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Explain key differences between the ‘quantitative revolution’, Marxism and the ‘cultural turn’

Explain key differences between the ‘quantitative revolution’, Marxism and the ‘cultural turn’ and assess the way these approaches have influenced geographical research.

Geography as a discipline had been dominated by regional geography for much of the first half of the twentieth century. Geographers picked out regions to study, and then analyzed the physical and cultural processes that made those regions unique. “A region contains… a special, unique, and in some ways, a uniform combination of kinds or categories of phenomena” (Schaefer 1953) and the uniqueness of every region was such that the only generalization that could be made about these regions was that they were unique (Peet 1998).

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But Schaefer was unhappy with geography being classified in this way. He felt that there were regularities between the relative unique positions of phenomena, and thus spatial patterns and morphological laws existed (Bennet 1985). This led to the birth of the ‘quantitative revolution’, where geographers focused their studies on researching these patterns and laws and sought to explain them using science.

John Marshall argues that geography had always been a science “by virtue of the fact it is a truth-seeking discipline whose raw materials consist of empirical observations” (Marshall 1985). When the ‘revolution’ began in the 1950s, examples already existed of “empirical observations” being used to explain phenomena in human geography. Christaller used mathematical models in his central place theory (1933) to explain the way people laid out the inhabited landscape because he had observed that similarly sized settlements were equidistant from each other.

An example of such a study from the time of the ‘revolution’ would be MacArthur and Wilson’s Theory of Island Biogeography (1969) which seeks to explain how islands and other habitat islands are colonized by flora and fauna. It is based on the observation that islands far from the mainland usually have different and sometimes completely unique biogeographies, and the authors use some very complex mathematical equations to show how this phenomenon occurs.

Many people were however very critical of this approach to geography, particularly the positivist (scientific) side to it. The critics’ arguments are based on the fact that the positivist approach was supposed to be value-free, but as human geography is a social science, and the geographers doing the research are part of society, they have their own values which unavoidably influence their studies (Cloke et al 1991). Another criticism came from Gould (1970) who argued that, with the exception of some simple, non-spatial situations, statistical inference makes independent assumptions that are not always accurate.

Some examples may show that a set of data have some kind of statistical significance, but that, he argued, eliminates the possibility of random phenomena. He argues that many of the methods used for analyzing statistics are outdated, and some of these methods were simplified for ease of use on a calculator. The development of computers should have heralded an advance in such statistical analyses, but he could see no examples of this.

But for many, the main problem with this ‘quantitative revolution’ was the fact that people were being treated as nothing more than numbers. Statistically showing how a population is arranged disregards the social factors and personal choices of the people in that population that created that arrangement. Disenchantment with the positivist quantitative approach followed, leading to the development of new forms of humanistic geography, which intended to “bring back human beings in all their complexity to centre stage in human geography” (Cloke et al 1991). This next development took on a few different forms, notably the radical feminist and Marxist stances of the 1960s and 70s.

The radical approach to geography was born with the first publication of Antipode, which initially reported on such issues as uneven development, race and gender issues, and environmental problems in a different, radical light to what was the norm of the time. It later became a Marxist publication (Cox 2005).

Marxists see capitalism as an inherently unequal social structure that exploits the weak, the vulnerable and the poor. They blame capitalism for the unequal development that has spread across the world, and for the growing income inequality. With regards to geography, they claim that “spatial relations under capitalism have historically entailed a geographical type of exploitation defined in terms of the movement of ‘surplus’ from poor to rich countries” (Peet 1985). Peet also describes the way that international crises are the result of the imperialism that capitalist countries have used to control the weaker and more vulnerable poor countries of the Third World.

Peet (1985) suggests that understanding social structure is the key to understanding geographical and spatial relations. He recognises that a “radical geography that enables understanding” is a necessity, and that “the informational and transformational functions of knowledge [must] merge into a unity dominated by the urgent need for societal change”, but he does not offer any solutions himself to society’s problems.

Dissatisfied with the quantitative and radical approaches, some geographers have begun to look at the subject differently again. The subject is taking a ‘cultural turn’, that is a turn away from explaining everything using economistic values in preference of exploring other spheres of life (Mitchell 1995). Some geographers feel that “Culture has… dissolved the categories of classical Marxism” (Daniels 1989).

Because of this, culture is becoming the new focus of geography. Geographers are recognising that culture is the dominant control on society. Mitchell argues that “culture explains behaviour, resistance and social formations in a way that economics and politics cannot.”

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It, therefore, makes regions unique. Johnston (1984) identifies the world as “a complex mosaic of environments, which provide constraint to human activity but have enabled a great variety of human responses. It is that variety which forms the heart of geography.”

Culture, however, varies from place to place. Most regions have a unique culture of their own, and therefore every individual region needs to be studied on its own, as a unique phenomenon. As a result, geography has, in a sense, gone full circle and returned to the old regional format of the early twentieth century. Geographers are focusing their research on these unique phenomena, and seek to explain how and why these phenomena occur. Who knows, perhaps in twenty or so years time quantitative methods will dominate research again until a new wave of radicalism takes over the discipline of geography, but for now the uniqueness of individual environments, geographical locations and populations dominate geographical thinking and research.



Bennet, R.J., (1985), Quantification and relevance, The Future of Geography, pg 211-225

Cox, K.R., (2005), From Marxist geography to critical geography and back again, The Ohio State University,, [accessed on 17/11/2011]

Cloke, P., Philo, C., Sadler, D., (1991), Approaching Human Geography

Daniels, S., (1989), Marxism, culture and the duplicity of landscape

Gould, P., (1970), Is statistics inference the geographical name for a wild goose chase? Economic Geography Vol. 46

Johnston, R.J., (1985), The world is our oyster, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series Vol. 9 No. 4, pg 443-459

MacArthur, R.H., Wilson, E.O., (1969), The Theory of Island Biogeography

Mitchell, D., (1995), There’s no such thing as culture: towards a reconceptualization of the idea of culture in geography,

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series Vol. 20 No. 1, pg 102-116

Peet, R., (1985), An introduction to Marxist geography, Journal of Geography, Vol. 84 No. 1 pg, 5-10

Peet, R., (1998), Modern Geographical Thought

Schaefer, F.K., (1953), Exceptionalism in geography: a methodological examination, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 43 No. 3, pg 226-249

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