Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

'After' Area Studies? Place-Based Knowledge for Our Time

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

'After' Area Studies? Place-Based Knowledge for Our Time

Article excerpt


From today's perspective, early 20th century 'Area Studies' texts represent a relic form of geographical research and writing. These compendiums of place-based knowledge present what we now consider to be a layperson's understanding of 'geography'--details of landforms, climate, land use, economic activities, urban patterns and so on. This empirical content is described in language littered with the judgemental adjectives associated with hierarchical knowledge systems such as environmental determinism, economic stage theory and theories of modern state formation. In this essay I interrogate one subset of these texts, namely those that were written about Tropical or Monsoon Asia, as it was often referred to. I situate the publication of these geographies with respect to major shifts in human and earth systems and outline some preliminary ideas for how we could re-read these texts to recover place-based knowledge that might inform current research on economic resilience in Southeast Asia.


Tropical geography, monsoon Asia, diverse economy, Zomia, more-than-human assemblage

Tropical geographies and the Great Acceleration

The large majority of geography texts on Monsoon Asia were produced in the decades from 1930 to 1970, with the greatest cluster appearing in the 1950s (Figure 1) (Power and Sidaway, 2004). The timing of this peak is significant for it coincides with the start of what has been identified as The Great Acceleration--when the impact of humans on earth systems dramatically increased in magnitude, marking what has since come to be regarded as the end of the Holocene and arrival of a new geological era, the Anthropocene. In a recent paper in The Anthropocene Review climate scientist, Will Steffan and colleagues present an array of key indicators of the 'human enterprise' and the 'structure and functioning of the Earth System' from the beginning of the industrial revolution to 2010 (Steffan et al., 2015). (1) While the human dimensions of the dramatic change that took place in the 1950s are common knowledge for many of us, the interlinked nature of these with biophysical changes 'encompassing far more than a climate change' has come as somewhat of a surprise to earth systems scientists and social scientists alike. It seems that the decade of the 1950s marks not only the moment of take-off for economic modernization across the globe but also for the 'trajectory of the Anthropocene' (Steffan et ah, 2015: 82). (2) What, I find myself considering, might be the connection between the proliferation of tropical geographies in the 1950s and The Great Acceleration?

Tropical geographers were self-professed pragmatists 'concerned with material things and their associations on the landscape, both locally and regionally' (Dobby, 1961: 21). Their analyses were, nevertheless, imbued with the strong theory of the dominant knowledge systems of the times. Environmental determinism shaped early work on the tropics. Fascination with regions of the monsoon was intellectually stimulated by an interest in environmental differences--with unfamiliar weather patterns and agricultural practices and how they produced a form of 'daily life' and 'cultural pattern' that seemed so 'romantic and strange to the [temperate] rest of the world' (Dobby, 1961: 15). Though this determinist framing was resisted by some, such as the cultural geographer Gourou (1953), he and others could not escape a Eurocentric commitment to the superiority of 'western civilization' (Bruneau, 2005). People of the tropics were routinely positioned as 'backward' and practices as 'clumsy', needing modern economic development. This development was to come with modern state development. Colonial and post-colonial state boundaries delineated many of the geographies that were written and the white male geographers of yesteryear became 'local specialists' in the colonies of their nations of origin, focusing their attention on the management challenges of emergent statehood. …

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