The Postmodern Challenge: Reconstructing Human Geography

Dear, “The Postmodern Challenge: Reconstructing Human Geography”, Transactions, Institute of British Geographers, 1988, NS 13(3), 262‑274.


This is a time of intellectual crisis. It is also a moment of remarkable opportunity. Within the social sciences and humanities, there is presently a tremendous furore over philosophy and method, amounting (in many cases) to a collapse of identity. The clamour of these debates has barely percolated through to geography, which is preoccupied with its own identity crisis, and particularly with making sense of the discipline’s internal disarray. In this paper, I argue that both sets of problems can be alleviated if they are consolidated into one. The social theory movement in human geography has now attained sufficient internal coherence and maturity as to warrant serious appraisal.1 I hope to show that a realignment of geography with social theory would have a triple effect of: (a) repositioning geography to a pivotal role in the social sciences and humanities; (b) recasting the internal structure of the discipline; and (c) reforging geography’s links with the mainstream debates in the philosophy and method of the human sciences.

In order to address this ambitious agenda, I first review the current state of human geography, and argue that the topical diversity which some people perceive as a strength of the subject is, in fact, a reflection of acute intellectual obsolescence. Secondly, I examine some current debates in social theory which, in abbreviated terms, may be referred to as the ‘postmodern challenge’ facing geographers. Thirdly, in the heart of this essay, I explore the impact of contemporary social theory on the structure of human geography. Finally, some of the profound implications of my argument are introduced.

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