Place over Space

Geography is understood in terms of dealing with space or place.

The 1960s saw geography being defined in terms of spacial science. There are two aspects in this: space and science (or being scientific).

The first aspect is that whereas history deals with time (in places), geography deals in spaces. This means set areas. This seems a regular relationship, where one space is simply a mathematical relationship to any other space. That lends itself to the second aspect, being science. Geography, instead of being a member of the intellectual arts, becomes a science, and all sorts of mathematical and science based approaches take place.

Of course the space is filled; it is not just an area of dimensions. However, the filling is one with regular patterns compared with other spaces. So if there is a river, or an urban area, these have characteristics open to scientific study like other areas with or without these.

This method (for it is about method) is called nomothetic. It is mathematical and therefore most objective; and scientific, and therefore predictive. It is a quantitative system.

It likes the certain reportability of the quantitative approach where real statistics can be presented and comparisons and contrasts made, away from the subjective geography that was before it. Geography seems to have stronger foundations.

This sort of geography will come close to economics. It will do measurements about the most efficient use of space, in relationships. Diagrams and maps can be created in the abstract for business and shopping and housing areas, for road planning, for criteria regarding cost and benefit. So there is human geography involved, but in terms of producing functioning efficient outcomes.

If this geography is social science based (if it accepts it is not quite science) then it is the most objective and systematic kind closest to the method of science (top down). However methodology can go closer to the arts again.

The more arts based approach to geography is called idiographic. It recognises that whilst human beings do form patterns of activity (which social science methods can show), geography is about qualitative methods to illustrate the full range of human beings.

It criticises nomothetic geography for having a simplified and indeed dehumanised and power led theory of the person. That is the geography of the existing system, as it is indeed a system portraying a system. Its objectivity becomes a pretence. It is not scientific as such but scientistic: in other words it adopts the ideology of science.

This idiographic geography is much more anthropological (bottom up). Spaces become places, where there is indeed human feeling involved. There are not just human features and influence, but human mental maps. There are attachments and fleeting associations. The identity with place becomes part of what it means to be ourselves.

This is about asking people what they think and experience. Perhaps there are groups to be identified, and they live in identifiable places, but the process of identification is itself through asking, and recording and reproducing some narrative account. It means either not trying efficient outcomes as such (or at least relegating these) or building into calculations of planning the sense of place that people have. It may be as simple (in planning terms) as not building a road through the middle of an existing community.

This form of geography is about taking account of the spiritual dimension. This does not necessarily mean religions, though in fact religions do have histories of engaging with place and space (especially Islam in its great Abbasid dynasty period when town planning was very much an engagement with liveable cities). It means something beyond the rational (it does not exclude it, as the rational was excluded not in Islamic town planning). It is that inherent extra dimension in being human, in having affinities and emotional responses, in seeking identities and contact with other human people in meaningful ways. It should mean too a sense of beauty, which may even be an aesthetic of the rational, scientific and mathematical.

This geography goes further because it asks about the point of things in essential human characteristics. This is about human intentions and approaches, which have a quality to them of which research would intend to find the essence (phenomenological ). It is about being conscious in the world with qualities of intentions: we have being in the place and therefore relationship bound. This existentialism is then doing-based existence in places. Clearly there are overlaps with theology in both essences of the mind and being in relationship.

These relationships become more human, it can be argued, when time is taken into account. All geographical "maps" exist in time and through time. So history does come in but because it is a part of geography. This is necessary for both natural geography (whatever this is in contemporary terms) and especially human geography. Our sense of place is time based, and even imaginary time is significant for human meaning and sense of place. Hull (add "Kingston upon" and it changes its construct), for example, is a whole series of mental spaces and indeed times. These times are also joined, and unevenly. The fact that times matter in a mental manner does not lend itself to scientism!

Time even introduces a geography of teleology. This is where an end point determines the evolving picture of the transition of a place through time.

The idiographic geography is making a return as we become more sophisticated, and especially as space is becoming virtual (and unevenly shrunk) in many areas of communication and intellectual life, and time is speeding up in qualititative experiential terms. idiographic geography gives rise to a more sophisticated analysis, and engages geography with the narrative basis of life lived.

Adrian Worsfold

Craig, M. (1998), Cultural Geography, Routledge Contemporary Human Geograhy Series, London: Routledge.