Regional geography, which now has some importance, made little impact in America before the First World War.
In 1907, out of fifty-five selected geographers only one, Isaiah Bowman, regarded regional geography as his major field of interest. Geography in Europe was focussed mainly on the natural environment and on the differentiated segment called a natural region. On the supposition that a natural region tended to have associated with it a unique set of human conditions, occupancy was confused with environment in the term ‘natural region’.
Britain in the 1930s tried to make a distinction by referring to the uniform combination of environment and occupancy as a ‘geographical region’. The same thinking and procedure applied to Passange’s work in Germany in this period, who sought to define the hierarchy of unique areas in terms of the strictly natural features of the earth. At the same time, there appeared the detailed studies of areal association, in particular small sections of the European countries, which referred their associations of human occupancy back to the physical base.
The European work of these days seems to have made very little impact in the USA, on the worldwide, continental or local scales. The concept of the synthetic natural, regions of Herbertson (Britain). Hettner (Germany), Passange (Germany) and Vidal (France) found little understanding. More attention was given to specific sets of criteria.
A new generation of geographers set to work in the 1920s. It was led by the Chicago school, mainly by W.D. Jones and Carl. O. Sauer. Detailed work on unit areas using elaborate fractional codes and then classification of lands and regions on the basis of these data, continued through the 1920s. The work is one of the most distinctive contributions to knowledge of American geography.
The geographers soon became, apparently, tired of the detail and labour involved in micro studies. They searched, during the 1930s, for a way of bringing micro-studies into a more meaningful and wider areal framework. The result has been, in the post-war years, a belittling of regional geography and a boosting of systematic or topical geography. This is a false distinction due to a misunderstanding of the term regional geography.
In the 1950s, the progressive geographers of the 1930s, now matured in years and experience, realised that the key to their study lay in the regional differentiation of the earth’s surface, but they had difficulty in finding a common conceptual framework. For Whittlesey, the region is “a device for selecting a studying area grouping of the complex phenomena found on the earth”. Any segment or portion of the earth’s surface is a region if it is homogeneous in terms of such an aerial grouping. Homogeneity is based upon selective criteria.
A region is not an object; but an ‘intellectual concept’ devised and used for a particular purpose. Further, “the approach to regional study starts with the homogeneous area, which is acceptable as a hypothesis. The area is then examined with a view to discovering its components and connections”. Whittlesey suggested the term “comp-ages” for a cohesive spatial entity.
The so-called dualism between topical and regional geography does not exist. If Systematic geography is not exclusively concerned with the arrangement and grouping of phenomena on the earth’s surface, it is no longer geographical; for this reason geography is a monistic discipline. Whittlesey sought to reconcile on these terms the dualism of the physical earth and the forms of life that occupy it.
Two points are essential for the advancement of geography:
1. The study of the areal differentiations of the earth’s surface, if man-centred, demands the precise evaluation of the physical habitat in its localised and worldwide variants from the standpoint of human occupancy. A distinctive field of physical geography needs to be developed. Terrains need to be descriptively evaluated as the sites of human occupancy from an ecological standpoint. Resources need to be evaluated in their local associations and potentials.
It was suggested fifty years ago by M. Aurrousseau in the Geographical Review that countries need to be broken down into small units from the standpoint of their natural and human resources and measures of potential developed. Water supply needs to be interpreted and trained hydrologists must apply their knowledge to the problems of human occupancy.
Soil erosion needs to be examined in its relations to land use, densities of population, etc. A whole range of physical problems is involved. This does not mean relinquishing fields to others. It is a question of developing new fields focussed on the evaluation of site, as the plant ecologist evaluates a site without his being a geomorphologist.
2. The second point grows out of the prodigious advance in knowledge over the past fifty years, especially in the last twenty-five years. An individual geographer can no longer attain the mastery of all the aspects of earth sciences. But he does need enough familiarity with earth sciences and special techniques to permit the understanding of ecosystems.
The process of establishing separate disciplines will continue, and the geographer must rely more and more on research studies in these other fields. One needs to evaluate and understand the unique features of land and people, their associations, their causes and their foreseeable consequences. This is the essence of the regional approach. It needs to be developed actively at all levels, in order to serve humanity in a rapidly changing world.
P.E. James makes the statement:
“The regional concept constitutes the core of geography. This concept holds that the face of the earth can be marked off into areas of distinctive character; and that complex patterns and associations of phenomena in particular places, possess a legible meaning as an ensemble which, added to the meanings derived from a study of all the parts and processes separately, provides additional perspectives and additional depths of understanding. This focus of attention on particular places for the purpose of seeking a more complete understanding of the face of the earth has been the continuous, unbroken theme of geographic study through the ages.”
All paths that lead to such understanding should be encouraged and disciplined in this direction.