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regional science

  A hybrid discipline originating in the early 1950s which employs formal neo-classical economic theory and rigorous statistical techniques to examine spatial issues in economics, geography, and planning. The boundaries between regional science and cognate disciplinary concerns of location theory, regional economics and planning models, are blurred. This lack of definition has meant that while regional science has become a convenient rubric under which to group methodologically similar pursuits, it has not obtained the disciplinary, and hence institutional, standing its initial proponents perhaps envisaged.

Regional science was the vision of a single man, the American economist Walter Isard (1919- : for details, see Barnes, 1996, pp. 130-6). Having published several papers during the 1940s that both lambasted the assumption of the pin-head economy found in standard economic theory, and provided an alternative reconstruction based upon the work of several German location theorists, Isard convened the first meeting of the Regional Science Association in Detroit in December 1954. In particular, by adding transportation inputs to neo-classical models, early regional scientists added a spatial plane to the hitherto \'wonderland of no dimensions\' (Isard, 1956, p. 25). In the formative years of the Association, the Papers and Proceedings (1954-present), and later the Journal of Regional Science (first published in the autumn of 1958), were the principal fora for debate and dissemination of research. Also early on, Isard solidified the embryonic discipline with two major pieces of writing: Location and space economy (1956), and four years later the collective tome, Methods of regional analysis (1960).

Using the literal translation of the German word Raumwirstschaft (\'space-economy\') as his leitmotif, Isard (1956) in Location and space economy synthesized a number of disparate location theories into one general doctrine. Using the idea of a \'substitution framework\' that applied to transportation inputs, Isard showed how each of the classical location theories could be restated, and hence integrated, in terms of the same fundamental logic. When scrutinized, that logic was none other than neo-classical rational choice theory, which in many ways continues to be the tie that binds within regional science. By 1960 Isard (1960, p. vii) had recognized that his earlier \'general theory of location was of little direct use in treating the concrete problems of reality\', and so the second volume became a primer on all the operational techniques a fully fledged regional scientist would ever need to know when confronting the \'real\' world. Together these two volumes provided the twin foundations for regional science; a combination of formal neo-classical theory and sophisticated techniques for manipulating empirical data.

Those foundations were sufficient for Isard to establish the first Department of Regional Science in 1958 at the University of Pennsylvania, subsequently followed by one at Cornell University. The growth of regional science departments has since slowed. When it exists at all, regional science is typically an interdisciplinary programme rather than a department. The same disciplinary diversity also applies to the members and participants of the various Regional Science Congresses that occur around the world (for example, the annual European one that was first held in the Hague in 1961). They tend to be condensation points for researchers originating in very different disciplines, rather than those who are regional scientists per se. Certainly this promotes an exchange of ideas, but it makes defining the core of regional science problematic.

Regional science had a very important effect on the reconstruction of human geography as spatial science. During the 1960s it provided an umbrella under which the early quantifiers and spatial theorists in human geography could work (on those links, see Berry, 1995). In particular, it exposed human geographers to the competitive equilibrium models of neoclassical economics and their associated techniques of optimization. For this reason some of the classic papers on, for example, central place theory, input-output modelling, linear programming, the gravity model, and urban rent theory, were published by geographers in regional science journals during this heyday of the quantitative revolution. In addition, regional science was one of the vehicles by which the ideas of social physics were brought to human geography. In fact, such was the blurred nature of boundaries that social physics\' main popularizer, William Warntz, moved effortlessly among the trio of regional science, human geography and social physics during this period. Again, this indicates that what is holding regional science together is not its subject matter, but its methodology, one ultimately rooted in positivism. In fact, this was the main attraction of regional science for some geographers. It provided a justification for prosecuting an extreme form of positivism, admittedly a tendency long latent in human geography.

It was inevitable that when those positivist tendencies were criticized during the 1970s by both radical and humanistic geographers the influence of regional science on human geography waned. For radical geographers regional science failed because its vocabulary of equilibrium and optimization denied the social conflict and injustice that they saw as endemic to capitalism. For humanistic geographers the rational actor of regional science was only the palest reflection of a fully sentient and emotionally complex human being. Perhaps the strongest criticisms, though, were internal and came from those who turned regional science\'s creed against itself. Olsson (1980) brilliantly deconstructed the gravity model equation to illuminate the internal contradictions of regional science\'s broader methodology; Sack (1973) used the very language of science to show that spatial relations cannot have the properties ascribed to them by the models of regional science; and Holland (1976) undercut regional science\'s pretensions to realism by demonstrating the tenuous relation of its models to the \'real world\' (Isard\'s work came in for particular opprobrium). More recently, regional science was countered by researchers from the political left who used sophisticated mathematical models and statistical techniques, first, to demonstrate rigorously some of the errors of conventional regional science (see neo-Ricardian economics), and second, to reconstruct a formal political-economy alternative (Sheppard and Barnes, 1990).

Against the backdrop of two decades of critique, regional science has increasingly moved to the intellectual margins of human geography, and the social sciences more generally. Indicative of this trend was the closure in 1994-5 of Isard\'s founding Regional Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. If there is a spark of hope for regional science in North America it is found: first, in the continued enthusiasm of its proponents (seen in the two-part special issue of the International Regional Science Review, volumes 17 (1995) and 18 (1996), celebrating the 40th anniversary of the movement); and second, in the interest of some economic geographers in the work of the economist Paul Krugman who draws upon, and extends, the results of regional science (Martin and Sunley, 1996). Given both regional science\'s stubborn resistance to change and the massive shifts recently occurring in economic geography (Barnes, 1996), the chances of that spark being fanned into life within geography appear very slim, however. (TJB)

References Barnes, T.J. 1996: Logics of dislocation: models, metaphors and meanings of economic space. New York: Guilford. Berry, B.J.L. 1995: Whither regional science? International Regional Science Review 17: 297-306. Holland, S. 1976: Capital versus the region. London: Macmillan. Isard, W. 1956: Location and space economy. New York: John Wiley. Isard, W. et al. 1960: Methods of regional analysis: an introduction to regional science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Martin, R. and Sunley, P. 1996: Paul Krugman\'s geographical economics and its implications for regional development theory: a critical assessment. Economic Geography 72: 259-92. Olsson, G. 1980: Birds in egg/eggs in bird. London: Pion. Sack, R.D. 1973: A concept of physical space in geography. Geographical Analysis 5: 16-34. Sheppard, E. and Barnes, T.J. 1990: The capitalist space economy: geographical analysis after Ricardo, Marx and Sraffa. London: Unwin-Hyman.

Selected Reading Barnes (1996). Isserman, A.M. 1995: The history, status and future of regional science: an American perspective. International Regional Science Review 17: 249-96.



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