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Aims and outcomes of the Quantitative Revolution in geography

The ‘Quantitative Revolution’ in geography refers to the era in the 1950s and 60s when the subject adjusted to a more scientific approach seeking objectivity in the testing of hypotheses and theories. A series of statistical and mathematical techniques and abstract models were adopted leading to a radical transformation of spirit and purpose (Burton, 1963, p151) in Anglo-American geography. As a part of this revolution the old ideographic geography based around areal differentiation and regional geography was displaced. Regional geography was heavily criticised for being too specific and incapable of contributing towards effective generalisation. Both Bunge (1962) and Haggett (1965) argued that ‘one can do little with the unique except contemplate its uniqueness’. Thus, the aims of the quantitative revolution were to overcome this specificity and establish nomothetic (universal/general) model-based paradigms. However, as this essay will show, the quantitative revolution was itself as narrowly focussed and blinkered as the regional geography it replaced.

Nevertheless, it did provide greater theoretical awareness within the subject meaning that today this awareness no longer hinges on a simple ideographic-nomothetic binary. Instead, interest in the philosophy of realism and a more focussed contextual approach to geography, together with a critique of grand theory and an interest in situated knowledges, has produced a more nuanced understanding of both the powers and limits of ‘theory’.

The quantitative revolution was formulated around the paradigm of spatial science associated with the philosophy of positivism (the advancement of science through the formal construction of theories and scientific laws). Spatial science involved the presentation of human geography as a key component of social science, which concentrates on the role of space as the fundamental variable influencing both society’s organisation and operation and the behaviour of its individual members (Cox, 1976). Berry and Marble (1968) expressed the goal of spatial science as building accurate generalisations with predictive power by precise quantitative description of spatial distributions, spatial structure and organisation, and spatial relationships.

The ‘revolution’ also strongly influenced physical geography involving the widespread adoption of abstract modelling techniques and ‘scientific’ methodology in order to reaffirm geography’s status as a respected scientific discipline. This had a huge impact upon the subject as a whole, leading to David Harvey (1986) coining the famous slogan by our models you shall know us.

However, as many geographers such as Chrisholm (1975) have argued, the phrase ‘quantitative revolution’ is something of a misnomer. This is due to the fact that geography has in reality been quantitative since the nineteenth century and its formal institutionalisation. For example, The Royal Geographic Society as a ‘centre of calculation’ (Latour, 1987) involving the assimilation of maps, tables, figures and statistics. As Chrisholm argues, the widespread use of formal statistical techniques from the 1950s to the present day therefore represents more of an evolution than a revolution. Similarly, the significance of the 1950s was not the introduction of numbers per se, but the introduction of theory: it was thus much more of a theoretical revolution. It is this theoretical aspect which has been the most enduring legacy.

Before the 1950s geography (human especially) was resolutely atheoretical. With the quantitative revolution, however, a flood of theoretical models from other disciplines were imported and applied. From physics came gravity, from economics spatial science and the holy trinity of Von Thunen, Weber and Losch’s models, from sociology the Chicago School and from geometry networks and graph theory. These theories, among many others, were thus applied through an innovative set of practises stemming from a distinct set of technical and theoretical competencies. Both physical and human geography thus shifted away from field-based inquiry to technical, desk-bound roles involving analysis from afar.

However, just as the strive for positivism, empiricism, exclusivity, autonomy and universality were the keys aims of the quantitative revolution, they all ultimately culminated in its downfall and critique. By the late 1960s and early 1970s these once-compelling arguments began to slip and with them the grip of the ‘revolution’. A different kind of world was emerging at this time that was much less innocent and more restless than before. Huge debates were raging concerning issues of poverty, racial equality, war, gender, environment and civil rights that the quantitative revolution seemed both unable and unwilling to address. Quantitative geographers were thus left somewhat flat-footed in terms of their relevance to this debate. As David Harvey (1973; p129) damningly put it there is an ecological problem, an urban problem, an international trade problem, and yet we seem incapable of saying anything of depth or profundity about any of them. The Quantitative Revolution was thus ripe for an overthrow (Harvey, 1973; p129). The theoretical vocabulary, however, persisted, with a shift towards Marxist concepts and a more radical geography.

Human geographers thus argued the discipline should be formulated around situated knowledges based on local cultures, customs and specifics. Based upon poststructuralist and post-modern ideologies they argued instead of concentrating on the universal and global, it was important to attend to the play of different interests from different positions and in different voices. They argued for the reinstatement of the social foundations and responsibilities of intellectual inquiry and refusal to separate ‘science’ from ‘discourse’ more generally. Consequently, although no doubt many geographers continue to think of themselves as social scientists, many do not, emphasising their role at the heart of the humanities. In either case, however, probably very few count themselves as positivists. This has ultimately culminated in widening of the gap between the physical and human aspects of the discipline.

This is largely due to the fact that so much of physical geography remained largely unaffected by, and indifferent to, the arguments forwarded by the ‘humanists’ and the critique of the ‘Quantitative Revolution’ at large. Thus, in the modern era, there is no doubting the fact the connections between the disciplines of human geography and physical geography are much more tenuous. From this perspective, the outcome of the ‘Quantitative Revolution’ can therefore be seen as profound, highlighting the ultimate question in geography. What does the discipline really entail and can the increasingly disparate human and physical elements continue to operate under the same umbrella?

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