A Student's Introduction to Geographical Thought: Theories, Philosophies, Methodologies


Pauline Couper

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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    List of Figures, Tables and Boxes

    About the Author

    Pauline Couper is Head of Programme for Geography at York St John University. Prior to this she was Senior Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the University of St Mark & St John (Marjon) in Plymouth, where she taught research methods and guided undergraduates through research projects for over a decade and supported staff research within the University from 2004 to 2014. In 2014 she was awarded the Marjon Students’ Union ‘Student-Led Teaching Award’ for ‘Outstanding Supervisor'. Also winner of the RGS-Blackwell Area prize (2005), Pauline has a PhD in fluvial geomorphology and professional experience in geo-conservation, and has always maintained enthusiasm for the breadth of the discipline. Her research interests now lie predominantly in philosophy of geography and human/environment relations, particularly in terms of how geographical and environmental knowledges are developed and performed.


    Appropriately for a geography book, the existence and form of this one have undoubtedly been influenced by place. When I first moved to Plymouth (UK) I had no inkling that I would ever own a boat but, after several years in the city, it seemed a perfectly reasonable idea. There are boats for almost every budget, which was quite a revelation for someone who grew up with a notion that boats were solely the preserve of the rich and glamorous. Owning an old boat means winters were spent in the boatyard for maintenance and restoration. Many jobs benefit from two pairs of hands, but space inside a boat can be somewhat restrictive. So it was that I found myself standing out of the way at the back of the boat, enjoying the sunshine of a crisp early spring morning on the bank of the river, with time for my mind to wander. ‘I wish there was a book that…’ was followed by a ‘Maybe…’ kind of thought. I found a scrap of paper in my pocket with various boat dimensions written on one side, turned it over and scribbled a list of half a dozen chapters I thought might be needed in such a book. Later that summer, and with Robert Rojek's encouragement, I was developing that initial list into a full proposal. The boat was now in the water, and half way across Plymouth Sound one Sunday afternoon it occurred to me that the question, ‘What is a beach?’ could provide a way in to different philosophical perspectives. So this book is very much a product of the place in which it was written.

    Specifically, my wish was for a book that provides clear explanations of the various ‘-isms’ that have influenced geography, in terms of what they are, where they came from, and what they mean for geographical research. This, then, has been my guiding aim, and it is an aim that implies making the connections between abstract philosophy or theory and the practices of research methodology.

    Chapter 1 uses the question, ‘What is a beach?’ to introduce some basic philosophical concepts, drawing out some of the different ways that geographers might answer that question. The beach provides a convenient site for thinking across the breadth of the discipline and, I hope, an accessible introduction to what can be difficult ideas.

    In Chapters 2 to 8, I have tried to make the philosophy-theory-methodology connections explicit by:

    • Providing an account of recent published research (at least one journal article, and in some chapters more than one) to illustrate how those abstract assumptions or ideas translate into research practices. In most cases the examples used are from 2010 or later.
    • Developing an exercise for each chapter that requires students to read a selected journal article (available via the companion website) and answer questions about it, making the connections between philosophy or theory and methodology for themselves. Again, the papers used are from 2010 or later. Knowing the frustration of exercises without the possibility of feedback, the companion website provides some answers or commentary responses to the questions, enabling students to obtain some form of ‘feedback’ on their own thinking if they are working independently.
    • Speculating about the kind of research that could be conducted at the beach using the perspective(s) discussed in the chapter. These speculations are intended as starting points, initial ideas or sketches, for the purpose of illustrating the (often tentative) moves between philosophy, theory and methodology as a potential research project begins to take shape. These ‘at the beach’ discussions form relatively minor components of Chapters 2 to 8, but enable further comparison of geography's different ‘-isms’ in Chapter 10.

    For Chapters 2 to 8, in particular, there is potential to make the book and its companion website more interactive. At the end of Chapter 1 I invite readers to send me (via Twitter) details of any recent journal article that provides a good example for one of the chapters, for listing on the companion website. I would ask academics to encourage students in this; if the invitation is taken up the website has potential to build into a more substantial resource for everyone.

    Finally, this was always going to be a book that addressed the breadth of the discipline, at least to the extent that my own education, interests, experience and time to read allow. I have always felt vaguely disappointed to pick up a text that claims to be about ‘geography’ and find half of the discipline neglected. This is not to claim that there is nothing missing here, and the approach taken certainly risks losing the coherence of chronological narrative that others (such as Unwin, 1992 or Holt-Jensen, 2009) have offered, but I have endeavoured to keep the whole of geography in mind. My reasons for doing so are evident in the concluding discussion of the book as well.

    Those, then, were the aims I set out with. The degree to which I have achieved them must be left for others to judge. I have certainly learnt a lot from writing this, and I hope that others find something of value in it too.


    My understanding of geographical research was shaped by the Worcester geographers of the 1990s. In no particular order, this means: Brian Adlam, Les Morris, Rex Hall, Ian Maddock, Dave Storey, Heather Barratt, Richard Yarwood (now at Plymouth University), Bill Kelly, Nick Evans, John Fagg, Cheryl Jones, Paul Larcombe, Des McDougall, Tim Hall (now at the University of Winchester), David Sudlow, Paul Larcombe, Patch Hopcroft and a few others. Some are still at the University of Worcester, some have moved on, and some are sadly no longer with us. The degree they provided undoubtedly laid the foundations for the work presented here. I needed no encouragement to stay on for a doctorate, supervised by Ian. Thanks also to Ruth Thornhill, for many geographical discussions and happy field days together.

    Since leaving Worcester, working for over a decade in small institutions has brought the benefit of many conversations both across the discipline and between disciplines. The former geography staff and students at (what is now) the University of St Mark & St John were central to this, and I am also grateful for the collegiality of the outdoor adventure education staff there. Particular thanks go to geographers Wendy Gill for answering questions about beach biodiversity, and Tony Atkin for the use of his photograph of the Lyd Valley (Figure 6.1).

    I am indebted to philosopher Paul Grosch (University of St Mark & St John, retired) for his endless willingness to answer questions and share his knowledge of his own discipline. We have had countless discussions over the years, interspersed with musical interludes, and life is the richer for both. I am particularly grateful to Paul for reading drafts of some of the chapters here and providing feedback on the philosophical content. I am also grateful to the six anonymous reviewers of the original proposal for this book, and to the two anonymous chapter reviewers, for their constructive comments. One of these reviewers gave the time and effort to provide feedback on the majority of the chapters, and this pushed me to refine my thinking about what I was doing, as well as improve the content. It goes without saying that errors and omissions remain my own.

    Thanks to Robert Rojek at SAGE, for listening to an idea, working with and contributing to it, answering questions, and generally being at the other end of email when I have needed it. Thanks also to Keri Dickens, Katherine Haw and the others at SAGE.

    A big thanks to my parents, Sue and Glynn Davies, for a life lived with books. They, my sister Lizzy Glyn-Jones, and the rest of the family have been constant in their interest and support, even though there were times they heard little from me because of the book.

    Finally, the biggest thanks must go to my husband Kevin Couper: for sharing the ups and downs; for not complaining about the endless succession of evenings and weekends that I was working on this; for generously letting me use so many photographs, and – even better – being interested enough to take some especially for the book. Most of all, thanks for always believing in me, and for always being there.

    Reproduction of Copyright Material

    The author would like to thank the following for permission to reproduce copyright material:

    Kevin Couper for the photographs reproduced as Figures 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 7.2b, 8.1, 8.3b, 8.4 and 8.6a.

    Taylor & Francis for Figure 2.2, from O'Loughlin, J. and Witmer, F.D. (2011) ‘The localized geographies of violence in the North Caucasus of Russia, 1999–2007'. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101 (1): 178–201.

    Sage for Figure 4.1, from Yeung, H.W. (1997) ‘Critical realism and realist research in human geography: a method or a philosophy in search of a method?’ Progress in Human Geography 21 (1): 51–74.

    Wiley for Figure 5.2, from Couper, P.R. and Ansell, L. (2012) ‘Researching the outdoors: exploring the unsettled frontier between science and adventure', Area 44 (1): 14–21; for Figure 8.2, from Inkpen, R. (2007) ‘Interpretation of erosion rates on rock surfaces', Area 39 (1): 31–42.

    Tony Atkin for the photograph reproduced as Figure 6.1.

    About the Companion Website

    A Student's Introduction to Geographical Thought‘s companion website https://study.sagepub.com/couper contains a variety of resources to help you get the most out of the book. These are arranged by chapter for convenience, and consist of:

    • Materials to support the exercises in each chapter, including:
      • Full-text access to journal articles used in the exercises;
      • Answers or commentary responses to the exercises, so that students working independently can assess their own understanding.
    • Full-text access to collections of papers from Progress in Human Geography and Progress in Physical Geography, enabling students to follow up on the ideas introduced in each chapter and develop their understanding further.
    • Supplementary materials tailored to each chapter, including internet links, additional text and kml files for Google Earth (enabling readers with Google Earth to look at places or examples of the features discussed in some of the chapters).

    You can contribute to the website too. Please tweet recommendations of journal articles (or other resources) that are good examples of the philosophies and theories discussed in the book to @DrPaulineCouper using the hashtag #GeoThought.

  • Glossary


    A form of reasoning or inference, often referred to (in philosophy of science) as ‘inference to the best explanation’. To borrow an example from Douven (2011), walking along the beach, you see what looks like a picture of Winston Churchill in the sand. It might be that what you are looking at is actually the trace of an ant crawling on the beach. ‘The much simpler, and therefore (you think) much better, explanation is that someone intentionally drew a picture of Churchill in the sand. That, in any case, is what you come away believing.’ Like induction, abduction draws conclusions that go beyond the information that we start with (for example, from observations). The difference is that abduction makes an appeal to explanation to provide grounds for the conclusion.


    In Marxist and critical realist research, isolating a phenomenon of interest in thought to analyse it in depth. The aim is often to identify the processes and relations at work, or the necessary (essential) and contingent (incidental) characteristics of the phenomenon of interest.


    In Bruno Latour's Actor Network Theory, ‘actants’ are anything in a given situation that modifies other actors in that situation. In other words actants are ‘acting agents’, or ‘interveners’, people or things that make a difference to (have a part in shaping) the situation. Actants can be human and non-human (and hybrid). Latour used the word instead of ‘actors’ to emphasise the inclusion of non-human entities; to ‘rid the word of any trace of anthropomorphism’ (2005, p. 75). The term ‘actant’ thus emphasises the relations between human and non-human (and hybrid) entities.


    Wind-blown, as in aeolian processes and aeolian landforms.


    Associated with (but not quite the same as) feelings, emotions, attitudes, moods. Affect is relational, a pre-cognitive sensation arising from our interactions with people, things and places.

    angle of repose

    The steepest angle of slope (measured in degrees from horizontal) at which a granular material (such as sand or gravel), piled up, will come to rest.


    Having properties that vary with direction (are directionally dependent).


    Human-centred. In environmental ethics, anthropocentric world views prioritise human interests above all else, valuing the environment only in terms of its utility to humans.

    a priori

    A Latin term used in philosophy to denote knowledge that is independent of (‘comes before’ or is ‘prior to’) experience. This refers to statements that are logically true without reference to the state of things in the world. For example, ‘a bachelor is an unmarried man’ is true, regardless of whether any specific men are married or unmarried. This contrasts with a posteriori statements, whose truth is dependent upon the state of things in the world (and hence knowledge that is dependent on observation or experience).


    Particularly associated with the ideas of philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), for example in Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Deleuze described the social world as constisting of assemblages, or combinations of things in relations with each other. ‘Things’, in this case, can be material objects and people, but they can also be non-material, such as events, utterings, ideas or signs. Smith and Protevi (2013) describe an assemblage as ‘an emergent unity joining together heterogeneous bodies in a ‘consistency”.


    A set of states or properties towards which a dynamic system will evolve, regardless of its starting conditions. Some systems have multiple attractors, and so multiple possible sets of conditions that the system could tend towards.

    beach cusps

    In geomorphology, beach cusps form as a series of concave embayments separated by ‘horns’ of coarser material pointing seawards. An example of self-organization, where small-scale process dynamics combine to create larger-scale patterns.

    beach nourishment

    A form of beach management that involves importing sediment (sand or gravel) to replenish an eroding beach.


    In coastal geomorphology, the flat upper surface of a ridge or terrace formed on the landward part of the beach.


    Relating to the works of French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1690). His philosophical works provided the modern version of the mind–body problem, a dualist distinction between mental and material phenomena. In mathematics, Descartes developed a coordinate system by which a point on a plane can be described by two coordinates, indicating the distance of the point from two fixed lines which are perpendicular to each other (axes). This Cartesian coordinate system provides a link between Euclidean geometry and algebra.

    catastrophic events

    (e.g. in geomorphology) Large and sudden events, usually rare in human timescales.


    In science, the notion of chaos describes a deterministic system (one whose state at any one time determines its future states) that is difficult to predict. We often think that deterministic systems should be easily predictable, but in a chaotic system, what happens in the future is highly sensitive to the current state of the system. Minor differences can give rise to very different outcomes.

    closed system

    In physical sciences, a system (consisting of inputs, throughputs and outputs) which has inputs and outputs of energy but not matter.

    complexity theory

    A collection of ideas that provide an approach to science which focuses on the relationships between parts of a system, the collective behaviours generated by these relationships, and how the system interacts with its environment.


    Circumstances or events that are dependent upon particular conditions. Contrasts with those circumstances that are necessary for something to happen.

    critical rationalism

    A philosophy of science developed by Karl Popper. Critical rationalism emphasises deductive arguments and the falsification (as opposed to verification) of hypotheses and theories.

    critical realism

    A philosophy of science originating with Roy Bhaskar, and promoted within the social sciences through the work of Andrew Sayer, in particular. Bhaskar developed ‘transcendental realism’ as a philosophy of science, and ‘critical naturalism’ for social science. Others used the term ‘critical realism’ to refer to these in combination. Critical realism distinguishes between the empirical (our observations of events), the actual (events as they occur), and the real (mechanisms or structures that cause events). Critical realist geography thus seeks to uncover underlying, unobservable structures or mechanisms.

    cultural turn

    A movement within human geography and the social sciences more broadly to emphasise the role of culture in social life, drawing attention to practices of meaning-making and signification. Influenced by poststructuralist and postcolonial ideas, the cultural turn has been particularly strong in British cultural geography, developing from the late 1980s and through the 1990s. Valentine (2001) provides a useful review of the cultural turn and its influence on social geography.

    cycle of erosion

    The model of large-scale, long-term landscape development developed by William Morris Davis in the late nineteenth century (Davis, 1899 and subsequent works). Originally intended as a generally applicable model, it was developed on the basis of experience in humid temperate environments. As Davis encountered other environments (such as arid regions or glacial regions) he tried to produce modified versions to encompass these. The Cycle of Erosion is perhaps best known for the characterisation of landscapes (and rivers) as ‘young’, ‘mature’ or ‘old-age’. Davis’ work had a profound impact on geomorphology in the early twentieth century, but his Cycle of Erosion was heavily criticised. It fell out of favour by the mid-twentieth century as emphasis shifted to focus on the physical, chemical and biological bases for geomorphological processes.


    A form of argument that moves from generally applicable theories to specific cases. This form of argument was promoted by Karl Popper in his critical rationalist philosophy of science. Beginning with a generally applicable theory, we can apply it to a specific case to develop ‘risky predictions’ (hypotheses), and then use empirical evidence to test whether or not the theory is true.


    In Marxist theory, a method of examining things from opposite perspectives, for example considering identity and difference, or quality and quantity.


    In general use, discourse refers to spoken (conversational) and written language. Foucault demonstrated that language is inseparable from how we understand the world (our concepts and ideas), and so inseparable from what we do in the world. Discourse thus extends beyond purely language to encompass our actions and practices.

    drainage basin

    An area of land that drains into a single river system. Sometimes referred to as the ‘watershed’ (often in North American literature), although this term can also be used to denote the boundary between drainage basins.


    A landform consisting of glacial debris, sometimes with a bedrock core, in the shape of an elongated or streamlined hillock. The long axis of the drumlin lies parallel to the flow direction of the glacier under which it formed. Drumlins occurring together can create what is sometimes termed a ‘basket of eggs’ topography.


    In complexity theory, complex systems or patterns arise from – emerge from – the multiple interactions of smaller-scale phenomena. Emergence thus refers to collective behaviour or, as Bar-Yam (2011) puts it, ‘what parts of a system do together that they would not do alone’.


    (Knowledge) based on observable evidence or experience, rather than on logical reasoning or theory.


    In philosophy, the doctrine that all knowledge is gained from sense experience.


    The branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. Issues of what constitutes knowledge, and of how we can know something, are central to epistemology.

    Euclidean geometry

    A mathematical conception of space thought to have been developed by Greek mathematician Euclid, and the only known form of geometry for 2,000 years. Euclidean geometry describes objects in space in terms of points, lines, areas and volumes, using the dimensions of length, height and width. In simple terms, this is space as an ‘empty container’ in which objects exist and events happen.


    A collection of philosophical and theoretical ideas centred on the role of gender in shaping social life, but extending to encompass other social categorisations. In particular, feminist thought challenges hierarchical inequalities and the use of binary classifications.


    Infinitely complex patterns in which every part has the same statistical properties as the whole (self-similarity across scales). Fractals occupy fractional dimensions, between 1D and 2D (lines and planes), or between 2D and 3D (planes and objects).

    grey literature

    Written material that is not available through commercial publishing outlets. This includes a range of materials from a variety of sources, such as reports, technical specifications and standards, theses, policy documents, fact sheets, working papers and other ‘official documents’ that are not published commercially (such as reports by governments or non-governmental organisations). Some consider ‘grey literature’ to encompass anything other than books and journal articles.

    grounded theory

    A social research methodology that aims to develop theory from data (rather than applying pre-existing theory), through progressively identifying categories of meaning emerging from the data. The origins of this approach lay in the work of Glaser and Strauss (1967), but grounded theory has since been utilised across many different disciplinary fields.


    Relating to the sense of touch. Haptic geographies thus emphasise bodily sensations.

    humanistic geography

    A form of geography that developed in the 1970s, and that placed humans – in terms of their experiences, perceptions, actions and agency – at the centre of geography. Humanistic geography's focus is on people's behaviour and relations with the world around them; the meanings, ideas and emotions through which such relations are manifest; and the creative capacity of human thoughts and actions.


    A simulation that is exaggerated in comparison to reality, better than the ‘real thing’. Associated with the (poststructuralist) theories of Jean Beaudrillard.


    There are various forms of idealism. In its strictest sense, idealism is the doctrine (associated with Bishop Berkeley) that nothing exists outside of human minds; all is mental or spiritual in nature. Social scientists tend to use a broader conception of idealism, associated with the German idealist philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The focus here is on things as they appear to us, without necessarily making assumptions as to whether things exist in themselves (outside of our conception of them).


    Relating to particularities, rather than general laws or principles. Regional geography is an example of idiographic geography, seeking to understand the particular characteristics of individual regions. Contrasts with nomothetic (or systematic) geography.


    Policy and associated practices that seek to extend the power or influence of one state over others. Often associated with colonisation and empire (the source of the term), imperialism takes many forms (cultural, social, economic).


    A form of argument that moves from observation of specific cases to generally applicable theories. The problem with induction is that we cannot be sure the theories derived in this way are ‘true’; there is no logical basis for assuming that future observations and experiences will always conform to past observations and experiences.


    (in physical geography) Inherited landscapes and landforms are those which formed under different environmental (e.g. climatic or tectonic) conditions than the present. In the UK, processes in the Late Glacial period formed much of the physical landscape that we now see. Inherited features thus include misfit valleys, much larger than the streams that now occupy them, and the U-shaped valleys characteristic of glacial landscapes (with some particularly good examples in Scotland and the Lake District).


    A mode of thought that values an activity (such as research, or education) only for the purposes it serves or outcomes it yields, and not for its own sake.


    Relating to a transition, threshold or boundary, neither one thing nor another. A liminal place is a place where normal rules do not apply, perhaps because such places are hard to reach, or they have become places associated with unlawful activities, or they are marginal in some way.


    An environment characterised by moving freshwater.


    In philosophy, the metaphysical thesis that everything that exists is matter, or stems from matter. (This is often considered to be synonymous with ‘physicalist’, although the two have not always been seen as the same thing.) In geography, materialism denotes a focus on physical, material objects. In Marxist geographies this takes the form of emphasising the role of material productive technologies and capacities in shaping society (historical materialism). Cultural geography's recent (re)turn to materialism takes a relational focus, emphasising the agency of the material world in the social world and vice versa.


    The branch of philosophy that deals the ultimate nature of reality; the first principles of abstract concepts such as being, time, space and identity. Ontology is a major branch of metaphysics.


    The overall system of methods used to conduct research.


    The micro-organisms of a habitat or site.


    An approach to understanding the physical landscape that focuses on the interactions between (or mutual adjustments of) form and process. The morphodynamic approach to coasts thus considers coastal geomorphology, the fluid dynamics of moving water, the processes of sediment transport that result from their interaction, and the resulting feedbacks between them.


    The idea that the social world can be studied by the same methods as the natural world.


    Law-like. Nomothetic, or systematic, geography seeks to understand particular types of phenomena and produce generally applicable (law-like) statements about them. Contrasts with idiographic geography.


    In science (including physical geography), a linear relation is where two quantities are proportional to each other. Doubling one has the effect of doubling the other. A nonlinear relation is any relation that is not linear. A nonlinear system is thus one in which the outputs are not proportional to the inputs.

    non-representational theory

    A theory or group of theories that emphasise experience, in that the world is experienced before it is represented. The practices of everyday life, our being-in-the-world and the ways in which space, places and beings are always-becoming (and hence always have potential) are emphasised. (See Chapter 5 for more.)


    Establishing a standard or norm (e.g. of behaviour), i.e. that applies or should apply to everyone, or to which everyone is supposed to conform.


    The major branch of metaphysics, that deals with questions of existence and what exists.

    open system

    In the natural sciences, an open system is a system (consisting of inputs, throughputs and outputs) that has inputs and outputs of both energy and matter. This is in contrast to closed systems (which have inputs/outputs of energy but not matter) and isolated systems (with no inputs or outputs). In the social sciences, an open system describes a situation in which there are non-deterministic relationships between entities, those entities being both material and non-material (such as ideas), human and non-human.


    Relating to past environments or environmental conditions.


    Commonly taken to mean the frame of reference within which an academic discipline operates, and which legitimates the kinds of questions asked and the kinds of methodological approaches adopted. The term also refers to a typical example of something (the ‘paradigmatic’ example). ‘Paradigm’ is typically associated with Thomas Kuhn's conception of the progress of science (see Chapter 6, for more on the use of the term).

    path dependence

    When current circumstances are shaped by the past trajectory of events or decisions made. Future possibilities are thus dependent on (or constrained by) the history of the system or situation of interest. The term ‘path dependence’ seems more common in human geography than physical geography. A similar notion of ‘contingency’ is found in geomorphology, where the future possibilities for landscape change are dependent (contingent) upon the current circumstances, which are in turn shaped by the historical trajectory of change.


    A philosophical movement that sought to understand things as they appear to us, or as we experience them. Associated with Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre (existential phenomenology) and Merleau-Ponty in particular. See Chapter 5.


    The academic discipline concerned to understand the fundamental nature of reality, existence and knowledge.

    political ecology

    Broadly, the study of environmental issues in the context of political, economic and social relations. However, there is no clear consensus on a definition.

    political economy

    The production, distribution and consumption of resources understood as constituted in and by social relations (and particularly power relations).


    A philosophy of science developed by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century, and then taken further by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century. Positivism emphasises: empirical evidence as the basis of knowledge; mathematical analysis of data (mathematics being the simplest and most generally applicable ‘science’); identification of patterns to infer causal relations; promotion of the unity of the sciences (through method or language). (See Chapter 2.)


    Refers to a style, era and theory (or mode of thought) considered to have developed after, and in reaction to, modernism. Postmodernism is characterised by an eclecticism, consciously (and self-consciously) drawing on and amalgamating a range of influences, and a distrust of ‘meta-theory’ (overarching theory that provides explanation of, or justification for, everything). Associated with Baudrillard and Lyotard (although only the latter described his own work as postmodernist). (See Chapter 7.)


    Closely associated with postmodernism, in that the boundaries between the two are not distinct. Poststructuralism rejects structuralist explanations of society, understanding meaning as relational. This often leads poststructuralists to challenge binary categorisations, focusing on the ways that meanings and identities are produced and resisted. Associated with Derrida and Foucault (and others). (See Chapter 7.)


    A philosophical movement in which the meaning of an idea or proposition is considered to lie in its practical consequences. If the practical implications of two ideas are the same, then there is nothing to judge between those ideas.

    Quantitative Revolution

    The transition from qualitative, descriptive regional studies to quantitative, systematic studies that occurred in Anglo-American geography around the middle of the twentieth century.


    The assumption or belief that objects are real, existing independently of our minds. Scientific realism adds to this the assumptions that our scientific theories are true (the semantic commitment), and that it is possible for us to know the truth about real observable and unobservable objects (the epistemological commitment).


    A means of analysing and describing a complex or complicated phenomenon in terms of its simpler component parts. In physical geography this often implies using the basic principles of chemistry and physics, a move that is consistent with a positivist philosophy of science.


    In research, a process by which the researcher continually reflects on themselves as researcher, and their relations with research participants. In particular, such reflection attends to the researcher's social situation (particularly in relation to research participants), knowledge, experiences and values, and how these may be influencing the knowledge produced through the research.


    An understanding of truth, knowledge and morality as existing in relation to social, cultural or historical context. Relativism thus contends that there is no absolute right or wrong, no absolute truth or falsity, and no certainty in knowledge.


    Not associated with spiritual or religious matters. Secular ethics thus addresses issues of what is right and wrong without reference to religion.


    A type of emergent behaviour found in complex systems, whereby the dynamics and feedbacks operating within a system (rather than imposed from outside the system) lead to the development of a pattern of behaviour or form. Examples discussed in Chapter 8 include sand ripples, patterned ground and beach cusps.


    A mathematical term to describe something that is an approximate copy of itself at different scales.


    Relating to meaning.

    shore platform

    A horizontal or gently sloping rocky platform occurring at the base of sea cliffs. Shore platforms can occur at high tide level, or can be inter-tidal (between high and low tide levels) or sub-tidal (only exposed by the very lowest tides).

    social constructionism

    A mode of thought that considers our knowledge and concepts to be products of our social lives and practices (weak social constructionism). Strong social constructionists would argue that the entities we perceive are socially produced. (See Chapter 6.)


    A perspective that seeks to explain events and processes through reference to underlying structures or causal mechanisms.

    swash flow

    The circulation of water in the nearshore shallow part of the beach, the zone of wave breaking and uprush.


    In philosophy, transcendental arguments are those that identify conditions that are necessary, in order for us to have coherent experiences or knowledge. Such arguments therefore ‘go beyond’ (transcend) our experience or knowledge.


    A supposition or set of ideas providing explanation for something. A generalised, abstract set of ideas about how phenomena are related.


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