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Social Conditions of Scientific Research and the History of Space

Historically, geographers have conceived of space as a three-dimensional earth space, also called geographical space (Werlen, 1993a; 2000). It has been the primary focus of their research. In the mid-nineteenth century, at the beginning of geography as an academic discipline, their foremost task was to classify all manner of phenomena on the earth’s surface on the basis of a metric (discrete) concept of space as defined by cartographic coordinates. To produce such “measuring of the world” (Kehlmann, 2007) and the associated spatial-cartographic conception of the world to derive scientific descriptions was customary practice in academic geography at that time. That approach assigned a particular area or space to material objects and immaterial phenomena, laying the groundwork for the further development of geography as a spatial science.

Academic geography moved from being a descriptive and classificatory discipline concerned with nature and the Earth in a biophysical sense to a methodologically inclusive endeavor aimed at discovering causal relationships. That is, scholarly geography changed in its focus (which was established by Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter) from the cartography of objects and a description of the Earth’s surface (chorography) to a causal and integrative geography, or spatial science (cho- rology). In this approach, space was thought of as a container. It thus represented a specific form of the theoretical concept of space developed by Isaac Newton for mechanics and later transferred to biology by Ernst Haeckel, who referred to it as lebensraum.

One of the most important historical conditions of this development in geography was prepared by Isaac Newton (1687) in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the conceptualization of space as absolute. In Opticks Newton (1704/1952) defined space as a three-dimensional container space, containing everything material as an object and “God’s Sensorium” (p. 125). With the underlying mechanical view of the natural world, Newton conceives of this container as material and absolute and as having a causal effect on everything contained in it. This definition of the absolute container space constitutes the basis of mechanics and the beginnings of the modern natural sciences. Despite being intended for modeling three-dimensional material—but not ideal, immaterial phenomena—this concept of space came to be applied far beyond the realm of mechanics. It became the foundation for an all-encompassing mechanistic world view and provided the rationale for positing universal laws of nature that claim validity for all parts of reality, including consciousness, society, and culture.

In the first development and conceptualization of ecology, Haeckel (1866) gave space a connotation similar to that in Newton (1704/1952). Space appeared to be a container or, more precisely, a container for all forms of life (Weingarten, 2009), as a lebensraum, a living space. At the same time, the lebensraum is also thought of as a sort of antagonist that every life form must contend with if it wishes to survive. The availability of a lebensraum was thus considered a necessary condition for the existence of all life forms and was at the same time a key evolutionary selection mechanism. In other words, the lebensraum in Haeckel’s conceptualization and beyond had a causal effect in the sense that it distinguished successful from unsuccessful life forms and selected the former. From this reified and causally productive “authority” lebensraum one can derive a normative principle for life forms. It holds that only the fittest species will survive in a specific lebensraum. More important, the underlying tenor is that these fitting species will not only be able to survive but are the only ones that should survive. It is obvious at this point that a premise assuming a nexus of life and space (or blood and soil) also serves as a basis for ideas of racial hygiene and the legitimation of spatial hygiene or ethnic cleansing.

Trained as a zoologist, the founder of academic human geography Friedrich Ratzel (1891, 1897) conceived of space much as his teacher Ernst Haeckel had: as the determining life container of anthropos, or humanity. Thus, the human lebensraum was seen as the cause that determines a population’s characteristics (“races” and “peoples”), and it became a determining frame for political processes—or, further, an agent of human history. According to this logic, cultures (social and economic forms) are the result of biological—that is, spatially determined—life forms. Natural conditions become natural spatial relations. These biologically interpreted spatial relations determine life and, hence, the specific features of cultures and societies.

Such a reduction of the social dimension to the biological level conceptually and methodologically disregards the interpretive dimensions of social actions and the relevance of interpretive patterns in dealing with natural conditions. The premise of lebensraum and the biologistic reduction it implies are the foundation on which the research program of an early human geography is built. It aims to prove spatial determinism as environmental determinism of cultures, societies, and economies. The geographical world view is thus from the outset a mechanistic world view established by Newton, then transferred by Haeckel to biology and by Ratzel to the field of geographical research.

As for methodology, academic geography morphed at the end of nineteenth century into a causalistic science. It aimed to show empirically the natural space’s determining effect on human actions and subsequently offered corresponding geographical explanations for the observed forms of cultural and economic realities. Geography’s adaptation of the mechanistic world view as an ideal for scientific inquiry not only enhanced the discipline’s scientific reputation and its political influence but thenceforth also served as the point of reference for the formation of the social science perspective on geography. In the context of traditional regional geography, for example, Max Weber (1924/1988) identified the relevance of the geographical point of view as establishing “in any given case which of the specific components of cultural phenomena are attributable to climatic or similar, purely geographic aspects” (p. 462).

Politically, the alleged proof that cultures and societies are environmentally deterministic is connected to the normative claim of identifying the correct spatial expanse of nations by identifying their natural boundaries and uncovering the “commandments of the soil” (Ratzel, 1891, p. 48; my translation). In this way, “geographical facts” (Hettner, 1927, p. 267; my translation) are understood as the actual constitutive aspects that are to be uncovered as the true forces shaping social and cultural realities. Alfred Hettner, one of the important representatives of causal geography in the first half of the twentieth century and the leading figure of regional geography, pithily summarized this program: “By passing over human volition, we ascribe the geographic facts of humans to the environmental conditions present in their respective countries” (p. 267; my translation).

Understanding space as a fact that precedes all human actions opens the door to a line of reasoning that culminates in the idea that the structuring and organization of cultures and societies could be influenced through spatial planning. Geopolitics thus becomes a key concern for politics. Denying human individuals the possibility of making their own decisions and shaping social reality are the key antiEnlightenment views in the geopolitical world view, especially in its National Socialist hue.

To sum up, the elements of the space-society combination discussed thus far are, first, a substantialist container space; second, a biological concept of life; and third (as a merger of the previous two), a concept of lebensraum as something that determines life forms located in it. Notions of the social dimension as being somehow determined by such a lebensraum imply a naturalistic or biologistic reductionism, that is, a reduction of the social dimension to the biological category “life.” The notion of society thus turns into a biologistic one, so it is frequently replaced by “population.” The constitution of subjective meanings on basis of the stock of knowledge at hand, subjective interpretations, and symbolic appropriations are not considered subjects of scholarly research in general or of the dominant mainstream geographical research in particular. As a result, the interpretative social and cultural sciences can be removed from the catalogue of scientific disciplines; biology and traditional geography are then sufficient for researching societies and social phenomena.

For sociocultural realities to be suitably investigated and characterized, one may invert the space-society combination, recast it as a society-space logic so as to put society first and consider the spatial dimension as an element of social realities but not as its determinant. Attempts to avoid the geodeterministic logic within the space-society paradigm—particularly those efforts made within geography’s spatial scientific program (Bartels, 1968; Bunge, 1962; Harvey, 1969)—have been unsuccessful. The spatial turn in sociology resulted in a “sociology of space” (Simmel, 1903) that delved primarily into the research on the “constitution of space” (Low, 2008, p. 25) and the structuration of spaces instead of the structuration of society. Such a line of inquiry is consistent with the spatial scientific approach in traditional geography and, consequently, becomes trapped in these outdated concepts of space—despite rhetoric that seems to suggest otherwise (Lippuner & Lossau, 2004). To be fair, Lefebvre (1974)—a key reference in the sociology of space—bypassed these problems. Yet his notions of perceived, conceived, and lived spaces call into question spatial practice in spatial terminology (Schmid, 2005, p. 18) instead of helping one regard space an abstract, conceptual element of social practice.

From the preceding discussion it can be concluded that spatial scientific attempts to approach the social dimension ultimately leads to naturalistic reduction of meaningful sociocultural realities. Even more recent attempts to establish a society- oriented spatial science or a spatioscientific sociology end up reducing the social dimension to the geographical space. And because the three-dimensional geographical space permits only the localization of three-dimensional material facts, this procedure leads (at least implicitly) to a reification of nonmaterial established facts. A nonreductionist inclusion of the geospatial dimension in an interpretative analysis of socioculturally constructed realities requires one to differentiate the various dimensions of human action by their ontological status. Only then can the ontological slum be avoided. Perhaps more precisely, only then can the ontological swamp be drained of the sewage of geospatial reductionisms.

 
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