Sorting spatial awareness from global spread

Human Geography - Territory - Human Geography - Alternative Geographies. First Edition
June 1, 2001

Contemporary human geography varies widely around its core interests of spatial diversity, spatial organisation, and society-nature interactions. These four books illustrate that diversity and its presentation to students.

One way in which individuals and societies manipulate space is by dividing it into separate containers within which to constrain activity. But relatively little attention has been paid to this aspect of spatial organisation. Territory: The Claiming of Space brings it to centre stage, arguing that spatial containers are important because territoriality - attempts to influence and control others by delimiting and controlling bounded spaces - is a convenient and efficacious way of exercising power.

David Storey introduces Robert Sack's important theoretical work and illustrates it with chapters on the state, nationalism, sub-state territorial divisions and localities. Unfortunately, the theory does not inform much of the later empirical discussion. It is just asserted that "the state ... must have a territory", for example, and Peter J. Taylor's writings on the changing role of territoriality under globalisation are under-played in the chapter on the future of the sovereign state.

Although the book is a useful general introduction, much of the material on nationalism is about places rather than territories, without exploration of why nationalism is generally associated with territorial claims. At the sub-state level, more use could have been made of apartheid to exemplify the territoriality-power nexus at a variety of scales. Similarly, more could have been made of non-state territoriality if territory is an important "component of self-identity and, more significantly, group identity".

Territory is a useful, brief treatment of a relatively neglected aspect of geography, valuable for introductory political geography courses. Alternative Geographies 's utility is difficult to discern, however. It is presented as an introductory treatment of ways of writing about the Earth that "we have lost, ignored or marginalised". John Rennie Short wants to "remember things that are useful to our present predicament" and "rewrite the history of geography so that we can make better geographies" - tasks that call for "an ontological reorientation and an epistemological rupture".

There are four main chapters: cosmography; on a heart-shaped world - map projections and our place in the world; on ancient geographies - feng shui and geomancy; and on "the speaking land" - the belief systems of native peoples.

The core argument is that western geographers from the late 18th century have ruptured the study of the earth from that of the people who inhabit it. According to Short, we have reduced the world to coordinates, replacing the particularities of place by the mathematical abstractions of space, a critique that may have seemed valid in 1975, but is not now.

Short's final brief chapter concludes that "more mathematics is not what we need". Instead, we should focus on "more sympathy for the earth, a widening of our understanding of the world that incorporates feeling with thinking, moral values with scientific principles". This surely is crucial to the contemporary disciplinary project, but I am unconvinced that Short's brief essays will advance that - certainly not in introductory courses.

The other two books are large texts aimed at the big introductory class. Human Geography: Landscapes of Human Activities is the international version of one designed for the North American market. It is copiously illustrated, with lots of boxes designed to help the learning experience, all sustained by a regularly updated website.

Unlike most such books, it is not a "world regional geography". It introduces human geographers' main concerns - regional diversity; the space-economy; the functional organisation of space; and society-environment interactions - drawing on published research rather than descriptive material from journalistic sources.

Contemporary themes in cultural geography are largely absent and the emphasis on the "spatial science" tradition reflects the authors' geographical agenda. But within that constraint, the overall impression is favourable: it is a good introduction to some basic matter.

Human Geography: Issues for the 21st Century is a British attempt at a mass-market introductory text. Although fully illustrated, with boxed examples, revision points and website suggestions, it differs from American efforts in that it is a multi-author collection of essays on five main themes - the world before globalisation; society, settlement and culture; population, resources and development; production, exchange and consumption; and geopolitics, states and citizenship. There is no attempt to use these to draw out human geography's main concerns and approaches. In part, this reflects differences in the intended audiences.

Nevertheless, the American book is more impressive as a pedagogic tool: its pictures, maps and diagrams are more informative and better woven into the text. Some of the essays in the book provide useful introductions to areas of the contemporary discipline, but British authors and publishers have a long way to go before they match their US counterparts in the production of such texts - if that is the way we want introductory courses and materials to go, of course.

Ron Johnston is professor of geography, University of Bristol.

Human Geography: Issues for the 21st Century. First Edition

Editor - Peter Daniels, Michael Bradshaw, Denis Shaw and James Sidaway
ISBN - 0 582 36799 9
Publisher - Longman
Price - £22.99
Pages - 561

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