Skip Nav

geographical determinism

Navigation menu

❶Environmental determinism has been widely criticized as a tool to legitimize colonialism , racism , and imperialism in Africa , North America , South America , and Asia.

Additional links

What we do?
geographical determinism

Carl Sauer criticized the premature generalizations resulting from bias in environmentalism in He argued that to define geography as the study of environmental influences is to assume in advance that such influences do operate, and that science cannot be based upon or committed to preconceptions. David Landes similarly condemns of what he terms the unscientific moral geography of Ellsworth Huntington. He argues that Huntington undermined geography as a science by attributing all human activity to physical influences so that he might classify civilizations hierarchically — favoring those civilizations he considered best.

Environmental determinism was revived in the late-twentieth century as neo-environmental determinism. The new term coined by the social scientist and critic Andrew Sluyter. Neo-environmental determinism examines how the physical environment predisposes societies and states towards particular trajectories of economic and political development.

It explores how geographic and ecological forces influence state-building , economic development , and institutions. It also addresses fears surrounding the effects of modern climate change. Neo-environmental determinism scholars debate how much the physical environment shapes economic and political institutions.

Economic historians Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff argue that factor endowments greatly affected "institutional" development in the Americas, by which they mean the tendency to more free democratic, free market or unfree dictatorial, economically restrictive regimes. Robinson underscore that the geographic factors most influenced institutional development during early state formation and colonialism.

They argue that geographic differences cannot explain economic growth disparities after A. Economists Jeffrey Sachs and John Luke Gallup have examined the direct impacts of geographic and climatic factors on economic development, especially the role of geography on the cost of trade and access to markets, the disease environment, and agricultural productivity. The contemporary global warming crisis has also impacted environmental determinism scholarship. Jared Diamond draws similarities between the changing climate conditions that brought down the Easter Island civilization and global warming in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

A scientist at the Lamont—Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University , writes that societal collapse due to climate change is possible today. In the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel , author Jared Diamond points to geography as the answer to why certain states were able to grow and develop faster and stronger than others.

His theory cited the natural environment and raw materials a civilization was blessed with as factors for success, instead of popular century old claims of racial and cultural superiority. Diamond says that these natural endowments began with the dawn of man, and favored Eurasian civilizations due to their location along similar latitudes, suitable farming climate, and early animal domestication.

Diamond argues that early states located along the same latitude lines were uniquely suited to take advantage of similar climates, making it easier for crops, livestock, and farming techniques to spread. Crops such as wheat and barley were simple to grow and easy to harvest, and regions suitable for their cultivation saw high population densities and the growth of early cities.

The ability to domesticate herd animals, which had no natural fear of humans, high birth rates, and an innate hierarchy, gave some civilizations the advantages of free labor, fertilizers, and war animals. The east-west orientation of Eurasia allowed for knowledge capital to spread quickly, and writing systems to keep track of advanced farming techniques gave people the ability to store and build upon a knowledge base across generations.

Craftsmanship flourished as a surplus of food from farming allowed some groups the freedom to explore and create, which lead to the development of metallurgy and advances in technology. While the advantageous geography helped to develop early societies, the close proximity in which humans and their animals lived led to the spread of disease across Eurasia.

Over several centuries, rampant disease decimated populations, but ultimately led to disease resistant communities. Diamond suggests that these chains of causation led to European and Asian civilizations holding a dominant place in the world today.

Diamond uses the Spanish conquistadors' conquering of the Americas as a case study for his theory. He argues that the Europeans took advantage of their environment to build large and complex states complete with advanced technology and weapons. The Incans and other native groups were not as blessed, suffering from a north—south orientation that prevented the flow of goods and knowledge across the continent. The Americas also lacked the animals, metals, and complex writing systems of Eurasia which prevented them from achieving the military or biological protections needed to fight off the European threat.

In his book States and Power in Africa , political scientist Jeffrey Herbst argues that environmental conditions help explain why, in contrast to other parts of the world such as Europe, many pre-colonial societies in Africa did not develop into dense, settled, hierarchical societies with strong state control that competed with neighboring states for people and territory.

Herbst argues that the European state-building experience was highly idiosyncratic because it occurred under systemic geographic pressures that favored wars of conquest — namely, passable terrain , land scarcity , and high-population densities.

European states consequently developed strong institutions and capital-periphery linkages. By contrast, geographic and climatic factors in pre-colonial Africa made establishing absolute control over particular pieces of land prohibitively costly.

Some early African empires, like the Ashanti Empire , successfully projected power over large distances by building roads. The largest pre-colonial polities arose in the Sudanian Savanna belt of West Africa because the horses and camels could transport armies over the terrain.

In other areas, no centralized political organizations existed above the village level. African states did not develop more responsive institutions under colonial rule or post-independence. Colonial powers had little incentive to develop state institutions to protect their colonies against invasion, having divided up Africa at the Berlin Conference.

The colonizers instead focused on exploting natural resources and exploitation colonialism. Marcella Alsan argues the prevalence of the tsetse fly hampered early state formation in Africa. African communities were prevented from stockpiling agricultural surplus, working the land, or eating meat. Because the disease environment hindered the formation of farming communities, early African societies resembled small hunter-gatherer groups and not centralized states.

The relative availability of livestock animals enabled European societies to form centralized institutions, develop advanced technologies, and create an agricultural network. Livestock also diminished the comparative advantage of owning slaves. African societies relied on the use of rival tribesman as slave labor where the fly was prevalent, which impeded long-term societal cooperation.

Alsan argues that her findings support the view of Kenneth Sokoloff and Stanley Engerman that factor endowments shape state institutions. Contradicting the link between the Inca state and dried potato is that other crops such as maize can also be preserved with only sun. Numerous scholars have argued that geographic and environmental factors affect the types of political regime that societies develop, and shape paths towards democracy versus dictatorship. Robinson have achieved notoriety for demonstrating that diseases and terrain have helped shape tendencies towards democracy versus dictatorship, and through these economic growth and development.

An Empirical Investigation , [39] the authors show that the colonial disease environment shaped the tendency for Europeans to settle the territory or not, and whether they developed systems of agriculture and labor markets that were free and egalitarian versus exploitative and unequal.

These choices of political and economic institutions, they argue, shaped tendencies to democracy or dictatorship over the following centuries. In order to understand the impact and creation of institutions during early state formation, economic historians Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff examined the economic development of the Americas during colonization. These endowments included the climate, soil profitability, crop potential, and even native population density.

Institutions formed to take advantage of these factor endowments. Those that were most successful developed an ability to change and adapt to new circumstances over time. For example, the development of economic institutions, such as plantations , was caused by the need for a large property and labor force to harvest sugar and tobacco, while smallholder farms thrived in areas where scale economies were absent.

Though initially profitable, plantation colonies also suffered from large dependent populations over time as slaves and natives were given few rights, limiting the population available to drive future economic progress and technological development. Factor endowments also influenced political institutions.

This is demonstrated by the plantation owning elite using their power to secure long lasting government institutions and pass legislation that lead to the persistence of inequality society.

Engerman and Sokoloff found smallholder economies to be more equitable since they discouraged an elite class from forming, and distributed political power democratically to most land-owning males. These differences in political institutions were also highly influential in the development of schools, as more equitable societies demanded an educated population to make political decisions.

Over time these institutional advantages had exponential effects, as colonies with educated and free populations were better suited to take advantage of technological change during the industrial revolution, granting country wide participation into the booming free-market economy. Engerman and Sokoloff conclude that while institutions heavily influenced the success of each colony, no individual type of institution is the source of economic and state growth. Other variables such as factor endowments, technologies, and the creation of property rights are just as crucial in societal development.

To encourage state success an institution must be adaptable and suited to find the most economical source of growth. The authors also argue that while not the only means for success, institutional development has long lasting-economic and social effects on the state. Other prominent scholars contest the extent to which factor endowments determine economic and political institutions.

American economists William Easterly and Ross Levine argue that economic development does not solely depend on geographic endowments—like temperate climates, disease-resistant climates, or soil favorable to cash crops. They stress that there is no evidence that geographic endowments influence country incomes other than through institutions.

Other states like Canada with fewer endowments are more stable and have higher per capita incomes. Easterly and Levine further observe that studies of how the environment directly influences land and labor were tarred by racist theories of underdevelopment, but that does not mean that such theories can be automatically discredited.

They argue that Diamond correctly stresses the importance of germs and crops in the very long-run of societal technological development. However, Easterly and Levine's findings most support the view that long-lasting institutions most shape economic development outcomes.

Relevant institutions include private property rights and the rule of law. Nugent and James A. Robinson similarly challenge scholars like Barrington Moore who hold that certain factor endowments and agricultural preconditions necessarily lead to particular political and economic organizations. They favored smallholders, held elections, maintained small militaries, and fought fewer wars.

Other states like El Salvador and Guatemala produced coffee on plantations, where individuals were more disenfranchised. Whether a state became a smallholder or plantation state depended not on factor endowments but on norms established under colonialism —namely, legal statues determining access to land, the background of the governing elites, and the degree of permitted political competition.

Historians have also noted population densities seem to concentrate on coastlines and that states with large coasts benefit from higher average incomes compared to those in landlocked countries. Coastal living has proven advantageous for centuries as civilizations relied on the coastline and waterways for trade, irrigation, and as a food source.

They also have to rely on costly and time consuming over-land trade, which usually results in lack of access to regional and international markets, further hindering growth. Additionally, interior locations tend to have both lower population densities and labor-productivity levels. However, factors including fertile soil, nearby rivers, and ecological systems suited for rice or wheat cultivation can give way to dense inland populations.

Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga note that though rugged terrain usually makes farming difficult, prevents travel, and limits societal growth, early African states used harsh terrain to their advantage. The results suggest that historically, ruggedness is strongly correlated with decreased income levels across the globe and has negatively impacted state growth over time. Humboldt with his theory of interconnectedness and closely following Ritter, his formulation of Earth as a living organism revolutionized the way westerners saw nature in his age.

In this formulation, no single component of the natural world including human beings could be considered in isolation. In this interconnected natural web, one missing link could create a domino effect for all. A lifetime abolitionist, Humboldt considered colonialism as disastrous for the environment after his stint in Venezuela, where he criticized the anthropogenic interventions of the Spanish on the environment A.

In his sense, abundantly relevant for contemporary times, all anthropogenic activity must align itself with the Earth organism, making a singular case for geographical determinism.

In his most famous publication Kosmos, Humboldt describes this harmony of the universe in terms of the universal laws of nature and the history of science. Charles Darwin Fig: His theory though, when it first came out, greatly offended the Victorian society of his age, and he was sometimes the object of ridicule for saying that humans and monkeys had a common ancestry.

His theories at the time went against the fundamentals of religion and its theory of creationism, and thus was a revolution for science.

This work revolutionized the biological and geographical sciences out of which grew a new understanding of the natural world as based on common organic descent, multiplication of species, gradualism, natural selection, variation, and inheritance. Darwin explained how the mechanics of order works in the natural world, making humanity come to a clearer understanding of the workings of the natural world.

Darwin endorsed the associative organization of the natural world while rejecting the teleological and theological aspects of earlier geographical thought to come to an understanding of Earth as a living organism with component parts. With this, Darwin essentially linked the man-environment equation into a natural law of science. Darwin demonstrated how humanity cannot possibly escape its natural endowments.

Darwin in fact did most to establish geographical determinism as an important school in geography. William Morris Davis Fig: William Morris Davis Source: William Morris Davis in fact founded the geographical sub-field of geomorphology. Prior to Davis, dominant thought in landform formation was based on abstract notions such as the Biblical flood. Davis formed a theory of landform formation and erosion, which he called the geographical cycle, more popularly known as the geomorphic cycle.

His theory established and comprehensively explains how landforms such as mountains are created, then evolve and mature, and then become old and erode M. Although in contemporary times, his theories have been greatly modified, Davis revolutionized how humanity understands the process of creation in the geomorphological world. Davis was instrumental in helping humanity gain knowledge and understanding of the man-environment dichotomy in terms of an ontological understanding of geography.

Other than his study of landforms and geomorphology, Davis was also interested in systems of human occupancy, and his essay Regional Geography published in was part of a detailed regional treatment of the United States.

Friedrich Ratzel Fig: Ratzel established his thesis of geographical determinism in his work Anthropo-geographie , in which he indulged in a discussion on the impact of the physical environment on human behaviour. In his anthropological understanding Ratzel opined that the nature of human interaction with the environment varies between cultures. The diffusion of these cultural traits required a historical analysis across cultures of the links between history and geography. Semple in her works engaged in a description of how the physical environment greatly controls human activity.

In his works The Pulse of Asia and Civilization and Climate , Ellsworth Huntington describes how the climate influences human occupancy and civilization, and how the climate stimulates the development of human accomplishment. His work led to a subset in geography called climatic determinism in the early 20 th Century. However, since the s geographical determinism began its decline, and its claims were often countered. Geographical determinism was also frequently interpreted in terms that were politically racist and facilitated thought on empires and imperialism.

This led to the formation of geographic possibilism through the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche who proposed that although the environment establishes limits on culture, it does not completely define culture A.

Main Topics

Privacy Policy

Environmental determinism (also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism) is the study of how the physical environment predisposes societies and states towards particular development trajectories.

Privacy FAQs

The term “geographic determinism” is used by many scholars as a pejorative, to justify the quick dismissal of a proposed geographic interpretation of a human phenomenon. For example, the charge of geographic determinism is occasionally leveled at my book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

About Our Ads

Geographical determinism definition at, a free online dictionary with pronunciation, synonyms and translation. Look it up now! The reason is that environmental determinism, also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism, is the belief that a physical environment affects social and cultural development. The.

Cookie Info

GREAT books tend to propose simple, clarifying ideas. Jared Diamond's new book opposes one. The idea in his sights is the belief, not often stated these days but too often felt, that the current. Define geographical determinism. geographical determinism synonyms, geographical determinism pronunciation, geographical determinism translation, English dictionary definition of geographical determinism. n sociol the theory that human activity is determined by geographical conditions.