The Four Traditions of Geography
William D. Pattison
San Fernando Valley State College
n 1905, one year after professional geography in this country achieved full social identity
through the founding of the Association of American Geographers, William Morris Davis
responded to a familiar suspicion that geography is simply an undisciplined “omnium-
gatherum” by describing an approach that as he saw it imparts a “geographical quality” to some
knowledge and accounts for the absence of the quality elsewhere.
Davis spoke as president of
He set an example that was followed by more than one president of that organization.
An enduring official concern led the AAG to publish, in 1939 and in 1959, monographs
exclusively devoted to a critical review of definitions and their implications.
Every one of the well-known definitions of geography advanced since the founding of the AAG
has had its measure of success.
Tending to displace one another by turns, each definition has
said something true of geography.
But from the vantage point of 1964, one can see that each
one has also failed.
All of them adopted in one way or another a monistic view, a singleness of
preference, certain to omit if not to alienate numerous professionals who were in good
conscience continuing to participate creatively in the broad geographic enterprise.
The thesis of the present paper is that the work of American geographers, although not
conforming to the restrictions implied by any one of these definitions, has exhibited a broad
consistency, and that this essential unity has been attributable to a small number of distinct but
affiliated traditions, operant as binders in the minds of members of the profession.
traditions are all of great age and have passed into American geography as parts of a general
legacy of Western thought.
They are shared today by geographers of other nations.
There are four traditions whose identification provides an alternative to the competing monistic
definitions that have been the geographer’s lot.
The resulting pluralistic basis for judgment
promises, by full accommodation of what geographers do and by plain-spoken representation
thereof, to greatly expedite the task of maintaining an alliance between professional geography
and pedagogical geography and at the same time to promote communication with laymen.
following discussion treats the traditions in this order:
(1) a spatial tradition, (2) an area studies
tradition, (3) a man-land tradition and (4) an earth science tradition.
Entrenched in Western thought is a belief in the importance of spatial analysis, of the act of
separating from the happenings of experience such aspects as distance, form, direction and
It was not until the 17th century that philosophers concentrated attention on these
aspects by asking whether or not they were properties of things-in-themselves.
Later, when the
18th century writings of Immanuel Kant had become generally circulated, the notion of space as