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Martin Lewis on Geography

Martin W. Lewis is lecturer in international history and interim director of the program in International Relations at Stanford University. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies in 1979, and received a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in geography in 1987. His dissertation, and first book, “Wagering the Land: Ritual, Capital, […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison, and we're coming to you
from the Stanford campus.
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In title opinions with its first ever show today on the topic of geography.
Is that even possible?
The first sentence of Wikipedia's entry states, geography is the science that studies the
lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of earth.
That doesn't leave much out except outer space.
Quote, "Modern geography seeks to understand the earth and all of its human and natural complexities."
And then come the two main branches, human geography and physical geography.
Quote, "The former focuses on the built environment and how humans create, view, manage, and influence space."
The latter examines the natural environment and how organisms, climate, soil, water, and landforms produce and interact.
And if that's not enough, try environmental geography, which combines the two, and, quote, looks at the interactions between the environment and humans.
I wonder by my truth what thou and I did till we loved.
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Looks so good.
It looks so cool.
You plan to live some kind of--
Continuing with the account in Wikipedia, here are only some of the subdisciplines of physical geography.
Climatology and Meteorology.
Coastal geography.
Landscape ecology.
And here are a few subdisciplines of human geography.
Population geography.
Urban geography.
All this is great stuff and you have to admire the sheer gigantism of geography.
The earth is a big place after all and calls for a gigantic discipline.
And I use the word gigantic advisedly because in Greek mythology, the giants were the children of Gaia, the earth.
So even geontology, if such a thing existed, would or should be a subdiscipline of geography.
The problem with giants, however, is that their very bigness makes them vulnerable.
The titans were overthrown by a younger race of gods, the Olympians who consigned their predecessors to Tartarus and bound them there in chains.
Something similar seems to have happened to geography which in the past 50 years has lost a lot of ground to the point that one could almost say that it too has been consigned to the bowels of that earth to which its discipline as a whole is bound.
How, why, and where did this happen?
Wherefore this dramatic fall of a once supreme discipline.
These are some of the questions my guests and I will be discussing during the next hour.
I'm joined in the studio today by Martin Lewis, who teaches in the Department of History here at Stanford.
Martin Lewis received his PhD from UC Berkeley in geography in 1987.
His dissertation and first book examined the interplay between economic development, environmental degradation, and cultural change in the highlands of northern Luzon in the Philippines.
Subsequently he turned his attention to issues of global geography, writing with Karen Wiggen, the myth of continents, a critique of meta-geography. Didn't mention that one.
University of California Press, that was 1997.
Martin is also the co-author of a world geography textbook called diversity amid globalization, world regions, environment development.
And he is the former associate editor of the geographical review.
Martin Lewis also has a fascinating blog on the geography of current events.
He's recently blogged about topics such as Saudi Iranian tensions and Shia Islam and Saudi Arabia,
dams and the ignored ethnic conflict in northern Burma, and the geography of the death penalty in the United States.
I think it's fair to say that if there's anyone who's qualified to tell us about the history of his discipline, it's Martin Lewis. Martin, welcome to the program.
Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
I mentioned that you teach in the Department of History, and one reason for that is because Stanford, I gather no longer has a Department of Geography,
and that's not so unusual these days in American universities. Many of those departments have been eliminated over the decades,
but it would have been unusual 50 years ago since our topic today is the academic decline of your discipline in the United States. Where do you think we should begin, Martin?
Well, we can begin with Stanford's geography department. It did exist. It was never a very powerful department. It had rather a checkered career.
It was discontinued, I believe in 1963. I'd have to check that.
In the post World War II reorganization of American academia, geography departments were dropped beginning at Harvard, and then subsequently Yale and many other schools, and that was really the beginning of the fall, I suppose you could say.
Part of this period when academia was expanding tremendously, but geography for various reasons missed the boat and began to be eliminated.
We want to talk about those reasons, but would you agree with my suggestion in the opening remarks that geography had a golden age, and that it was a supreme and noble discipline at a certain point, and prior to its decline?
Well, yeah, the heyday of geography really was before, maybe at the very beginning of the creation of the modern academic system. If you look in, I say, the 1800s in Germany, Alexander von Humboldt, who considered himself a geographer and was considered a geographer as well as a scholar in many other fields, was really at the pinnacle of intellectual, super-startem, if you will.
He went on tours and was a celebrity of sorts. In Germany at the time, the modern academic division of labor was being created, and geography had a strong position.
In the United States, it was a little bit later, and of course the US modeled its academic division of labor and large part on what was happening in Germany.
One difference was in the United States, geography and geology were merged in the early period, and only at the end of the 1800s did geography really separate itself, but it had a very, at this period, a very strong component of physical geography was the scientific essence of the field at that time.
So you think the high point of your discipline was with Humboldt in the late 19th century, let's say?
Right, well, let's say I think Humboldt died in 1858, I think. So I would say really maybe mid-1800s, and then in Germany as well in the late 1800s, Carl Rachselt, for example, was quite a fame geographer.
So yes, I'd say Germany mid-late 1800s was probably the apogee of the field.
As an academic discipline in the United States, I gather from my conversations with you that the 1920s were a very important moment for the rise of the discipline of geography in the academic setting.
Right, so the early decades of the 20th century, geography had separated itself from geology, had established itself as an academic discipline.
Departments were established, essentially all the major universities, Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago had a very strong department as well.
And geographers at the time were fairly important in the public view as well. They were writing about issues of global sweep, and they were able to command a fairly broad audience.
Alan Churchill Semple, who was at one time the president of the Association of American Geographers, was a very well-known public speaker.
She commanded large audiences, her works sold quite healthily.
So I would say the 1920s was a fairly strong period for the discipline.
Well, there's a few names in this period that we want to go through a little systematic, or you just mentioned one of them, Alan Churchill Semple.
But perhaps we could start with Ellsworth hunting tonight, Yale, and an important figure, but not one that you're particularly fond of, I gather.
Well, no, I'm not. Ellsworth hunting was a very prominent academic of geographer at Yale.
He led expeditions to Central Asia that were quite substantial.
It's read an interesting book called The Pulse of Asia.
He attributed broad reaching historical changes to climatic fluctuations that he thought that periods of increasing eridity would force nomadic tribes out of Central Asia.
Who then would move into the periphery of the Eurasian continent and conquer and spread devastation, as it were.
But it was all in Huntington's mind part of the physical environment.
He's noted as an environmental determinist, somebody who thought that environmental conditions, in his case particularly, climate determined social forms, cultural conditions, and the like.
This is an old school of geographic thought we can trace it back to the ancient Greeks.
A Montesquieu was a prominent geographical determinist.
But Huntington took it to the ultimate degree, and I think in the long run made a mockery out of it.
Just one example, he created maps of psychological energy that he thought came from climatic conditions,
that only temperate climates in which there was a seasonal alternation of temperatures,
and which mid-latitude cyclones would sweep through.
Not only those climates were really conducive to human intellectual endeavors.
At one point, he actually mapped the ideal zone of climatic energy, and it happened to pass right through New Haven, Connecticut.
So, that became a bit of a joke for a few chakifers in later times.
There's an aphorism of Frederick Nietzsche that says that every party has someone in it who affirms its principles with such excessive veum and set it drives everyone else to apostasy.
If Huntington was an extreme environmental determinist, and you don't want to associate yourself, let's say, as a geographer with that hard line,
is it still the case that there is a certain place for environmental influence on mentality, cultural form, social organization, and so forth?
Or do we just ascribe that to blind ignorance and superstition or something?
Oh, I think there is a place for it. It's interesting. After Huntington, after the reaction against environmental determinism,
and associated schools, Huntington also, at one point, tried to synthesize racial determinism with environmental determinism.
And of course, by the 1930s, both of these movements were discredited in American academia.
And certainly after World War II. And geographers went all the way so much that anything that even hinted of environmental determinism would be read out of the discipline, impossible for geographers even to mention these sort of issues.
More recently, scholars from other fields have taken up the challenge. Jared Diamond is perhaps the best-known scholar. He's actually teaching partly in the geography department of UCLA, but he's originally from the...
from physiology in medicine, I believe. But his work is of global scope, and it shows that certain hard facts of physical geography have had a very important role in human social evolution, economic and cultural evolution as well.
Even something like the orientation of continents, as Diamond shows, that the Americas with their north-south orientation meant that it was very difficult to move crops
because most crops are keyed into day length. So it took thousands of years for corn, maize, for example, to move from Mexico into what is now the United States. Whereas in your age,
can we put...
Can you slow down 10 repeat?
I didn't follow why the north-south alignment makes it so difficult.
Okay, well, most crop plants are keyed into day length. They'll ripen when the days are of a certain length.
And that's keyed into latitude. Different latitudes you're going to have, for example, the farther north you go, the more extreme or farther north or south away from the equator, the greater the extremes will be in day length from winter to summer.
And the equatorial regions are not much difference.
So if you have crops that are, for example, keyed to ripening in an equatorial climate when there's not much difference in day length, if you move them far to the north, the plants are going to be confused because it starts to get dark too early.
And it takes a long time to adapt them to that change.
In Eurasia, as Diamond Argy's, because of the east-west orientation, crops moved from the Middle East to China with a lacrity because they didn't have to have this long process.
So that's one of the things that he focuses on to explain why social evolution in a way happened more quickly in Eurasia than it did in the Americas, where there was a sort of more of a lag time.
And that's just one example, and there are many others we could talk about, if you wish.
It sounds quite convincing to me, I don't know if you buy into it or not.
I think it's an important argument. I don't think it's the last word.
I'm skeptical of determinism simply because I think the world is too complicated and we can only know a little bit.
We can know some of the determinants, perhaps not all. So I'd prefer to use the term "influence", but I certainly think that their manifold influences of climate of landforms of whatever you imagine on thought, on culture, on social evolution, organization as well.
You mentioned Ellen Churchill's simple. Was she a determinist or was she more subtle about it?
Well, she was more subtle. She was branded as an environmental determinist. Her work was subsequently largely ignored in the discipline because of this.
One of her famous lines focused on monotheism and she claimed, and actually this is not original with her, it's an old idea, that the desert landscapes of the Arabian peninsula and associated areas with their vast sweeps and open viscosity.
And open vistas lent themselves to speculation of a singular divine entity. So she linked monotheism with desert environments.
I think that's a little bit simplistic and most scholars would think so as well.
Yet Ellen Churchill's simple was a remarkably erudite scholar. Her work always keyed into specific features, both of geography and of history.
Her knowledge was extraordinary. And I found that recently some historians are rediscovering her work. She wrote for long ago about the importance of maritime regions and maritime trade networks and tying together regions on opposite sides of seas and oceans.
And starting about 20 years scholars started, well, earlier than that I suppose, started looking at the Atlantic Ocean as a an arena of historical interaction or the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean.
And she was way ahead of her time. And unfortunately, though, her work was just brand as environmental determinist that can was largely ignored.
In addition to which she was a woman and therefore never had a firm position. Right. Absolutely.
She did become president of the Association of American Geographers, but she moved around. She taught at University of Kentucky and other schools.
She never was able to establish her own department with her own graduate students. Didn't really train graduate students.
So she fought hard and did get an important place, but had she been a man, I think geography would have ended up a stronger discipline.
Well put. Another name, I say a Bowman. What do we know about him? Well, I say a Bowman was a very important geographer. He was president of the Johns Hopkins University for quite a while.
He helped develop the subfield of political geography. He was trained much more broadly, but he began to focus in the teens on the relations between the geographical environment and the political division of space.
He was very influential in the Versailles peace conference. He was one of Wilson's right hand men in a way, accompanying Wilson with maps showing ethnic divisions in Central and South Eastern Europe.
Historical divisions, political divisions, landforms. And as Europe was recarved into new geopolitical territories.
He was right there working very closely.
In a way one problem with him was that he became very heavily involved in political issues.
That was true in World War II as well when he worked with the Roosevelt administration, which meant that he, to a certain extent, moved out of geographical scholarship and more into the political arena.
There's a very interesting book on him by Geographer name, Neil Smith, which also criticizes some of his political positions as well.
It sounds very sensible to me that political geography, the way you take into account a number of factors such as ethnic groups and land formations and historical alliances and so forth.
It seems like we could have used a lot more of that in some of our foreign policy decisions subsequently.
Oh, I certainly think so. I think if American foreign policy experts knew a little bit more about Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the ethnic complexity, the lack of a nation state in both instances, perhaps US foreign policy would have been a little different.
Right now I think political geography is one of the stronger subfields, but it went into a dance for a long period of time.
And one of the problems here was that it was a very influential sub-discipline in Nazi Germany.
So the Germans had this very strong geographical tradition, and in the 30s and early 40s it was all pushed in the direction of geopolitics.
Karl House Hoffer was the famous German geographer of the time.
And Americans knew about this and they actually sort of ascribed more to it than there was. There were plenty of American journalists who thought this was some super science of the Nazis.
They were going to use it to help them rule the world and it was never really that important.
But it discredited political geography in the eyes of many.
And at the same time the post-World War II period in the United States was one of positive social sciences and political geography was not a number crunching discipline at that time.
So that also made it lose credibility in the eyes of geographers and scholars in other fields as well.
So would our Department of Political Science given that we don't have a Department of Geography, would political science have people who specialize in political geography?
Well, in a way it does now. It's come through the back door, so to speak.
One of the most important developments in geography in the last 30 years has been the growth of geographical information systems or GIS, it's called, which is just a series of techniques of creating space.
And there are some of the things that are creating spatial databases that can produce maps, map overlays, complex manipulations with a high degree of specificity.
So there are people in the political science department now who are using GIS and are using geographical techniques.
And they can show quite clearly with these map techniques that insurgencies are going to do much better in areas of rough topography, be it mountains or swamp lands, areas of poor access, where rebel groups and insurgents simply can hide out and maintain their forces and armies and other official troops are not able to enter very easily.
Or electoral geography mapping out political subdivisions, right now redistricting is a very important issue.
And that lends itself very well to these spatial techniques of GIS, because you can show a congressional district, for example, and then correlate that with racial or ethnic divides, income divisions, anything that you can map and show spatial patterns you can compare instantly using GIS.
So yes, political scientists are going in that direction and anthropologists are using it as well.
But they could very well be involved in political geography without getting degrees in geography.
Yeah, actually, I would say there's as much or more geography down outside of geography departments than within geography departments.
And at the history, just one other thing, the history department here at Stanford now has something called the spatial history program.
There's a spatial history lab, GIS lab, and spatial history is essentially the same thing as historical geography.
And there's also environmental history, and maybe later on we can talk about the degree to which there is some kind of congruence between environmental history and traditional geography.
But first, one last name in this cluster of geographers who were big in the time, and the 20s up until the war, I guess, Carl Sauer, important for you personally because he established the Berkeley School of Cultural Geography, and that I gather eventually it's where you got your degree.
Yes, absolutely. So Carl Sauer, German-American from Missouri, but he trained in Germany and was quite familiar with the entire German intellectual tradition.
His desire in life was to create an form of environmental geography that he called cultural geography, which is essentially to take the environmental determinism model and turn it on its head, and to ask not how the environment determined human culture and society
but rather how human cultural and economic activities changed the physical environment. So how did indigenous people domesticate plants and animals, how did they create irrigation networks, both historically and up to the present day, although his focus was always on small scale rural societies.
He did most of his field work in Northern Mexico and encouraged his students to work in Latin America. But in the day that geography department at Berkeley was closely tied to the anthropology department, Alfred Krober and Robert Lowey and others, it became a very important but always secondary stream of American geography, if you will.
The classical Berkeley school at the time was not interested in political geography, was not interested in contemporary societies, modern economies. I think unfortunately so. I was a powerful tradition but was so focused on the rural, the small scale that it missed a lot of what geography is really all about.
Then we can talk about what was the reigning dogma when you were a graduate student there, but that comes later in this kind of reconstruction because I gather that there's in the 30s and 40s massive retreat from global synthesizing geographical work.
And you generously provided me with kind of a history here for our show. Can you say just a brief word about this choreography, I mean I mentioned a bunch of stuff, so feels but choreography, what is that?
That's a Greek term, so if we look at the ancient Greek division of labor to the extent that there was one, geography meant writings about the world, choreography meant writings about regions, smaller scale areas and topography meant writing about very local areas, so choreography basically meant regional studies.
So anti-internationalists or globalists? Well, maybe not necessarily anti but not focused there, that's not where the intellectual effort was.
So I suppose to make a long story short when environmental determinism was discredited in the 1930s, geography lost its core because environmental determinism was something that gave intellectual credence to studies of the entire world, because you could look at a world map
and you could make these supposed correlations between climatic distribution and the distribution of wealth and poverty, for example, which was very often done and is still occasionally done by Phil scholarship in other fields.
But when that was discredited, geographers had to search for a new kind of glue, something to hold it together.
And a scholar at the University of Wisconsin named Richard Hartshorn wrote a book called The Nature of Geography in 1939, deeply grounded in the German intellectual tradition again, who always going back to the Germans.
Even though there was a very powerful geographical school in France, it was a bit more humane, it was not as important in the United States.
But anyway, what Hartshorn and others said was what geography has to be is the study of what he called aerial differentiation.
What separates one place from another, which is what maps often show, maps show how areas differ from each other and also how areas are connected or linked to each other.
But more often than not, they show differences.
So he said what geographers need to do is quit talking at the global scale, we can't say anything real about that.
We can't say anything that's deep.
We need to focus in on individual regions, map them intensively and show how one region differs from another.
That was not the sort of thing to appeal broadly outside of academia. It was viewed by many as narrow, rather arid lacking anything that really is going to, anything that's really much important.
I agree. This is a small scaled back ambition and geography has to be gigantic.
If you're not the sons of the earth and the giants, then forget it.
It was quite amused by your initial description and also a little chagrind I suppose because that's precisely the problem that if you want to cover the whole world, you're already biting off more than you can chew.
It's impossible to study everything.
So in one sense, geography is going to be the study of everything. Of course, it can't.
And that is, I think you put your finger precisely on it. That's the ultimate existential problem of the discipline. How can you be a discipline of the globe and yet really have unique and specific things to say?
But then as you point out after World War one, there was a huge kind of push for global studies in not necessarily in geography, but there was the whole thing about areas.
Oh, after World War two, after World War two, after World War two, yeah. And that strangely geography, you suggest miss the boat at this particular moment.
We got a big debate as how much geography missed the boat and how much the boat simply didn't have room for geography. But at the beginning of our world, when the United States found itself involved in World War two, there was a problem in the dearth of global knowledge.
There were very few American scholars who knew about many areas that became important terrains of conflict or if not areas of conflict of potential conflict.
So leaders of the United States military as well as the important academic associations, like the American Council of Learned a Society's a Social Science Research Council, the big foundations of Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and so on.
They made this big push to internationalize the United States academic system and this continued in the Cold War as well.
This was a movement that created the area studies complex area studies centers for East Asian studies and South Asian studies and Latin American studies and the like.
There was actually a group called the Ethnogia graphical board established in World War two under the auspices of these various groups and they essentially remap the world.
If you look at global texts before then, continents were the overarching system of division.
But during and after World War two people realized Asia, what is Asia, you can't see anything meaningful about Asia.
So Asia gets broken down into East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East essentially.
And this was done by the Ethnogia graphical board. There were a few geographers involved, not very many and basically geographers were not very interested in this movement. They were afraid they were seeding ground to other scholars.
They were reluctant to develop the linguistic and cultural expertise necessary to be an area studies scholar.
If you're an East Asian scholar, you have to have Chinese or Japanese or Korean very few geographers weren't that route. They thought, well, that's not for us. We're interested in maps and space and not learning Chinese.
And I gather that you believe that that was a disaster for geographers.
Oh, I do absolutely. I think that geography should have been right at the core of that. Geographers should have embraced that.
A good geography department, well, let me back up a bit. If you look at a department of history, for example, they'll have a certain desire to cover the whole world, at least at some level.
So of course American history and European history will dominate.
And major universities are going to have someone teaching Latin American history, someone teaching African history, someone teaching Middle Eastern history and so on.
Geographers never went that route. So you got geography departments that left out much of the world.
When I was at Berkeley, we had classes in Latin American geography, very occasionally a class, maybe an African geography or Russian geography, but we didn't have regional courses that focused on particular parts of the world.
It was divorced from this area studies framework. And that problem was with area studies, but it was a vehicle for global engagement.
And it was a vehicle that geographers simply didn't take.
So in beginning in the 1950s, I guess we begins the syndrome of the closure of major departments of geography.
And we began to begin at that time, yes. The first one being Harvard, I believe.
Harvard was very early. James Conant, the president of Harvard, famously declared, I think in 1948, that geography is not a university field.
Harvard had a geography department, a fairly good one, in many ways.
There were also some personal and social issues. The leader of the Harvard geography department was a political geography named Derwent Whittlesey.
Well, I think was really quite a fine scholar. He wrote very interesting book, "Earth and State," mapping out of changing political boundaries and correlating those with physical features and ethnic boundaries and the like.
He was fairly openly gay at this time. That was not liked by many people. Conant himself was a problematic character.
He actually welcomed the rise of Hitler. And famously at one point refused to let African-American students compete in certain sports at Harvard.
So he was a problematic character in his own right. And I imagine he was quite homophobic.
It's a complicated story, and I don't think we could say Harvard's geography was closed because of homophobia, but I also think it played some role that department was shut down.
And when Harvard led others followed, or at least that's what we like to think.
And why, what was the rationale for saying that it's not considered an academic field? A university field?
Well, let's see, Conant himself, I believe, was a chemist. There was a big push at this time for positive as scholarship on the world.
Social sciences were coming into their own. There was a tremendous belief.
And a lot of this came out from research in World War II that the social sciences were going to become like the natural sciences.
They were going to become fully predictive. We can have human engineering, tremendous optimism.
Geography seemed quite old-fashioned at that time because geography was all about differences between different places.
And the new social sciences were universalistic. They claimed that there was a historical trajectory where all areas would end up much like the United States on the path of modernization.
And geography was sort of saying, "Well, wait, it's not quite so simple that there are these intrinsic differences, and you cannot expect all places to be the same."
Also, other social sciences were moving in the quantitative direction, and geography hadn't yet, although that would soon come.
Or geography was just beginning to do that. So Conant and others looked at geography and just thought this was a very old-fashioned study that just didn't fit the modern world of the late 40s and early 50s.
And the founder of the Berkeley Department, Carl Sauer, was not much help there when it came to making a case against closing.
Oh, that's true. I spent quite a bit of time once in the sour archives of the Bancroft Library looking through all of Sauer's letters.
And of course, he had been approached by Harvard when this occurred. And he dismissed her with Whittlessey as a dilatant, as somebody who, you know, wrote nice works, but didn't have the kind of depth that was in the past.
And again, I don't know how.
Is that petty jealousy or spite, or was it actually ideological difference? Because he said he was a cultural geographer himself.
And that kind of political geography.
Yeah, well, Sauer had little use for political geography. He was interested in the deep time span of human history.
He was interested in small scale societies. He wasn't interested in what was really happening with modern political divisions.
So perhaps that had something to do with it. He was also a somewhat can't take us individual.
And I imagine there were personal issues that were not reflected in the letter. That wouldn't surprise me at any rate.
He was not supportive. And I don't think he would have realized at the time how vulnerable geography was.
Well, another aspect was that as the academic departments were increasing in size tremendously in the post-World War II period, Sauer for a long time said, oh, we don't need to grow any bigger.
We've only had four people in the geography department. Why do we need anyone else?
Deeply conservative in that sense and not really realizing the kind of vulnerability that geography was in.
So then moving forward into the '50s and '60s, and this response to the crisis in the discipline was the rise of this quantitative approach,
this quantitative revolution, which I also suspect you're not particularly fond of.
And you think that it was even more detrimental.
Well, yes, a quantitative revolution, late '50s, early 1960s. To some extent it was beneficial.
I'm certainly no opponent of quantitative techniques. They're often very, very powerful.
I'm certainly a proponent of highly technical mapping GIS, for example.
But as often happens, people pushed it too far. So young geographers determined that geography had been an intellectual wasteland concerned with patterns that couldn't be replicated.
And what they wanted to do was turn geography into a positive a social science, much like economics or political science.
That meant looking for spatial laws, that meant doing highly deductive work in spatial modeling.
For a long time, the reigning theory in geography was something called central place theory.
In the central place, theorists created these maps of with hexagons because they thought that the distribution of cities had to do with retail marketing.
And people would go to buy goods in the nearest center where they could buy individual items.
And that would create a hexagonal pattern of small scale market towns.
But then there would be at the interstice of a bunch of hexagons, a larger centering, more central place where people would go to buy goods that they would only periodically purchase.
But anyway, they created these highly regular patterns of distribution. And it looked nice on the maps, but subsequent work showed that that's really not how city distributions were established.
It simply didn't follow from this geography of marketing.
That's ironic because it seemed with all this presumption of being a radically empirical science that it shows that it's on the facts that it was wrong.
Right, that's true. And it claimed to be empirical, but really it was highly deductive. It was highly geometrical approach.
And some of the quantifiers went so far as to say, why should a geographer go study in Africa where we have exactly the same spatial laws operating in Iowa?
We don't need to travel abroad. We don't need to look at culture.
They hypothesize something they call an isotropic plane, a featureless plane with no landforms, no climate, no rivers.
And then they would, through geometrical deduction, come up with these ideal patterns.
So that was the worst of the movement, I suppose you could say.
Good. So I'm going to kind of speed up here because I want to ask some questions about what happens.
What is the future rather than the past of the discipline? And just mentioned from again, the outline you provided me that in the 80s and 90s,
it was the emergence of the cultural left in geography. And I know that from Berkeley being one of the places that they were very influenced by literary theory.
Oh, yes. Absolutely.
And deconstruction, they invite people like me to go there and talk about theory.
You're a high-degree, you know, the design and all very important for those of us who were kind of being invoked could not understand why geographers wanted to know about high-degree and stuff.
And so this cultural left obviously was the opposite spectrum of the quants, quantitative people.
And that I gather that in your time in the 80s, when you were a graduate student, that department was quite divided between the South area and the radical geographers who really were at odds with each other.
Oh, yes. Absolutely. It was pretty hard to not take aside. Some of us tried to straddle that divide.
I did to a certain extent.
But that was difficult because there was a tremendous amount of mutual contempt, which I think was very unfortunate because I think both sides had a lot potentially to teach each other.
I'll just give you an example at the University of California, Berkeley still has a sour lecture.
It was just given about two weeks ago by Marie Price, my co-author on the textbook.
But it's no longer conducted by the geography department. It's actually conducted by the archaeologist at Berkeley because the geographers wanted nothing to do.
With anything that had the name of sour on it because he was associated with this old school that they did not want to be connected to.
The quantitative revolution got going in a big way and then boom came the Marxist turn and then the cultural left. David Harvey was the intellectual leader of the quantitative revolution.
He had this conversion to Marxism which really changed the contours of the discipline.
In the meantime, more and more departments are closing down.
I'm just going to go to the
Michigan Columbia Chicago, I'll sort of close down during this picture.
Chicago had been at one time the leading geography department probably.
But yes, it closed down.
Partly, I think it had to do with the lack of focus.
One thing that their cultural left had to do was to focus on very abstract notions of space and place and space reality.
Again, I have nothing against that but the problem was disconnects between different fields of geography.
A real lack of conversation and exchange between them.
Which then made geography highly vulnerable when you have a department that's a war zone.
It's pretty easy for an administration to say why should we continue with this field?
So there are still departments of geography.
Oh yes.
And how do you see the state of the discipline now, Martin, given that there's this new urgent importance of things related to global warming and the globalization of the economy and all these things that seem to cry out for a very strong dose of geographical rigor.
And when it comes to understanding what's going on in the gigantic perspective, no?
We're living in an age of giantism.
I'm convinced of that.
Well, I'm certainly living in an age of globalization and if any field ought to be able to shed light on the contours of globalization, it should be geography.
I think geography is in better shape than it has been for a long time.
I think the battles of past decades have died down.
People have aged and mellowed and are no longer interested in fighting some of these fights.
More common ground has been discovered.
The technical side has done very well.
So geographical information systems, for example, is widespread.
Not only in geography but in many other fields.
So geographers have been often get hired both in academia and outside of it because of their technical expertise.
Physical geographers are certainly very interested in climate.
Many environmental geographers are interested in responses to climate change and ways of dealing with the inevitable.
So that could, I suppose, bring a kind of resurgence or renaissance of geography.
But of course, these same topics are taken up by scholars and other disciplines because as geography grew smaller and retreated, the pressing issues didn't go away.
So other people step into that terrain.
So as I would say, as much or more geography down outside of geography, the departments within them.
So can I ask a little bit about your work in particular, you're in the history department here at Stanford, which is, again, we don't have a geography behind.
And I mentioned the title of a book that you co-authored with Karen Wiggan called The Myth of Continents.
And it's a critique of metagiography.
That's a provocative title. The myth of continent sounds like continents is not a real entity as such, but that there's a...
Yeah, so why do you call it the myth of continents?
Well, I don't think continents are real, at least continents as they are commonly constructed to be.
We have an underlying physical reality. I won't deny that.
If you look at it geologically, we have tectonic plates, and some of those are associated with continents, but not all of them.
The map of tectonic plates is not at all the same.
Also, what we think of as continents varies around the world.
In the United States, we think of North and South America as one continent.
In Latin America, they're usually considered one continent, the Americas.
Likewise, is Asia a continent or is Eurasia a continent.
What we did in the myth of continents was to trace out the intellectual history, beginning with the ancient Greeks, going through the medieval period up through the cosmographic shock that the discovery of the Americas brought in.
Showing how continents have been constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, used and misused, I suppose.
You could say, based on certain political agendas.
If I would have summarized it in that shell, I would say, that we still are teaching our children that Europe is a continent, and Asia are a continent.
Yet, we will also tell them that continents are bodies of land more or less separated from other bodies of land by intervening waterways.
Any six-year-old will look at that map and say, "How are Asia and Europe separated?" They aren't.
Europe is separated because the ancient Greeks passed through a series of waterways, and they thought they were.
So, in that sense, continents are an intellectual construct.
The book begins with continents, but then it takes on other large-scale divisions of the world, North-South, East-West, world regions, civilizations, any really large way of dividing the world into units of the pertain to humankind.
So, that would be metagiography.
Well, metagiography is a rather pretentious term, and I often wish we hadn't used the term.
It came, I suppose, from Hayden White's metahistory, but Hayden White's metahistory is really the poetics of history, and we're not doing that.
So, hence, my dissatisfaction with it.
The notion of metagiography is that there are these deep-seated intellectual constructs that we all use and often don't recognize the intellectual history, how they were created and constructed.
We simply treat them as if they were natural.
So, I would say that everyone has a kind of metagiography in that sense.
These ideas of global division that aren't interrogated adequately.
Hayden White, a previous guest on this show, by the way, sounds like a little bit of that radical geography, you know, got into you as well, because this is a kind of deconstruction of certain grand concepts that one assumed had their basis in nature, but actually have their basis in culture, continents, for example.
But if you start taking away or questioning and interrogating the legitimacy of these big groupings, continents, north, south, east, west, civilizations, and so forth,
Or let me ask you the question in another way. If Stanford were to come to you and say, we have decided that we want to re-found a Department of Geography and put you in charge of rebuilding a Department of Geography.
What kind of geography or what kind of geographers, what would be the premises of the discipline that you would adopt in this reconstruction?
Well, that would be a dream come true.
Well, back to your earlier comment. Yes, myth of continents has been regarded as a postmodern book, but it's also been regarded as an anti-postmodernist book because we do believe in a kind of ultimate physical reality that we don't want to avoid.
So I kind of were having our cake and eating it to might be one way of looking at it. If I were given that task of founding a geography department, I would want it to be intellectually fairly broad.
I would want to incorporate elements from various streams of geographic thought from the cultural left to the quantitative side as well.
I would want to have a very strong, technical component, mapping component. I suppose if there's one thing that I see as the core of geography, it's maps. I'm a geographer because I love maps. I like looking at them, making them. I like mocking them. I like everything to do it. Even maps I hate, I love, in a sense.
I'm a very map-oriented person. I think all geographers should have training in making maps, cutting edge technologies and older technologies as well. I make a lot of my maps in a much simpler way.
But I also think that a geography department should have a kind of a global scope that it should have members of that department who have a certain amount of expertise in different parts of the world. So there should be somebody who can teach the geography of Africa and someone who can teach the geography of Latin America and so on around the world.
I like the giantism that you were talking about. So I would like it to be a fairly large department. I'll tell you, I'm not holding my breath.
Well, maybe if you could propose to call it the Department of Cartography and under the rubric of cartography you could get all the rest in there.
That's an interesting idea.
Well, thank you very much. Martin Lewis from the Department of History talking about the discipline of geography on entitled opinions. So thanks again for coming on.
Thank you, Robert. It's been a delight. Bye-bye.
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