Approaches to Human Geography


Edited by: Stuart Aitken & Gill Valentine

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Philosophies

    Part II: People

    Part III: Practices

  • Copyright

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    List of Contributors

    Stuart Aitken is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at San Diego State University.

    Clive Barnett is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the Open University.

    Fernando J. Bosco is Assistant Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at San Diego State University.

    Vera Chouinard is Professor of Geography in the School of Geography and Geology at McMaster University.

    David B. Clarke is Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Wales, Swansea.

    Deborah P. Dixon is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth, University of Wales.

    Isabel Dyck is Reader in Geography, Queen Mary, University of London.

    Kim England is Associate Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington.

    J. Nicholas Entrikin is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    A. Stewart Fotheringham is Science Foundation Ireland Research Professor and Director of National Centre for Geocomputation, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

    Reginald G. Golledge is Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Michael F. Goodchild is Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Paul Harrison is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Durham.

    David Harvey is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, City University of New York.

    George Henderson is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota.

    John Paul Jones III is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography and Regional Development at the University of Arizona.

    Robin A. Kearns is Associate Professor in the School of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Auckland.

    Rob Kitchin is Director of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

    Lawrence Knopp is Professor of Geography and Urban Studies in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

    David Ley is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia.

    Linda McDowell is Professor of Human Geography in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

    Janice Monk is Professor of Geography and Regional Development and Research Social Scientist Emerita in Women's Studies at the University of Arizona.

    Richa Nagar is Associate Professor in Women's Studies at the University of Minnesota.

    Paul Robbins is Associate Professor of Geography and Regional Development, University of Arizona.

    Paul Rodaway is Director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Paisley.

    Gerard Rushton is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Iowa.

    Michael Samers is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham.

    Andrew Sayer is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University.

    Eric Sheppard is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota.

    John H. Tepple is a researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    Gill Valentine is Professor of Human Geography in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds.

    John W. Wylie is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield.


    A project this large is almost always a long time in coming together. Many of the chapter authors were long suffering through several rounds of edits and unforeseen delays. We would like to thank those who were on board from the beginning, who believed in what we were trying to do, and who stuck with us. Others came on board later in the project and we'd like to thank them for the swiftness with which they worked. We would also like to acknowledge the support of faculty and student seminar and reading groups at San Diego State University, and colleagues and students at Universities of Leeds and Sheffield. Special thanks go to Fernando Bosco, who allowed some of the ideas in this book to be shared in his ‘Philosophy in Geography’ seminar; and to Charlotte Kenten for all her hard work reformatting chapters and chasing missing information.

    There is only one Robert Rojek! We owe a huge debt to him for commissioning and supporting the development of this manuscript through its long gestation process. The quality of the final product is due to the efforts of David Mainwaring, Brian Goodale the copyeditor, and Vanessa Harwood the production editor.

    Finally, we want to acknowledge the continuing inspiration and energy we gain from our graduate students, and we want to thank them for challenging our ways of knowing.

  • Exercises

    • Define the following terms and briefly state their significance for human geography: dialectic, patriarchy, epistemology, ontology, phenomenology, gender.
    • Structuration theories are inherently attractive as an ontology, but using them as a basis for research is highly problematic. Discuss.
    • By focusing solely on the thoughts and actions of ‘ordinary folk’, humanistic geography is romantic, superficial and empirical. Critically evaluate this assessment of humanistic geography.
    • Human geography has moved from the absolutes of positivism to the relativities of postmodernism. Discuss this statement and identify what has been gained and lost on the way.
    • Outline the main consequences for human geography of the quantitative revolution.
    • What was radical about the development of Marxist approaches to human geography in the 1960s and 1970s?
    • ‘We need to contemplate the human world less in terms of “grand theories” and more in terms of humble, eclectic and empirically grounded materials’ (P. Cloke, C. Philo and D. Sadler, eds, 2003, Approaching Human Geography, London: Chapman). To what extent do you agree with this approach to the study of human geography? 8 Critically evaluate the role of agency in actor-network theory.
    • Outline postcolonial critiques of representation. What are the implications of this for doing human geography research?
    • Choose a well-known human geographer, and research the development of their career and writing. How does their work reflect particular philosophical or methodological approaches to geography?
    • The topic of your research project is immigration. For each of the philosophies outlined in Part 1 of this book, identify how a geographer adopting this approach might go about researching this topic. What are the similarities and differences between them?


    • Actor-network theory A theoretical approach that holds to the indivisibility of human and non-human agents, exploring the ways that different materials are enrolled in networks. Originally developed in debates about the production of scientific knowledge, actor-network theory (often abbreviated to ANT) opens up the ‘black boxes’ of action to explore the way that heterogeneous materials are continually assembled to allow actions to occur.
    • Agency Literally, the ability to act. Commonly used to refer to the ability of people to make choices or decisions which shape their own lives. This notion of self-determination has formed an important part of the humanistic critique of structuralist approaches to geography.
    • Behaviouralism An outlook or system of thought that believes that human activity can best be explained by studying the human decision-making processes that shape that activity. Originally developed in psychology, largely as a reaction to the mechanistic excesses of experimental psychology, behaviouralism – and more particularly cognitive behaviouralism – came to prominence in the human geography of the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily based on methods of quantification, behavioural geography has been criticized for its adherence to positivist principles, as well as its unwillingness to explore the role of the unconscious mind, although it still underpins many research projects, particularly those based on survey research.
    • Capital accumulation The use or investment of capital to produce more capital. This is the aim of, or driving force in, a capitalist society. It results in patterns of uneven development.
    • Capitalism The political-economic system in which the organization of society is structured in relation to a mode of production that prioritizes the generation of profit for those who own the means of production. Such a structuring sees a clear division in status, wealth and living conditions between those few who own or control the means of production (bourgeois) and those who work for them (proletariat).
    • Citizenship The relationship between individuals and a political body (i.e. the nation-state). Usually conceptualized in terms of the rights/privileges that individuals can expect in return for fulfilling certain obligations to the state.
    • Class A system of social stratification based on people's economic position (specifically the social relations of property and work). Understandings and definitions of class are highly contested.
    • Commodification The processes through which people, ideas or things are converted into commodities that can be bought and sold. As such it is a manifestation of capitalism. Such is the extensiveness of commodification that it is alleged by some writers to be contributing to the creation of a global culture.
    • Critical geography Though diverse in its epistemology, ontology and methodology, and hence lacking a distinctive theoretical identity, critical geography nonetheless brings together those working with different approaches (e.g. Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, poststructural) through a shared commitment to expose the sociospatial processes that (re)produce inequalities between people and places. In other words, critical geographers are united in general terms by their ideological stance and their desire to study and engender a more just world. This interest in studying and changing the social, cultural, economic or political relations that create unequal, uneven, unjust and exploitative geographies is manifest in engagements with questions of moral philosophy and social and environmental justice as well as in attempts to bridge the divide between research and praxis.
    • Cultural turn A trend in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries which has seen the social sciences and humanities increasingly focus on culture (and specifically the construction, negotiation and contestation of meanings). Linked to postmodernist philosophies.
    • Deconstruction A method of analysis that seeks to critique and destabilize apparently stable systems of meaning in discourses by illustrating their contradictions, paradoxes, and contingent nature.
    • Dialectics A form of explanation and representation that emphasizes the resolution of binary oppositions. Rather than understanding the relationship between two elements as a one-way cause and effect, dialectical thinking understands them to be part of, and inherent in, each other. A dialectic approach has been an important part of structuralist accounts that seek to understand the interplay between individuals and society.
    • Difference Poststructuralist theory has emphasized the need to recognize the complexity of human social differences associated with culturally constructed notions of gender, race, sexuality, age, disability, etc. This means providing an analysis that is sensitive to the differences between individuals and avoids overgeneralizations.
    • Discourse Sets of connected ideas, meanings and practices through which we talk about or represent the world.
    • Dualism Where two factors (e.g. home/work; body/mind; nature/culture; private/public) are assumed to be distinct and mutually exclusive and to have incompatible characteristics.
    • Empiricism A philosophy of science that emphasizes empirical observation over theory. In other words it assumes ‘facts speak for themselves’.
    • Essentialism The belief that social differences (such as gender, race, etc.) are determined by biology and that bodies therefore have fixed properties or ‘essences’.
    • Feminism A set of perspectives that seek to explore the way that gender relations are played out in favour of men rather than women. In human geography, such perspectives have suggested that space is crucial in the maintenance of patriarchy – the structure by which women are exploited in the private and public sphere.
    • Humanistic A theoretical approach to geography which is characterized by an emphasis on human agency, consciousness and meanings and values. It developed in the 1970s partially as a critique of the spatial science of positivism.
    • Ideology A set of meanings, ideas or values which (re)produce relations of domination and subordination.
    • Marxism A set of theories developed from the writing of Karl Marx, a nineteenth-century German philosopher. Marxist approaches to geography use these insights to examine geographies of capitalism, challenging the processes that produce patterns of uneven development.
    • Mode of production A Marxist-derived term that denotes the way that relations of production are organized in specific periods. Currently, it is accepted that the world is organized so as to reproduce and maintain a capitalist mode of production, though it is emphasized that feudal, socialist and communist modes of production have been (and in some cases still remain) dominant in some nations.
    • Non-representational theory A theory that seeks to move the emphasis of analysis from representation and interpretation to practice and mobility. Emphasis is placed on studying processes of becoming, recognizing that the world is always in the making, and that such becoming is not always discursively formed (framed within, or arising out of, discourse). Here, society consists of a set of heterogeneous actants who produce space and time through embodied action that often lacks reason and purpose. To understand how the world is becoming involves observant participation – a self-directed analysis of how people interact and produce space through their movement and practice.
    • Objectivity The assumption that knowledge is produced by individuals who can detach themselves from their own experiences, positions and values and therefore approach the object being researched in a neutral or disinterested way.
    • Other/othering The ‘other’ refers to the person that is different or opposite to the self. Othering is the process through which the other is often defined in relation to the self in negative ways: for example, woman is often constructed as other to man; black as the other of white; and so on.
    • Paradigm The assumptions and ideas that define a particular way of thinking about and undertaking research that become the dominant way of theorizing a discipline over a period of time until challenged and replaced by a new paradigm.
    • Political economy Theoretical approaches that stress the importance of the political organization of economic reproduction in structuring social, economic and political life. Associated in human geography with the influence of Marxist thinking, political economy perspectives in fact encompass a variety of approaches that explore the workings of market economies.
    • Positionality Refers to the way that our own experiences, beliefs and social location affect the way we understand the world and go about researching it.
    • Positivism A theoretical approach to human geography, characterized by the adoption of a scientific approach in which theories/models derived from observations are empirically verified through scientific methods to produce spatial laws. Positivism came to the fore in the 1950s and 1960s in what was known as the quantitative revolution.
    • Postcolonialism A set of approaches that seek to expose the ongoing legacy of the colonial era for those nations that were subject to occupation by white, European colonizers. Emphasizing both the material and the symbolic effects of colonialism, postcolonial perspectives are particularly concerned with the ways that notions of inferiority and otherness are mapped onto the global south by the north, though postcolonial perspectives have also been utilized to explore the race and ethnic relations played out on different scales.
    • Postmodernism A theoretical approach to human geography which rejects the claims of grand theories or metanarratives. Instead it recognizes that all knowledge is partial, fluid and contingent and emphasizes a sensitivity to difference and an openness to a range of voices. Deconstruction is a postmodern method. Postmodernism is also a style, associated with a particular form of architecture and aesthetics.
    • Poststructuralism A broad set of theoretical positions that problematize the role of language in the construction of knowledge. Contrary to structural approaches, which see the world as constructed through fixed forms of language, such approaches emphasize the slipperiness of language and the instability of text. A wide-ranging set of assertions follow from this key argument, including the assertion that subjects are made through language; the idea that life is essentially unstable, and only given stability through language; the irrelevance of distinctions between realities and simulacra; ultimately, that there is nothing ‘beyond the text’. In human geography, poststructural thought has provoked attempts to deconstruct a wide variety of texts (including maps) and has encouraged geographers to reject totalizing and foundationalist discourses (especially those associated with structural Marxism).
    • Qualitative method In human geography, this denotes those methods that accept words and text as legitimate forms of data, including discourse analysis, ethnography, interviewing, and numerous methods of visual analysis. Mainly tracing their roots to the arts and humanities, such methods have often been depicted as ‘soft’ methods, and hence described as feminist in orientation. Latterly, however, such simplistic assertions have been dismissed, and qualitative methods proliferate across the discipline in areas including economic and political geography.
    • Quantitative method In human geography, this denotes those methods that prioritize numerical data, including survey techniques, use of secondary statistics, numerous forms of experimentation, and many forms of content analysis. Mainly derived from the natural sciences, such methods are often depicted as ‘hard’ methods, deriving their analytical rigour and validity by association with masculine modes of science and exploration. However, numerous critiques have exposed the subjectivity of quantitative methods, and suggested their techniques cannot be understood as objective ways of looking at and understanding the world. This has led to a reappraisal of the quantitative method in areas of the discipline such as social and cultural geography where it has long been anathema.
    • Realism A theoretical perspective that seeks to transcend many of the problems associated with positivism and structuralism by seeking to isolate the causal properties of things that cause other things to happen in given situations. Based on a methodological distinction between extensive and intensive research, this approach was widely embraced in human geography in the 1980s as a way of distinguishing between spurious associations and meaningful relations.
    • Reflexivity Refers to a process of reflection about who we are, what we know, and how we come to know it.
    • Situated knowledge In a challenge to objectivity, a situated knowledge is one where theorization and empirical research are framed within the context in which they were formulated. Here, it is posited, knowledge is not simply ‘out there’ waiting to be collected but is rather made by actors who are situated within particular contexts. Research is not a neutral or an objective activity but is shaped by a host of influences ranging from personal beliefs to the culture of academia, to the conditions of funding, to individual relationships between researcher and researched, and so on. This situatedness of knowledge production needs to be reflexively documented to allow other researchers to understand the positionality of the researcher and the findings of a study.
    • Social justice Refers to the distribution of income and other forms of material benefits within society.
    • Spatial science An approach to understanding human geography that holds to the idea that there can be a search for general laws that will explain the distribution of human activity across the world's surface. Associated with the precepts of positivism, and mainly reliant on quantitative method, spatial science signalled geography's transition from an atheoretical discipline to one concerned with explanation rather than mere description. Emerging in the 1950s, and bolstered by the quantitative revolution of the 1960s, spatial science continues to be dominant in many areas of the discipline, though in others its philosophical underpinnings and theoretical conceits have long discredited it.
    • Structuralism A theoretical approach to human geography which is characterized by a belief that in order to understand the surface patterns of human behaviour it is necessary to understand the structures underlying them which produce or shape human actions.
    • Subject/subjective Subject refers to the individual human agent (includes both physical embodiment and thought/emotional dimensions). Subjective research is that which acknowledges the personal judgements, experiences, tastes, values and so on of the researcher.

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