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Humanism and Marxist Theory in Geography

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Humanism and Marxist Theory in Geography; how it differs from Positivism.

Philosophical ways of knowing cannot be avoided when research is being conducted in geography. Philosophy is used as a way communication between what we know and how we know it. It helps put into context and justify answers regarding research questions; therefore it is used widely throughout geography (Aitken and Valentine, 2006). Up until the 1950s, geography was in actual fact detailed in nature, as it examined patterns and processes, usually on a regional bias, when trying to understand specific places (Aitken and valentine, 2006). However after the 1950s, numerous geographers such as Schaefer started “to argue that geographical research needed to become more scientific in nature” (Schaefer, 1953).

It was then that Comte (1798-1857) formed the theory of positivism (Kitchin and Tate, 2013). Unwin (1992) noted that Comte used the “term ‘positive’ to refer to the actual, the certain, the exact, the useful and the relative rather than the imaginary, the undecided, the imprecise, the vain and the absolute” (Unwin, 1992). In Comte’s positivism he stated that the formulation of theories should be experimented by and proven using certain methods that provide “society with knowledge so that speculation could be avoided” (Kitchin and Tate, 2013).

In Geography, positivism was implemented so that the principles of science could be applied to geographic understanding (Aitken and Valentine, 2006). “The positivist approach requires experience to be verified rather than just simply presented as fact” (Johnston, 1986a) and there are various versions of positivism. Positivism can be separated into two methods of thought: logical positivism regarding verification and critical rationalism which regards falsification (Kitchin and Tate, 2013). “Logical positivism was first developed by the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 1930s” (Holt-Jensen, 1988) but Schaefer supported the development of a logical positivist approach within geography. Critical rationalism was developed by Karl Popper as a different method than logical positivism. Popper disputed that the validity of a law did not relay upon how many times it was examined or proven, but instead relies on whether it can be falsified (Kitchin and Tate, 2013). Popper’s approach of critical rationalism was highly criticised (Sayer, 1992) and therefore many human geographers have not adopted his theory (Gregory, 1986b).

Within geography positivism is closely connected with quantitative methodologies which came about in the late 1950s after geography was involved in a quantitative uprising; as geographers wanted to “replace description with explanation, individual understanding with general laws, and interpretation with prediction” (Unwin, 1992). Consequently, in the 1970s the implementation of positivism came under attack with new modes of explanation being established as a reaction to positivisms growing use in geography. However, quantitative methodologies are not just used by positivists and the use of these methods does not ensure a piece of research positivistic in nature. It is in fact the implementation of the hidden fundamentals of impartiality and explicit logic (Kitchin and Tate, 2013).

Humanistic geography was one of two key 1970s rational developments that formed out of a discontent with positivism (Aitken and Valentine, 2006). “The second was regarding social purpose and politics that took its most coherent form in Marxism” (Harvey, 1973). Humanistic geography illustrates the significance of individuals’ experiences, beliefs and attitudes when constructing opinions that we make and in our engagement with the world. The importance within humanistic geography has regarded “exposing meaning, values and interpretations in order to incorporate a more complex understanding of human reality into geography” (Aitken and Valentine, 2006).

Humanism believes that humanity acquires a common excellence, and that this excellence is evident in human individuals, human interests, and human works. “Humanism elaborates this dogma of human dignity in four important ways: metaphysical humanism, topical humanism, methodological humanism, and philanthropic humanism” (Smith, 2009). The particular focal point in humanistic geography is the topic of conflict between other methods that require “emphasizing how individuals’ choices are forced by social structures such as Marx’s capitalism, and with this have attempted to tease out the complex relationship between agencies and structure” (Aitken and Valentine, 2006).

Humanists presuppose that humans are intricate beings that do not essentially act in ways that are easy to represent. Therefore in relation to geographical research, humanistic geographers “proposed the adoption of geographical enquiry that was sensitive to capturing the complex lives of people through in-depth, qualitative studies” (Aitken and Valentine, 2006). Though methodological humanist is typically antipositivist, coincidentally in this sense the word humanist may very often be strongly linked to positivism and science when conducting geographical research (Smith, 2009).

This is because many humanists state to be unbiased and impartial, with their research having no social position, a lot like positivists (Kitchin and Tate, 2013). Therefore positivism and scientific views were seen as the logical part of humanistic evaluations that purely provide qualitative data in which quantitative classification can be built (Aitken and Valentine, 2006). Humanists stated that the experimental scientist may be able to explain the objective world, and even human consciousness (Smith, 2009). On the other hand the positivist tries to “objectively study conditions using empirical measures; whereas humanists place more emphasis on subjective experiences, values and opinions and this is where conflict began (Kitchin and Tate, 2013)” therefore humanists believe that it is only them, using the humanistic tools of understanding, explanation and critical analysis, can expect to ‘understand’ the impartial world and human consciousness as they appear (Smith, 2009).

Also according to the new humanistic geographers, positivist geographers dehumanized individuals by stating that they were passive agents of social, psychological, and economic forces. These forces, according to positivists, caused individuals to act in expected ways, and a growing and logical society seeks to control individual manners indirectly, through modulation of these forces. “As well as this it was argued that positivism not acknowledge people’s beliefs, values, opinions, feelings and so on, in shaping everyday geographies” (Aitken and Valentine, 2006).Therefore, against this view a different image was raised by humanistic geographers, which involved individuals deliberately acting on the base of reason that they considered where in the “light of their own intentions, interests, and values” (Smith, 2009).

All in all, humanistic geographers insist that humans are free, decision-making beings, “in part because this fit more closely to the first-person perspective of the humanities, but also because it gave them reason to hope that people could choose to change” (Smith, 2009) and in this sense humanism is very much linked to Marxism in geography.

Marxists approaches within geography arose at roughly the same time as humanistic approaches, and likewise was a reaction in opposition to the growth of positivism within geography. “Humanistic approaches criticized positivism because of its disregard of human agency, whereas Marxists argued that it failed to recognise the effects of social, economic and political structures in creating spatial patterns” (Cloke et al., 1991; Kitchin and Tate, 2013). Further, Marxism suggested that positivism limited examination to how things really seemed to be, rather than allowing for how they might be under different social circumstances and how it did not take into account of processes of originality and independence among individuals (Cloke et al., 1991).

The Marxist geographers’ purpose was to bring some of the opinions and examination of Marxism into geographical thought. Marxism itself existed as theory since its development by Karl Marx in the 19th century (Johnston et al., 2000) but until the 1970s it had not been significant in geography (Cloke et al., 1991). Marxist geography talks in terms of ‘modes of production’ such as feudalism, capitalism and socialism. Marxism largely targets the capitalist mode of production and recognizes the need for a constant flow of capital with profit as its main purpose. “In order to do this Marxists suggest that we need to consider how conditions might be under difficult social conditions to highlight how society operates (Kitchin and Tate, 2013)” and also that there must be a constant growth of the value of products produced in order for this flow of capital to be maintained and thus lead to ‘economic growth’.

Marxist geography was also interested in how under different social circumstances geographies alter and wanted to have an involvement towards these changes and thus did not just suggest the cause of geographical patterns that lay within capitalist socio-economic systems. “Marxist geography was therefore not just about understanding the world but also about changing it” (Harvey, 1985b). Undeniably change is significant to the Marxist theory and Marxist geography now assumes that conditions continuously change rather than assuming economic conditions remain constant when decisions are made (Holloway et al., 2003).

As seen throughout this essay, positivism has been widely criticized for a number of reasons, and therefore led to the development of humanism and Marxism. However these two have also had certain criticisms. For instance, Marxism was criticized for the ethnocentric nature, for the passive role administered to its individuals, for its obsession with class and industry and its abandonment of environmental issues. Whereas critics found humanism to be a “diffuse target, that emphasized the relatively neglected tie of geography to the humanities and the ideals of liberal education” (Entrikin, 2001). Even with these criticisms for some geographers the only way to tackle issues in positivism is to turn to radical theories such as Marxism and due to the fact that this generation seems to be more interested in “esthetics, human values, and ‘lifestyle’ than with social ‘laws’ that a humanistic approach may prove more congenial to the coming generation” (Smith, 2009). Despite the criticism towards the positivist reasoning, implicit positivism is still used strongly within human geography (Aitken and Valentine, 2006).

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