|A wide-ranging concept used in both human and physical geography to describe systems and events which behave in either non-regular, dis-ordered or non-predictable ways. Strictly speaking, indeterminacy is a misnomer since no system or event lacks a cause or determination. Indeterminacy thus describes not the lack of determination but its irregularity, disorderliness and unpredictability in relation to certain human and physical systems and events.
In both human and physical geography the quantitative revolution of the 1950s and 1960s and its positivist philosophical underpinning led to a search for general theories, laws and models which could explain whole classes of geographical phenomena. Broadly speaking, the assumption was that general processes were ontologically stable and produced regular, ordered and predictable temporal and spatial outcomes. \'Deviant\' outcomes were seen as aberrations or else as \'normal variability\', a variability which probabilistic and stochastic models could account for. Likewise, although the \'initial conditions\' in which a given process occurred could differentially affect its outcome, the assumption was that the process remained more or less invariant. However, over the last three decades a number of theories have called into question whether systems and events behave in a regular way. These theories have weaker and stronger versions. Weaker versions suggest that it is the events â€” rather than the systems and processes behind them â€” which are indeterminate. Stronger versions suggest that the systems processes themselves are indeterminate.
In human geography, philosophical realism has been perhaps the most forceful of the weaker indeterminacy theories of the last few years. Realism argues that human and physical objects have specific causal powers by virtue of their own nature and their relations with other objects, but that the outcome of these enduring powers is entirely contingent upon the specific contexts in which they are actualized (Sayer, 1992: see also abstraction; chaotic conception). Thus, in complex, large-scale, \'open systems\' like economies and societies, indeterminacy routinely results from the sheer variety of causal power combinations and contexts of their realization. The insights of realism also fed into the so-called \'locality debate\' in 1980s British human geography in which the nature and differential effects of international economic restructuring upon the UK space-economy were sought. Among other things, the locality debate turned on trying to understand how general processes of economic change led to divergent specific outcomes in particular localities, depending on the local socio-economic, political and cultural characteristics. In physical geography, some have taken issue with those (e.g. Bennett and Chorley, 1978) advocating systems theory as an approach because it fails to appreciate nonlinear complexity (Kennedy, 1979). More generally, some physical geographers have pointed to times-space thresholds in system behaviour (e.g. Schumm, 1979) and to stepped, phased, uneven, and delayed process-form relationships (Brunsden and Thornes, 1979).
In recent years, however, stronger versions of indeterminacy have been proposed in geography and are now beginning to influence research in the discipline. These versions largely originate outside geography in physics, ecology and social theory respectively. In physics the catastrophe theory of Prigogine and others suggests that physical processes are constituted in non-determinate and irregular ways (cf. chaos). Likewise, a so-called \'new ecology\' proposes that traditional ecological concepts of niche, competition, succession and climax are erroneously based on notions of ecosystem equilibrium (Botkin, 1985). Finally, social theorist Ulrich Beck\'s (1992) Risk society has unsettled accepted notions of social system order and regularity. According to Beck, social systemic order is increasingly compromised by unintended consequences, wherein social and natural processes interact unpredictably to create new, and often dangerous, configurations.
In both the weaker and stronger versions of indeterminacy, temporal and spatial scale is very important. What may seem stable or unstable according to human scales may be unstable or stable when taken at longer temporal and larger geographical natural scales.Â (NC)
References Beck, U. 1992: Risk society. London: Sage.Â Bennett, R. and Chorley, R. 1978: Environmental systems. London: Methuen.Â Botkin, D. 1985: Discordant harmonies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Â Brunsden, D. and Thornes, J. 1979: Landscape sensitivity and change. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 4: 463-84.Â Kennedy, B. 1979: A naughty world. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 4: 550-8.Â Sayer, A. 1992: Method in social science, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.Â Schumm, S. 1979: Geomorphic thresholds. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 4: 485-515.