103: David Livingstone’s The Geographical Tradition

In The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise, David Livingstone uses an episodic structure both to trace the ideological and methodological history of the discipline and to map out the physical world as it looked through these various geographical perspectives.  He argues that geography changes as society changes, and that the best way to understand the discipline is to situate it in its social and intellectual environments.  A geographer and a historian of science, he takes a contextual approach to the history of geography, so he sees geographic knowledge as necessarily “partial,” neither value-free nor complete; his emphasis on the “contested” nature of the discipline injects a much-needed dose of relativism and PoMo into geography.

Much of what Livingstone is doing is applying methods and concepts from the history of science to the history of geography, thus constructing the discipline as both science and contested cultural terrain.  He argues for a “situated geography” whose meaning, methods, and applications vary with time and place; historians can only access the discipline by studying its internal and

external factors, so ideology, professional aspirations, metaphysical assumptions, social context, and geographers’ friends, funding sources, and allegiances are all fair game.  He also intentionally disrupts heroic “internalist” accounts, like David Hartshorne’s The Nature of Geography, because a) portraying the geographer as a magical being steadfastly and single-handedly pursuing the truth and b) selective genealogies leave out reams of details that could paint a more complete picture and help us understand geography in relation to the broader culture.  Reading Sauer and Hartshorne in the context of their historical moment in America between the World Wars, for instance, provides a much more complete account of their interest in areal differentiation than they themselves give: sure, area was interesting, but they made this move a) to disconnect geography from its “disreputable environmental determinist path,” b) to restore its intellectual and moral purity, and c) to draw professional boundaries that would separate geography from growing disciplines like sociology and economics.

Finally, he opens up the history of geography to look at moments of contestation, and the debates over how the discipline would (or should) proceed, situated in their historical context, humanize the discipline, reveal its social constructs, and provide points of entry for his audience.  He does not advocate pure social constructivism, but he does, at least open up geography to the chaos of history – within the bounds of a single “tradition,” of course.

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