GG3012(NS) Lecture 4:

The ‘Quantitative Revolution’:

hard science or "inconsequential claptrap"?


Burton (1963) described the Quantitative Revolution as "a radical transformation of [the] spirit and purpose" of Geography. By this he meant a new-found enthusiasm for the use of numerical techniques of some kind, directed towards elucidating the details of Earth surface patterns - or what became known as ‘spatial science’. However, for what is perhaps the most (in)famous episode in the discipline’s history, the exact identity of the QR remains elusive. Few would dispute the fact that major change did occur, but different people hold up different heroes (or villains!), working on different things, in different places, at different times. The QR involved a mish-mash of techniques, including the use of:

The common factor linking all this was its preference for numbers over words, and a belief in its superior scientific pedigree (see ‘positivism’, below).

Was it important? Work of the QR/spatial science tradition was certainly closer to what was expected of academic research in the 1950s and 1960s than was the regional geography which preceded it. However, this does not mean it was superior - it was just different, but different in a way which matched the prevailing mood. This mood changed by the late 1960s, with a significant number of geographers beginning to question the wisdom - and even the morality - of this quantitative turn. Much of what has happened in geography over the last 30 years can be read as a product of the QR, either as a hardening of its traditions (mostly in physical geography and related disciplines), or as an attempt to dismantle the damage done (mostly in human geography).


Useful quotey bits

The Quantitative Revolution was yet another attempt to make geography "more scientific" by taking it off on yet another new tack, and in the process the revolutionaries tried to force regional geography to walk the plank.


The highest form of the geographer’s art



If geomorphology is to achieve full stature as a branch of geology operating on the frontier of research into fundamental principles and laws of earth science, it must turn to the physical and engineering sciences and mathematics for the vitality it now lacks... The establishment of... mathematical models may be regarded as the highest form of scientific achievement because the models are precise statements of fundamental truths... We are already half-a-century behind if development is to be measured against chemistry, physics and the biological sciences.


Dynamic basis of geomorphology



...[A]s measurements increase in complexity and refinement, and as mathematical manipulation of the data become more sophisticated, these measurements and manipulations may become so impressive in form that the investigator tends to lose sight of their meaning and purpose... When mechanical processes replace reasoning processes, and when a number replaces understanding as the objective, danger enters.


Rational and empirical methods of investigation in geology



How can we take it all so seriously, when it contributes so little to the improvement of the human condition? Most geography is inconsequential claptrap, and never more so than during the quantitative revolution.


Recollections of a Revolution



Big word of the week:

POSITIVISM. A particular set of rules and beliefs which define:

  1. How to ‘do’ science: positivist procedure is often portrayed as THE ‘scientific method’.
  2. What does, and what does not, qualify as valid scientific knowledge: positivism is designed to eliminate subjectivity - it is meant to be value-free: i.e. concerned with what (positively) is. It is not about opinions or judgements (positivist don’t ‘think’, they ‘know’! - something either is a fact, or it isn’t, and everyone can agree on this), nor does it make normative statements about what should be.

Positivism deals with facts, and facts equate with what we can observe (so we can talk of ‘observation’ or ‘sense’ data). This gives positivism a distinct empiricist tendency. Empiricism is the idea that ‘concrete’ data are what matters to science; ideas and theories are not scientific because they are not facts. So far, nothing here disqualifies inter-war regional geography from counting as positivist science. However, additional ideas attached to positivism (and supposedly absent from regional geography) include:

So was the geography of the 1950s and 1960s truly positivist? In a strict philosophical sense, no it wasn’t. It was certainly far removed from the sophisticated procedures of logical positivism. (When it comes to histories of geography, the idea that geography was ever closely related to the rigorous out-growth of positivism known as logical positivism is a red herring.) However, it was positivist in the sense that the term implied science, if we interpret ‘science’ here as something close to the popular image of science. David Livingstone (The Geographical Tradition, p. 321 and p. 328) sums this up:

Key reading:

Burton’s paper provides a readable introduction to the idea of a quantitative revolution, with the twin advantages that a) it was written at the time, and b) it treats Geography as a single subject which includes both physical and human aspects. Livingstone as usual, plus Gregory for a brief skirmish with philosophy. This is not easy, but you should try to pick up on the flavour of the debate. Much of the ‘new’ geography came nowhere near the rigorous standards implied by adherence to positivist scientific method, but it is/was the rhetoric which is/was important. Many geographers believed that they were building a new, rational, value-free, useful and above all scientific geography, even though many of the claims they made for it turned out to be less secure than they thought. It is the reaction against positivism, and the associated dogma of scientism (the uncritical belief that what is supposedly science represents a form of knowledge superior to that arrived at by other means), which has spurred many developments in (human) geography since c. 1970. So, in part, my suggestion that you have a look at this short essay is designed as a bridge to Hayden’s lectures.


Supplementary reading:

Taylor gives a sociological account of why the QR took place - he sees it as a bid to undermine the entrenched academic hierarchy by a group of power-hungry young men. This is a strongly internalist account, which, to my mind, although undoubtedly important, ignores geography’s external relations with other academic disciplines, the ‘outside’ world, and the prevailing spirit-of-the age.


Supplementary skim reading

Three hugely influential pieces of work. You are certainly not expected to read the first two, but a flick through each will give you a good idea of where the ‘new’ geography was at. Haggett’s book is packed with the geometrical figures and statistical notation which characterised 1960s spatial science; Harvey’s is, if anything, even more esoteric, in that it attempts to supply the philosophical justification for all of this. It is also particularly remarkable in that he was later to change his mind completely, and ditch ‘scientific’ geography in favour of a geography informed by Marxist ideas. Again, try to get a flavour of what all the fuss was/is about. Strahler’s paper argues similarly for a new ‘scientific’ geography.