Start Geo Dictionary | Overview | Topics | Groups | Categories | Bookmark this page.
geology dictionary - geography encyclopedia  
Full text search :        
   A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z   #   




  The philosophical idea that all phenomena and events are reducible to fundamental and inviolable properties, essences, that determine their character. A failure to refer to those essential properties is a failure to know those phenomena or events at all. For example, one might argue, as Richard Hartshorne (1939) did, that the essence of geography is areal differentiation. Any work that makes no reference to areal differentiation, such as Fred Schaefer\'s (1953) based upon morphological laws, is then by definition not geographical, whatever Schaefer or anyone else might say. Rather, such work is economics or geometry or social physics depending upon the respective essentialist definitions of those fields.

In social theory essentialism is found in the privileging of particular causal factors within an explanation. As Resnick and Wolff (1987, p. 3) put it, \'essentialism is the presumption that among the influences producing any outcome, some can be shown to be inessential to its occurrence, while others will be shown to be essential causes\'. For example, Marxism is often characterized as essentialist because of its economism, the idea that all events are ultimately determined by economic causes however distant they may appear from them. For example, in a memorable phrase, Marx and Engels said that religion is \'the opiate of the masses\'. By that they meant that, however unlikely it seems, there is an ultimate economic cause of religious beliefs: to keep the working class in such a stupor that its members would never think of revolution (cf. Marxian economics; Marxist geography).

Essentialism is found throughout geography in characterizations of human subjects (e.g. in humanistic geography), geographical objects (e.g. the city), geographical concepts (e.g. place and space), spatial explanations (e.g. gravity model), and disciplinary definitions (e.g. areal differentiation). In recent years, under the sway of post-structuralist and anti-foundationalist philosophies (see deconstruction), essentialism is criticized for not recognizing that definitions and explanatory theories are social practices reflecting both contingent conditions, and complicated relations of social interests and power.

As a result, anti-essentialist approaches are now increasingly found throughout the discipline, but they are especially marked in feminist geographies where essentialist definitions of gender are criticized; in social geography, and especially in studies of ethnicity and race; in cultural geography; and, perhaps most improbably, in economic geography, where the work of Gibson-Graham (1996) challenges the essentialism of Marxist class categories, and the very essentialist definition of capitalism itself. In their critique, Gibson-Graham make use of the idea of overdetermination, a notion drawn from the French philosopher, Louis Althusser, that holds that every event is caused by every other. In this over-determined world, where causality has neither a beginning nor an end, economism, or any other \'ism\' that starts with essential causes, has no purchase.

In contrast, there have been some writers even within the post-structural movement who argue that some form of essentialism is both inevitable and necessary. Spivak (1993, p. 15), for example, says that given the structure of western discourse into which we are socialized, essentialism is \'something one cannot not use\'. Furthermore, there can be compelling political reasons to deploy essentialist arguments strategically in order to mobilize support to change the world rather than simply to describe it. As Spivak (1990, p. 12) writes, \'You pick up the universal that will give you the power to fight against the other side, and what you are throwing away by doing that is your theoretical purity\'. (TJB)

References Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996: The end of capitalism (as we knew it). A feminist critique of political economy. Oxford: Blackwell. Hartshorne, R. 1939: The nature of geography: a critical survey of current thought in light of the past. Lancaster, PA: Association of American Geographers. Resnick, S. and Wolff, R. 1987: Knowledge and class: A Marxian critique of political economy. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Schaefer, F.K. 1953: Exceptionalism in geography: a methodological examination. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 43: 226-49. Spivak, G.C. 1990: The post-colonial critics: interviews, strategies, dialogues. London: Routledge. Spivak, G.C. 1993: Outside in the teaching machine. London: Routledge.

Suggested Reading Gibson-Graham (1996), ch. 2.



Bookmark this page:



<< former term
next term >>
error propagation
ethics, geography and


Other Terms : nation-state | family types | sexuality, geography and
Home |  Add new article  |  Your List |  Tools |  Become an Editor |  Tell a Friend |  Links |  Awards |  Testimonials |  Press |  News |  About
Copyright ©2009 GeoDZ. All rights reserved.  Terms of Use  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us