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  Methodologically, \'abstraction\' involves the conceptual isolation of (a partial aspect of) an object. Its principles and procedures depend on the philosophy or epistemology under whose sign it is conducted.

For those geographies committed to positivism, abstraction represents the starting-point of conventional model-building. Chorley (1964) emphasized both its basic importance and its peculiar difficulty: \'In developing a simplified but appropriate model for a given object system or segment of the real world … huge amounts of available information are being discarded … and therefore much noise is being potentially introduced.\' In consequence, Chorley believed that \'in geography most attempts at model-building by abstraction have met with minimal success\'. Those which had fared best \'exposed fundamental symmetries and relationships\' while avoiding \'excessive simplification\'. But he was unable to offer very precise guidelines for their construction, appealing to the \'creative ability and vision of the model-builder\'.

For those geographies committed to various forms of idealism, and particularly those whose procedures draw upon Max Weber\'s interpretative sociology, abstraction usually involves the construction of so-called ideal types: \'one-sided\' idealizations of reality seen from particular points of view. There is nothing especially \'scientific\' about them, Weber claimed, because this kind of selective structuring is something that we all do all the time. But since it is perfectly possible to construct quite different ideal types of the same phenomenon, depending on one\'s point of view, the critical moment comes when the ideal type is compared with \'empirical reality\'. Even so, commentators differ on just how precisely such comparisons are to be made and on how revealing they are likely to be (see Parkin, 1982, pp. 28-32).

For those geographies committed to realism, however, both of these versions of abstraction are inadequate because they are supposed to be based on \'an arbitrary attitude to ontology\' (Sayer, 1984, p. 216). According to Sayer, abstractions should identify essential characteristics of objects and should be concerned with \'substantial\' relations of connection rather than merely \'formal\' relations of similarity. It is especially important to identify those internal relations which necessarily enter into the constitution of specific structures. Hence Sayer distinguishes a rational abstraction, i.e. \'one which isolates a significant element of the world which has some unity and autonomous force\', from what Marx called a chaotic conception, i.e. one whose definition is more or less arbitrary because it rests on relations of similarity. So, for example, Allen (1983) provided a careful typology of landlords within the housing market, whose classifications \'bestow a degree of coherence upon certain groupings, that is, a structure which enables them to act … in [distinctive] ways depending upon the spatial and temporal circumstances\'. From this perspective, it is equally important to recognize the existence of different levels of abstraction. Marx\'s own writings are usually cited here because they move between the general and the historically specific (see Johnson, 1982) and a number of workers have sought to elucidate, and indeed to refine, the connections between them (see Gibson and Horvarth, 1983; Cox and Mair, 1989).

Other writers have drawn attention to the ways in which these ostensibly analytical processes of selection and dissection spiral out into the constitution of everyday life. Seen thus, \'abstraction\' also has substantive implications for the heightened rationalization of everyday life — what Jürgen Habermas (1987) called the \'colonization of the life-world\' — and for the production of an abstract space, \'one-sided\' and \'incomplete\', that Henri Lefebvre (1991) identified as the dominant spatial condition of modernity (see also production of space). (DG)

References Allen, J. 1983: Property relations and landlordism — a realist approach. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1: 191-2 03. Chorley, R.J. 1964: Geography and analogue theory. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 54: 127-37. Cox, K. and Mair, A. 1989: Levels of abstraction in locality studies. Antipode 21: 121-32. Gibson, K. and Horvarth, R. 1983: Marx\'s method of abstraction. Antipode 16: 23-36. Habermas, J. 1987: The theory of communicative action. Vol. 2: The critique of functionalist reason. Cambridge: Polity Press. Johnson, R. 1982: Reading for the best Marx: history-writing and abstraction. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Making histories: studies in history-writing and politics. London: Hutchinson, 153-201. Lefebvre, H. 1991: The production of space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Parkin, F. 1982: Max Weber. London: Tavistock. Sayer, A. 1984: Method in social science: a realist approach. London: Hutchinson (2nd edn, 1992. London: Routledge).

Suggested Reading Allen (1983). Sayer (1992), 85-92 and 138-40.



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