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What is theory. compare positivist, phenomenological, radical and critical realist notions of explanation. what direction did each take on geographical thought and research? which do you find more theoretically productive and why?

Geography Research

Geography as a discipline is one of the oldest of the sciences simply because it strives to give answers to peoples most primitive questions. Geography was identified as a teachable subject and can be linked back to the Greek Scholar Eratosthenes, also referred to as the founding father of geography. For instance, the founding father was able to approximate the earth’s circumference by using a math formula, distance between cities and the shadow of angles (Dunbar, 2013). However, in the ancient times, Geography was not considered a science until some researchers understood the similarity that existed between the natural sciences and the social sciences. This paper aims to critically analyze the various theories that came about in the development of Geography as a science. They include: positivism; phenomenology; radical geography and critical realism approach of explanation. A comparison of which direction each of the above took in research and geographical thought will suffice a good explanation as to which one I deem theoretically productive.

A theory, according to Hudson, is defined as a logical system provided by direct attempts in regularities that have been previously noticed (Valentine & Aitken, 2014). Despite his specific task, the views shared by Hudson has greatly influenced the adoption and emergence of theories in geography. Theories can also be described as an assortment of proofs to demonstrate the principles of a subject. Also, the practice of an activity by a set of principles is referred to as a theory (American Museum of National History, 2012).

Applying science principles and procedures common in the hard and natural sciences to social sciences in a bid to give an explanation is known as positivism (Tolman, 2012`). Comte Auguste is considered as the founding father of positivism. He claimed that in the early eighteenth century, social research was romantic, emotive and speculative and so lacked logical reasoning and rigor. The term positive was used by Comte as a reference to the certain, the actual, the useful, the exact, and the relative as detailed by Unwin (1992) (Harp, 2010). Simply put, he wanted focus on the truths and facts: observable things and their relationships, instead of the undecided, the speculative, the imprecise, and the imaginary. Augustus wanted to collect objective data using means of observations, and later form theories that could be tested unlike other approaches where observations are reported as facts. Tests would be rigorous and systematic and would want to come up with laws that can predict the behavior of people. This is why Comte refused normative and metaphysical questions that could not be scientifically answered. Positivism exists in various forms with critical rationalism and logical positivism being the most common (John , 2009 ). The latter was developed by Vienna Circle in the early 30s and is based on verification. They shared the same thought as Comte claiming that social issues could be studied using scientific methods just like the natural sciences- that is, modelling and measuring social behavior and using scientific laws to explain the same. This is a concept referred to as naturalism and is supported by six assumptions as follows (Skrine & Furst, 2017):

  1. All events involving decision making amongst humans, or within a society has a cause that is determinate and also verifiable and identifiable.
  2. Individuals basically agree to a set of laws when it comes to matters decision making.
  3. The world can be looked at objectively, consisting of the behavior of humans, that can be observed objectively, provided the criteria is agreed on,
  4. Scientists observers are usually disinterested and have the ability to hold themselves outside their subject matter and record and observe features neutrally without altering those features and can conclude dispassionately about it which can be justified by other researchers.
  5. The human society has a structure that can be studied like those of inanimate objects. This structure is bound to change as per the noticeable laws.
  6. Applying theories and laws of positivist social science can be used to change societies, in known ways just by altering the laws operating in specific situations or otherwise change the situation that favors the operation of the law.

Definition of Theory

Critical realism, the second type of positivism was introduced by Popper Karl and challenged the approach of verification (Gorton , 2012). He argued that the certainty of a law does not depend on the number of times the law has been verified and observed experimentally, but on the possibility of falsifying. This type of positivism ignores the confirmatory evidence and welcomes any exception that weakens a theory. If there are no weak links to the theories then it can be stated that the said theory exists. A drawback to this approach is that no theory has ever been fully backed up and there might be a discovery yet to be uncovered that might falsify the subject in question. Consequently, it is not easy putting this approach to use unless it is for the study of full sample populations. Likewise researchers in geography never adopted the same (Bhaskar, Archer, Collier, Lawson, & Norrie, 2013).

The reason for Geography being considered a science was because of a number of geography researchers in the 1950s who wanted scientific methods of explaining spatial processes and patterns. For instance, a scientist known as Frederick Schaefer claimed that Geography is a science concerned with coming up with laws that dictate the spatial distribution of features on the earth’s surface (Warf, 2006). As such, Fredericks approach mimic logical positivism that tends to look for laws. Positivism came about because of the urge to get a systematic and analytical approach to explaining social phenomenon. Early geographers felt this need because previously data was being accumulated as facts and hence left to support the general theories. The problem with these researchers is that they fail to differentiate between accidental and casual relations.  For instance, it was claimed by an environmental determinant that the environmental conditions casually affect human behavior and the society as a whole. Such claims are fallacies- induced idleness among society members due to high ambient temperatures- despite the fact that two happenings are viewed at the same time does not mean that they are somehow connected or one becomes the cause of the other (International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, 2009). Individuals understand that high temperatures can alter human behavior but not determine it. Researchers like Schaefer insisted on Geography to be a science as that would be the only way of gaining real utility.

Phenomenology approach in geography was adopted in the 60s-70s and was considered a possible replacement to positivism dominance. Phenomenological theory is a different approach of conducting social research whose development was aided by Schutz and Husserl. Though it is the former who made it known as one of the methodologies of social science. They will be the main source of reference for this part of the paper. They both had different ways of looking at this concept. Husserl used philosophy to decipher what phenomenology meant to him while Schutz had a different viewpoint where he considered the shared meanings or subjectivity that people hold to actions they conduct on a daily basis versus others in the society. The first approach demanded each individual to use their intellectual reasoning to comprehend the society whereas the second approach focuses on how every individual in a society relates with the other and use the same to describe their daily lives (Brudzinska & Lohmar, 2011). It is worth describing each viewpoint so as to have a clear understanding of phenomenology.

Positivism Approach

Husserl Edmund (1859-1938) a German philosopher is presumed to be phenomenology’s founding father. Others also came up with ideas of phenomenology: including Habermas, Sartre, and Heidegger, just to mention a few. They all brought forward different understandings of phenomenology to the table but all had one similarity. Unlike in the natural sciences that are objective, they focus on the subjectivity that exists on the intellectual thought process of people. According to Husserl, each individual has adopted a natural attitude provided they are leaving in a world, which is ‘individual staying amongst other individuals in the world’ (Moran, 2013). It broadly meant that individuals take for granted for instance, social life and values, houses, social surroundings even ones friends. Though Husserl’s approach was very philosophical, it is not what social scientists decided to dwell on but on the ideas of life world and natural attitude.

Husserl’s approach was a way of trying to understand the subjective understanding of each individual. Though his idea of subjective phenomenology proved to be difficult because he sought to refer to the views of phenomenology as a grounded and scientific philosophy that is also transcendent by default.

Shutz Alfred (1899-1959) also came up with his own understanding of phenomenology that hugely dwelled on the idea of having an individual, as the object of study, who is familiar with the natural attitude and uses that to view the world. The initialization of social sciences implies the personal conscious experiences of individuals that happen intentionally. Unlike Husserl who has a transcendental approach of phenomenology, he tries to look at life the way it is and as it happens (Natanson, 2012). Though he never considered the daily activities of human beings as private, he made it clear that individuals would comprehend themselves and the world they live in based on the shared and subjective meaning they build with regards to other society members as socialized beings. This approach is said to be logical, in that it first starts with using individual views to facilitate the study of everyday life and then progresses to the relationship between the individual and others in the entire social group.

Nonetheless, people are now challenged with the issue of incapacitating private spheres or intimate situations where each one has access to individually. They would also have to exceed the spatial and temporal spheres in which they exist in so as to identify a common ground or shared meanings of their social phenomenon and individual actions with the rest in the society.

Radicalism has not existed for more than 20 years in Geography. This approach came about as a result of finding alternatives to traditional regional geography, quantitative geography and positivist approach of Geographical research. The origin of radicalism dates back to the 60s when the radical geography movement existed in the United States of America. The movement sought to address three major national concerns: the Blacks civil rights movement, the war at Vietnam and the high rates of poverty in ghettos thus causing tension socially (McLaughlin, 2012). The need for a revolution is vital from a radicalism point of view, in both practice of Geography and theory. As a result, radicalism is not as value-free as the other approaches but rather value-based. Individuals using this approach claim that the symbiotic relationship between the environment and humans changes gradually with the change in production techniques.

Critical Realism Approach

This approach considers economic classes and the consequent class struggle as the keystone of ancient materialism. Individuals with this mindset tend to have an all-inclusive look of politics, society and economics and also have a strong Marxist base. As per Peet, the already established disciplines made it possible for radicalism to grow of course as a negative reaction. However good this approach, it is better to know the main criticism that faced it as it developed:

i. Human beings have been reduced to experiencing passive existence in the field of structural and historical determinism. Individuals become history creators instead of being part of history.

ii. Individuals with this approach worry more on time than space. That is they are victims Marxist orthodoxy.

iii. With the world experiencing fast-changing knowledge, radicalists are having a hard time being flexible and hence the radical definition of geography remains to infer to old principles.

There are certain pointers that indicate tolerance of radicalists from within and they include the following (Sidaway & Johnston , 2015):

iv. The ideas of Marxist started to face criticism.

v. The communist countries collapsed and so made people rethink over the same.

vi. No experimental study was undertaken by radical geographers on the communist countries of the erstwhile.

vii. The radicalism establishment has ever since grown after being considered a professional approach and also having most of the radical geographers of the 60s joining in.

Some of the objectives of radicalism included the following: to do away with crime, health problems, discrimination, deprivation, inequality in the capitalist countries; to eliminate sexism, permissiveness and discrimination against women through a cultural revolution; eliminate inequalities in the region and also opposed the superiority idea of the west and the whites; they were also given the opportunity to not only explain the occurrences but also recommend solutions and revolutionary changes to the social problems (Nayak & Jeffrey , 2013)

The need for new research methods in Geography led to the start of critical realism. Human geography debates tend to define critical realism as a method of research whereas the realist philosophers will try and refine their philosophical positions further from what normal realists do. Critical realism came about as a result of three reasons: the possibility of finding a natural approach; rejecting hermeneutics, empiricism, positivism; and refusal of methodological individualism. It has had a positive impact to Geography as a discipline. For instance the disenchantment that existed between critical realism and positivism got resolved  (Scott, 2013). Even though not all, the method boasts of overcoming the inadequacies of subjectivism. Over the years, critical realism has grown with the outlined structure of Marxist thought. It is in economic geography that the impact of critical realism was greatly felt despite it being deployed in social and urban geography.  The realist’s methods are bound to raise eyebrows because of the immanent critique of positivism. Researchers in Geography have started to seek applications of critical realism. What researchers avoid is speculative approaches that boast of methods that might be internally real or not and further be applicable in all circumstances. Instead the right methods need to be used to examine specific underlying mechanisms. One of the methods discussed is a combination of extensive and intensive methods. The latter is for fundamental processes while the former is for generalized outcomes (whole population sampling data)  (Lawson, 2013). Sayer in particular saw the need for the above methods to be used together so that they can complement each other. In practice, quantitate methods are referred to as extensive methods while qualitative methods refer to intensive methods. As a result, the philosophical part of critical realism is done away with.

From the above discussion, it is clear that every method of research and study of Geography has their own strengths and differences that make them unique to the other. It is vital to understand the different methods of research. Theoritically, critical realism is the most practical approach when compared to other theories. The reason for this is because of the nature of Geography as a social science. The methods of research require a realist approach in order to achieve a common goal. For instance, critical realism is considered to be a benchmark for the previous adopted methodologies  (Morgan & Hartwig, 2013). It also provides a clear explanation to any systematic issues that might have happened since the start of social sciences. In conclusion, it can be noted that critical realism offers a wide framework representing a generative plan capable of basing various experimental projects.


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Bhaskar, R., Archer, M., Collier, A., Lawson, T., & Norrie, A. (2013). Critical Realism: Essential Readings. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brudzinska, J., & Lohmar, D. (2011). Founding Psychoanalysis Phenomenologically: Phenomenological Theory of Subjectivity and the Psychoanalytic Experience. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.

Dunbar, G. (2013). Geography: Discipline, Profession and Subject since 1870: An International Survey. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.

Gorton , W. A. (2012). Karl Popper and the Social Sciences. Albany: SUNY Press.

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Morgan, J., & Hartwig, M. (2013). Critical Realism and Spirituality. Abingdon: Routledge.

Natanson, M. (2012). Phenomenology and Social Reality: Essays in Memory of Alfred Schutz. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.

Nayak, A., & Jeffrey , A. (2013). Geographical Thought: An Introduction to Ideas in Human Geography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Scott, D. (2013). Education, Epistemology and Critical Realism. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sidaway , J., & Johnston , R. (2015). Geography and Geographers: Anglo-American human geography since 1945. Abingdon: Routledge.

Skrine, P. N., & Furst, L. R. (2017). Naturalism. Routledge: Taylor & Francis.

Tolman, C. (2012`). Positivism in Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Problems. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.

Valentine, G., & Aitken, S. (2014). Approaches to Human Geography: Philosophies, Theories, People and Practices. Newcastle: SAGE.

Warf, B. (2006). Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Abingdon: SAGE.

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