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historical geography

  A subfield of human geography that is concerned with geographies of the past and their relations with the present. The development of the subfield in Anglo-American geography, and geographers\' changing attitudes towards the past, can be divided into three phases, though any classification is bound to be partial.

Between the 1930s and 1960s historical geography was central to the discipline as a whole. Darby (1953) viewed historical geography as a \'pillar\' of geography, alongside geomorphology, because both subfields were based on the study of the landscape. But he insisted that a properly historical geography found its subject matter in the \'borderlands\' of geography and history, and thus could not be based on geographical ideas and methods alone. A distinctive feature of British historical geography was its close ties with economic history and meticulous reconstruction of human geographies of the past as cartographic cross-sections that were pieced together from (often individual) historical sources and linked by historical themes in landscape change (see vertical themes). Darby\'s series of Domesday geographies of England (1952-77) is a distinguished example of cross-sectional analysis. North American historical geographers tended to take the region as their basic unit of analysis and — like geographers from Sauer\'s Berkeley School — study the development of human-environment relationships. Clark (1954) argued that historical geography and regional geography found common ground in the study of \'areal associations and differentiations\' (cf. areal differentiation); Meinig\'s The Great Columbia Plain (1968) is a meticulous example of regional-historical geography. Yet during this period these differences in emphasis and orientation were circumscribed by a broad orthodoxy: historical geographers on both sides of the Atlantic were concerned with the reconstruction of past geographies and their changes over time.

The importance of an historical perspective in geography was challenged by the quantitative revolution. The promulgation of the discipline as a spatial science pushed historical geography towards the margins of the discipline. The search for general theorems of spatial organization was supported by a version of functionalism that left little room for historical modes of inquiry, and model-builders whittled away historical and geographical specificity. These developments spurred a second phase of methodological refinement and philosophical exploration in the sub-field. Some historical geographers found useful ideas and (especially) techniques in spatial science, though few of them embraced the nomothetic spirit of the times wholeheartedly. Others proceeded as they had for years, subsisting largely on their own \'enthusiasms and insights\', as Baker and Gregory (1984) put it. Still others, such as Harris (1971), attacked the logical foundations of \'a science of spatial relations\' and argued that geography is a project of regional-historical synthesis that springs from an engagement with human experience and intentionality rather than one of positivist abstraction (cf. positivism). Some historical geographers suggested that these two projects were not necessarily at odds — Langton (1972), for example, sketched the purchase of systems analysis — but they skirted around Harris\'s more sonorous point: that the emergence of spatial science sharpened \'the confrontation of scientific and humanistic cultures\' within geography.

During the 1970s and 80s there was a flurry of writing by human geographers which turned around this confrontation. In the first place, spatial science and orthodox historical geography were not completely dissimilar. Baker (1979) noted that they both cast people as passive witnesses of geographical change (or dumb objects of low-level theoretical propositions) rather than as \'active subjects\' who struggled to make geography and history. The development of an avowedly humanistic geography concerned with issues of subjectivity rekindled historical geography and reaffirmed geography\'s historic links with the humanities. Many humanistic geographers focused on the past and did not restrict their enquiries to the annals of the wealthy and powerful, which underpinned many cartographic cross-sections. They probed the multiple layers of human meaning embedded in \'ordinary landscapes\' and the symbolic orders of power at work in elite landscapes (see Meinig, 1979; iconography). These developments may have helped geographers to overcome what Philo (1994) sees as their longstanding \'fear of “the immaterial” \', but they did not lead solely into the geography of the mind or entail an unwitting celebration of human agency. Gregory (1978) and others insisted that the revivification of geography\'s traditional commitment \'to particular places and the people that live in them\' necessitated non-functionalist inquiries into the economic, social and political forces that structure human geographies, and processes of historical-geographical transformation — in short, an engagement with social theory and the social sciences as well as the humanities. Humanistic-historical geography was stimulated by historical materialism as well as idealism, and it wrestled with the causal relations between people, society and space (see spatial structure). Interest was shown in structuration theory because it posited a set of interconnections between human agency and social systems and structures, and sketched their constitution in space and time.

During this period some of the most remarkable work in British historical geography, such as Dennis\'s survey of English industrial cities and Overton\'s study of agrarian transformation in early modern England (cf. agricultural revolution; industrial revolution), brought a range of theoretical sensibilities and quantitative methods to bear on refractory archival materials, and historical geographers more generally stepped away from source-bound empiricism, which characterized orthodox work in the sub-field, and explored different modes of explanation (see Dodgshon and Butlin, 1900; Green, 1991). In North America, geographers attempted to pool their regional expertise and provide general accounts of the shaping of the continent (e.g. Harris, 1988).

Over the last fifteen years geographical work on the past has become eclectic and no new orthodoxy for historical geography is likely to emerge. Many recent studies are self-consciously inter-disciplinary and some are presented without any sub-disciplinary labels. Such labels still have an institutional purchase and remain important to some self-professed historical geographers, but they make increasingly less sense intellectually. This third phase of eclecticism reflects a frenetic period of creativity — some would say crisis — in the social sciences and humanities which is being shaped by changes in the global economy and is characterized by wide-ranging critiques of the foundational narratives of modernity. From the perspective of historical geography, three interrelated themes stand out:

There is now a general concern with the historicity of geography. The discipline of geography does not furnish a transparent or timeless window on to the world. Geographical ideas, methods and knowledges arise from specific settings, privilege particular objects of study and subject positions, and work on assumptions about the nature of society, history and intellectual inquiry that are not universally valid. As such, Driver (1988) noted, \'thinking historically\' about geography is not a \'luxury\' that should be afforded solely to historical geographers but is \'an essential part of doing human geography\'. Historical geographers have been centrally involved in the production of \'contextual\' and \'critical\' histories of geography which show that \'geography\' has meant different things in different times and places (cf. contextual approach), and examine how some geographical ideas, approaches and knowledges came to be seen as central to the discipline and others were ignored or denigrated (see e.g. Withers, 1993; Driver et al., 1995; cf. geography, history of). These sensibilities are informed by the perspectives of postmodernism and they are affiliated with the \'new cultural geography\', which has a strong historical component and has spawned new links between geography and the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. Much recent work in cultural and historical geography starts from the premise that geographers create and communicate meaning from partial (limited and situated) vantage points rather than simply reconstruct a prior and separate geographical reality in a more or less accurate and complete fashion. Cosgrove and Domosh (1993) pointed up the androcentric and ethnocentric predilections of much Anglo-American geographical research and writing — particularly the use of gendered metaphors and a western rationalist faith \'the cumulative progression of knowledge\' — and urged geographers to think about how their practices of representation are implicated in relationships of power. Over the last two decades geographers have explored the ideological duplicity of some key geographical objects and methods of study. Cosgrove (1984), for example, argued that \'landscape\' is a historically and culturally specific \'way of seeing\' and ordering the world which has served the interests of the propertied classes; Harley (1989) criticized \'the mapping tradition\' in historical geography for its insensitivity to the links between cartography and state power; and there is a growing literature on the complicity of geography and empire (e.g. Bell et al., 1995).

This work on the historical geographies embedded in the discipline is linked to a range of work on the spatiality and temporality of social life and human Identity. Harvey (1990) argued that analysis of \'the historical geography of concepts of space and time,\' the production of space, and the geographical imagination is central to any critical evaluation of the contemporary world. Harvey has shown that human attachments to place, conceptions of space, and views of cultural difference have been transformed radically over the last 500 years by the dynamics of capitalism (see time-space compression). Among other things, such insights have raised important questions about the configuration of time in geography. Meinig (1978) noted that orthodox historical geography was more concerned with the description of \'changing geographies\' than the interpretation of geographical change through time. In a number of books, Pred (e.g. 1995) has drawn on time-geography and tropes of montage to represent the \'multiple (geographical his)stories\' inscribed within European modernity and its global outreach. Harvey and Pred work with various strands of Marxism and focus largely on the West, but other theoretical resources and geographical issues have been brought into play. Michael Foucault\'s haunting genealogy of modernity, feminist critiques of the constitution of the male-European-bourgeois subject as the global norm against which \'others\' have been judged and found lacking (see feminist geographies; gender and geography), and the perspectives of post-colonialism thread through a diverse body of scholarship on material and imaginative geographies of power, identity and difference. Geographers are exploring how social divisions and projects of domination developed in spaces of confinement, segregation and surveillance (see e.g. Hannah, 1997), and they have become interested in Travel writing, in part, because it underscores the idea that identities are neither eternal nor shaped at one place but are variegated and malleable. Notions of home and belonging, and familiarity and foreignness, were renegotiated as disparate lands and peoples came into contact through processes of capitalist expansion, technological change and colonialism (see e.g. Blunt and Rose, 1994). Other geographers are examining how ideas of diversity and difference have been fixed around sexuality, class and race; how visions of social order, historical progress, cultural difference and national identity have been created and naturalized by landscape painters, museums and exhibitions (cf. art, geography and); and how the tourist and heritage industries package geography and history for public consumption (see Daniels, 1993; Kearns and Philo, 1993; Lowenthal, 1997). Central to these investigations is the idea that space and time are constructs that both shape and are shaped by economic, cultural and political forces.

Public and political concern over environmental issues is rejuvenating what Williams (1994) calls geography\'s \'stock-in-trade\' interest in human-environment relationships and human relations with nature. The terms \'environment\' and \'nature\' have multiple connotations, and human geographers\' engagement with them now exceeds historical geographers\' orthodox interest in landscape change and human modification of the surface of the earth. New links are being forged between historical geography and environmental history, particularly in North America, where historians are arguably making a more significant contribution to debates about nature and society than geographers (see Walker, 1994). Marxist geographers argue that capitalism has produced a specific kind of nature and space, and they have been at the forefront of attempts to explain the historical conditions under which capitalism creates environmental problems. There is an allied and eclectic stream of work which stresses that \'there is no representation of “nature” outside social interests and political agendas\' (Castree, 1997) and analyses human relations with nature in different times, places and discourses. Gregory (1998), for example, traces how \'nature,\' \'space,\' and \'culture\' have served as \'foundational constructs\' of modernity, and Demeritt (1994) questions the ways in which Green critics derive \'foundational authority\' for their work from science and history.

In sum, geographers are reaffirming the importance of historical perspectives in the discipline but the terms \'history\' and \'theory\' now have different connotations than they did 30 years ago (see Butlin, 1993). These three themes are the building blocks of a critical human geography which looks to the past in order to unsettle understanding of the present.

This third phase does not constitute a wholesale departure from earlier debates in the sub-field, and orthodox work on landscape change, settlement patterns, and field systems continues. Clark and Darby stressed that the past and the present cannot be sealed off from one another, and that scholarship is shaped by one\'s surroundings. Clark spent most of his career trying to figure out the alterations in human-environment relations that stemmed from the meeting of different cultures in the New World and thought of these changing geographies as \'continually changing entities\'. And Darby viewed his cross-sections as basic indices of tradition and modernization. Yet historical geographers now have a greater sensitivity to the normative assumptions embedded in their maps of the past and narratives of change, and they have a more hybrid interest in history and social theory.

Carville Earle (1995) criticized the Eurocentric — and often Anglocentric — preoccupations of British historical geography, noted that during the 1980s many historical geographers took an \'involutional path … away from substantive problems and toward more philosophical adventures in representation\', and called on the sub-field to \'come to grips with the rest of the world\'. Yet these \'adventures\' made historical geography a more intellectually vibrant and truly \'borderland\' field of study, and as a recent geographical scholarship on modernity and colonialism shows, how one approaches \'the world\' is not a simple matter. The paths that geographers take into the past are mediated by contemporary issues and processes that themselves have a historical geography and relate more or less to specific peoples, places and struggles. Such recognitions now temper theory-building in human geography and forestall the inclination to regulate geographers\' diverse political commitments and theoretical concerns in the name of a disciplinary tradition or sub-disciplinary coherence. In recent years geographers have raised profound questions about how one retains a sensitivity to both the particularity of past geographies and the grander forces of historical-geographical transformation with which they are bound up, and about the critical position one adopts on the relations of power embedded in the past and its relations with the present. Scholars in other fields are interested in the geographies in history, and it seems clear that an historical perspective in geography will remain central to the attempt to work out how extraordinary the geographies of the late twentieth-century world might be. The Journal of Historical Geography, established in 1975, remains an important forum for debate. (DC)

References Baker, A.R.H. 1979: Historical geography: a new beginning? Progress in Human Geography 3: 360-70. Baker, A.R.H. and Gregory, D. 1984: Some terrae incognitae in historical geography: an exploratory discussion. In A.R.H. Baker and D. Gregory, eds, Explorations in historical geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 180-94. Bell, M., Butlin, R.A. and Heffernan, M., eds, 1995: Geography and imperialism, 1820-1940. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Blunt, A. and Rose, G. 1994: Writing women and space: colonial and postcolonial geographies. New York: Guilford Press. Butlin, R.A. 1993: Historical geography: through the gates of space and time. London: Edward Arnold. Castree, N. 1997: Nature, economy and the cultural politics of theory: the \'war against the seals\' in the Bering Sea, 1870-1911. Geoforum 28: 1-20. Clark, A.H. 1954: Historical geography. In P.E. James and C.F. Jones, eds, American geography: inventory and prospect. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 70-105. Cosgrove, D. 1984: Social formation and symbolic landscape. London. Croom Helm; Cosgrove, D. and Daniels, S., eds, 1988: The iconography of landscape: essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cosgrove, D. and Domosh, M. 1993: Author and authority: writing the new cultural geography. In J. Duncan and D. Ley, eds, Place/culture/representation. London and New York: Routledge, 25-38. Daniels, S. 1993: Fields of vision: landscape imagery and nation identity in England and the United States. Cambridge: Polity Press. Darby, H.C. 1952-77: The Domesday geography of England, 7 vols. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. Darby, H.C. 1953: On the relations of geography and history. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers 19: 1-11. Demeritt, D. 1994: Ecology, objectivity and critique in writings on nature and human societies. Journal of Historical Geography 20: 22-37. Dodgshon, R.A. and Butlin, R.A., eds, 1990: An historical geography of England and Wales, 2nd edn. London: Academic Press. Driver, F. 1988: The historicity of human geography. Progress in Human Geography 12: 497-506. Driver, F. et al. 1995: Geographical traditions: rethinking the history of geography. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 20: 403-22. Earle, C. 1995: Historical geography in extremis?: splitting personalities on the postmodern turn. Journal of Historical Geography 21: 455-9. Green, D.B., ed., 1991: Historical geography: A methodological portrayal. Savage: Rowman & Littlefield. Gregory, D. 1978: Ideology, science and human geography. London: Hutchinson. Gregory, D. 1998: Explorations in critical human geography. Hettner-Lectures 1. Heidelberg: Department of Geography, University of Heidelberg. Hannah, M. 1997: Space and the structuring of disciplinary power: an interpretive review. Geografisker Annaler 79B: 171-80. Harley, J.B. 1989: Historical geography and the cartographic illusion. Journal of Historical Geography 15: 80-91. Harris, R.C. 1971: Theory and synthesis in historical geography. Canadian Geographer 15: 157-72. Harris, R.C., ed., 1988: Historical atlas of Canada, vol. 1: From the beginning to 1800. Toronto: Toronto University Press. Harvey, D. 1990: Between space and time: reflections on the geographical imagination. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80: 418-34. Kearns G. and Philo C., eds, 1993: Selling places: the city as cultural capital, past and present. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Langton, J. 1972: Potentialities and problems of adopting a systems approach to the study of change in human geography. Progress in Geography 4: 127-79. Lowenthal, D. 1997: The heritage industry and the spoils of history. London and New York: Viking, 1997. Meinig, D.W. 1968: The great Columbia plain: a historical geography. Washington: University of Washington Press. Meinig, D.W. 1978: Andrew Clark, historical geographer. In J.R. Gibson, ed., European settlement and development in North America: Essays on geographical change in honour and memory of Andrew Hill Clark. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3-26. Meinig D.W., ed., 1979: The interpretation of ordinary landscapes. New York: Oxford University Press. Mitchell, R.D. and Groves, P.A., eds, 1987: North America: the shaping of a changing continent. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield. Philo, C. 1994: History, geography and the \'still greater mystery\' of historical geography. In D. Gregory, R. Martin and G. Smith, eds, Human geography: society, space and social science. London: Macmillan, 252-81. Pred, A. 1995: Recognising European modernities. London and New York: Routledge. Walker R., ed., 1994: William Cronon\'s Nature\'s metropolis: a symposium. Antipode 26. Williams M. 1994: The relations of environmental history and historical geography. Journal of Historical Geography 20: 3-21. Withers, C.W.J. 1993: Geography in its time: geography and historical geography in Diderot and d\'Alembert\'s Encyclopédie. Journal of Historical Geography 19: 255-64.

Suggested Reading Butlin (1993). Green (1991). Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.



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