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Analysing Current Practices in Geography Education

If geography currently languishes as a social study, the reasons lie within its own nature of discourse characterised by frameworks of physical-human dualism and a positivistic and deterministic approach. A review of teaching-learning materials shows that such practices in geography hinder appreciation of socio-spatial implications. Recent geographies have marked major shifts from the traditional framework by engaging in understandings of socio-spatial transformations. But our educational practices continue to operate within traditional limitations.

Analysing Current Practices in Geography Education

If geography currently languishes as a social study, the reasons lie within its own nature of discourse characterised by frameworks of physical-human dualism and a positivistic and deterministic approach. A review of teaching-learning materials shows that such practices in geography hinder appreciation of socio-spatial implications. Recent geographies have marked major shifts from the traditional framework by engaging in understandings of socio-spatial transformations. But our educational practices continue to operate within traditional limitations.


he present article is an effort to assess the nature of geography education and its implications as social study. School geography attempts to tell on one hand the laws of nature and on the other, the “development” brought about by humans. But these discourses are isolated from each other. The study of laws of nature in geography is not receptive of the human factor. Moreover, “human” studies has developed within a framework that has taken off from natural sciences.

The knowledge of natural laws traditionally becomes an end in itself in geography. A geomorphologist does not try to find meaning of her search on erosion by trying to understand and contribute to its implication on say, cropping practices. A morphological study of a river can be perfectly indifferent to issues like displacement of people through “development” projects. Though geographers aspire to build bridges between the physical and the human, the ongoing practice of duality ensures parallel paths exist between the physical and human and thus geography is practised entirely in the former.

Cartesian divisions like the “self” and the “other”, “mind” and “body”, “nature” and “humans” (explicated famously by Capra 1975) search for equations of domination and hierarchy. Human “domination of nature” and “environmental determinism” are expressions of such a search. Reductionism arising out of dualism on one hand and arguments for “wholeness” on the other represent the two ends of the debate on this issue. Levins (1998: 351) explains it as:

You can separate the intellectual constructs “body” from “mind” etc, we do it all the time, as soon as we label them. We have to in order to recognise and investigate them. That analytical split is a necessary moment in understanding the world. But it is not sufficient. After separation, we have to join them again, show their interpenetration, their mutual determination, their entwined evolution and yet also their distinctness.

Geography, however, has not traditionally bothered to join these separated moments or understand their entwining. Therefore it was not able to hold the simultaneous spatial and social nature of geographic space. That is also why independent existence of the physical and human, as single entities are portrayed in schoolbooks (without interlinkages), becomes problematic. There is a need to appreciate the implications of the fact that the creation and transformation of geographic space cannot take place without human interaction.

The term “physical geography” had been used in a context that engulfed humans and their work (Kant, Humboldt, Forster, etc). But the beginning of the 19th century saw a transition, and the higher hierarchical status accorded to “science” gained rigour. Hence a sense of respectability was also perceived in geography’s identification with the natural sciences. Mackinder (1887) who emphasised the physical environment reflects such mainstream thought in geography. ‘The other element is, of course, “man in society”, this was relegated to a footnote in which he observed that the analysis of this will be shorter than that of environment [in Gregory 1979: 16]. Even the trajectories of human geography largely followed the affirmations of natural science. Gregory (1979: 19) aptly observes that whereas the earlier emphasis in geography was on ontological primacy of the natural world, it was now replaced by an epistemological primacy.

This meant a tacit allegiance to a positivist philosophy of science; from this could be derived the laws regulating both man and his material universe. The concern with discovery of general laws, or at least with the formulation and verification of particular theories was an important one because it indicated that the methods by which other sciences had secured intellectual recognition might work for geography as well [Gregory 1979: 20]. Only marginal understanding of human-nature relationship was experienced in geography. Whenever such attempts were made, it showed a heavy influence of natural science methodologies in understanding human geography.

This context needs to be reviewed because for a long time it kept the discipline away from examining socio-political processes and their implications in geography. The interlinkages between geographic specificity (as examined through “regions”) and socio-political change had not until recently entered the geographic discourse. Teaching-learning in schools appears quite indifferent of such questioning and developments within disciplines. School texts are documents of the continuing adherence to the traditional approaches of geography that can be described as physical, positivist and deterministic. There is a strong case for problematising these approaches and for reorienting the teaching and learning of geography in the light of recent understandings and debates.

Geographers like Harvey have used a dialectical approach, which prioritises search for processes and thereby a search for generative principles. This differs from the Cartesian perspective where things and systems are identified and causal relationships between them are searched. The dialectic is a process and not a thing and it is, furthermore, a process in which the Cartesian separations between mind and matter, between thought and action, between consciousness and materiality, between theory and practice have no purchase [Harvey 1996: 48].

Only in traversing beyond dualism can we understand and address space (geography’s concern) as a reality in our lives. This does not imply solely the physical space, but that which is born out of human-nature relationship. Its dynamics and patterns are shaped by socio-political practices. The need to see these concerns in the light of theory (which geography has traditionally denied) has been raised and is practised by some geographers in recent times. The essential argument is the need to articulate and bring more clarity on relationship between space and society. Geographers have voiced the inappropriate practice of separating space from social processes. Space is understood to play an active role in transformation of society. Any socio-geographic space is formed in turn, out of socio-geographic processes. But at the same time, it is also to be noted that the nature of space itself acts as agents of change in society.

It is in these contexts that the present article attempts to review the frameworks of teaching-learning of geography in our schools. The major concern of the article is in problematising the practices of education of geography (Section I). It also attempts to provide an overview of a core concern of geography, regional specificity (Section II). Since the major critique of school geography is on its lack of appreciation of the simultaneity of space and society, it is felt important to look at this issue in the light of new thoughts in geography as also to address socio-political implications of a core geographical concept like regions.

I Review of School Geography

The spectrum of geography education in school encompasses physical, regional, environmental geographies and maps. The present review of geography education is largely based on the schoolbooks of Madhya Pradesh (SCERT), but implications remain similar for the country’s school discourses on geography, like those of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi.

The ‘Physical’ Paradigm

School geography’s overwhelming “physical” nature is explicit not only through its contents but also through its ontological posture. The focus remains on patterns of natural phenomena (like atmospheric pressure, wind, etc) and the ways in which natural forces modify earth’s surface through processes of erosion. Such framework intends to understand natural laws, but limits itself from the realistic nature of relationships between nature and humans and their transformations.

Geomorphology, which occupies much prominence in schoolbooks, has an advanced trajectory of deviation from questions of human-nature relationships. As explained by the geomorphologist, B W Sparks (1986: 5), “Geomorphology is concerned with the understanding of land forms…many of the results of geomorphology relate only to knowledge about landforms and have little or no bearing on human studies.” The position that geography is understood as a study of earth’s surface “whether inhabited or not” [Sparks 1986: 4] and also that geomorphology “is not the physical basis of human geography” points out its highly specific physical nature. Its specialised concern deals with the evolution of relief, interaction between denudation and rock strength and the processes of erosion, etc. Human-nature interaction clearly does not come within its ontology.

Another characteristic of physical geography is the global plane of its enquiry. Atmospheric pressure, moisture, etc, are discussed at the level of the earth and the emerging picture appears as abstract sets of one-to-one equations. These take the form of cause and effect, for example, rotation of earth causes day and night and its revolution causes seasons, etc. Such a static frame does not admit dynamism in terms of relationships and in terms of change. This is problematic because implications and experiences of natural laws are not “fixed”, but often stand to be changed or transcended in our lives.

Night and day, the seasons, life cycles in the animal and plant world and the biological processes which regulate human reproduction and the body, are typical encounters with various kinds of temporality. But each of these stands to be modified or even transcended as we harness sources of energy to turn night into day, as we use an international division of labour to put fresh produce into our shops at all times of the year, as we speed up the lifecycles of chickens and pigs through genetic engineering and as human life expectancy rises with improved living standards and medical knowledge [Harvey 1996: 211].

There is no denial that knowing natural laws is important. As Harvey notes, through the above explanations of change in “natural” experiences, discovery of varying properties of timespace (through physics, geology, etc) in the material world permits a social choice as to which processes shall be used to construct space and time. Without recognition of processes that extend beyond the “natural”, it is inevitable that questions of relevance of geography cannot sketch any picture of social understanding and of socio-political change.

The physical paradigm characterised by simplification of processes through “cause-effect” operates within a deterministic frame. Temperature determines pressure, pressure determines wind, etc, but what transpires beyond these broad zonations and patterns cannot be judged and contexts of these processes in life are difficult to conceptualise. The fact that such geography stands aloof in the “physical” is the main reason why it cannot provide any scope or insight to understand human interaction, life experiences or contexts. Thus the physical paradigm remains trapped in determinism, unable to move beyond.

Geographic Determinism

The traditions of determinism are not confined to physical geography. The same patterns are followed in geography textbooks that attempt to analyse the “human”. Gilbert’s analysis of some geography books states that textbook writers tend to convey the image of geography as a neutral subject in the context of many social issues of the day. They present an image “of people ... whose role is to respond to circumstances as they present themselves rather than to create them” [in Graves 1996: 2]. This is the tendency followed to this day as is illustrated below:

“It (North America) has extensive forests, rich farm lands, abundant mineral wealth...extensive fishing grounds near its coasts. Hence the people in this continent, by and large enjoy a high standard of living” [SCERT, Class VIII, textbook p 15].

Similarly in explanations of Latin America and Africa, “A very rapid growth of population has been experienced in this continent….The standard of living is not very high because economic development has been slow” [ibid, p 36].

Development of any region is thus seen to take place by virtue of abundance of nature and/or presence of only “reasonable” numbers of humans. We get false pictures of homogeneous societies functioning at equations derived from nature’s generosity and human reproduction. This does not admit of even commonsensical observations of resource utilisation in society, let alone some informed analysis of mode of production. These marked trends of geography textbooks show a strong sense of inertia to change as can be judged by the fact that even more than a century ago the same trends prevailed. In 1887, Archibald Geikie wrote a book called Teaching of Geography where we see explanations like:

We thus understand how true is the assertion that some of the more striking features in the history of the British people can be traced to the influence of the geographical position of the country. Living in islands, and therefore near the sea, the inhabitants naturally grew into a nation of sailors… Their command of the sea and their central position on the habitable part of the earth, made them traders also and led to the establishment of their worldwide commerce [in Graves 1996: 5].

With such marked emphasis on environmental determinism, social-political action seems non-relevant. Human thoughtaction is relegated to a state of insignificance because the human condition seems to be inevitably controlled by the laws of nature. This displays a strong sense of non-engagement with social and political constructions of the world in the creation of geography.

When such traditions of “knowledge” defines the ontology, it is not surprising that distribution patterns occupy much significance in discourse. What exists and in which part of the world (rainfall, cattle, forests. and so on) become key concerns in geography. The origin (location) is perceived as being of much importance, paying almost no attention to the processes of change.

The neglect of processes of change can be found throughout geography teaching in schools. The popularly portrayed “tool” of geography, the map, is another such engagement. The nature of usage of maps indicates that they do not function as “tools” to facilitate understanding of changes and processes. The information derived from maps is not utilised to generate an understanding beyond “location”. We do not see any practices of geography learning for whose purpose maps become reference materials in schools. What transpires as map learning are limited exercises like knowing the technical job done by the map-maker in representing the large earth on to a small paper. Thus map discourses remain restricted to matters of scale, symbol and colour, etc.

The Comtean Legacy

The technical nature of map teaching-learning shows measurements and calculations as the heart of map understanding. Mapping thus gets portrayed as objective recording of facts accompanied by an image of neutral scientism. Auguste Comte’s philosophy, which emphasised observable phenomena and positive facts, had profound impact on knowledge in the 18th and early 19th century. This was the period when Europe saw reason and science (rather than religion) as the harbinger of progress. Comte’s philosophy is noted as a critical enlightenment, seeking to remove the current miseries in society [Frisby 1976 in Gregory 1978: 27]. This attempt provided the insight that truth was that which can be measured and located. It thus paved the way for a growth of objectivity, which had great significance in enhancing practices of rational understanding. But sometimes this tradition was unfortunately reduced to limited visual and mechanistic practices.

One aspect of objectivity was the distance required to be maintained between the “observer” and the “observed”. Certain aloofness was believed to help balance out the probable biases of the observer. The observer becomes a passive recorder who only looks and notes. Edney (1997) makes an interesting metaphor of this observation with the mechanism of the camera. The darkened box, the camera, which captured images of the world, provides the viewer with a position that is withdrawn from the world. The world was believed to contain independent truths whose observation could be a strictly mechanical exercise.

Mapping has strong connotations with this mode of observation and recording. Each observation could be fixed in its proper place or location in maps. Flaws that were inherent in writing (the text) were seen to be minimal in the case of visual observation accompanied by an unaffected recording. The first superintendent of the British Royal Military College (1799) held that “Everything, which is put down in writing of necessity, takes on some colour from the opinion of the writer. A sketch map allows of no opinion” [quoted in Edney: 1997: 55].

Edney notes that the British maps of India did not represent a neutral and value-free space. It represented lands on which they could impose legislation and reforms in a manner, more accentuated than was possible earlier. The map represented a space of boundaries which was no longer those of frontiers (where dispute was highly probable). Boundaries were fixed and the abstract space of the map was equated to concrete reality of the territory. Thus India extended from the oceans by which the British arrived to the northern belt of mountains that so effectively restricted their imperial energies [Edney 1997: 334]. By mapping the territory, the British defined a conception of a geographical entity called India.

The dominant portrayal of mapping as neutral scientism is however, contested, as also its portrayal as objective truth. For instance, there are inherent problems of objectivity in representing curved surfaces of the earth as flat maps. World maps provide us with many classic cases of distortion. Mercator1 made a world map in 1569 to serve the purposes of navigation where true direction was crucial. The requirement was worked out by negating the objective truths of the size of continents. Northern continents of Europe and America appeared highly exaggerated in area as compared to southern continents like Asia and Africa.2 The exaggerated sizes of America and Europe in world maps popularised for centuries through such maps as Mercator’s created a political statement on world geography.

It was only in recent times (in 1973) that such distorted visualisation were seriously addressed and rectified. Arnold Peter made a world map where the size of the continents appeared as true as in the globe. Thus he made a valuable contribution to correcting the widely popularised notion of how the world looks. But Peter’s objectivity of size of continents was made possible by distorting their shapes. In his map the shapes of continents were not objectively true. Today, there are innumerable methods of representing the earth’s curved surfaces on flat maps. But none of them can be free of distortions in some way or the other. Therefore we have a situation of “unquestioned choice to employ one particular projection rather than some other” [Harvey 1996: 5], providing innumerable possibilities of creating and using maps in ways that cannot justify the claims of neutrality or objectivity.

The camera impression of maps has also enhanced a certain static framework as to its understanding. Consider the common example of national maps. The representation and usage of national maps in geography (in other social studies as well) gives a feeling of state bondage of geography to the national boundary.3 A country is studied in school on the basis of facts that can be pinned down to locations within the national boundary. Thus locations of vegetation, transport, etc, by virtue of being the means as well as the end show a passive method of studying living and changing realities of societies and countries.

Geography and the Socio-Political

A “region” in our textbooks is a country, that is, the nation or state. States are treated as “given” entities without any discourse on its nature. Their premises are taken “naturally” like landscape features without examining their connotations and functioning. The attention lies on the boundary (as in the map). Appraising this practice, Gore (1984) observes that regions can be understood only if examined as an integral part of state policy. Concerns of regions like their development and planning must be located in some theorisation of the state.

The self-evident character of the state as natural boundary of social life began to be questioned since the 1970s particularly due to two transformations [Wallerstein et al 1996: 80-85]. States seemed to lose their promise as agents of modernisation and economic well-being in popular and scholarly esteem. Moreover, the assertions of marginal groups or identities led scholars to look at previously unquestioned presuppositions.

It is not only in matters of what constitutes a region, but also on the methodology of its study that modifications took place through such formulations as “area studies”.4 The 1950s saw a reorientation of regional geography that paved the way for “theoretical geography”. This attempt tried to focus on area-wise differences through a synthesis of physical and human attributes within regions. The new trend attempted to focus on spatial variables and systems thus promoting human geography as a spatial science.

The costs of moving commodities, people or information between places, became a key variable, termed the “friction of distance”. Haggett and Chorley, amongst others practised such spatial analysis in geography. In Haggett’s “synthesis” in geography (1983) we find much importance being attached to the factor of distance. The intensity of functions decreases as one moves away from the centre. This concept of “distancedecay” is largely an adaptation of Newton’s law of gravity.5 Another prominent concept is of “zooming in” (towards a small area of the earth) and “zooming out” (towards a larger area). This is similar to the image of an astronaut peering down at the earth’s surface from a space platform as demonstrated by Isard (1956): “Upon retreating into space, he might curiously regard the broad density configurations a second time, and perceive certain unchanging characteristics…His speculations might be classified as pure spatial analysis” (emphasis added) [in Gore 1984: 8-9].

Gore notes that such practices of theoretical geography had characteristics common with “regional science” and “regional economics” in that they were all concerned with “space” than with “regions”.6 Through this method, the “distance” variable could be isolated and mathematical models which explained the pure geometry of spatial systems, “undisturbed” by the “distortions” of the “real” world, could be constructed (1984: 8). Gore refers to this trend as “spatial separatism” implying the separation of space from social processes. Such spatial analysis gained popularity in 1970s especially in the pedagogic sphere. But this arouses many questions on the concept of the nature of “space” that was being constructed. Moreover, we do not find any formulations of relationships between the smaller and larger scales represented by zooming in and zooming out.

Socio-geographic Togetherness

Geography has undergone waves of rationalism especially since the 1960s, implying changes in philosophy and methodology. The first major shift popularly known as the quantitative revolution soon gave way to a more profound second thrust of social-political interconnections of space. The latter development witnessed an understanding of “space” as simultaneously a contributor and an outcome of socio-spatial interconnections. All these lead to an increasing separation between the physical and human, of traditional geography. “The second ‘revolution’… questioned our beliefs and made some of us rethink them” [Brookfield 1984: 33-34].

As the need for studying space-society interconnections came to be recognised and exercised, it became difficult to continue to address space as a physical crucible where all the happenings of the world took place. Geography was kept going in the premise that natural varieties in the world produce varied geographies. This was the only logic that could be produced reflecting the major lacunae of traditional geography.

In an interesting interview of Wolfgang Hartke by Buttimer, he delves on the issue of dealing with social problems in the geographic context:

I am still convinced that one must begin with mapping- to map the facts which have been derived from surveys, interviews and most of all from observations of people in action. Why did I insist on this? To prevent the classical geographers from denying its status as geography! I convinced them about my points by using their own language, their own methods. To show how spatial structures are a function of social structuration, and not determined by the physical conditions of soil or physical environment [Buttimer 1983: 235].

Geographers who have moved away from the dualistic and deterministic paths have examined space in its interconnections with the socio-political. Harvey has worked on space-time, not in a manner of “incorporating” space in social science understanding, but in understanding space as an integral process of the spatial social-political. Soja has critiqued the overwhelming dominance of the temporal in social science discourse. Massey says that whereas geography is rightly criticised for looking at spatial outcomes only as an effect of spatial causes, social and economic enquiries are to be criticised for their non-spatial premise, as though the world existed on the “head of a pin”.

Gregory and Swyngedow have called attention to geographic contexts of real world situations. Spatial structures are implicated in social structures and each has to be theorised with the other. Gregory argues for a “doubly human geography”:

In the sense that it recognises that its concepts are specifically human constructions, rooted in specific social formations and capable of – demanding of – continual examination and criticism; and human in the sense that it restores human beings to their own worlds and enables them to take part in the collective transformation of their own human geographies [Gregory 1978: 172].

An important aspect put forward by many of these geographers is the understanding of space as utilised by capital to override its crisis. The very survival of capitalism, as Lefebvre argued, was built upon the creation of an increasingly embracing instrumental and socially mystified spatiality, hidden from critical view under thick veils of illusion and ideology [in Soja 1989: 50]. Massey (1995: 65-120) illustrates how capital has used geographic conditions of unorganised labour, desperate levels of unemployed labour and socially prevelant sexual bifurcation of labour etc, to maximise its profits. But where socio-spatial interconnections have created more resistance from labour, the latter have chalked out better situations of social justice. Thus space is not seen as a passive recipient or a stage, but as an integral and active condition.

Human-Nature Discourses

Thus even though geography has grown to appreciate the sociospatial, schoolbooks continue to operate with outdated formulations. Nature and human are treated as separate, demarcated entities. Moreover, nature is itself divided into parts (like hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere, etc) whose addition is supposed to give a picture of the “whole”. In this scheme, processes that characterise nature-human relationships are not addressed. This way of understanding is characteristic of the “systems theory” which attempts to understand parts and to sum them up to perceive the “whole”. Concepts of biosphere and ecosystem, etc, are expressions of systems – thinking, attempting to understand interconnections amongst parts of the whole. Geographers like Hardwick and Holtgrieve (1990) have made such efforts by treating the earth as a system. But especially as we study society, there are certain aspects, which “systems” fail to grasp. For instance, the processes that transform the whole cannot really be grasped as the summation of parts.

There could be changes that transform the “whole” and thereby transform the former functions of the parts. This fact cannot be captured in systems-thinking where the understanding is confined to “parts” keeping the “whole” going, as in a machine. A major difference from this approach is found in dialectics where the emphasis is on the structure of the process more than on things or parts. “Parts” of dialectical wholes are not chosen as independent as possible of the “wholes” but rather as points where perspectives of the whole are concentrated. Their relation is not mere interconnection or interaction, but a deeper interpenetration that transforms them so that the same variable may have a very different significance in different contexts and the behaviour of the system can alter its structure [Levins 1998: 383]. This approach tries to understand the processes of transformation whereby it becomes possible to appreciate contradictions and interpenetrations. This gathers much meaning, for as stated by Levins (1998: 389-90), our primary concern in understanding processes is to know what to do, how to intervene in those processes to make things better for us. Thus we try to identify the directions in which to push for change.

Our schoolbooks largely use the systems approach in understanding environment. It fails to provide any picture of the environmental problematic.

The Environmental Problematic

In addressing the human-nature relations, the text assumes a confrontation of two entities. One, the human, takes too much from the other, that is, nature, akin to Arvill’s (1983) expressions of “assault” and “attack” on environment. Degradation of environment is sought to be remedied by changing the human role. “Man has to learn to live in perfect harmony with the physical and biological environment so that the earth continues to be habitable for future generations as well” (SCERT, class IX, textbook, p 3). As in Toffler’s new image of nature, “instead of conceiving ourselves as engaged in a bloody war with nature, we are moving toward a fresh view that emphasises symbiosis or harmony with the earth” [1981: 307].

The cause of disharmony is pointed out as population growth. It is also stated that technological efforts as green revolution would combat the problems of food for a large population. Thus greater human interaction with nature (green revolution) is seen to combat the environment problem (population) thereby contradicting the tone of human restraint of environmental determinism, say, “We know that all man’s activities are according to his natural environment. His selection of industries, his agricultural products, ...even his religions and ideals are guided by his natural environment” (SCERT, ibid, p 3).7 These contradictory postures make it difficult to identify the environmental problematic.

The environmental problematic is centred on the use of nature as resource base. The resource for production is seen as reaching levels of scarcity. Such cause of concern voiced through “sustainable” development implies the sustainability of resources for production. By posing the environmental problematic in terms of sustainability of nature and the control of human reproduction, we are not only taking contradictory and simplistic positions, but also are failing to address the particular process of production that places the environment at crossroads. It is important to understand the transformation of nature in the image of capital, the transformation-taking place due to a particular and dominant process of nature-human relationship. This qualitative transformation of nature gets illustrated through the biotechnology enhanced seed industry, the transformation of river ecosystem through dam constructions or of forests through monoculture, etc, but it is to be noted that ecological crisis as we know it today is not only a crisis for humanity, but also a crisis for capitalist reproduction itself [D’Souza 2003: 27].

As Harvey remarks, it is very hard not to be in favour of “sustainable” practices as the term has a positive connotation; politics and policies give it a status of being environmentally sensitive. But he examines the capitalist interest through the dynamics shown by international finance in ecological sustainability. “The duality of ecological and social projects here takes some interesting twists for while it is true that debt repayment, as ecologists argue, is at the root of many ecological problems, it is precisely the threat of debt default that forces international finance to recognise that all debate about ecoscarcity, natural limits, overpopulation and sustainability is a debate about the preservation of a particular social order rather than a debate about the preservation of nature per se” [Harvey 1996: 148].

Political Connotations

It is noted that explanations as provided in our textbooks try to show an apparently apolitical position, the so-called neutrality in discourse. Society and society-nature relations assume an unreal proposition because one uniform entity called society is shown to interact with another called nature. The concept of homogeneous society denies variations of human-nature relations. Moreover, a homogeneous (synonymous to equal) society chooses not to discuss politics behind nature-human relations. Hence it implies promotion of a particular politics. This is explained through equations of sustainability and population control, which has political origins and connotations.

“Ideas about environment, population and resources are not neutral. They are political in origin and have political effects. Once, for example, connotations of absolute limits come to surround the concepts of resource, scarcity and subsistence, then an absolute limit is set on population. And the political implications of a term like overpopulation can be devastating. Somebody somewhere, is redundant and there is not enough to go round. Am I redundant? Of course not. Are you redundant? Of course not. So who is redundant? Of course it must be them…it is only right that they, who contribute so little to society, ought to bear the brunt of the burden…” [Harvey 1996: 148-49]. Deprived sections of society are made to bear the guilt of growing population and hence, the coercion of population control in particular states.

The frame of a homogeneous “human” and “nature” implies marginalisation of various socio-political constructs of the environmental problematic. For instance, the innumerable struggle of people thrown out of their relationship with nature does not become a point to be discussed. The process by which certain people are displaced from their living space and relationships is the outcome of a particular and dominant relationship of humans with nature. Marcuse (1972) captures this as “the ever-more-effective domination of man by man through the domination of nature” [in Gregory 1978: 45].

It is, therefore, necessary that our understanding move much beyond the “scarcity and population” version of capitalist interests. We are experiencing a phase where the World Bank and other agencies advocate environmental sensitivity, often employing terms like “sustainability” and “harmony with nature”. Such terms can have varying connotations. In his writing on mining capital, Bridge (1992) examines the active use of a discourse that reflects an offensive attitude towards environmental problems indicating a new posture of capitalists as protectors of nature.

Opposition to mining has emerged not only from environmentalists but from capital interests that are implicated in the economic restructuring of former mining regions (e g, real estate, the hi-tech sector, tourism) and who are alarmed at mining’s potential for ecological expropriation through the devaluation of property [Beck in Bridge 1992: 221]. Therefore different interests portray the discourse on nature, each explicating a different concern on environmental risk. Nature gets redefined as stocks of resource, which is to be managed, and in the process the concerns and discourse are trapped within the capitalist frame. “Sustainable development becomes … a question of efficiently managing environmental stocks and flows, a project for which capital is not only eminently suited, but which it alone can undertake” (Beck op cit: 228).

In concluding the review of geography in school, it is observed that many of the deep-rooted practices of traditional geography restrict an appreciation of socio-geographic change. In order to enhance some basic geographic understanding, school education should incorporate and reflect new frontiers and findings in the discipline to be able to appreciate interconnections between space and the socio-political.

II Regional Specificity

Questions of regional specificity and spatial diversity continue to be key concerns of geographic enquiry. The study of regions, which had earlier occupied the heart of geographic thought, were later criticised not only on lack of scientism and quantification, but also on the lack of perceptions on interconnections between the regional and the larger overall picture. It was also critiqued as provoking an unnecessary sense of “regionalism”.

The notion of a homogenising world came with the vision of modernity. But a homogenising macro conception which has been associated with modernisation has often paved way for divergent voices arguing against macro and for the micro and for regional identities (like Schumacher’s, Small is Beautiful, religious-linguistic-national identities, tribal and village selfrule, etc). These are expressions emerging out of a sense of marginalisation (say, tribal) or out of a search for political mileage (as in Hindutva). In all these cases, the chief thrust is of posing the “traditional” against the “modern”, articulating resistance to change towards modernity.

Some observations are that (i) it indicates the assertion of continuity of a certain social order that could have amongst others, political implications of maintaining a non-egalitarian system;

(ii) therefore, it has the potential of enhancing certain politics that can derive mileage from these divergent voices of resistance to change. This can signify the stagnancy of some social strata as also a tendency to deny a critical look at society and its dilemmas (say by romanticising the geographic-historic specificity of a region). It is to be noted that such processes as colonialism, industrialisation and urbanisation had shaken up the traditional patterns of stratified societies. Hence such changes were often welcomed at receiving ends of caste and gender equations where traditional roles were oppressive.

Hence resistance to change asserts certain interests that in turn help to create a particular socio-political milieu. For instance we can see such implications in the adivasi transition and struggle. Many movements organised largely through middle-class leadership have taken similar paths based on a glorification of geographic-historic specificity. Not suprisingly, many articulations have also paved the way for situating itself close to the right-wing political agenda. For instance, the condemnation of the “western” in favour of the “local” by Verrier Elwin (in central India) as the ideal path for tribal well-being helped foster an ethos that enthused right wing politics [Prasad 2003].

It is important to assess the concept of “region” in contexts like the politics of exclusion discussed above. The importance of “region” in geography lies precisely in studying and helping to create an articulation against such exclusionist practices that get more developed with expanding globalisation of capital. Recent trends in geography have shown a movement towards a progressive analysis of the socio-spatial. At a wider level, this would not only help geography to integrate with the wider body of contemporary discourse in social science, but also help strengthen the globalising network of resistance to the exclusionist framework of capitalist globalisation [Banerjee-Guha 2000].

In the context of globalisation of capital, we have seen expressions of resistance (like in World Social Forum) as celebrations of diversities of the world. Has capitalism been creating or destroying diversities or doing both in different contexts? Decline of traditional industries or trends in homogenisation of lifestyles, etc, could be cited as examples of the former. But new diversities are also created by capitalism through creation of regional disparities. The so-called homogenising effect of globalisation is largely a myth. The construction of globalisation, since its inception, has largely been dependent on geographical reorganisation of economic activities and/or cultural attributes [Banerjee-Guha 2002]. Disparities produced by of rural-urban and core-periphery dualism is inherent in capitalism and therefore we need to question the notion of development of marginalised regions within such a framework [Das 2004].

There are some strong arguments against this perception of homogenisation by globalisation or the argument that the significance of geography and the local are erased through globalisation, “… the differences between places … what makes up their ‘localness’ – actually may become more important in the decision-making process of social actors. Today when trillions of dollars, pounds, sterling and yen can be shunted with a computer keystroke between markets… minute differences between places can be acted upon by investors”. But local political action – a strike or showdown in production here, workers agreeing to work overtime there – can fundamentally shape global flows of capital [Herod 2001: 261]. Thus we have a scenario where diversities are capitalised. The reserving of global scale of action for capital hence becomes problematic. The need is to recognise that geographic scales, like geographic spaces are actively created social structures.

Operation of Scales

Many geographers have questioned the popular concept of the local and the global as two distinct entities perceived to be at loggerheads with each other. Conflating the global-economicgeneral and contrasting it with local-cultural-specific obscures important dimensions that an alternative approach to scale might bring to critical geo-political analysis and responses built from it [Howitt 2000: 1]. Swyngedouw (1997) suggests the need to abandon “local” and “global” as conceptual tools. Instead a concentration on politics of scale and their metaphorical and material production and transformation is required. Speculative activities in financial derivatives market triggering off disastrous consequences for companies are examples where the local and the global are shown to be deeply intertwined. But he points out that there are other spatial scales as well that deeply implicate such processes. Thus there is a need to understand the operation of scales, which is crucial in understanding “region” itself.

The dominant notions of scale have been characterised by those of size (in an areal sense) and of level (in a hierarchical sense). Many geographers have built on to the division of world space into three realms and understood scales in terms of local, national and global. But many have questioned this hierarchical concept and have instead emphasised multiplicity of scales, their interconnections and transformations. New developments in geography give emphasis on relationships between scales. This points out the need for a flexible understanding of regions, for instance, as “absolute economic spaces (however temporarily) in a wider sea of continually transforming relative space” [Smith and Dennis 1987: 168].

It is true that globalisation of production processes and of capital has made changes in the traditional sense of scale of national production and the organisation of national economics around it. Marston (2000: 10) calls attention to Lefebvre’s thesis that the capitalist state is preoccupied with the social production of space. State itself is a socio-spatial configuration. Similarly, Smith (1990) notes that within nation-states, regional concentration of economic activities is a result of capital’s tendency towards spatial concentration in terms of individual capitalists as well as particular economic sectors. He describes the traditional role of the nation-state in capitalism as one of protecting the collective interests of one nation’s capital from other nation’s capital, of defending capital militarily and to regulate and guarantee the maintenance of the working class. A political need for the nation-state persists to maintain control over the working class, which is still nationally and regionally fractured.

The internationalisation of capital brings to the stage the unfolding of new formations of regions. Such restructuring implies new scale formations, “a complete restructuring of the scale at which regions are constituted as coherent and integrated economic units” [Smith and Dennis 1987: 171]. Globalisation is understood not simply as a superimposition of the global agency onto regions, it is understood as a process involving various scales of operation and formation of various regions and all of which are subject to continuous transformations.

Recent developments in geography have stressed the need for “regions” to be rooted in theoretical concepts. These have taken off largely from theories of uneven development. Theorising on scale have emphasised the social relations of production (see Neil Smith, Kevin Cox and others). Scale construction thereby becomes largely the product of political processes endemic to capitalism. It develops and transforms out of contested and heterogeneous processes, which involve struggles for power and control. This emphasises that the crux of the problem is in theorising and understanding “process”. Regions are thereby perceived as continuously changing outcomes of opposing forces of cooperation and competition.

The nexus of power thus largely governs the operation and transformation of geographic scales. Herod (2001: 257) notes that the ability to shape a landscape in a particular way can have many implications for the balance of political power between different social groups and can play a central role in political struggle. Thus “scale is not socially-politically neutral, but embodies and expresses power relationships” [Swyngedouw 1997: 140]. As observed by Fagan (1995 from Howitt 2000: 4) region becomes a political discourse.

We again come across the question of regional specificity, the question of the defence of geographical-historical specificity, the defence of place. This takes us to the questions of subjectivity and of the particular. As geography is increasingly moving towards recognition of theory, the question of subjectivity (for instance the questions of race, gender, etc) and theory are no longer thought to be mutually exclusive.

The question of negotiation between different scales brings in a certain tension between the “particular” and the “subjective” and other scales.8 Harvey (1996) points out, in the context of struggles for socialism, the need to break out of local bonds if it is to become a viable alternative to capitalism as a working mode of production and social relations. But he observes that there is an equally problematic position when politics is guided by abstractions upon people who have given their lives and labour for many years in a particular way in a particular place. These two levels of operations of politics bring up not only questions of abstraction and scale, but also tensions between them.

The tension that exists between different spaces creates a politics of scale in which some localities are more or less engaged in networks of association beyond their immediate boundaries than others. These associations can stretch across scales. By examining the politics of scale, Cox (1998) enables a more complex understanding of locality and local politics.

III Conclusions

School geography is trapped in frameworks that are unable to find out social geographic dynamics. The larger meanings of society and geography are hardly touched because certain traditional discourses limit an understanding of social-geographic togetherness. The confinement to physical-human dualism, the dependence on models and natural science methodologies in analysing the “social”, geographic determinism and positivism, etc, lend strong strains of creating a geography that stops short of analysing the importance of space in producing geographic processes. A conspicuous underestimation of processes also fosters the practice of geography in an ethos of cause-and-effect.

It is to be understood that the traditional bonds of geography have histories, which are closely linked to imperialism. Hudson’s assessment of teaching of geography by the end of 19th century says “the study and the teaching of new geography at an advanced level was vigorously promoted at that time largely, if not mainly, to serve the interests of imperialism in its various aspects including territorial acquisition, economic exploitation, militarism and the practice of class and race domination” [from Stoddart 1986: 128].

But all the same, there was another growing stream of geography, which stressed the equality of men and the need for compassion and collaboration in the solution of world problems [Stoddart 1986: 129]. Geography has moved from its initial descriptive nature to practices of quantified analysis influenced by positivism, to the systems approach and dialectical thinking. Recent geographies have worked on a transformative function of space. This has taken cognisance of such dynamics of space as operation of scale.

This not only helps in understanding the operations of globalisation and resistance to it, but also has again brought forth the question of regions in geography. The formation and transformation of regions are explored today within a theoretical understanding. The dynamics of operations of scale has helped to understand interconnections of “regions” with the expanding globalisation of capital. New trends in geography have also paved way for a discourse of non-separation of empiricism from theory as also the need for praxis. Regions (and geography) should thereby look not only at interconnections, but to use a la Levins,

also “interpenetrations” that actually help us to know the direc

tions in which we can push for transformations in society. Teaching of geography still look for a so-called neutrality

that distances learning from real-life dynamics. In spite of

changing geographic discourses that travel much beyond

traditions, school education has made no modifications. More

over, even in apparent ethos of neutrality, “environment” and

“regions” are discussed in frameworks that project the nuances

of capitalist relations.




[This article has looked up school textbooks prescribed by Madhya Pradesh SCERT, MP Textbook Corporation, Bhopal; Class 5 (2004), Class 6 (2000), Class 7 (2002), Class 8 (2004), Class 9 (2004), Class 10 (2004). NCERT, New Delhi; Class 6 (2002), Class 7 (2003), Class 8 (2004), Class 9 (2002); Class 10 (2003), Class 11 (2002).]

1 Mercator, the Dutch navigator who made a world map in 1569 in which the equator and poles were shown through similar lengths of latitudes leading to tremendous exaggeration of northern continents.

2 In Mercator’s map, Africa is shown smaller than North America whereas it is actually 1.5 times larger. South America is shown smaller than Europe whereas it is really twice its size. Scandinavia and India look equal in size, but India is really 3 times Scandinavia’s size. Alaska and Brazil look equal, but actually Brazil is 6 times the size of Alaska. Greenland looks larger than South America, but in actuality the latter is 10 times the size of Greenland.

3 For instance, Ludden’s (2003) study on transactions between mobility and territorialism and Harvey’s (1982) examination of the geographic contradiction between fixity and mobility of capital show us that the oft portrayed bondage to national boundaries can be far too simplistic to help understand geography.

4 “The political motivations underlying its origins were quite explicit. The US, given its worldwide political role, needed knowledge about, and therefore specialists on, the current realities of these various regions, especially since these regions were now becoming so politically active” [Wallerstein et al 1996: 37].

5 The results of Swedish work on migration indicate that spatial interaction is inversely related to the square of the distance between settlements... [Haggett 1983: 444].

6 “Space” in a very physical and geometric sense as against “regions” which try to capture the specificity and characteristics with human contributions thereby capturing the local/regional milieu.

7 Certain peak of determinism highly suggestive of something unnatural or undesired in multiplicity of, say religion or ideals in any particular place.

8 Harvey (1996) expresses it through what he calls “militant particularism” and Cox (1998) expresses it as spaces of “dependence” and of “engagement”. Spaces of dependence are those, which defines conditions of our material well being and sense of significance. These spaces are inserted in broader sets of relationships of a more global character and which constantly threaten to undermine them. They construct a different form of space which he calls spaces of engagement.


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