Back in the year 1887, Sir Halford J. Mackinder published, for the benefit of the Royal Geographical Society, a motivating article entitled On the Scope and Methods of Geography. The issue that Mackinder wished to raise was of fundamental importance for the future and purposes of the very knowledge and teaching of the science of geography. He purely asked himself and his audience what is, in fact, geography and whether it could have been rendered a proper discipline rather than just being a mere body of information. To answer these questions the best thing was primarily to understand which were, and still are, the true scopes and methods of the geographic science. With his article, Mackinder tries to demonstrate that not only geography is a proper discipline, but also it is necessary for the natural evolution and speculation of many others.
Mackinder begins his dissertation describing the role that geographical societies had, especially during the nineteenth century, in actively promoting the exploration of the world. Thanks to the helpful support of these societies, explorers, merchants and travellers had been able to discover, for the profit of all humankind, an increasing number of new lands and countries. The result had been that the world was already almost wholly unveiled, thus becoming a closed geographical – and political – system. When the article appeared, the only lands that needed to be more thoroughly explored were yet the Polar regions, as well as some areas in New Guinea, Central Africa, Central Asia, and in the Tibetan peaks. Being so things, this continuous work of the geographic societies and of the pioneers of world explorations would alone suffice for admitting the value of geographic research and discipline.
|The Royal Geographical Society of London|
The second issue that Mackinder rises refers to the nature of geographical studies. He questions whether geography should be considered as one single subject or rather as the addition of several. In other words, should political geography and physical geography be considered as separate or combined? Moreover, should they be considered as self-existing and self-sufficient or merely some appendices of history and geology respectively? Mackinder answers arguing, as other geographers had already stated, that men are the creatures of their environment, and thus people and territory combine into one single, self-sustainable, subject known broadly as geography. This does not mean that within the geographic studies several branches exist, that partition the subject in smaller disciplines: this fact, however, does not interfere with the general acknowledgment of geography as one coherent philosophical and epistemological system. Each sector of the entire geographical scheme deals with a specific matter. For instance, the function of physical geography is to trace the interaction between humankind and natural environment. In fact, it is a specific characteristic of geography to suggest the influence of locality, or best to say, the change of anthropological variations in contact with environmental diversities. If physical geography fails in doing so, then it turns into mere physiography: a sub-subject of geography itself.
The definition that Mackinder gives to geography is the following: the science whose main function is to depict the interaction of man in society and so much of his environment as varies locally. This explanation allows us to comprehend the general definition that may be given, instead, to geopolitics, that of “expression of political power over landscape”. As we can see, the elements that interact here are two:
1) The varying natural environment.
2) The communities of men that struggle for existence more or less favoured by their several environments.
As for political geography, it cannot exist if it is not built upon and subsequent to physical geography. The function of political geography is to detect and demonstrate how much does the natural environment interfere in forging the destinies of an entire nation or race of human beings, and how relevant it is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a country. What counts above all else is to stop considering physical geography as a younger sister, if not a maiden, of geology, and political geography of history. Mackinder perceives clearly the huge gap that still lay between the natural and social sciences and suggested that the geographer, being the master of a half-humanistic and half-scientific subject, could build the bridge over such abyss, linking together the two branches of knowledge. As we have seen, geography itself too divides in several sub-categories, though it ought to be studied and considered as a whole. The distinction, in Mackinder’s overview, between geology and geography is that the geologist looks at the present in order to interpret the past, and the geographer looks at the past that he may interpret the present. Physiography asks for a given feature, “Why is it?”; topography, “Where is it?”; physical geography, “Why is it there?”: political geography, “How does it act on man in society, and how does it react on it?”.
Howsoever, natural environment is influenced, according to Mackinder, by three elements:
1) The configuration of the earth’s surface.
2) Meteorology and climate.
3) The outputs that countries offer to human industry.
To understand fully how environment affects the history of civilization and political destiny of a race of men, Mackinder offers the example of the influence of England’s south-eastern physical geography in moulding the English historical character. With accurate descriptions, following the historical periods of the Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon rule over Britain, the English geographer exposes exhaustively how geography influences greatly human settlements and history. The results of these geographical studies are that “from a consideration of the folding of the chalk and of his hardness as compared with the strata above and below it, may be demonstrated the causes of the two great promontories, the two great inlets, and the three great upland openings which have determined the positions, the number and the importance of the chief cities [including London] and divisions of South-eastern England”. Indeed, the same methodological approach could be applied for describing any other geographical region and historical evolution.
Geography, Mackinder continues, must benefit of a separate sphere of work from other subjects, although some may closely be linked to it. In fact, all other subjects involved in a geographical reasoning should be analysed in order to understand whether they truly are pertinent to the main line of geographical argument. It is true, however, that the bounds of all sciences must naturally be compromises, especially when considering geography, which includes features belonging to the subjects of geology, palaeontology, zoology, botany, meteorology, anthropology, history, demography and sociology. As Mackinder said, “knowledge is one, but its division into subjects is a concession to human weakness”!
As for the relations of geography with history, the geographer must turn to history for verifying the relations that he suggests. The historian finds full occupation in the critical and comparative study of original documents, having no time – or will – left to scan science for himself with an holistic view to selecting facts and ideas which he requires: and this is, in fact, the geographer’s own duty.
As above mentioned, environment and community are the two main topics to consider, and to blend, when studying geography. What definitions can we give of them?
- “Environment”: the term means a natural, exclusive and locked, region. The smaller the area included the greater tends to the number of conditions uniform or nearly uniform throughout the area. Thus, we have environments of different orders, whose extension and intension vary inversely.
- “Community”: the term means a group of men bearing certain characteristics in common. The smaller the community the greater tends to be the number of common characteristics. Community are of different orders and species: races, nations, provinces, towns.
Geography should then question what the effects would be of exposing, for instance, two communities to one environment (think of two different ethnic groups dwelling within the same land) or one community to two environments (think of the English race into the three different environments of Britain, America and Australia). Indeed, everywhere, at all latitudes and in all ages, all political questions will depend as the result of physical-geographical inquiry. It has been shown and demonstrated that certain conditions of climate and soil are needed for the aggregation of dense populations. A certain density of population seems necessary to the development of civilization. Wide plains, for instance, seem especially favourable to the development of homogeneous races, whereas a heterogeneous landscape tends to encourage a variegated racial offspring. The course of history at every given moment, whether in politics and economics or in any other sphere of human activity, is the result of the interaction between natural environment and human society. Furthermore, as to set an example, it has been detected that two environmental conditions favourable to the development of civilisation are somewhat the density of population and the ease of communication, like in the Ganges valley for instance. Of course, a wealthy civilised country is a regional temptation for a conqueror, be it a land or a sea conqueror: this one too is a geographical constant. “Geographical selection”, as interesting as it can be, leads statesmen and peoples to choose the best geographical locations to build harbours, commercial warehouses, cities, metropolises, fortresses, and so forth: it bears exactly the same meaning that “natural selection” enjoys in biology.
Finally, with this article Mackinder helped the mindful men of his time to render to geography its honourable merit. Its chief value and achievement is its inherent and holistic breadth: “geography satisfies at once the practical requirements of the statesman and merchant, the theoretical requirements of the historian and scientist, and the intellectual requirements of the teacher”. In Mackinder’s final remarks we may read: “Without geography, the student, the scientist and the historian would lose their common platform”. All of this to make understand how important this discipline is.
H. J. Mackinder, On the Scope and Methods of Geography, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 9, No. 3, March 1887.