Human geography

Anthropogenic geography, also called human geography or anthropogeography, is the science devoted to the analysis of the distribution, location and spatial organization of human events. This science is composed of a synchronic aspect, i.e., the analysis of human organizational designs present in the world at a given time, and a diachronic aspect, i.e., the analysis of the processes over time that led to the formation of these arrangements.

This branch includes the cultural, economic, social and political aspects of geography. Privileging the search for subjective elements in the human-territory relationship, it often makes use of disciplines such as the social sciences (especially sociology, economics, and psychology), or communicative forms such as literature and artistic expressions, especially in regional or national contexts.

Human geography today is a multifaceted and ambitious discipline. One could try to define it with a lapidary formula by saying that it studies man on Earth, man and Earth or the spatial dimension of societies, but we would thus miss part of its content; it is preferable then to describe in detail its current methods.

Human geography first of all studies the distribution of humans on Earth and the way they live. They derive from nature what is indispensable to them for nourishment, for the production of tools and equipment, for the construction of shelters and homes. By their actions they profoundly alter the ecological pyramids in which they fit: they sometimes succeed in drawing only on renewable resources, allowing the indefinite regeneration of the system they use, but in other cases they irreversibly disrupt it, giving rise to landforms, soils and plant species very different from those that existed before.

Human geography then dwells on how societies function and how distance and remoteness variously affect their activities. The social body resembles a machine: for it to function well, its parts must articulate with each other efficiently. Central positions foster contacts and relationships, while the periphery presents interest only in the resources at its disposal. The social machine does not develop in a homogeneous space, but in very different environments, and certain places favor specific configurations.

Human geography does not stop at this mechanical view of the spatial organization of societies. Humans question the meaning to be given to their passage on Earth and attribute various meanings to the world and nature: certain places are sacred to them and others profane, here they have the feeling of being in front of authentic landscapes while elsewhere everything seems artifact. They love what is original and often reject what is mundane; their dreams and aspirations influence their decisions and end up being reflected in the arrangements of the environment they make.Human geography thus has three sides. The first studies the place of humans in ecosystems; the second analyzes the logic by which countless human decisions end up producing a certain spatial arrangement, a regional organization; and the third is concerned with the way humans conceive of the world, ascribe meaning to it, and consequently modify it. The three articulations of human geography are not independent of each other, but use different kinds of tools. The optics are naturalistic when it comes to seeing how humans fit into the natural pyramids, dominate them and modify them. Instead, the procedures resemble those of sociology, economics and political science when it comes to understanding the mechanisms that arise from the interaction between individuals and their quest for prestige, power and wealth. To assess instead the reactions of humans to the natural environment, it is useful to make use of psychology, but the most valuable suggestions come from humanities studies, philosophy, the history of ideas and the study of ideologies and collective representations. Human geography therefore approaches the hermeneutic sciences.Although barely a century old, human geography is a complex discipline. To understand its current aspects and the aspiration of its devotees to associate such diverse points of view, it is appropriate to observe how reflection within it has developed.It will then become clear how the set of current interests arose from the effort to overcome approaches that remained too partial and one-sided for a long time.

Geography is one of the oldest scientific disciplines cultivated by mankind: its initiator was probably Herodotus, but its program was defined mainly in the Hellenistic age. The name given to this science clearly expresses its purpose: to describe the Earth, and for this purpose to know first and foremost how to locate places. Geography presents the world: it shows the regional articulations of the planet, highlights the affinities that emerge between one country and another, researches their causes, and also emphasizes what gives each place its unmistakable appearance. Location geography, which is essential for grasping spatial configurations and assessing the effects of latitude, longitude and continentality, is treated by Ptolemy, while Strabo’s work is remarkable for its descriptions. In all this man is not absent: peoples are enumerated, their customs are described, and what in nature and orography is conducive to their activities is pointed out; however, the emphasis is more on the land than on the inhabitants.Until the 18th century, geography continued to devote itself primarily to the description of the Earth and location. The study of society retains limited importance for it. After 1750 there is a change, related to the decisive advances in topographic surveying and the exact determination of longitudes: location problems become purely technical and are no longer the focus of the discipline. The description of the Earth becomes more precise, thanks to developments in the natural sciences: zoology, botany and geology make it possible to name animals, plants and rocks and to identify their specific characters. Research in agronomy leads to similar results regarding agricultural landscapes.

The most important change, however, comes from outside: with Herder, German thought critiques the idea of progress, fundamental to the Enlightenment, but without renouncing it. Peoples evolve, but each with different rhythms and following their own paths; the becoming of each is inscribed in the territory in which it is settled and which conditions its development. The philosophies of nature that flourished at the time show that the understanding of history passes through geography and that the fate of social groups is inseparable from the environment in which they live. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, with Karl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, the place of man in geography is expanded, and its purposes are broadened: to the description of the Earth (often it is specified: to the representation of its regional differentiations) is added the aspiration to make intelligible the evolutionary process of each people as a function of its environment.

However, one cannot yet speak of human geography: for the transformation of the discipline to be complete will require the impact of Darwinism, according to which the evolution of living things depends on the selective pressure of the environment. Studies of plants and animals henceforth imply two distinct outlets: the analysis of the living environment, to which ecology (so christened by Ernst Haeckel in 1866) is devoted, and that of the influences that the environment itself exerts on living things. Friedrich Ratzel, who was trained as a zoologist and thoroughly familiar with the various aspects of Darwinian thought and evolutionism, published a two-volume Anthropogeographie (1882 and 1891), which marked the entry of human geography into the realm of science. A few years later, between 1898 and 1900, the French began to use the expression ‘human geography’-preferring it to ‘anthropogeography,’ which was judged too pedantic-and conceived the new discipline, in evolutionary terms, as a branch of biogeography: there is a human geography just as there is a botanical geography.

The purpose of the new discipline is thus, in the Darwinian view, to study the way human societies are shaped by the environment in their components, their functioning and their evolution, so as to establish laws to explain the fate of humans and societies. But this ambition must soon be given up: man is a cultural animal, and he learns to consolidate his dominance over the natural world more by enriching his culture than by adapting to the environment in which he is settled. One cannot understand the future of societies if one ignores their capacity for invention and assimilation from other civilizations and if one neglects exchange and migration. Although Ratzel’s original aspirations were imbued with Darwinism, in his Anthropogeographie he insists as much on circulation and history as on the direct action of the environment. French geographers go further in this cautious reaction to the excesses of ecologism, and Paul Vidal de la Blache enunciates the theory of possibilism: nature proposes, but it is man who disposes. Ideas about human geography thus change significantly, although the discipline retains its ecological foundation and emphasizes the relationship between humans and their environment.

The paradigm of classical human geography

Human geography, as it is constituted at the end of the last century, presents itself as a discipline full of dynamism and imagination, which, however, encounters some difficulties in clearly defining its object. Its devotees work as naturalists: they intend to be objective and not attach too much importance to ideas, representations and imaginations. They describe human groups, analyze their activities, and draw up an inventory of the transformations produced in the environment and of the man-made structures (houses, fields, fences, etc.). This positivist concern is particularly evident in Jean Brunhes, author, in 1910, of the first treatise on human geography in the French language: he recommends sticking to the primary facts of human geography, those of the productive or destructive occupation of the land, and only cautiously mentions the properly social or ethnographic aspects of the analysis.

These uncertainties manifest themselves in the multiplicity of definitions then given of human geography. For some, this discipline examines how humans have established their dominance over the earth’s surface: this means sticking to some of the evolutionary assumptions, emphasizing the ‘vertical’ relationships between humans and the environment and the historical perspective. But man is no longer seen as at the mercy of the natural environment: he learns to master it by respecting its laws, according to the classical formula. At the time when the last great waves of European pioneers invade the new countries, the theme of subjugation of the natural world appears seductive. It is often present in American authors: Isaiah Bowman is the first to emphasize the geographical particularities of the ‘frontier,’ the fronts of tillage and the societies that settled on them.

After the October Revolution, Soviet geographers and some communist scholars in other countries found the theme of the conquest of nature a congenial subject and one that conformed to the orthodoxy defined by the party; however, there was no shortage of criticism pointing out the biased nature and shortcomings of this approach. Man’s conquest of the planet does not take place in a linear fashion: advances are sometimes followed by retreats, and initial successes generate difficulties due to the often irreversible degradation of valued environments.

Doubts arise, moreover, that the evolutionary approach may create obstacles to human geography. This is thought by those who refer to the ancient purposes of geography, namely the description and study of the regional differentiations of the earth’s surface: within the framework of the discipline thus understood, human geography has the task of specifying the role of man in the formation of landscapes. This idea, which achieved great success in Germany thanks to the work of Otto Schlüter, is at the heart of the analysis of Landschaft, concerning both physiognomic elements and their spatial organization (in fact, the German term includes both the meaning of ‘landscape’ and that of ‘region’). In the United States the idea is taken up by Carl Sauer, founder of the Berkeley School, which is concerned with reconstructing, through the evidence provided by landscape archaeology and present-day Indian civilizations, what America was like before the arrival of the Europeans. The ecological dimension features prominently in this German-American version of the traditional conception of geography.

In France, the idea of emphasizing the role of man in the differentiation of the earth’s surface is equally embraced, but with a different orientation: rather than studying the transformations produced by man in the environment and carrying out minute surveys of the various plant species, there is a focus on examining the way in which men organize space, and the research is more concerned with the analysis of regional realities than with understanding landscapes.

This return to the classical conception of geography, with fleeting references to human endeavors, does not satisfy those who are sensitive to the complexity of human achievements. These include Albert Demangeon, according to whom human geography studies the distribution of humans and their works on the earth’s surface. It matters little whether this presence constitutes a homogenizing or differentiating factor: what matters is to examine all forms of human activity and every manifestation of them. Of all the formulations of classical human geography, this is the most suitable for those who wish to broaden the investigation of the social, economic and political mechanisms operating in associated life. Demangeon was very attentive to them, and in the wake of his conceptions the great mutation of the 1950s and 1960s could be implemented more smoothly.

At the beginning of the century, the work of geographers is strongly marked not only by a naturalistic approach but also by a strong physiocratic economicist slant: what matters most to them to describe are the wealth-producing activities, and in particular those related to the enhancement of land through crops and livestock. There are good reasons for this: increasing production is one of the dominant themes of the time, and agriculture affects far larger expanses of land than industries or services. But some authors react to the dominant economism, and among them is, at the end of the evolution of classical geography, Maurice Le Lannou. For him, human geography studies the Earth as man’s habitat and defines how he is settled there: it is a science of the man-inhabitant. This ‘strong’ formula had considerable influence. In Le Lannou’s intentions it does not challenge the pre-eminence of positive methods, which are concerned almost exclusively with the material aspects of existence and spatial organization; but the idea of the man-inhabitant leads one to concern oneself with the way in which men perceive the Earth, choose their dwelling there and organize the territory in which their lives take place. One senses in this the possibility of an opening to humanistic interests: Le Lannou’s definition, like Demangeon’s, opens the way for new developments.

The hard core of the paradigm of classical human geography

What differentiates one region of the Earth from another is first and foremost the number of inhabitants. Starting from density maps, geographers assess the pressure that human groups exert on the environment, thus setting up the fundamental problem of any ecological approach: how the population of the area under consideration succeeds in deriving its livelihood from the local ecological context, to what extent it changes it, and whether this action is irreversible. The cartography of densities goes hand in hand with the physiocratic orientation of this first type of human geography and its special interest in everything related to rural and pastoral life.

The study of production places in the foreground the analysis of human activities, which, moreover, are not all intended to satisfy material needs: in fact, man needs to create a living environment for himself and to organize places where he can feel safe, rest, gather as a family and meet his fellow human beings.The description of human activities would be a boundless task if there were not a certain order and certain regularities were not evident. In societies where the division of labor is little advanced and the way of life remains rural in nature, the necessities associated with the calendar of crops and livestock are manifested almost unchanged in the use of time by both men and women.This conclusion is reached by describing the various ‘kinds of life,’ a concept that from Vidal de la Blache onward becomes fundamental to all classical geography.

Among other things, the study of the kinds of life serves to understand how humans fit into the environment; ecology does not yet have operational concepts to propose, as the idea of ecosystem and the analysis of the energy cycle have not made their appearance. In the description of the kind of life, the complex of land-use activities is examined, how natural vegetation is regulated, utilized or replaced by crop associations, and how crops are consumed. The main part of these is used for human food (on site or elsewhere, if production is put on the market), another part serves for domestic animals, and the remainder provides raw materials (e.g., textile fibers) for industries. Fertility conservation and soil erosion control techniques are not all equally effective: in exploiting the planet, humans are usually prescient, but sometimes endanger the natural heritage.

In order to live long, it is not enough to produce enough, as numerous diseases loom over humans: the resulting risks are usually greatest where the relationship life is most active and in environments where certain pathogen complexes thrive. Medical geography represents another important contribution of the classical method to the analysis of the role of humans in ecosystems.

Because of their naturalistic orientation and the emphasis on population density and consequent ecological pressure, classical geographers devote more time to analyzing the ‘vertical’ relationships established by humans with their environment than to elucidating the ‘horizontal’ interhuman linkages; however, this aspect is not neglected, although it is not considered primary. Ratzel and Vidal de la Blache both insist on the importance of circulation phenomena, without which the spread of innovations would not be understood: to them societies modernized by the transportation and industrial revolutions owe their increasing independence from their surroundings. In this regard, Vidal de la Blache developed, especially towards the end of his career, some original insights, which, however, were not taken up by his continuators.

The study of circulation introduces the evolutionary dimension into classical geography: the problems of primitive cultures, totally dependent on a circumscribed and nearby environment, have little in common with those of modern urban dwellers, whose food supplies not infrequently come from other continents. The succession of forms of enhancement and peopling now attracts geographers, who often devote their best essays to it. Because they generally preserve the imprints of previous situations, landscapes lend themselves to archaeological interpretations. Both the Germans and the American Sauer and his pupils are inclined to analyze landscapes minutely and the way in which they are periodically reorganized; in France, on the other hand, attention is given, rather than to them, to men and the structures they create: hence the prominence given to regional studies.

The acquisitions and limitations of classical geography

Classical geography makes two main contributions to the social sciences in the making. First, it teaches how to develop cartographic representations of statistical series, suggesting correlations that would otherwise go unnoticed: André Siegfried founded electoral geography by analyzing the distribution of votes in western France over a fifty-year period. Second, geographers contribute largely to the advancement of field research, although they are not alone in doing so, having been preceded in this area by sociologists. While other scholars, however, merely interview people and examine the equipment they use, geographers teach how to observe the shapes of camps, the fences that mark them, and the settlements, their dislocation and typology: archival records are not the only source of news. As Krysztof Pomian has argued, the “Annales” school was deeply influenced by this new approach. Human geography reveals, beyond the divisions produced by political events and administrative necessities, the existence of deeper and more stable forms of organization and structuring and the persistence of thickening: the most significant regional divisions often disregard official boundaries. Finally, human geography harkens back to the current of thought, inaugurated by the physiocrats and soon to be discontinued, that humans live only by what they derive from their environment; in other disciplines, however, there is too often a tendency to forget this reality.

Moreover, classical geography encounters certain limitations, which eventually lead to its validity being questioned. Not all of its shortcomings are its own fault, because ecology only makes decisive progress between 1930 and 1940, and until then geography continues to make the best use of the conceptual armamentarium available at the beginning of the century, which is beginning to be outdated. The main insufficiency lies in the naturalistic approach, to which is due the lack of importance given to the analysis of social, economic and political mechanisms and their spatial implications. Geographers ignore the theory of localization, the results of which, on the other hand, are already well established. Walter Christaller, the only geographer in the 1930s who uses criteria similar to those of the economists, will be discovered twenty years too late.Sociologists do not ignore the material basis of societies, but they distrust the deterministic approach of the first evolutionary geography and hold it against the geographers of the second generation, who for their part also reject it: between human geography and social morphology in the manner of Durkheim and Halbwachs the misunderstanding is total. Nor is there a better fate in the United States for the work of Park, Burgess and the Chicago School of Urban Ecology. Political geography is devoted to advanced peoples–to Ratzel’s Kulturvölker, the only ones capable of establishing states–but it remains very much on the surface: its devotees are so entangled in the problems of frontiers, territories, and capital cities that they fail to analyze the phenomena relating to location, the way they are perceived by those responsible for political life, and their effects on the course of world history. Only the best succeed: Mackinder, Siegfried, Bowman and, despite his questionable ideological biases, Haushofer.

The inability of classical human geography to fully explore modern industrialized and urbanized societies finds explanation in the dominant naturalistic mindset. Occasionally such an exploration is successful, for example in Demangeon’s monographs on the British Empire, Baulig’s on the United States or Siegfried’s on the great Anglo-Saxon democracies; however, the theoretical basis for systematizing the remarkable insights of these authors is lacking.The most original contribution of classical geography must be sought in the field of regional studies. Since antiquity, the purpose of the discipline had been to illustrate the peculiarities of various places, what they have in common with others and what they differ from them in: the geographers of the early twentieth century are devoted precisely to delineating the personality (this is the term they use) of places, landscapes, cities, regions, and nations. To this end, in the case of a complex territory such as that of France, Vidal de la Blache highlights how unity and singularity arise from the association of heterogeneous but complementary elements; the resulting combination is so original that it can only exist in a single specimen. Personality also reflects the quality of natural environments; in the case of France, what facilitates synthesis is the intimate intermingling of environments along with the transitions they allow: their composition into a coherent system is inherent in their very nature.

But at the turn of the century, geography has not yet developed any theory that satisfactorily explains the specificity of the simplest units: to render this aspect of reality we rely on literary sensibility and talent, which can sometimes yield good results, but from a methodological point of view amounts to a declaration of failure.

Through its attention to the expressive dimension, early twentieth-century geography opens itself up, without being aware of it and without elaborating a theory of it, to the lived experience of the world: that of geographers, but also that of the inhabitants of the regions described, insofar as they are attentive to the way places are named and different regional entities are perceived. In spite of this interesting attempt, geography as it was then practiced was incapable of studying the industrial world and of developing simple guidelines for those who aspired to organize and transform the existing. Indeed, despite the naturalistic desire to work on a positive basis, it was, rather than scientific knowledge, a cautious and marginal exploration of fields that would be investigated in later developments.

The renewal of human geography

Beginning in the late 1940s geographers are inclined, partly because of the changing intellectual climate, to question the classical paradigm. Whereas at the beginning of the century the natural sciences hinged on the search for genetic explanations, now understanding the ‘physiology of events’ seems more important than knowing from what, why, and how they originated. Knowledge of the mechanisms that regulate the life of different systems makes it possible to predict their future conditions from the current situation: prediction becomes possible and this facilitates interventions. One knows how and where to act in order to direct the course of events.The concepts of system and structure are at the center of the scientific mentality that in the 1950s imposed itself almost everywhere in the social sciences: these adopted one of the models of the positive sciences, the systemic model. It allows a profound renewal of the various disciplines and multiplies their applications, but its use soon raises a number of questions: is it enough for a structure to be stable for it to be acceptable? Should one favor the evolution of a system toward a configuration that makes it more efficient even if this creates new inequalities and injustices among its members? The neopositivist paradigm has something in common with the naturalistic paradigm it succeeds: for it, too, humans are merely pawns within a system. If for the followers of naturalism they were cells of an organic whole, for neopositivists they are parts of a machine. Can the social sciences, however, ignore men’s aspirations for justice and happiness? According to radicals, critical of the developments of the 1960s, the answer is no.

Therefore, the new directions of the social sciences do not greatly increase the consideration of the human element, and several are beginning to question whether individuals are given due importance: this attitude, however, is opposed to the dominant tendency to deal mainly with social reproduction, training and conditioning. Marxism and Freud’s theories have also taught us to look at man with a certain cynicism: on the one hand, the discovery of the unconscious has caused us to lose all faith in what appears too clear and rational, and on the other hand we have often become somewhat hasty in judging people’s ideas about the society in which we live as mystifying.

In the late 1960s there is a shift in sensibility. Recognizing the unconscious as playing a role in the functioning of the human mind should not lead to ignoring the meaning that people give to their lives: there is no society without a symbolic dimension. It is precisely to the recovery of this dimension that scholars drawing on phenomenology and humanistic approaches have been working for nearly two decades. The renewal of contemporary geography is part of a broader motion, one that exceeds and conditions it. Entering the realm of the social sciences, human geography becomes aware, but belatedly, of the need to delve into the principles and methods of ecology: the study of vertical relationships between human groups and their environment is momentarily set aside, and geographers enter into competition with ethnologists and ecologists.

The new objects of study in geography

At a time when the transformations of developed countries were accelerating and the Third World was taking off, geographers ill tolerated that they could not make proposals: they felt that the organization of the territory was their responsibility, but they were not consulted. Indeed, the politicians and engineers in charge of arranging equipment and services to cater for larger populations with higher incomes and greater mobility demanded a clear assessment of the evolution of demand over the next five, ten, twenty or thirty years, so that they could predict, for example, what the increase in traffic on a certain route would be: they would then know whether the existing road network would be adequate for the new demand, whether it would have to be improved in certain sections or whether a new route would have to be adopted. By the late 1940s geographers are still unable to make such projections, unlike economists and engineers, and even sociologists who render similar services in the fields of housing demand and recreational and educational services. At the turn of the century, geography was oriented toward the analysis of the ‘vertical’ relations that humans weave with their environment, from which they derive a part of what is indispensable to them and where they unload what they have stopped using; it did not, however, dwell on circulations, that is, on the flows and movements that connect ‘horizontally’ human groups with each other. For geography to become applicable to today’s world, a reconversion was necessary: according to the thesis that Edward Ullman was then expounding in Seattle to a group of brilliant students at the University of Washington, emphasis needed to be placed on the social aspect of geography, rather than its ecological dimension. For the ‘Young Turks’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s, human geography must study the role of distance and remoteness in the functioning of the social machine. Thus, the phenomena of circulation and mobility, which affect large human aggregates and result from a multiplicity of decisions, interconnected by feedback loops, come to the fore.The analysis of these phenomena can take advantage of the tools provided by recent advances in statistics, and in particular chorological statistics. The concatenations of influences and feedbacks are susceptible to a theoretical interpretation that needs to be tested. The ‘new geography’ (this term became established in the late 1960s, but the change had already been underway for a decade) is both quantitative and theoretical and makes extensive use of location theory, often taking it as a model. The social ecology of the Chicago School suggests to geographers under Brian J.L. Berry a rapid theoretical deepening of the problems posed by urban spaces and fabrics. Geographers, economists and sociologists work on a common work in which it becomes difficult to distinguish the contribution of each, as evidenced by the success of ‘regional science,’ which attracts anyone interested in the problems of the insertion of society in space and the organization of territory.

The acquisitions soon accumulated by the new geography of the 1960s and by regional science, which differs little from it in the field of economics, are considerable. The influence of distances explains the observable regularities in the spread of innovations and in periodic or permanent migrations. The central districts of cities serve as meeting places, that is, as commutators of all social relations: this highlights the logic obeyed by urban ‘poles,’ the networks they form and the regional structures dominated by exchange life.In the late 1960s, as theoretical reflection deepened, it became clear that the specific task of geographers was to study the spatial dimension of socioeconomic systems. Advances in ecology are now linked to the use of the conceptual model of the ecosystem; by associating the two approaches it will be possible to recover the naturalistic aspect of the discipline, inappropriately neglected precisely when the demands of society were becoming more insistent in this field. The new geography thus conceived analyzes the spatial dimension of social systems and their integration into ecosystems that they profoundly modify. All this leads to a science of global spatial organization that is now the focus of many among the pioneers of the new geography, especially in France, where the regional tradition is strongest.

The theoretical interpretations that have been proposed or systematized in the last thirty years have in common that they dwell mainly on regularities: their contribution to regional analysis consists in knowing what is repetitive and nonspecific. This is a remarkable advance, but one that leaves many geographers dissatisfied, who are sensitive to the atmosphere of places and what makes them distinctly different from one another, at least in some respects.In the late 1970s some Anglo-Saxon authors rediscovered this problem. The movement started in North America, where shortly after 1970 people began to question the ‘sense’ of places, at the initiative of specialists in the historical and cultural approaches, which had long been present on the margins of the new geography. Ten years later the question is of interest to many scholars who until then had dealt only with facts repeated in large numbers, and who now find themselves in a blind alley: they have in fact brought out regularities about whose value there is no doubt, as statistics show, but whose usefulness is limited, since from the existence of a general correlation between event A and event B it cannot be deduced that in every place where A occurs B also occurs. For this to happen certain ancillary conditions must intervene, which are not met everywhere. The mechanical application of general models thus bumps up against the particular character of individual localities, as research in electoral geography of the kind Siegfried had shown since the beginning of the century: it is true that right-wing votes come mainly from affluent circles and left-wing votes from the working world, but traditions and memories give some areas a different character than one would expect.

For many young researchers today, human geography has the task of analyzing the spatial dimension of social systems and the way they use the specificity of places to enable the development of certain activities, which in turn reinforce that specificity.In Anglo-Saxon countries, Marxists, whose role had been established during the 1970s, began at the beginning of the following decade to become aware of the inadequacy of their theory in relation to the geographical situation in the world today. Under the influence of Roy Bhaskar’s realist philosophy, they discover in the influence of places on the occurrence of phenomena a reason for not renouncing their faith: the Marxist schema is now a general framework that is not required to explain events in their particulars, since the latter always depend on multiple causes. Geography, which until then had no place in the pantheon of Marxist social sciences, becomes indispensable: its task is to provide the intermediate theories that complement the megatheory constituted by Marxism itself. Allan Scott and David Harvey’s reflections on the economic role of localities fit into this perspective.

During the same period, those responsible for territorial organization faced numerous difficulties. Until the early 1970s, Western economies had developed spontaneously, and planning had been responsible for directing to this or that less-favored region investments that would spontaneously locate elsewhere; a vast repertoire of incentives, regulations, and controls had made it possible to achieve their chosen objectives more or less well. With soaring oil prices and the ensuing crisis, development came to a halt and deindustrialization hit many once prosperous regions full force. In the new conjuncture, the usual formulas lose all validity: the problem is no longer in getting entrepreneurs to change their settlement choices, but in creating entrepreneurs. In spite of the recession, in some cases this goal is achieved, but there are no clear rules manifested in the way this happens: it all depends on individuals and the conditions they encounter on the ground. There are general factors that make it possible for businesses to spring up, but they are only one of the necessary conditions: local energies make the difference. Development arises from below: this is the substance of Walter Stöhr’s doctrine.

Those who rediscover as a central theme of reflection the differentiation of the earth’s surface thus have different orientations, but in each case their contribution is interesting. Even through the vicissitudes of its evolution, the original intent to comprehensively describe the reality of the Earth retains its value.

The radical critique

Research on local characters is part of the development of the theoretical direction that emerged in the early 1960s and has been the subject of criticism since about 1970. Researchers’ attention now focuses on the city: studies on centers of interaction and contact and the fields of externalities generated by them clarify urban morphology. The basic mechanism of all adjustments is the land market: it is capable of creating an efficient situation even in the absence of urban and planning interventions, but it is far from the conditions of perfect competition predicted by theory. This could produce a gap from the optimal equilibrium to which the free play of economic forces should lead. The new geography hesitates to pose these problems, which are nevertheless fundamental: in the absence of guarantees against greedy landlords or unscrupulous employers, the fate of the weaker classes is in fact likely to be even harsher.

The radical protest against positivist conceptions of the new geography almost always concerns the urban scenario. Anglo-Saxon geographers, who play an essential role in this field, are largely inspired by the studies of continental sociologists, such as the Frenchman Henri Lefebvre and his students or the Catalan Manuel Castells. With his essay Social justice and the city (1973) David Harvey, who a few years earlier had been the theorist of neopositivist approaches, gives a decisive impetus to the movement. For his followers, human geography is concerned with the spatial ordering of societies in order to capture the interplay of segregation and discrimination to which it gives rise, and seeks to promote more just apportionment and prevent unjustified harm to the environment.

The radical movement was born out of an ethical contestation. It does not originally rely on any systematic theory, which is a gap that many believe can be filled by Marxism. But after a few years they must reconsider: Marxist doctrine does not attach much importance to space, and the few avenues explored by its founder have been neglected by followers. Harvey’s new work, The limits to capital (1982), is an interesting attempt to update the basis of Marxist reasoning by introducing the concept of space. The result is partial, but the new reflection on local factors makes it possible to narrow the gap between Marxism’s explanatory ambitions and its ability to grasp reality.

The renewal of geography after 1960 takes place under the banner of the social sciences: the emphasis may be on the spatial dimensions of society, its insertion into the ecosystem, the importance of place, or the injustices arising from imperfect institutions, but in each case a certain idea of the relationship between man and society is present. Human groups consist of individuals capable of reflection, decision-making and action, but within such narrow boundaries that their initiatives are always limited and the results of the interactions to which they give rise are always predictable. Even if one rebels against injustices that penalize some, one adheres to a rather reductive conception of man: he is conditioned, manipulated and dominated by the system, which then allows the procedures of the exact sciences to be applied to social reality.

The humanist current

Many geographers, however, are not convinced of the veracity of these theses. In the early 1950s an isolated scholar, Eric Dardel, gives a different approach to our discipline, but his short, admirable essay L’homme et la Terre goes unnoticed and is discovered only twenty years later, in Canada. True, Dardel’s proposals are very advanced: for him, the Earth is no longer the main object of geography, as it had been since antiquity, and the essential problem becomes that of its place in human experience. As a disciple of Heidegger, Dardel believes that there is no human experience other than that of being there, of existing in this world; as a Protestant, he believes that each individual must put his faith into practice by making the world more Christian. The desire to translate religious experience into reality is universal, even if it does not always take the same form: in his surroundings, man sees supernatural forces and beings at work, or he reads the Creator’s intelligence in them. Studying geography means not only compiling the material inventory of observable forms on the planet, but also grasping what men experience from birth to death, in daily life or on great occasions; it means seeing how they conceive of their origin and becoming, assessing the purposes they set for themselves, understanding what meaning they attribute to nature.

We are thus faced with a profound departure from naturalistic and neopositivistic attitudes. Dardel does not deny that knowledge of natural forces and social mechanisms is necessary, but he believes that it must be preceded by a more important stage of study: in order to grasp the true essence of geography, it is necessary to start from what is most human in man and to base oneself on what the testimony of his senses offers him.

The theoretical developments in vogue in the 1960s did not satisfy either the devotees of historical or cultural geography or those whose religious beliefs led them to think that our discipline does not take enough account of man and his endeavors. Among the former is Yi-Fu Tuan, who is fascinated by cultures; to the latter group belongs Anne Buttimer, whose passionate search for a less mechanistic interpretation of man is certainly guided by her Catholic faith.

For the humanist current, human geography is concerned with the way humans live out their earthly condition, conceive of nature and the world and relate them to the afterlife, ascribe to places a particular character – sacred or profane, authentic or artifact, original or mundane – and translate their dreams, aspirations and sensibilities into the realization of certain structures. The research is based on the history of ideas, the science of religions, and the analysis of the value systems to which people refer or which are manifested in their actions. Participatory inquiry is seen as one of the privileged tools of the new approaches, without which it does not seem possible to grasp what is original and specific about each cultural group’s own view of life and the world.

The humanist approach gives the researcher a lesson in modesty: in the social sciences one cannot tap into the essence of things if one treats humans as objects and rejects a priori their ways of seeing and thinking. One must not passively accept their ideas, but neither is it possible to ignore them, insofar as they are at the heart of the experience one seeks to understand and insofar as they affect reactions, attitudes and projects. Objective methods of mapping the world and understanding reality have enabled Western thought to explain the workings of ecological pyramids or the interplay of social and economic mechanisms that contribute to the shaping of space. But these methods overlook an essential element, for they ignore the motivations of individuals and do not attend to what they are trying to do in and of the world. Alongside the strongly neopositivist-inspired approaches in vogue for the past thirty years or so, there is thus room for procedures that are more sensitive to the diversity of humans and cultures. Each human group shapes its own geography: the inventory of ethnogeographies is one of the main tasks to which researchers must devote themselves today.

The field of investigation and trends in human geography

The ecological dimension

The question that human geography first seeks to answer is that of the inclusion of humans in the pyramids of living forms originated by solar energy and chlorophyll synthesis. All life forms are founded on the continuous reproduction of organic matter from carbon dioxide in the air, water and elements drawn from the environment. Attempts have long been made to apply methods suitable for animal societies to human groups by taking into consideration primarily the exchanges that take place between each group and the environment in which it is established and which supports it. The emphasis was on the overall productivity of spontaneous ecosystems and the way humans manipulate them to increase in absolute value their share without caring too much about the resulting reduction in overall productivity. Classical ecology also considered biological competitions and the risks of harm to human health.

Such an ecology fits well with archaic societies or the small rural cells of traditional societies, but it misses one of the dimensions of the relationship between humans and the environment: that which relates to exchange. Human groups do not only consume what is produced locally, and sometimes even use only products from outside; this has obvious consequences for human-environment relations. When basic foodstuffs are imported from distant countries and supplies change according to markets and the economy, consumers cannot have a clear awareness of the degradation they cause in this or that region of the world. The expansion of the sphere of relationships, experienced as a liberation from the constraints of the environment, leads humans to forget that they depend on the living world for their food and much of the raw materials they need. While relations with the surrounding natural environment become somewhat more relaxed, increased consumption and more intense exploitation of fossil energy sources imply more waste; immediate environmental constraints are no longer imposed by the production of foodstuffs, but arise from the poor capacity of environments to recycle the substances released in the form of gases, dust, organic and mineral products, pesticides, and liquid effluents. Humans have succeeded in transferring the impact of waste away from the areas where they usually live: for a century, major advances in sanitation have been related to the removal of liquid discharges and solid wastes from population centers, and the recycling of these elements takes place without risk of direct contamination to the populations that produce them. But avoiding the immediate harmful consequences is not the same as solving the problem; with the explosion of consumption and energy use, the areas affected by recycling problems are becoming larger and larger. Man can no longer do without an ecological consciousness. Gone is the time when balances were implemented locally, within the scope of very small units: with the progress of transportation the dimension of problems has greatly expanded. With regard to supplies they now arise more on a global scale than on a national or continental scale, as the management of the exploitation of marine fauna shows. With regard to waste, local difficulties become dramatic because of air pollution when settlement density and the degree of motorization are high; but the scale of the phenomenon changes when waterways are so loaded with organic matter or toxic products that these are carried to their mouths without decomposing. Acid rain affects large continental areas, and an accident such as Černobyl has shown that considerable contamination can occur hundreds and even thousands of kilometers away.

The geography of human-environment relations is based on the contributions of modern ecology, but it also takes into account aspects that transcend the field of natural sciences. Current environmental problems are inseparable from the expansion of trading areas enabled by transportation technology. The way these problems are felt and the reactions they elicit depend on what human groups think about nature and the world: by clarifying the problems of ecology through the analysis of socioeconomic mechanisms and that of mentalities and attitudes, geography decisively enriches approaches to what surrounds us.

The economic and social dimensions

The location of productive activities is conditioned by the ease of access to resources and markets and the arrangement of infrastructure designed to channel the flows of goods, people and information. To satisfactorily solve supply problems, to foil the dangers posed by climate uncertainties, to profit from the economies of scale allowed by the use of increasingly concentrated energy sources, society has no choice but to organize a division of labor pushed to the maximum: the reduction of transportation costs then sufficiently increases the possibilities for the disposal of production.

In human geography, the economic approach thus first clarifies the spatial distribution of productive activities: it must take into account on the one hand the location of resources, which is linked to the randomness of natural situations, and on the other hand the need to remain in close proximity to centers of consumption in order to reduce the transportation costs of finished products. On these premises is based the classical theory of location, which provided with von Thünen, Alfred Weber, Lösch and Christaller a satisfactory explanation of classical equilibria. The instrumental universe with which we surround ourselves becomes increasingly complex: the organization of production and the distribution of products involve increasingly intense exchanges of information. Recent research points to the long neglected importance of communication problems in the location of firms: the development of telematics and rapid transport encourages the dispersal of plants over larger areas, but the consequent multiplication of contact requirements leads to the location of management centers in metropolises, closely interconnected by major airlines. The integration of the economy on a global scale is associated with the metropolitan urbanization of part of the population.

The economy, however, is only one of the activities of human groups. In traditional societies, the stratifications determined by social life rested on the existence of well-defined statuses and classes; in industrializing societies, income distribution became the basic principle of such stratification during the 19th century, before cultural dimensions regained their function – something that characterizes postindustrial societies. The uneven distribution of wealth and status across space is a universal, but variable, aspect of civilizations.Political geography deals with the way in which distance and remoteness condition the exercise of power, authority and influence. It is much easier to operate a legitimate regime than a tyrannical one based only on violence. Since the former is based on ideological consensus, it is necessary to understand what the origin of ideologies is and why they are accepted. But to govern it is not enough to obtain the consent of the majority: control of deviants and those who challenge the rules of the system is also always necessary, and this implies dividing the territory into well-defined constituencies, without which it would be impossible to implement surveillance. One of the difficulties of today’s world lies in the fact that the principles operating in the economic sphere are at odds with those that dominate political life: worldwide economic integration tends to reduce the importance of borders, as well as, of course, the self-sufficiency of national economies, while the division of territory into distinct entities remains indispensable in any strategy of control.The social point of view thus sheds an interesting light on the problems of today’s world: by attributing a considerable role to ideologies, it leads us to consider the data of culture and the humanist perspective.

The contribution of the humanist view

If we avoid conceiving of humans as mere pawns or machines, we discover dimensions of geography previously ignored. Geographical space is differentiated not only by orography, climate, vegetation and the works created in it by human activities: it reveals an ontology of space that is indispensable for understanding the relationship between humans and the environment. The fundamental distinction is between that which is influenced by the transcendent and that which depends only on the intervention of natural forces. In the former case the sacred emerges, evidenced by the existence of places of worship, altars and temples; in the latter there is only the mundane, the profane, the ordinary. From one civilization to another, the division between the two categories of spaces changes: while for animists supernatural forces are present everywhere, are co-extensive with nature and the world is magical, with revealed religions and rationalist philosophies demythicization begins, and the sacred is no longer omnipresent, but emerges only in certain places or in human creatures made in the image of God. However, this demythicization of the world is less radical than is commonly imagined, because ideologies are founded on principles similar to those of the religions they are intended to replace: they too accept the idea of evil, but they mostly attribute its cause to society and its faults, rather than to some original sin. Redemption from sins no longer occurs through individual sacrifices, confession and repentance, but is based on collective sacrifices, those of the classes that caused the evil. Ideologies involve revolutions, that is, gigantic holocausts. The places where the martyrs of the good cause shed their blood are revered as the sacred sites of traditional religions, they are pilgrimage sites, and in them sacrifice is reactualized through great commemorative rites. The geography of the sacred and the profane — to cite just this example — confronts us with some of the fundamental problems of modern consciousness.

Human geography and other disciplines

In the past, human geography was oriented more toward the natural sciences than toward the social sciences: although direct relations with scholars in geology, botany or pedology were held by specialists in the physical environment, every good geographer felt obliged to follow the progress of those sciences. Today, the reports focus rather on ecology.

Classical French-inspired geography generally proceeded hand in hand with historical studies; this parallelism has not disappeared, despite some momentary disagreements, and historical geography still constitutes a terrain cultivated by scholars of both disciplines, who apportion it differently in different countries. With regard to economics, regional science has embraced the legacy of location theory, and researchers of various backgrounds meet in it. With ethnology there have long been casual relations, in the course of field research in Third World countries. The most difficult relations were with sociology: its scholars had lost interest in the social morphology of Durkheim’s school, and urban ecology inspired by the Chicago School remained very much on the margins compared to the central strands of social thought. In the 1960s, a new interest in space was felt among scholars of urban sociology, especially Marxist-inspired scholars such as Henri Lefebvre, but the discovery of the spatial dimension of social phenomena by sociologists has only occurred in recent times. Torsten Hägerstrand’s ‘geography of diffusion’ had already resonated in sociology: his analysis of the spatio-temporal trajectories of individuals, conducted on different scales (day, year, lifespan), highlighted the more or less vast scope in which human existences take place and the way they intertwine, diverge and combine. There is no point in studying social facts without attending to these basic dimensions of collective life: where a society begins, where it ends, by what level of interaction it is characterized. At the same time, on the side of sociology, the importance of ecological substrate issues has been discovered. Anthony Giddens is the sociologist who has done most to incorporate the consideration of space into the methods of his own discipline and to bring the latter closer to geography.In this respect the social sciences have achieved a hitherto unknown degree of cohesion.Continuous contact with philologists, historians of ideas and scholars of cultural phenomena is indispensable for a humanistic deepening of our discipline.

The image of human geography has fluctuated in collective opinion, deteriorating during the period when its devotees were unable to deal effectively with the problems of the modern world. Today it appears to have improved within the framework of the humanities, and even the general public has begun to become aware of the profound modernization that has taken place over the past three decades.


Human geography has joined the other social sciences with delay; moreover, the circumstances under which it was formed and the nonlinear course of its development have contributed to the fact that its image appears somewhat confused to many scholars and the general public. It suffers from the breadth of its aspirations, in that it seeks to understand by the same method the ecological mechanisms of the living world, the social, economic and political mechanisms that shape human groups, and finally the representations, worldviews and reactions of humans to their habitat.Its complexity may baffle devotees of more analytical disciplines, but there is nothing surprising about it, for it merely reflects the structure of reality. Interdisciplinary research, so widespread today, has long been practiced by scholars of human geography: this confirms the relevance of this branch of knowledge.

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