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Theories of Geography
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A body of theories, or perhaps better called
, exists regarding the interactions and affects between human beings and the physical environment. The debate amongst these ideas centers around the role of the environment: is it
, is it
, or is it a matter of
that differs based on a host of mutable factors. Many authors have spent considerable time and political capital debating these ideas, and defending particular positions. In this Wiki, we should attempt to outline some of these ideas, and include examples that either support or deny these various perspectives. Broadly, we will focus on 3 key issues:
: the notion that the physical environment has a massive and often controlling (and perhaps never-changing and generationally stable) affect on human beings, in essence dictating their abilities in all realms of life and society.
Possibilism or "Cultural determinism"
, two related notions. Cultural determinism is the stronger of the two, in essence a rejection of the environment as a controlling influence. It claims that cultures are the result of human agency and action, and that the environment is largely a non-issue. Possibilism gives more credence to the environmental role, seeing it more from the position of sizeable influencer.
Probabilism or "cultural ecology"
, sometimes seen as a compromise or synthesis of Environmental Determinism and Cultural Determinism, but more rightly seen as a more open-ended treatment of the possibility that sometimes the environment is a key inlfuence, while at other times human actions are more so. Often tied to this discussion is the notion of cost-benefit analysis of any human actions with relationship to the environment.
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is essentially "the theory that the physical environment (especially climate) controls human character and behavior and consequently human cultures and societies." (from
) This idea gained popularity from about 1870-1915. Environmental Determinism emphasizes the fact that the human world is completely affected by the overwhelming power of the natural and physical world.
Possibilism or "Cultural determinism"
"means that the will of man is a basic actor both in his own conduct and in his fundamental activities thus denying the influence, if any, of the natural elements on man." (
A History of Environmental Determinism
Environmental determinism's origins go back to antiquity, when the Greek geographer
wrote that climate influences the psychological disposition of different races. Similar ideas continued to be propounded into the modern era.
Another early adherent of environmental determinism was the medieval
, who explained how the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community. He used his early theory of
to explain the origins of different
human skin colors
, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black
in the northern
as evidence for his theory:
"[It] is so unusual that its gazelles and ostriches, its insects and flies, its foxes, sheep and asses, its horses and its birds are all black. Blackness and whiteness are in fact caused by the properties of the region, as well as by the God-given nature of water and soil and by the proximity or remoteness of the sun and the intensity or mildness of its heat."
Environmental determinism rose to prominence in the late 19th century and early 20th century when it was taken up as a central theory by the discipline of
(and to a lesser extent,
Ellen Churchill Semple
is credited with introducing the theory to the United States after studying with human geographer
. The prominence of determinism was influenced by the high profile of
, although it tended more to resemble the now-discredited
Between 1920 and 1940, environmental determinism came under repeated attacks as its claims were found to be severely faulted at best, and often dangerously wrong. Geographers reacted to this by first developing the softer notion of "environmental
," and later by abandoning the search for theory and causal explanation for many decades. Later critics charged that determinism served to justify
. The experience of environmental determinism has left a scar on geography, with many geographers reacting negatively to any suggestion of environmental influences on human society.
While this accurately reflects the popular belief and perception in the geographic community towards environmental determinism, the debate was overlaid with hues of gray. Rostlund pointed out in his essay in
Readings in Cultural Geography
"Environmentalism was not disproved, only disapproved." He also points to the fact that the disapproval was not based on inaccurate findings, but rather a methodological process which stands in contrast to that of science, something the geographers have arguably sought to ascribe themselves to.
Carl O. Sauer
followed on from this in 1924 when he criticized the premature generalizations resulting from the bias of environmentalism... He pointed out that to define geography as the study of environmental influences is to assume in advance that such influences do operate, and that a science cannot be based upon or committed to a preconception."
A variant of environmental determinism was popular among
's basic model of the ideological and cultural superstructure being determined by the economic base, they added the idea that the economic base is determined by environmental conditions. For example, Russian geographer
argued that the reason his nation was still in the
era, rather than having progressed to
and becoming ripe for the revolution into
, was that the wide plains of Russia allowed class conflicts to be easily diffused. This Marxist environmental determinism was repudiated around the same time as classic environmental determinism.
Examples of Cultural Determinism in History
argued that political behavior was universal, he also pointed out that elements of culture, particularly religion, could produce particular political arrangements which were advantageous to those that had them.
wrote about the relationship between
, arguing that the cultural aspects of religion, including the
Protestant work ethic
, were crucial in the emergence of economic arrangements.
had a large element of cultural determinism, drawn from writers such as
. In the context of Romanticism, the geography molded individuals, and over time customs and culture related to that geography arose, and these, being in harmony with the place of the society, were better than arbitrarily imposed laws.
In media theory many writers take the position that political arrangements are determined by the mass media images that people see, and that these, by displacing other forms of culture, determine the economic and political arrangements.
In modern conservatism, individuals such as commentator
and economist Robert Barro argue that cultural norms determine the behavior of political arrangements. However, the cultural determinism of Buchanan and like-minded conservatives is currently a
source of conflict
among American conservatives.
How the Term "Cultural Ecology" Was Created
(1955) is associated with the term. In his "Theory of Culture Change; The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution" , cultural ecology represents the
..ways in which culture change is induced by adaptation to the environment.
It is this assertion - that the physical environment affects culture - that had proved controversial, because it implies an element of
over human actions. Cultural ecology is, indeed, inflicted with mild environmental determinism, but the approach has value in the types of situations in which it was developed. Less so in connected and globalised societies.
Steward's method was to: 1) document the technologies & methods used to exploit the environment - to get a living from it. 2) look at patterns of human behavior/culture associated with using the environment. 3) assess how much these patterns of behavior influenced other aspects of culture (e.g., how, in a drought-prone region, great concern over rainfall patterns meant this became central to everyday life, and led to the development of a religious belief system in which rainfall and water figured very strongly. This belief system may not appear in a society where good rainfall for crops can be taken for granted, or where irrigation was practiced).
Steward's ideas of cultural ecology became widespread among anthropologists and archaeologists of the mid-20th century, though they would later be critiqued for their environmental determinism. Cultural ecology was one of the central tenets and driving factors in the development of
in the 1960s, as archaeologists understood cultural change through the framework of environmental adaptation.
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