Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Entwining history and geography

Images: Victor Harbor, South Australia

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Australian Geography Teachers' Association website
'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
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Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'

Geographical determinism?

Considering that the Australian Curriculum: history has already been published and that the Australian Curriculum: geography is soon to follow, I thought it would be useful to do some discussion and resourcing on the connections between history and geography. In particular, to look at the potential of integration for the two disciplines as a result of the close interconnections and interdependencies of the disciplines – such connections have become even more evident than ever with the emergence of spatial technology for historical research and hopefully for its application in education.

"...Geography is not just a physical stage for the historical drama, not just a set of facts about areas of the earth. It is a special way of looking at the world. Geography, like history, is an age-old and essential strategy for thinking about large and complex matters" Meinig 1987

In our world of simplistic divisions of knowledge there is always the danger that we see disciplines as quite separate and not connected. History and geography in schools need to be seen as entwined and interdependent. As a history and geography teacher such a synergy is logical and obvious. Whatever history I was teaching I would start with a geography lesson of the region studied or impacted upon (much to the disquiet of the students who thought they were doing history!).

…geography and history are complementary and interdependent, “bound together by the very nature of things.”

This relationship, Meinig states, “ implied by such common terms as space and time, area and era, places and events, pairs that are fundamentally inseparable. In practice the two fields are differentiated by the proportionate emphasis each gives to these terms.” Meinig 1987

This connection and interdependency of history and geography is particularly relevant as we move towards the development of disciplines in the Australian Curriculum. Curriculum separatism can be detrimental to the development of a student’s holistic understanding of an historical individual, group, event or phenomena. When implementing the Australian Curriculum in a crowded curriculum, such perception of connections between the disciplines is imperative when designing an integrated approach to the study of a region, theme or topic (particularly in primary schools).

An example of the impact of geography on history was highlighted in the 1940’s when geographical determinists looked at the rise and fall of the Roman Empire from 400-500. Much of the fall of the empire had to do with a regional drought which decreased the fertility of the land and agriculture output. The lack of food from this event strained the empire and exacerbated the political situation to the point of collapse. The entwinement of Roman geography and history was emphasised by historians when they pronounced that geographic location impacted on Roman civilization because where they were located made it easy for travel and trade. The story goes that Rome was located on the Tyrrhenian Sea and on the Tiber River, making it easy for them to get all around the European area; they were located on a place with fertile soil, which made it easy for farming and they were surrounded by mountains, which provided them with places to hide, and have protection.

From this beginning the theory of geographical determinism grew to encompass all environmental and geographic conditions and their impact on the social, political and economic forces of a society. It was believed that technology was the only way to mitigate risks associated with geographic determinism. In short, Geographical Determinism is the theory that the human habits, behaviour and characteristics of a particular culture are shaped by geographic conditions. The phrase was coined in the early 1900’s and in its extreme expression the theory asserts that the work of humans is controlled or "determined" by geographical conditions: climate, landforms, and the like. The debate on the veracity of the theory of Geographical determinism continued throughout the twentieth century. A more moderate view of Geographical determinism called Geographical possibilism (suggests that humans have a number of possibilities from which to select)has surfaced in recent years. This theory suggests that humans have a number of possibilities from which to select. I feel that the truth is to be found between the two theories.

Geographical determinism was picked up by the Russian Marxists in the 1920’s, where environment and its influence on the development of society was a dominant theme in Soviet geography. Interestingly the attempts by Russian geographers to develop a balanced assessment of the relationship between man and the physical environment were negated in the 1930's by a dogmatic pronouncement by Stalin which denied any environmental influence on the development of society. However, since the end of World War II a group of Russian geographers have attempted to reintroduce the theme of the geographical environment as an object of study for geography. The arguments of this group were strengthened by a pronouncement by the Communist Party in 1963, which rejected Stalin's earlier ruling and recognised that the geographical environment, although not a determining factor, does exercise a certain influence on the development of society.
Today Russian historians quite logically claim that the geography of Russia has been the major determinant of Russian history. For example

“Its location on a high northern latitude and far inland gave it a cold and dry climate. That, combined with large areas of poor or mediocre soils, made it a cold dry steppe in which it is difficult to survive, let alone prosper. Famine has affected Russia on an average of one year out of three throughout its history. Russia lies on the vast Eurasian Steppe with no formidable natural barriers, which has invited a number of invasions with tragic results. In its early history, the main threat would come from the nomadic tribes to the east, making Russia a battleground between nomads and farmers. Only more recently have Russia’s neighbors to the west been a serious threat, as seen by the loss of an estimated 27,000,000 people in World War II. Ironically, Russia’s harsh climate has saved it from invasion more than once. Napoleon and Hitler both found out the power of “General Winter” when they made the mistake of trying to conquer this vast northern giant. Russia’s inland location to the north and east of Europe has left it largely isolated from the mainstream of developments in Europe. Altogether, Russia’s geographic features have made it a harsh land facing constant invasions. As a result, Russians have historically been torn between needing and wanting foreign ideas with which they could better compete and survive on the one hand and a suspicion of foreigners bred by the continual threat of invasions they have faced on the other.”

This is a wonderful example of geographies impact on history but by no means unique. How could one study Australian history without recognising the impact of geography on our settlement, governance, national character, military involvement etc. As Blainey in his book Tyranny of Distance said way back in 1970:

“…geographical remoteness has been central to shaping our history and identity--and it will continue to form our future.”

Professor Iain Stewart in his series: The Earth Made Us repeatedly used examples of geographical determinism to explain the creation, life and death of civilisations i.e. Those along plate boundaries which were attracted to the locations due to the presence of water at plate boundaries, were also inevitably wiped out when the plates “did their thing”.

The concept that geography determines culture and in turn history goes all the way back to Hippocrates (c. 420 B.C) when in his discussion; “Airs, Waters and Places”, he contrasts the “easy-going Asiatics living in a very favourable region with the poor Europeans”, who had to work hard because of a deficit environment. Aristotle also played in this space in his Politics when he talked about the “brave but deficient in thinking Europeans from colder climates” contrasted with the “thoughtful and skillful Asians” without spirit because of their hot climate. He said that the Greeks being a blend of the two environments had the best of both worlds! Very dangerous generalisations which did much to discredit geographical determinism. Such deterministic views were often quoted by the racists of the 18th-20th Century to explain through environmental impacts a whole range of racial stereotypes and generalisations. Such associations did much to discredit the theories of geographical determinism in the 20th century.
However one would be foolhardy to totally deny that environment and in turn geography of a place does determine the nature of culture and in turn the unfolding of human history.

"...history has a spatial dimension--the places where human actions occur. For example, aspects of the natural environment, such as climate and terrain, influence human behavior; and people affect the places they inhabit. Therefore, main ideas of geography, such as the location of places and relationships within places should be included as important parts of the study of history" Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) US history assessment.

The 2004 book: Historical GIS suggested the equation Place + Space + Time = historical understanding. This equation can also be written as X+Y+Z = historical understanding. Both are saying that there is a need for an understanding of place (X-Y coordinates) in cahoots with an understanding of change over time (Z factor) when teaching any historical topic, event or phenomena.

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