Quantitative Revolution in Geography

The application of statistical and mathematical techniques, theorems and proofs in understanding geographical systems is known as the Quantitative Revolution in geography.

In the 1950s, post World War-II, the regional approach in geography came under attack by a group of geographers. The criticism was that regional geography had no sound theoretical underpinnings. 

Against this backdrop, American geographers launched a changeover in the philosophy and methodology of geography. Quantification was the key to this radical transformation.

This is not to say that such quantification was new to geography because physical geography had already incorporated numerical analysis. What was new was the inclusion of quantification and statistical techniques within human geography particularly in economic and urban geography.

Quantitative Revolution has roots in Hartshorne-Schaefer debate. Schaefer questioned the philosophy of ‘exceptionalism’ which was advocated by Hettner and later argued by Hartshorne in his ‘areal differentiation’. Schaefer argued for geography which is more scientific and analytical, with cause-effect relationship. He argued that uniqueness of events and entities can’t be an argument against attempting generalisations because physical-natural sciences like physic, chemistry, biology also deal with unique entities. It is the purpose of science to investigate common elements and generalise them under common laws.

The real goal of the advocates of quantification was to create added objectivity in geographical studies and to further the philosophical tenets of logical positivism in the discipline. This could be accomplished through the use of formal logic mathematics and empirical observations.

Assumptions of Quantitative Revolution:
• Rational economic man with infinite knowledge of his space/environment
• Isotropic surface
• No place for normative questions in scientific research

Principles of quantification:
• Positivism
• Logic empiricism
• Documentation
• Data collection

It discourages:
• Speculative
• Value laden interpretation 

By mid 1960s, the initial euphoria about Quantitative Revolution had greatly receded. Many had begun to question the relevance of models based on the positivist orientation for their lack of empirical validity. Most models had failed to relate to real life.

The models and theories developed on the basis of empirical data exclude the normative questions like belief, taboos, emotions, attitudes, desires, hopes, fears, likes and dislikes, prejudices and aesthetic values. This is mainly being done to make the study objective and scientific. In the real world, the normative questions have close bearing in the interrelationship between man and environment, and decision making process.

According to critics, quantification creates a false sense of objectivity. The backlash against the quantification trend led to ‘critical revolution’ of the 1970s and 1980s under the humanistic and welfare approached in geography.

Most geographers in the quantification phase were so involved in methods of model making, methods in statistical analysis that the core purpose of geographical enquiry was lost. Most geographers were more like mathematicians and not involved in studying the ‘variable character of earth’s surface’.

With all its merits and demerits, the phase of Quantitative Revolution however has been one of the decisive trends in geography’s evolution and is often referred as paradigm phase in geography.

• The assumptions simplify the real life conditions so much that whatever generalization are made, are not realistic depictions of real life world.

• The generalizations are so far removed from reality that they are normative laws.

• Simon’s ‘satisficing decision’ model, so decisions are always taken by rational economic man.

Earliest examples of quantification and model making:

• Von Thunen’s crop intensity model in 1826

• Alfred Weber’s model of industrial location 1909

• Christaller’s central place theory

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  Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2015 at 12:28 PM under   Geography