Quantitative revolution

Quantitative revolution

The quantitative revolution was one of the four major turning points in the history of geography (the other three being regional geography, environmental determinism and critical geography). The quantitative revolution occurred during the 1950s and 1960s and marked a rapid change in the method behind geographical research. The main claim for the quantitative revolution is that it led to a shift from a descriptive (ideographic) geography to an empirical law making (nomothetic) geography.

(Note: The quantitative revolution also occurred in Psychology, Political science and other social sciences and to a lesser extent in History)

ynopsis and Background

Many geography departments in the 1950s had recently separated from geology departments in the flux of postwar (World War II) enrollment. Because geologists of the time looked at geography as soft and unscientific, the feeling of many geographers was to persuade critics that geographers were not second-rate geologists. The changes during the 1950s through 1970s were not the introduction of mathematics into geography, but mathematics as a tool for explicit purposes and for statistical methodology and formal mathematical modeling.

In the early 1950s there was a growing sense that the existing paradigm for geographical research was not adequate in explaining how physical, economic, social, and political processes are spatially organized, ecologically related, or how outcomes generated by them are evidence for a given time and place. A more abstract, theoretical approach to geographical research has emerged, evolving the analytical method of inquiry.

The analytical method of inquiry lead to the development of generalizations that are logically valid about the spatial aspects of a small set of closely defined events embodied in a wide range of natural and cultural settings. Generalizations may take the form of tested hypotheses, models, or theories and the research is judged on its scientific fit and its validity. Adoption of the analytical approach had helped geography become a more law-giving science, and the conception of the discipline as an idiographic field of study has become less acceptable starting in the 1980s.

The 1950s Crisis in Geography

During the late 1940s and early ‘50s a series of events nearly led to the downfall of geography as an academic subject. This is known as the 1950s crisis in geography.The crisis occurred for several reasons:
* The closing of many geography departments and courses in universities e.g. the abolition of the geography program at Harvard University in 1948
* Continuing division between Human and Physical geography - general talk of Human geography becoming an autonomous subject.
*Geography was seen (fairly or not) as overly descriptive and "unscientific"- there was, it was claimed, no explanation of "why" processes or phenomena occurred
*Geography was seen as exclusively educational - there were few if any applications of contemporary geography
*Continuing question of what geography is - Science, Art, Humanity or Social Science?
*After World War II technology became increasingly important in society and as a result nomothetic based sciences gained popularity and prominence

Debate raged predominantly (although not exclusively) in the U.S., where regional geography was the major philosophical school (European geography had never been uncomfortable with analytical methods).

All of these events presented a great threat to geography’s position as an academic subject and thus geographers began seeking new methods to counter critique. Under the (somewhat misleading) banner of the scientific method, the quantitative revolution began.

The Revolution

The exact location, founder or date of the quantitative revolution is subject to debate, but it is clear that it began to emerge in the early 1960s as a result of the 1950s crisis and as a response to regional geography paradigm in United States. Under a loosely defined banner of bringing 'scientific thinking' to geography, the quantitative revolution led to an increased use of statistical techniques and in particular multi-variate analysis, enabled by the use of computers in geographical research. The methods adopted were an eclectic bunch of mathematical techniques that were seen as being more precise then the descriptive methods of regional geography.

Some of the techniques that move centre stage in geography were
* Descriptive statistics
* Inferential statistics
* Basic mathematical equations and models such as gravity models
* Deterministic models e.g. Von Thünen’s and Weber’s location models
* Stochastic models, using concepts of probability

Yet proponents of quantitative geography tended to present it as bringing science to geography. In fact, the particular contribution of the quantitative revolution was the huge faith placed in multi-variate analysis and in particular methods derived (or copied from) econometric modelling. It was also very strongly aligned with positive science and this would prove a major source of epistemological debate.

The overwhelming focus on statistical modelling would, eventually, be the undoing of the quantitative revolution. Many geographers became increasingly concerned that these techniques simply put a highly sophisticated technical gloss on an approach to study that was barren of theory. Other critics argued that it removed the 'human dimension' from a discipline that always prided itself on studying the human and natural world alike. As the 1970s dawned, the quantitative revolution came under direct challenge.

Post-revolution Geography

The greatest impact of the quantitative revolution was not the revolution itself but the effects that came afterwards in a form of the spread of positivist (post-positivist) thinking and counter-positivist responses.

The rising interest in the study of distance as a critical factor in understanding the spatial arrangement of phenomena during the revolution led to formulation of the first law of geography by Waldo Tobler. The development of spatial analysis in geography led to more applications in planning process and the further development of theoretical geography offered to geographical research a necessary theoretical background.

The greater use of computers in geography also led to many new developments in geomatics such as the creation and application of GIS and remote sensing. These new developments allowed geographers for the first time to assess complex models on a full-scale model and over space and time. The development of geomatics led to geography being reunited as the complexities of the human and natural environments could be assessed on new computable models. Further advances also led to a greater role of spatial statistics and modelling within geography. Eventually the quantitative revolution had its greatest impacts on the fields of physical, economic and urban geography.

The counter-positivist response from human geography was created in a form of behavioral, radical and humanist geography (see the article about critical geography).

The quantitative revolution also changed the structure of geography departments in the USA with many physical geographers being merged with geology departments or environmental science departments leaving the geography departments to become solely human geography oriented. Within the UK, there was a different response to the revolution with an increase of specialisation within the subject and ultimately the development of systematic geography with many subfields and branches.

Additional Reading

* "Science, Philosophy and Physical Geography" Robert Inkpen, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-27954-2
* "Explanation in Geography", David Harvey, E Arnold, ISBN 0-7131-5464-0
* "Key Thinkers on Space and Place", Phil Hubbard, Rob Kitchin, Gill Valentine, Sage Publications Ltd, ISBN 0-7619-4963-1
* "Social Justice and the City", Ira Katznelson (Foreword), David Harvey, Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-16476-6
* "The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise", David N. Livingstone, Blackwell Publishers ISBN 0-631-18586-0

ee also

* Geography
* Geostatistics
* History of geography
* Quantitative Methods
* Scientific Method
* Positivism
* Environmental Determinism
* Regional Geography
* Regional Science
* First Law of Geography

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