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The Historical and Philosophical Emergence of Radical Geography by Johnathan Bascom, in "The Geographical Bulletin" (1982)

The Historical and Philosophical Emergence of Radical Geography by Johnathan Bascom, in "The Geographical Bulletin" (1982)

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The Historical andPhilosophical Emergence
of
Radical Geography
Johnathan Bascom
Graduate StudentKansas State University
THE
1960's
Throughout
the modern history
of
geography Pattison's four tradi
tions-area
studies, land-man relations, spatial theory, and physicalgeography have basically encom
passed
the philosophical stances toward the discipline. Within the lastdecade, however, American geographers have
seen
the reemergence
of
a
fundamentally different
approach to the
discipline-radical
geography. Despite earlier Europeanradical geographers such
as
PeterKropotkin (1890's) andKarl Wittofogel (1920's), American radical geography's historical roots are foundin the late 1960's for
two
primaryreasons. First, the politically intensesixties bred a disenchanted societyopen to change. The
two
key politi
cal
events
of
the decade, the CivilRights Movement and the VietnamWar, signified change and crystallized the onset
of
academic radicalism.A new climate
of
liberal reformspread across the nation reflectedby
antiwar
demonstrations, peacemarches,
women's
liberation, theenvironmental movement and eventually George McGovern's presidential candidacy.
In
many respects thewinds of socio-political change sweptthe nation, particularly throughoutuniversities.Second, in the 1950's scientificgeographers had rejuvenated
the
discipline with abstract spatial theory and powerful quantification.
By
1965,
however, many young geographers were "disillusioned with the'scientificapproach' to human ge
ography
espoused in
the
1950'slargely because
of
the perceived in-
7
 
ability of this approach to initiate
major
social changes.'"
William
Bunge,for example,described his
own
dramatic
change
in
social
awareness.
He
writes, "The Crime
of
Vietnam began in February
of
1965
.I was through the second draft
of
the logical extension of
TheoreticalGeography
called,
Geography, theInnocent Science .
..
The politicalatmosphere was one
of
open-endedescalation to H-
bombwar
...I threw myself into the peace movement
..
.
2
He
goes on at length todescribe his personal absorption intoactivism
and
its ultimate merger with
his
academic
life.
Thus
,
young
geographers like William Bunge riding the crest
of
social issues andawareness began
to
dismiss
abstract,
theoreticalgeography
andbegin
in
earnest a quest for socialrelevancy,political action, and eventually a new philosophical basis
for
their discipline.Theinitial battle-cry was"
Rele-
vancy!"In
1967,
sessions
for
relevancy began at the annual meetings
of
the
Association
of
American
Geographers (AAG).
In
1968
Bungefounded the Society for Human
Ex-
ploration at Wayne State University.
The
next year
he
began the DetroitExpedition,
an
effort to thoroughlyexplore a blighted
area
in that city.In 1969, at Clark University,
Ben
Wisner edited the first publication
of
Ant
ipode,
whose purpose
he
declar
ed
in his
introductoryeditor's
note was" .
..
to
ask
value ques
tions
with
in
geography
,
question
existinginstitutions concerning theirrates and qualities
of
change,andquesti
on
the individual.,,3Finally, onthe brink of the 1970's, the first ses-
8
sion
for
"radical
geographers"
atthe
AAG
meeting in Ann Arbor in1969 symbolized
the
merging of
people, purpose, and a publicationinto a concrete identity.
THE
1970'sEntering the 1970's most radicalgeographers were essentially politi
cal
liberals looking for relevant
so-
cial problems and unexposed inequalities.Articles on urban prob lems,
for
ins
tance,
published
in
Antipode
could have been and werejust
as
easily published by the
Na-
tional Academy of Sciences.
4
In
general radical geographers
of
the futurestill shared
the
same basicconcerns
withtheir
professionalpeers.
In
1972,
however,
as
RichardPeet,
editor
of
Antipode,
writes
"
...
the emphasis of radical geography changed from
an
attemptto engage the discipli
ne
in sociallysignificant research to
an
attempt toconstruct a radical philosophical
and
theoretical base for a socially and
politically
engaged
discipl
i
ne."
5Rather than
an
assortment
of
liberalacademic
geographers
and
their
work, now "radical geography"bydefinition truly became "radical."The first driving force behi
nd
thequest for a truly different, radicalapproach to geography was a
neg
ative reaction to the established discipline.Radical geographers werediscontent with what they saw to
be
abstract, indifferent scientific geography, but their disenchantment wentfarther and deeper. While radical
geographers
had
once criticized
conventional geographic
research
as
simply irrelevant,
now
they took astep farther and began to question
 
conventional
geography's philo
sophical basis and methodologicalabilitytosolve relevant social prob
lems.
As
David Harvey wrote,
"It
is
the
emerging social conditions and
our
patent inability to cope with themwhich essentially explains the
ne-
cessity
for
a revolution
of
geographical
thought."
6
Moreover,
radicalgeographers not only suggested whyconventionalgeography fell short,but whyitserved a negative function.
In
thewords
of
Richard Peet,traditional
geography
gave"
..
.ideologicalprotection ofasocial
and
economic system owned and controlledby a ruling minority."7 Radi
cal
geographers assumed the function
of
conventional,
establishedscience,includinggeography, wastoservetheestablished, conven tionalsocial system(capitalism),one
by
implication
"unjust."
Hence,rad
ical
geographers saw the absoluteneed
for
a
completelynew
paradigm for geographicalthought.
In
the succinct words
of
Richard
Peet,
"
...
a shift from one politico-scientific paradigm to another."s Earlier "radical
geography"
basicallywastiedto a liberal, social scienceparadigm
of
modified
capitalism
.Now, however, after a profound critique
of
geography
as
a discipline,itsphilosophy, and its ultimate context in
an
inadequate system (capitalism),
most
radical geographersconcluded that geography needed anew system and a new philosophi
cal
approach. Thus,
after
a
pro
tracted
period
of
liberalism,this
philosophical
breakaway was
themajor
stepping stone
into
a
truly
radical perspective.Even
as
they
rejected
conven-
tiona Igeography,radicalgeogra
phers
chose
new
philosophical
ground to build a new home. Marxismbecame the basis
for
a new social and economic system. Hence,thesecond driving force behind theshift to a
wholly
different, radicalapproach
to
geography
was the
thorough extraction
of
theory fromMarxism.According to Richard
Peet
for example,"
...
the problem
of
ghettoformation inNorth Americancities cou
Id
be
effectively attackedonly atitssource by the elimination
of
the market mechanism
as
theregulator of land use."9
To
beginwith, Marxist science rests on thefoundation
of
its assessment aboutthe importance and relationship
of
material production in social
for
mation.Second,
Marxism
also suggeststhedialectical method
as
a differentphilosophical approach to science.Richard Peet
again
notes,
"For
Marxist geographers the combina
tion
of
the materialist perspectiveandthedialectical
method allows
thedevelopment
of
non-ideologicaltheory:that is,dialectical materialism
is
thephilosophical basis
of
atruly scientific social science."lo Thesignificance
of
a
non-ideologicaltheoryto
radical
geography
was
amplified by
J.
Andersoninhis
An-
tipode
article,
"Ideology
inGeography: An Introduction"
(1973).
He
defined ideologies
as"
...
systemsof ideas which give distorted andpartial accounts
of
reality,
with
theobjective, and often unintended effect of serving the partial interests
of
a
particular
social
group or
class."
ll
Thus,
for
radical geographers the dialectical method repre-
9

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