REGIONAL THINKING IN GEOGRAPHY

“To comprehend the earth’s surface as a whole!”

By Danya Al-Saleh

Latin America from a regional geog of the world (1922)
The distribution of vegetation in Latin America from “A regional geography of the world, with diagrams and entirely new maps” (1922) by Leonard Brooks (p.448)

For more than a century, geographers have studied the regions of the world. But just what constitutes a region? Although maps make regions appear to be self-apparent global divisions, geographers have long debated the region as a framework for understanding the world. This essay examines these debates as they have structured the key course that exposes students to the discipline, World Regional Geography. Textbooks on the subject date to 1955 (Rees and Legates 2013, 328). Over the past sixty years, the course has changed significantly, from a subject that required comprehensive knowledge of the total combination of phenomena from place to place, to a course that is centered on global processes, interconnections, and power relations. This ongoing revision of World Regional Geography has stressed the global geographic processes that connect and differentiate regions.

To teach this global-scale class, instructors commonly take students on a “tour” of the world, region by region. But there is often a disjuncture between understanding regions individually—their physical landscapes, climate, soil, political and economic structures, and flora and fauna—and the “global” scale processes that unite them. 

Yet descriptions of regional totalities still linger in the course. Current textbooks introduce the course with maps that showcase regional divisions of the globe. In an introductory course that assumes minimal knowledge about places outside of the United States, instructors often juggle between reviewing encyclopedic information about each region and establishing contemporary geographical approaches that reject the region as a fixed, analytical concept.

This tension reflects geographers’ historically ambivalent relationship with regional geography (Paasi 2009, 6). As a unit of analysis and instruction, the region is “vague” (Cresswell 2013; Paasi 2009). In his assessment of the history of regional geography, Tim Cresswell asserts: “there is something about the region, then, that suggests in-betweenness…While a region may have it’s own sub-regions, made of parts, it is also part of a whole, it is not necessarily complete” (2013).

Indeed, for decades geographers have debated the utility of the region as an approach to scholarship. In histories of geography’s institutionalization as a discipline, regional geography is drawn upon to explain both the discipline’s contemporary endurance and its temporary decline during the 1950s. During the early 20th century, regional geography served as the strategic means to differentiate the discipline from other institutionalized fields, such as economics, sociology, and geology (Paasi 2009, 11). But when Harvard shut down its geography department in 1948, the culprit, according to spatial scientists, was descriptive regional geography. Geography’s reinvention during the mid-twentieth century pivots on the rejection of an idiographic regional geography working “to comprehend the earth’s surface as a whole in its actual arrangement in continents, larger and smaller regions, and places” (Hettner, quoted in Hartshorne 1959; quoted in Cresswell).

Somewhat paradoxically, this debate has served as a foundation of the discipline as well. Since the 1950s, debates over defining regions have provided a “basis to legitimate the existence of geography as a discipline in the academy …for many scholars regional geography has simply been an academic territory that serves as a safeguard against the absorption of geography as part of some other geographic fields” (Paasi 2009, 6).

While regional geography remained in decline until the 1980s, it has consistently held onto its position in geographic education (Paasi 2009, 4). Since then, proponents of a “new regional geography” have called for relational approaches to regions that focus on both their social construction and the power-relations involved in their production, in addition to their role in providing meaning for individual and social identities (Paasi 2009, 2).

Yet new regional geography presents itself as a challenge in the classroom. World Regional Geography, revised to teach global processes through the scale of regions, simultaneously works toward teaching the distinctiveness of each regional place. Teaching through an “around the world” paradigm, how can instructors work against presenting regions as static blocks of space?

In this essay, I argue that regions can neither be discarded for an exclusive focus on global processes nor can they be embraced as a pedagogical framework to divide up the globe. World regions are powerful frameworks through which people understand their place in the world. In a contemporary world that is often said to be increasingly interconnected, teaching students to think critically about world regions is perhaps more important than ever. There is radical potential in making relevant events and places that appear far away and disconnected in students’ political, cultural, and economic imaginaries. Incorporating geographical approaches to space and difference are increasingly critical to grapple with in the classroom as, for example, fears of Syrian refugees are being justified by regional imaginaries that associate entire regions with terror and perpetual violence. These anxieties are heightened as future projections of glacial melting are disappearing entire coastlines from the map, simultaneously threatening the livelihood of millions of people, the existence of ecosystems, and hegemonic ideologies of secure regional formations. World Regional Geography courses, situated between physical and human geography, are uniquely positioned to engage with these global processes.

These pedagogical concerns about teaching through regions are not endemic to World Regional Geography. They are significant to other fields that draw on regional divisions in their scholarship and teaching agendas, such as history, anthropology, and area studies. Working through a brief intellectual history of regional thinking in geography, this essay grapples with discipline’s long-standing gap between pedagogy and research practice in world regional geography courses.

  • The history of regions in geography

Geography was institutionalized in universities during the late 19th century. Since many of the first geographers were trained in fields such as biology and geology, the regional concept was a crucial foundation through which to unite distinctive sub-areas, specializations, and branches (ibid). Regional geography thus served as the strategic means to differentiate the discipline from other institutionalized fields (Paasi 2009, 11).

During the early twentieth century, as geography was staking its claim to institutional space within the university, debates about regional difference were often split between possibilism and determinism. Paul Vidal de la Blache, one of the founders of French geography, developed the theory of possibilism to explain regional differences during the early 20th century. According to Vidal, people in a regional configuration (pays) are a certain way not because of the physical environment and its available resources, but through a way of life (genre de vie). Human choices about how to utilize the physical environment shape cultural differences, rather than that the environment itself.

Vidal developed possibilism in opposition to determinism, which explained regional differences through the physical geographic environment. Determinism considered various characteristics of human activity to be determined by the physical environment, serving as a scientific explanation for differences between the west and non-west. Determinism was a particularly authoritative mode of explanation in both legitimizing and enabling European colonial expansion.

In the United States, Richard Hartshorne contended that geography was exceptional because of its expert authority over regions. Drawing on Kantian arguments about the classification of sciences (Elden 2009), Hartshorne differentiated geography and history from systematic sciences, arguing that they did not have a single object of study. Rather, history is the study of time and geography is the study of space. The region, geography’s central spatial unit of analysis, required knowledge of the total combination of interrelated phenomena from place to place: physical landscapes, political and economic structures, climate, soil, and flora and fauna. Regional geography, a synthetic approach, absorbed all the systematic branches of geography.

The institutionalized identity of geography in U.S. universities was forged through this focus on areal differentiation, the organization of objective knowledge about the earth into regional units. Regions, however, were unique totalities; composed of contingent facts about a place and their interrelationships, regions could not be explained by general laws (Barnes and Paris 2006, 812). Regional geography emerged as an idiographic science rooted in description. No predictions or general laws could be culled through this descriptive science.

This regional approach enabled the discipline to differentiate itself from other fields, serving as an instrumental framework for analyzing the differentiation of the earth’s surface (Paasi 2009 13).

However, Hartshorne’s approach to regional geography was discredited as American geographers provided strategic intelligence for the U.S. government during WWII (Barnes and Farish 2006). The military’s requirement for strategic knowledge turned regions into “a generalized structural phenomenon, subject to uniform underlying forces that could be identified and instrumentally directed” (Barnes and Farish 2006, 808). To meet military purposes, science needed to be mission-focused, hierarchical, team-based, model-oriented, quantitative, and government-funded (809). Through geography’s general turn to spatial science emerged a notion of region that was explanatory, capable of serving as a malleable tool in knowledge production.

In fact, traditional regional geography became emblematic of geography’s failures. Decades after its decline, geographers continued to express lingering humiliation about regional geography: “it was practically impossible to find a book that could be put in the hands of another scholar without feeling ashamed” (Gould 1979, cited in Paasi 2009, 16).

Yet, regional geography remained as a mode of instruction in the classroom: “generations of students…have studied regional geography courses and they still do so, whether they do under the label of regional geography, area studies, or specially named courses. …” (Paasi 2008, 8). Despite its decline in the discipline during the 1960s, regional geographical knowledge maintained its educational grasp for an array of reasons. Despite geography’s turn to spatial science, the regional model was still considered a useful introductory approach, enabling students to begin placing themselves in broader global contexts (Korson and Kusek 2015). Additionally, geographers found world regions to serve as an effective pedagogical framework for teaching physical and human subfields of geography (ibid).

Since the 1980s, there have been calls for the resurgence of “new regional geography” (Gregory, 1978; Thrift, 1990, 1991, 1993; Johnston, 1984; Taylor, 1993). New regional geography is a heterogeneous field with a general interest in “social theory that would explain spatial variation” (Holmen 1995). However, new regional geography, influenced by various bodies of thought, has not offered a coherent approach to regions. As Bradshaw (1990) expressed: “there is not a new regional geography but many.

In a general sense, new regional geography revived the relevance of regions within spatial theory. Regions were not just repositories of spatial facts or residual artifacts of traditional regional geography (Paasi 29). Rather, regions were reconsidered as social institutions, enrolled in material and discursive processes of political organization, governance, identity formation, economic development, and educational projects (Paasi 30).

Despite this agreement about regional geography’s continued relevance, reviews of new regional geography (Bradshaw 1990; Gilbert 1988; Holmen 1995) have attempted to sort out its divergent research agendas, some of which include: 1) regions as a source of subjectification, enrolled in processes of identity formation that link a group or individual to a place; 2) regions as local responses to global capitalist processes, involved in the production and reproduction of inequality; 3) regions as the context and medium for both facilitating and inhibiting social interactions and relationships; 4) regions as the spatial effects of global economic restructuring.

One key argument of new regional geography is that regions are the outcome of relationally networked processes. According to geographers proposing a relational approach, traditional territorial approaches could not address an instable world of “diaspora, movement, displacement, and flows” (Agnew 1999). This relational approach has its roots in Doreen Massey’s earlier argument (1979) about regionalization: spatial inequalities between regions are the product of uneven capitalist relations that require regional divisions of labor. Regions, in this sense, are also implicated in a system of the production and reproduction of inequality. They are not merely the result of territorializing processes, but an active producer as well.

Another debate emerging within new regional geography occurred through the discipline’s broader conflict between realists and constructionists. In a reductionist sense, realist camps argued that socio-economic forces produce regions, while constructionism referred to “the position of those who would see regions as the result of social conventions or as purely linguistic categories” (Agnew 1999, 93). Various scholars rejected attempts to render these approaches exclusive, arguing that regions both reflect material differences and ideas about differences (ibid). Regions are not merely out there in the world, waiting to be analyzed and circumscribed by geographers; neither are they mere mental projections (ibid).

Despite attempts to mediate these territorial/relational and constructionist/realist approaches in new regional geography, they continue to be reflected as distinctive, sometimes contradictory, approaches in world regional geography courses.

  • Gaps between pedagogy and practice

Every educated person should carry about in his mind’s eye an instantaneously available globe. The globe should be in life colors and rotating slowly in the sunlight. On it the mind’s eye should see at least the continental outlines, major political divisions, vegetation and climatic belts, primal atmospheric and oceanic circulation, the earth’s outstanding cities and their economic flows, and ultimately the people themselves and the quality of life.” William Warntz, in a proposal on the utility of a Geography Department at Harvard (1968).

Geographers have been working to integrate interventions of new regional geography into the classroom (Lees and Legates 2013; Higgitt 2012; Herper 2004; Halseth and Fondahl 1998; Glass 2014; Fouberg 2013; Dittmer 2006). They attempt to strike a balance, mediating theoretical interventions with the course’s appeal to students “who still associate geography with the study of specific regions and desire intimate knowledge of a region” (Halseth and Fondahl, 1998, Dittmer 2006, 49).

Revised to teach global processes through the scale of region, World Regional Geography simultaneously works towards teaching the distinctiveness each regional place. Organized according to the traditional “around the world” paradigm, the course is awkwardly situated between relational/territorial and realist/constructionism approaches to regions.

This gap between pedagogy and practice goes further back in time. In the 1950s-1960s, even as regional geography was ousted by spatial science, it remained an important course in higher education (Paasi 2006, 18). Even William Warntz, an outspoken advocate of spatial science, described benefits of a geographical education that reflected traditional regional geography and its pursuits. In his proposal to Harvard supporting the re-establishment of a geography department, he promoted the product of a geographical education: an appropriately educated subject who  “should carry about in his mind’s eye an instantaneously available globe” (Warntz 1968).

World regional geography continues to be advertised to serve this role. Warntz’s description of the components of this “instantaneously available globe” continue to be covered in regional geography textbooks, beginning with the continents, the political boundaries which divide them up, weather patterns, flora and fauna, in addition to political and economic structures, and struggles over resources particular to each regional configuration.

Although the contemporary course addresses regional geographical imaginations and histories, it is still expected to enhance synthetic knowledge about world regions. By providing this synthetic knowledge, world regional geography is intended to introduce students to the global through the regional.  In contemporary course descriptions, the “instantaneously available globe” that Warntz described in 1968 is overhauled to provide students with the necessary tools to mediate the cross-cultural boundaries they might come up against in the future, whether in their study abroad programs or the job market.

Currently, there are twelve world regional textbooks, ranging from their second edition to their fifteenth edition. One of the recurring critiques of world regional geography is that it draws on “pre-determined metageographies as reflected in the presently available textbooks, a stance that fundamentally contradicts the approach toward regions embodied in the new regional geography” (Rees and Legates; 337). While many textbooks do provide sections that emphasize the formation of regions as a socio-historical process, none question their own definition of regions (Rees and Legates).

Geographers have called for educators to work within this pedagogical dilemma by encouraging students to interrogate regional configurations as they are presented to them during the course (Rees and Legates; Dittmer 2006). Others argue that geography instruction should not begin with predetermined metaregional frameworks. Instead, students should be encouraged to focus on the processes that produce a regional definition and its consequences (Rees and Legates; 336).

The most widely used world regional geography textbook, World Regions in Global Context: Peoples, Places, and Environments  (Marston et al., 2015), has worked to integrate a more processual approach to regions through an “emerging regions” section. It addresses regional formations that transcend the boundaries of the regions covered in the text, including the Arctic, BRICS, the Pacific Rim, the Greater Mekong Region, and the Alliance of Small States (AOSIS). This section compels students to recognize the variety of factors leading to the emergence of regional configurations, including climate change, geopolitics, and social movements. The idea of “emerging geographies,” by foregrounding change, suggests there are alternative possibilities to organizing the world. Although the textbook begins with a predetermined regional framework, it simultaneously works to emphasize varied processes that reshape regional configurations.

However, in the classroom there continues to be an underlying tension about mediating the fact that these regions are used in governance, considered to be socially meaningful entities with ongoing calls to historically contextualize these regions. Incorporating a “futures” section to instruction certainly disrupts a vision of a timeless configuration of the globe based on coherent regional divisions. Despite this compelling pedagogical strategy, “traditional regional geography still often manifests itself in the textbooks on regional geography, where the regions, created and classified by the researchers, are often described without contextual interpretation” (Paasi 2009, 30). Given the time constraints of a semester-length course, is there a way to integrate histories of regions in a more central way to teaching?

These concerns—the strained relationship between regional frameworks and contemporary focuses on relational global processes, the relative absence of historical contextualization, and the desires and goals of students themselves—continue to be grappled with in professional meetings and pedagogy-focused journals.

As geographers persistently admit in their ongoing discussions of bridging these theoretical and pedagogical gaps, time-constraints of a semester certainly present real limitations to this. In World Regional Geography, these questions are often transmuted into a singular, pragmatic question about time constraints: what can be covered?

  • Envisioning a world regional geography with and without regions

As the struggle to bridge the disjuncture between regional geography inside and outside the classroom continues, an underlying issue is the recurring feeling that world regional geography is not what geographers do. Geographers teach this subject because students expect it; it’s appealing; it provides a connection between the geography taught in U.S. high schools and the geography conducted in the university. But the stakes of how to teach world regional geography must be considered outside of the framework of what geographers do or don’t do and assumptions of what students expect or don’t expect.

Regions do things in the world. They are critically important to how people understand events, such as September 11th, and everyday objects, like oil and coffee. Regional divisions have justified warfare and colonial conquest (Sutter 2014). Regional inequalities are produced through and necessary for capital accumulation (Massey 1970).  Regions are both materializing and disappearing: expanding through cross-border trade while simultaneously shrinking through border surveillance; solidifying in racist, civilizational imaginaries of Syrian refugees and Islam; and incrementally disappearing with global climate change projections.

Today, World Regional Geography is often marketed to students as a virtual tour of the world, offering students a foundation with which to knowledgeably explore, travel, work, and live. In this sense, the course has been revised to both emphasize the distinctive characteristics of places, while introducing students to global processes and key geographic concepts.   

World regional geography requires considerable rethinking of what the regional and global are doing in this course. The institutionalized discourse of world regions, by drawing on the language of the global, provides students with a global orientation that aligns awkwardly with contemporary geographic thought. Incorporating a global perspective to regions does not necessarily address the critical stakes involved in carving up the globe through regions. Neither does emphasizing global processes necessarily solve fundamental tensions in how the course is taught. Instead of a repository of facts, regions often becomes placeholders for the local, sites to understand global processes.

In assessing the role of predetermined metaregional frameworks, Rees and Legates argue that world regional geography should do away with them entirely. Instead, students should be encouraged to focus on the processes that produce a regional definition and its consequences (Rees and Legates; 336). I agree that predetermined regional structure is a problematic organizing framework, fostering an encyclopedic approach to teaching. But to do away with this regional structure is not necessarily to discard regions. Neither is it to embrace a thematic approach that is organized by various themes (rather than regions), such as colonialism, globalization and climate-change.

Instead, regions could function as a geographical starting point, meeting up with the complex geographical imaginaries with which students enter the classroom. Instead of organizing the world for students, regions should be drawn upon to explore how these divisions were produced and do work in the world, while also attending to the material conditions these regional imaginaries are shaped by.

A possible way to work towards this would be by framing World Regional Geography around an object or an event, such as oil or September 11th. For example, consider a World Regional Geography course that focused on oil for the entire semester. Moving from the 1973 oil embargo among OPEC countries to the 1973-74 stock market crash, the course would immediately cover political-economic relationships between the Middle East, Europe and North America, quickly moving into Latin America with its subsequent debt crisis. It would cover the environmental consequences of resource extraction, the role of violence in petro-economies, and urbanization in oil-rich countries. Such topics would move students across the globe, while integrating physical and human dimensions of geography. By focusing on a singular object or event, relevant to students’ everyday lives, the course could simultaneously move between relational/territorial and realist/constructionist approaches to regions. This course would neither jettison regions nor adopt them. Rather it would identify various regional imaginaries and divisions, and show how they are produced and do work in the world.

Given the institutional constraints of teaching in higher education, many instructors will likely be required to stick to the regional organization of the course and accompanying textbooks. Even so, World Regional Geography is still positioned to emphasize the critical business of how the world becomes organized into regional formations. World Regional Geography can and has been taught so that students walk away with a general understanding that regions reflect ideas about difference and that they produce and are produced by material differences in the world.

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