southern Kincardineshire

Tanganyika Territory


The Drainage Basin of the Southern Esk

The French Canadian Population

Trinidad, British West Indies




Some Aspects of the Geography of Jersey

The Maltese Islands


Upper Deeside - a Regional Study

The Geographical Background of the District of Lochaber

North-West Caithness

The Development of the Fife Coalfield

Badenoch - a Geographical Study

Climate and Present-Day Agriculture of French Morocco

Burmese Economic Progress

Historical Geography of South Essex

The Dry Zone of Ceylon

The Garioch

The Atholl Basin

The Niagara Peninsula

Some Aspects of the Geography of Bombay

The Dee Estuary

The Black Isle

The Development of Calcutta

Village Urban Development on the North-East Coast of Scotland

Some Aspects of the Economic Purposes of the Lower Donside

Cornwall - Land Utilisation

The Parish of Calstock

The Upper Forth Valley


Some Aspects of the Economic Development of The Soar Valley

The Caledonian Canal

The Middle Eden Basin - Fife


Singapore - the Island

The Aberdeen White Fish Industry

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and Iran

East Stirlingshire

An Appreciation of the Geography of the Burgh of Arbroath

Montrose - a Town Survey


The Economy of Shetland

The Eastern Gebel-el-Akdar of Cyrenaica

North of the Sands (Barrow Area)

The Problems of the Parish of Barvas - Lewis

Lower Moray

The Port of Aberdeen

Romney Marsh



The Moray Lowlands - a Study of Livestock Movements

Aspects of the Evolution of the Rural Landscape in West Oxfordshire Before 1036

Post-War Changes in the Fife Fishing Industry

A Study of the Industrial Transport System of Aberdeen

The Analysis of Vegetation Distribution and Contributing Environmental Factors on Mount Blair, Glenshee

An Impact Assessment of the Moray Air Stations

A Study of the Changing Form and Function of a Shopping Centre

A Comparative Cost and Locational Analysis of the Ravenscraig and Proposed Hunterston Steel Complexes

The Tourist Industry of the City of Aberdeen

Milk Bottle Trippages in the Glasgow Area

Land Use in Glenesk

Factors and Problems Influencing Land Use in a Marginal Area - A Case Study of the Parish of Keith

Deglaciation of the Moray Firth Coastlands - a Reappraisal

The General Geomorphology of Upper Annandale

The Parish of Tarbat

The Evolution and Morphology of the Central Area of Aberdeen

Socio-Economic Effects of Forestry on Arran

Coll - an Island Study

The Container Berth, Taking Grangemouth Docks as an Example

Aspects of Tourism in the Oban Area

Changes in Shetland’s Development

Residential Housing Patterns in Stuttgart

Texture and Geometry of Talus

Tourism and the Environment. Skye - Case Study

Patterns of Recreational Land Use in Forests - a Study of Two Forest Walks

Aspects of Erosion and Mass Movement on Peat Slopes in South Harris

Aspects of the Spatial Organisation of the Trinidad Sugar Industry

Sheep and Cattle Movement Patterns Within the Catchment Area of Stirling Livestock Market

Romford, Essex: Transport Development and Suburban Growth

Administrative Boundaries - a Case Study

Some Aspects of the Post-War Population Explosion at Waterton

Service Centres in Caithness

The Analysis of the Patterns of Functional Location in Part of the North-East of Scotland

The Aberdeenshire Canal. A Study in Transport History

The Post-War Development of the Fishing Industry in Lossiemouth, Buckie and Macduff Districts

Industrial Estates in West Fife

Urban Residential Patterns in the City of Perth, 1972

Drumchapel and Anniesland Cross: a Study in Shopping Patterns

The Grey Areas: A Spatial Study in Social Polarisation in the City of Aberdeen

Tourism in Shetland

Cawdor - a Rural Parish - its Evolution and Patterns

Land Use and Economy in the Historical Geography of the Burgh of Macduff

Evolutionary Study of an Island’s Agricultural Economy - Shapinsay

Suburban Residential Growth in Relation to Transport Development - a Case Study: Glasgow 1850-1940

Aspects of Rural-Urban Migration in Aberdeenshire

Transport in Speyside

The Development of Housing in Maidstone, Kent

Population Migration in Easter Ross

Raised Beaches and Periglacial Processes in West Spitsbergen

The North Minch - the Post-War Fishing Industry

Changing Trends in the Kinlochbervie Area

Glen Lyon - Land Use in a Marginal Area: the Socio-Economic Problems

Public Perception of Environmental Quality in the Nigg Bay Area, Easter Ross

The Impact of Rural Bus Service Provision Upon Essential and Inessential Movement Patterns: a Study of Villages in East Lothian

The Movement of the Town Centre of the City of Leicester

The Cupar Central Place System