Exceptionalism in Geography

What is Exceptionalism?

Exceptionalism is an idea that certain disciplines are exceptional in a sense that they study a particular aspect of events and phenomenon which is not studied by other disciplines.

  • Immanuel Kant is considered the father of exceptionalism.
  • He claimed that the geography and history are exceptional in a manner that geography focusses on the phenomenon over space or area whereas the history studies the phenomenon over time.
  • The space and time are two aspects of any event that is only studied by geography and history, respectively.
  • This specialty of these disciplines make them exceptional.

Exceptionalism in Geography

The term, exceptionalism in geography is primarily linked to Schaefer, an economist. He criticized the ideas of Richard Hartshorne on his views in his book ‘The Nature of Geography (1939)’.

  • Hartshorne built on the ideas of German geographers such as  who believed that the unifying theme of geography is the method of study i.e. focus on spatial relationships.
  • Hartshorne took the idea of Chorology from the Germans and argued that the primary aim of geography is to study the different components of a region as a whole.
  • He claimed that the dichotomy of geography into human and physical is unfortunate.
  • To conclude, Hartshorne declared that the prime aim of geography is to study the Areal Differentiations i.e. the difference between various regions.
  • Schaefer in his paper ‘Exceptionalism in Geography: A Methodological Examination‘ published in Annals of American Geographers criticized Hartshorne’s interpretation of work of Hettner and others.
  • He did not considered geography as a regional study because regional sciences compile the results of other systematic science, only and such compilation does not make any science exceptional. For instance, the use of results of biology, meteorology, physics, etc. in geography is not exceptional.

Schaefer’s Views on Geography

  • Geography being an integrative and regional science does not make it exceptional.
  • Schaefer considers geography as a social science.
  • All disciplines have certain specific task.
  • Similarly, Geography studies the regularities and patterns of phenomena on the surface of earth. For example, Von Thunen studied the pattern of land use around a city, Christaller studied the pattern of distribution of cities over space etc.
  • No other science studies the patterns of phenomena as Geography does.
  • He termed geography as a science of spatial arrangements.
  • He attacked Hartshornian orthodoxy and claims that nature of geography is to study the pattern of distribution of man-environment. It job is not to make a description of each and every man-environment relationship.
  • Schaefer argued that Hettner considers history and geography as chorological and called them ‘time wissenschaft’ and ‘space wissenschaft’ i.e. temporal science and spatial science, respectively.
  • Therefore, geography is a nomothetic/ systematic science concerning study of patterns of phenomenon and laws explaining or regulating those patterns.

Critique of Schaefer

  1. Hartshorne’s ideas are more nuanced than Schaefer understood.
  2. Hartshorne found it essential to study Areal Differentiation which underpins the regional combinations rather than just compilations as maintained by Schaefer.
  3. Hartshorne further clarified that the description of earth’s surface involves the “…synthesis of integrations composed of interrelated phenomena of the greatest degree of heterogeneity of perhaps any field of science.”
  4. Schaefer considered geography a nomothetic/ systematic social science concerned with making laws but he did not provide a clear boundary between idiographic/ regional and nomothetic/ systematic geography.

The ideas of Schaefer gave a lot of importance to law making which became the mainstay of quantitative revolution in geography during 1950s-60s. He positioned geography as a social science.