- Contemporary Meanings in Physical Geography
This is the most annoying, stimulating, frustrating, challenging and enjoyable professional book it has been my pleasure to read for a considerable time. Ostensibly designed for undergraduates contemplating adopting physical geography as a profession, it is more appropriate for professionals thinking about the direction of their own development and that of their field. The ideas and authors are centered on United Kingdom experience, and geomorphology dominates, but the content is much more widely applicable. The "contemporary meaning" in the title indicates that the authors were invited, in the spirit of current trends within human geography, to be autobiographical and story-oriented in their approach rather than using the magisterial pseudo-impartial style usual in academic science writing. My review is suitably infected with that spirit.
The first two chapters are intended to set the scene. Peter Sims reviews the paradigms that have driven geomorphology since the days of W. M. Davis, with an emphasis on various modeling approaches, and the consequent interplay between reductionist and holistic views, possibly to the detriment of actual understanding. Then Stephen Trudgill acknowledges a debt to his human geography colleagues as he demonstrates that many of our common terms are capable of numerous personal, public and scientific meanings. His rather positive suggestion that this is a new idea and a paradigm shift replacing a mechanistic view of physical geography with a much more flexible one is rarely supported in the chapters that follow. Tim Burt, in the first of two chapters under the heading "Personal meanings," contributes an autobiographical chapter concerning the quantitative revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the start of the current paradigm. Tim Bayliss-Smith then meditates on his own disillusionment as this revolution became assimilated as standard practice and the paradigm became restrictive and fossilized.
The next seven chapters, collectively called "Research Meanings," essentially review the state of the quantitative/modeling paradigm in the light of current questions about the validity of any objective research. The first three consider geomorphological themes, starting with Chris Keylock questioning whether geomorphology is a science and whether the subject has any value whatsoever. His rather philosophical review leads to a chapter where Andre Roy and Stuart Lane question whether models, the epitome of modern science, are appropriate for the field. They maintain that predictive process models of channel form, because there is feedback between the form and the process, cannot be generalized. They assert that this inevitably leads to a reductionist case study approach. However, a more [End Page 283] useful and broader view of models is given by David Favis-Mortlock and Dirk de Boer. In keeping with the overall theme of the book, they question the positivist notion that our ability to make simple models that work implies that we know how nature works. This is a vital point, but they do imply that models can tell us something, possibly something useful and interesting. Shifting focus somewhat, John Thornes and Glenn McGregor provide a wide view of climatology, encouraging an emphasis on a cultural viewpoint that explicitly fosters research on the two-way links between humans and the atmosphere. Having demonstrated the great monetary value of these links, they go on to postulate a clear, albeit highly ambitious, research agenda. In contrast to other authors in this section, they see physical geographers at the center of some exciting research teams. Gerardo Bocco and Juan Pulido allude to a similar theme, albeit on a much more local scale, as they explain the scientific basis for the traditional techniques used by Mexican peasants to recover severely eroded gullies. Their rather surprised tone leads them towards a suggestion that this local knowledge is equivalent to scientific knowledge, but they fail to consider whether human actions fostered the gully formation in the first place. However, this chapter leads smoothly into a meditation on "nature" by Michael Urban and Bruce Rhoads, who link the well-known dualism implied by the term with...