The Bering Sea;

The Major Thinkers of Geographical Possibilism


Geographical possibilism is a school of thought in cultural geography that says that although the natural environment places certain constraints and limitations on human life, culture is determined independently of nature by human social conditions.

Geographical possibilism replaced a long legacy of geographical determinism in geographical thought, which held that the natural environment places an all-encompassing influence on human activity, such that all of human life is dependent on the natural environment, in the characterization of the Earth organism.

Representing one of the central epistemological conflicts within geographical thought, both geographical possibilism and geographical determinism form distinct approaches to the analysis of geographical phenomena. The contention has been developing since the 1920s, when geographical determinism began its decline, and its claims began to be countered more often. 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 Blache who proposed that although the environment establishes limits on culture, it does not completely define culture (A. Briney, 2017). Geographical determinism by the 1950s had been replaced by geographical possibilism as the dominant school of thought in geography.

The imagination of societies characterized as organic with functional components proposed by geographical determinism came to pass even in sociological thought with the passing of Talcott Parson’s dominant sociological theory of structural-functionalism by the 1970s. These began to be replaced by more critical perspectives on societies, by-passing the hierarchical mode of functioning of the Parsonian model that served to universalize Western modernity at the time. Organic imaginings of culture were also widely seen as gradually reducing humanity to atavism.

With the development of knowledge and technology in human societies, geographical possibilism thinks that it would be improbable for contemporary human societies to be completely subservient to the natural environment. Geographical possibilism joins this general trend in social scientific thought by placing human beings as active agents in terms of the natural environment, instead of the passive organism imagined by geographical determinism representing a point in Earth’s long evolutionary history.

A central belief in geographical possibilism states that with the progress in the knowledge and technology of a cultural group, there is a corresponding increase in the options available by which they can interact with the natural environment. The movement was led by French geographers following Lucian Febvre attempting to provide a model for cultures and their dispositions towards interacting with the natural environment. Hence this movement in geographical thought was named geographical possibilism in terms of the possibilities for human interaction with the natural environment. There are notable thinkers associated with this movement which has branched into many different positions in contemporary times, which we shall discuss later.

Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918)

Paul Vidal de la VidalFig: Paul Vidal de la Blache
Source: Britannica Online

Famous Book | Principes de Geographie Humaine (Principles of Human Geography), 1922
Famous Quote |“Nature sets limits and offers possibilities for human settlement, but the way man reacts or adjusts to these conditions depends on his own traditional way of life.”
Work | Paul Vidal de la Blache is a French geographer known as the founder of French human geography. Vidal devoted his lifetime to the study of the activities of humans and their interactions with their natural environment. In this interaction, Vidal held that humans do not have a passive role in regard to the natural environment, and could modify this environment to achieve their own ends.

Vidal is credited with introducing geographic possibilism and defined it in the sense that in a given natural environment, humans have a range of potential actions available to them, which they can deploy to overcome the natural limitations placed upon them. Vidal held that humans cannot overcome their natural environment but can choose how to interact with it in the best possible manner. For example, when a mountain acts as a barrier, it is not possible to move the mountain, but humans can build a bridge and a road or rail track to create a passage across the mountain.

A significant weakness of Vidal’s possibilism was that it did not attempt to determine the exact succeeding environmental impacts of human interaction but tried instead to empirically determine what is possible. Although a long celebrated theory, Vidal’s geographic possibilism was increasingly criticized from the 1960s onwards as new ideas abounded in geographical thought and literature.

Lucian Paul Victor Febvre (1878-1956)

Lucian Paul Victor FebvreFig: Lucian Paul Victor Febvre

Famous Book | A Geographical Introduction to History, 1925
Famous Quote | [The possibilist] “man is a geographic agent and not the least. He everywhere contributes his share towards investing the physiognomy of the earth with those changing expressions which is the special charge of geography to study.”
Work | Lucian Febvre is a French historian who led a movement that advocated a global history and rejected all forms of determinism in the early modern period. The French geographers advocating geographical possibilism in this era were mostly following up on Febvre’s work. Febvre, influenced by Vidal’s theory of alternative methods of human interaction with the natural environment, added that that this should be based on the changing cultural dispositions in the progress of human history.

The object of thought for Febvre was not to be nature, but humankind and human nature itself. He believed that the object of study for human geographers thus should be the changing expressions of human culture and history in their interaction with the natural environment.

Herbert John Fleure (1877-1969)

Herbert John FleureFig: Herbert John Fleure
Source: www.

Famous Book | A Natural History of Man in Britain, 1951
Famous Quote | When the peoples of Europe acquired the idea of spending the Earth’s capital expressed in coal and minerals in order to accumulate social luxury and political power for successful businessmen, they also learned to think of themselves more highly than they ought.”
Work | Herbert John Fleure is a British geographer and anthropologist who is noted for attempting to design a model for classifying geographical regions across the world on the basis of human characteristics rather than on the basis of biotic factors (N. Mohita, 2016). Fluere believed that the study of man and human societies could not be separated from the study of their natural environment and that an evolutionary approach to human beings and their culture is essential to an understanding of geography.

Fleure identified geographical regions such as ‘regions of hunger’, ‘industrialized regions’, etc.

Carl Ortwin Sauer (1889-1975)

Carl Ortwin SauerFig: Carl Ortwin Sauer

Famous Book/Paper | The Morphology of Landscape, 1925
Famous Quote |“Every field of knowledge is characterized by its declared preoccupation with a certain group of phenomena.”
Work | Carl Sauer is an American geographer who specialized in the human geography of American Indians and native crops in the New World. Sauer is credited with establishing the Berkeley School of geographical thought during his time at the University of  California, Berkeley, US.

In this geography moved ahead from physical and spatial studies and endorsed thought based on regional geography based on history, culture and landscapes, representing the legacy started by Vidal and Febvre. Sauer was especially interested in how humans interact with and change the natural environment and was able to align the university’s geography department with its anthropology and history departments.

In his landmark paper The Morphology of Landscape, Sauer introduced a phenomenological basis of interpreting human influence on natural landscapes. Borrowing from sociology, he wanted the science of cultural geography to be associated with studying the phenomenological aspects of human interaction with the natural environment as a separate embodiment of human geography.

Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950)

Isaiah BowmanFig: Isaiah Bowman
Source: Eric Ross

Famous Book | The Pioneer Fringe, 1931
Famous Quote | Citizenship comes first today in our crowded world… No man can enjoy the privileges of education and thereafter with a clear conscience break his contract with society. To respect that contract is to be mature, to strengthen it is to be a good citizen, to do more than your share under it is noble.
Work | Isaiah Bowman is an American geographer and served as president of Johns Hopkins University between 1935 to 1948. The department of geography at Johns Hopkins University was established under his supervision. Bowman was influential in terms of the national policy of the US in his time. Bowman’s standout achievement was in transforming the American Geographical Society into a scholarly institution of high repute.

Bowman was instrumental in establishing the field of human geography also as political geography. An example of his work in this regard is The Pioneer Fringe, in which he commented on historians’ inference in the US Census Bureau’s decision in 1890 to not map a frontier line as the settlements were isolated.

The work developed after fieldwork in Garfield County, Montana on this aspect, in which Bowman elucidated how knowledge of geography in early settlers would have contributed to better social and political policies. Bowman commented on how just like the early settlers in America, those indulging in commercial and industrial occupations must also have knowledge of geography as a vital component of their learning.

Contemporary Approaches

Contemporary geographical possibilism also begins with cultural inference, as in how the practices and beliefs imposed by society on human beings in fact determine how human societies interact with the natural environment. Contemporary society is unlike the previous mechanical societies where the rules were more coherent, and instead is highly differentiated and organized. As such, there is a necessity form an epistemological critique of both human societies and their interaction with the natural environment.

Geographical possibilism also argues that the natural environment is not the only determinant of human history, as geographical determinism argued. Vidal has commented that throughout human history, nature has been represented as an adversary to humankind, with the difference being with geographical possibilism that humanity’s interaction with the natural environment would now be a studied fact (P. Mondal, 2016). The natural environment has a significant role in shaping human societies, however, in most cases in a subliminal manner, and geographical possibilism represents a move towards building an ontology of this role of nature in human societies.

Geographical possibilism is also frequently accused of placing too much of an emphasis of the role of culture in nature, which has in contemporary times led to the growth of auxiliary movements such as Neo-Determinism and also less intensive movements such as Probabilism and Cultural Determinism in geographical thought.

Neo-Determinism was led by Griffith Taylor, who stated that humans and even the human economic system is only a component of nature’s great framework in accordance with the laws of nature. Taylor considers human knowledge finite, and in most cases grappling with laws it does not fully understand. Probabilism meanwhile, argues that the natural environment does not in fact determine human action, and that humans have discretion in exercising their choices. In probabilism, human action is not an all-or-nothing choice, but a balance of probabilities (P. Mondal, 2016). In Cultural Determinism, the human element is maximally emphasized, in which human interaction with the natural environment is fully dependent on human responsibility for human encounters with nature. There is as yet no conclusive accord between geographers over which is the most optimum school of thought to adopt, and viewpoints vary across geographers across the world.

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