Topics: Physical Geography

Physical Geography

Geography after 1945: Physical geography and physical systems

by Encyclopedia Britannica

Geography after 1945

For the first half of the 20th century, therefore, the core of European and American geographical scholarship involved identifying and describing areal variations of the Earth’s environments and their exploitation by human societies and, to a lesser extent, accounting for the creation of distinctive places (regions). This knowledge was valuable for general education and was deployed in the two World Wars for military purposes. Geographers’ skills in interpreting cartographic and aerial photographic information were also substantially employed.

The focus on integration and regional synthesis slowly declined, however, and geographers increasingly identified themselves by their systematic special interests rather than a regional concentration. This created outward-looking forces within the discipline for the remainder of the century; individual specialists developed links with cognate disciplines (e.g., geomorphologists with geologists), creating research foci at interdisciplinary border areas that were then taught in specialist courses. The systematic slowly replaced the regional at the discipline’s core, a shift associated with a major division within the discipline, between physical geographers, who increasingly identified themselves as environmental scientists, and human geographers, whose allegiance was to the social sciences.

By the end of the 1930s, the links between geographers in continental Europe and the English-speaking countries were weakening. This in part reflected the political situation, but it also resulted from the growth of the discipline and the development of particular approaches to the subject in Britain and the United States, as well as postwar transatlantic contacts. After 1945 European links were not strongly renewed, and for some decades there was relatively little contact between English-speaking and other geographers. The main exceptions were with the four Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands, where human geography has long had a close link with the professional planning discipline; much of the geographical research produced in those countries has been published in English. Meanwhile, British and North American geographers came closer together. Many students from the United Kingdom undertook graduate work in North America, for example, with a considerable number of them taking university posts there, including in Canada, which had only a few geography departments before the Canadian Association of Geographers was founded in 1950.

In Germany, to many the heartland of academic geography, the discipline had to recover after the war from its association with Nazi ideology—in particular the use of the school of geopolitics (Geopolitik) to underpin Nazi policies of territorial expansion (lebensraum). Initially, the small remaining number of geographers returned to pre-1930s roots in the study of landscapes—notably geomorphology and settlement patterns—but, with the rapid growth of the universities since the 1960s, greater pluralism emerged, and Anglo-American disciplinary changes slowly infiltrated. In France the discipline experienced a major crisis after widespread student rebellions there in 1968. Some French geographers were attracted to what became known as the “new” geography, which was being promoted elsewhere, but others resisted, championing instead a particular view of spatial organization that incorporated the traditional humanistic concerns of French geography. Farther east, in the Soviet Union and the countries of eastern Europe, the direction of research in geography—as in other disciplines—was subordinated to state priorities. There physical geography became dominant, and for several decades links with the West were limited.

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 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 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.

As a consequence of these changes, physical geography moved away from inductive accounts of environments and their origins and toward analysis of physical systems and processes. Interest in the physiography of the Earth’s surface was replaced by research on how the environment works.

The clearest example of this shift came in geomorphology, which was by far the largest component of physical geography. The dominant model for several decades was developed and widely disseminated by William Morris Davis, who conceived an idealized normal cycle of erosion in temperate climatic regions involving the erosive power of running water. His followers used field and cartographic evidence to underpin accounts of how landscapes were formed: they constructed what geographers in the United Kingdom called “denudation chronologies.” Davis recognized a number of other cycles outside temperate climatic areas in glaciated, desert, and periglacial and mountain areas, as well as in coastal and limestone areas. Each of these separate cycles had its own characteristic landforms. Because of long-term global climatic change, however, they may have characterized the now-temperate areas at different periods. For geomorphologists working in temperate regions, particular interest focused on the advance and retreat of glaciers during the Pleistocene Epoch (about 1,800,000 to 12,000 years ago). Landscape interpretation in many such areas involved identifying the influence of glaciations and the consequences of global warming, more recently a subject of considerable scientific interest. By the 1950s a major criticism of this work was that it was based on untested assumptions regarding landscape-forming processes. How does running water erode rocks? Only answering such questions could explain landform creation, and seeking those answers called for scientific measurement.

There were three other main groups of physical geographers, two of whose work was also much influenced by the concepts of evolution. Workers in biogeography studied plants and, to a lesser extent, animals. The geography of plants reflects environmental conditions, especially climate and soils; biogeographical regions are characterized by those conditions and their floral assemblages, which produce patterns based on latitude and elevation. It was argued that those assemblages evolve toward climax communities. Whatever specific vegetation types initially occupy an area, competition between plants for available resources will lead to those most suited to the prevailing conditions eventually becoming dominant. Such conditions may change and a new cycle be initiated because of either short-term climatic fluctuations or human-induced environmental changes.

The study of soils, or pedology, was concerned with the thin mantle of weathered material on the Earth’s surface that sustains plant and animal life. World regions were identified based on underlying rocks and the operative physical and chemical weathering processes. Climatic conditions were important influences on soil types, with local variations reflecting differences in surface deposits and topography. As with landforms and plant communities, it was assumed that soils evolve toward a steady state, as weathering proceeds and characteristic soil profiles emerge for each region.

Finally, there was climatology, or the study of major world climatic systems and their associated local weather patterns in space and time. Much of the work was descriptive, identifying major climatic regions and relating them to solar and earth geometry. Others investigated the generation of seasonal and local weather patterns through the movements of weather systems, such as cyclones and anticyclones.

These approaches dominated physical geography until the 1960s, when they were largely replaced. The new programs had three main aspects: greater emphasis on studying processes rather than outcomes, adoption of analytical procedures to measure and assess those processes and the associated forms, and integration of the processes into a focus on entire environmental systems. Many of the early changes involved detailed measurement of physical forms; deductive modeling based on physical properties developed later. Their integration into process-response models involved a reorientation of physical geography every bit as extensive as that in human geography. Physical geographers increasingly identified themselves as environmental scientists, using the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, and biology and the methods of mathematics to advance the understanding of how the environment works and how it produces its characteristic features.

The systems concept was a significant element of these changes. Climates, landforms, soils, and plant and animal ecology were conceived as being interrelated, with each having an impact on the other. The systems could be divided into subsystems with separate but linked characteristics and processes. Drainage basins became major units of study, for example, and were subdivided into the channels along which water is carried and the valley slopes whose form is created by the moving water.Geographers were introduced to the importance of studying systems by the work of a number of American geologists, such as Stanley Schumm and Arthur Strahler. However, the lack of interest in time and change—as expressed in Hartshorne’s Nature—meant that little work had been done on physical geography in the United States for decades. The influential geographers included Briton Richard Chorley, who taught at the University of Cambridge after studying with Strahler in New York, and George Dury, who was trained in the United Kingdom but spent much of his career in Australia and the United States. These major protagonists introduced systems thinking and the study of processes to British physical geography, which was then reexported to American geography from the 1970s on, where locally trained individuals such as Melvin G. Marcus played key pioneering roles.

Source: geography. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 13, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

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