University of Cambridge

Beyond the scientific method in geographical research


Contemporary geography, especially human geography is characterized by a plurality of approaches ( Okafor 2002). It is doubtful if in the history of geography (over 2000 years), there have been multiplicity of research methodologies as we have now. As Okafor, (2000) quoting Cloke et al (1993) argued “within human geography today, there is unprecedented liveliness to the engagement with issues of method and theory” The emergence of different approaches to the study of geography according to Okafor (2008) is as a result of the search for ever better understanding of the spatial organization of society. Thus in an attempt to get a better understanding of spatial phenomena, various approaches have been adopted. The dissatisfaction with one approach leads to experimentation and eventual adoption of another. This is what is referred to as paradigm shift in Geography. This paper, in essence, discusses the various paradigm shifts in Geography and specifically the scientific method as well as its shortcomings which lead to the emergence of other approaches: the emergence of critical or radical or structuralism in geographical research and the emergence of other branches of Geography such as Political Geography and the Geography of Religion.


Contemporary Geography is also characterized by a diversity of schools of thought or paradigms. Khun (1972) argued that science is a process characterized by a society creation of knowledge which are separated by problems and solutions to a crisis and can lead to upheaval within subject/disciplines. He defines, a paradigm as a universally recognized scientific achievement that for a time provide, model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners. Hagget (1977) defines paradigm as a kind of supermodel, a theory of scientific task and method which regulates the researches of most geographers. Blunden et-at (1978) using the history of geography identifies four types of paradigm in geography. They are: Ecological Paradigm, Spatial Analysis Paradigm, Behavioural Paradigm and radical-Structural Paradigm. Ecological Paradigm is the oldest paradigm in Geography and it is associated with regional and descriptive Geography, with emphasis on the description of places. The Spatial Analysis Paradigm is associated with the scientific method in Geography and with it came a number of innovations in the discipline. These innovations include the use of mathematical and statistical techniques, the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Mathematics is use to build models while statistics is use for testing hypothesis (Okafor 2005)


The Scientific Method is one of the approaches that revolutionized practice in both Physical and Human Geography. The scientific method is essentially a post world war II development in Geography. Inspite of all criticism levied against the approach in Human geography, it still remains very influential. The term, Scientific Method according to Okafor (2000), refers to a pattern of thought rightly employed in the production of knowledge. It is the logical structure of the process by which the search for trustworthy knowledge advances (Blunden, et all, 1985).The process of scientific method involves seven principal stages, namely problem identification, hypothesis formulation, research designs, measurement, data collection, data analysis and empirical generalization (Nachmias and Nachmias 1976). The end product of adopting scientific explanation is to provide a scientific explanation which is a law dependent explanation of real phenomenon (Gueleke 1971) and a satisfactory answer to why and how question (Harvey, 1969). One of the outcomes of scientific method in geography is the quantitative revolution which occurred in the 1950s through to the 1960s. This marked a rapid change in the method behind Geographical research. The quantitative revolution led to a shift from a descriptive (ideographic) Geography to an empirical law making (nomothelic) Geography. The centrality of quantification and quantitative methods is empirical testing of measurable variables or measurable attributes of phenomena (Abumere 2001). The quantitative revolution led to an increased use of statistical and mathematical techniques in geographical research. Some of the techniques include: descriptive statistics (to summarize data) inferential statistics (to predict, project and test hypotheses) and mathematical equations (to build models.) This is one of the bases for the criticism of scientific method in Human Geography.

Geography became mechanistic and its assumptions were based on economic rationality in human behaviour and decision making. That is, Geographers tend to concentrate on problems that are amenable to scientific analysis but of trivial importance. Another criticism is that it removed the “human dimension” from a discipline that pride itself on studying the human and natural world together. The various criticisms that followed quantitative revolution led to the emergence of the the study Behavioural Geography in the 1960s

. Behavioural geography emphasizes the importance of perception and cognition in decision making and in spatial behaviour. The behaviouralists were criticized for being unable to divorce its method from that of Spatial Analysis Paradigm especially the use quantitative method and positivist philosophy. The inability of the Spatial Analysis and Behavioural paradigm to explain social issues such as poverty, crime, and inequality gave rise to the radical-structural paradigm in the 1970s .As from 1970s, there began to emerge a shift in the focus of geographic study.

The approach that emerged was the Radical Geography or what is called Structural or Critical geography which signaled the quest for social relevance in Geography. The focus of Radical Geography is not “space” the subject matter of Traditional Geography, rather, Radical Geography is concerned with human relevance in all geographical issues that are not traditional to Geography. At the heart of radical geography is the idea that spatial pattern or spatial structures (the concern of traditional geography) are actually reflections of social patterns or structures. Therefore, spatial theories should grow out of socio-spatial theories. Man should be at the centre of geographical studies and that the subject matter of geographical studies should consist of those things that impede man’s development. This quest heralded the emergence of critical issues such as justice, spatial inequality, social deprivation, racism, gender issues, capital accumulation and destruction of natural resources, disintegration of traditional societies, terrorism and other social pressing issues in Human Geography.

Of importance to this paper is the issue of justice and spatial inequality. What is justice? Justice in Human Geography refers to territorial justice or spatial justice, that is, equity in the spatial distribution of benefits and burdens of society (Okafor, 2008). Knox and Marston (2004) define spatial justice as “the fairness in the distribution of a societies burdens and benefits, taking into account spatial variations in people’s needs and in their contribution to the production of wealth. In Nigeria, the problem of development and integration revolve around inefficiencies and inadequacies in the distributional process and access to facilities (education, health, industries etc) This is what Abumere (1987, 1998) describes as the distributional inequalities: the differential availability of the fruits of economic development among populations in different Nigeria areal unit.In the education sector,for instance, there is distributional inequality between north and south in the number of secondary schools as shown in

Table 1 Table 1: North/South share in number of secondary schools Region No of Schools % North 1,500 27.70 South 3,915 72.30 Total 5,415 100 Source: WAEC Annual report, 1996. Table 1 shows that out of the 5.415 WAEC recognized secondary schools in Nigeria in 1998, only 1,500 (27.7%) were located in what is politically referred to as middle belt states of Kwara, Kogi, Niger, Benue, Plateau and the Federal Capital Territory while the core Northern states were left with only 488 (39.2%). On state by state distribution, Old Ondo state (now Ondo and Ekiti states) had the highest number of secondary schools (395 or 7.29%) while Jigawa state had the least (25 or 0.46%). This has been explained to be due to socio-cultural and religious reasons. (WAEC annual report, 1996)

Like in the case of education, there are spatial disparities in the distribution of industrial establishments. These spatial disparities in the distribution of manufacturing industries have often been explained in terms of the need for valorization of raw agricultural products or the treatment of raw material for export. The result of valorization means the establishment of manufacturing industries in areas where natural resources are found. In spite of the successive development plans aimed at even distribution of industrial activities in all parts of Nigeria, industrial activities are still concentrated in a few locations (Ajayi 2003). Table 2, shows that out of 2,355 manufacturing establishment in Nigeria in 1988, 1851 (78.60%) were found in the South while North account for 504 (21.40%), Lagos region alone had 768 (32.6%), Kano had 216 (9.2%), Rivers and Imo states 212 each (9.0%) while states like Bauchi, Katsina and Jigawa had between 0-0.3% industrial establishments. (Abumere, 1998) Table 2: North/South Share in number of industries Region Number of Industries % North 504 21.4 South 1851 76.6 Total 2355 100.0 Source: Abumere, 1998.

Another area where spatial injustice is observed is in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. One reason often given in the literature on the subject is geographical variation in natural resources endowment (Okafor, 2006). If this is true, it is expected that areas that are richly endowed are to be more developed and their residents enjoy better life; but this is not the case in Niger Delta. What then is the problem in Niger Delta?

The problem in Niger Delta can be explained by the concept of terror of Geography (Ikporukpo, 2007). That is the area is characterized by complex networks of distributaries, creeks and extensive swamps; hence the area is usually described in geography and other related books and documents as a difficult environment. Because of the Physical Geography of the Niger Delta there has been the perception that the area cannot be developed. The developmental situation in Bayelsa state illustrates the injustice in Niger Delta, Yenagoa, the state capital and its surrounding settlements were only linked to the National grid in 2005! The outcome of the injustice (neglect) on Niger Delta region and its people is the emergence of Niger Delta militias (about a dozen groups) who are fighting for the “emancipation of their region and equitable distribution of resources or resource control”

One of the ways Nigerian government is adopting to solve the problem of spatial injustice is through “social technology” or the concepts of “spatial engineering”. The central concern of geographers is spatial analysis i.e. location and distribution, space or place, people-environmental-interrelationship, spatial interaction and region (IGU, 1992). Just as engineers manipulate objects; locations, places, regions and even people could be manipulated. Spatial engineering is about this manipulation. Morril (1996) and Ikporukpo (2002) define spatial engineering in terms of territorial manipulation, while Coates, Johnson and Knox (1977), Okafor (2000) conceptualize it in terms of spatial manipulation of social well being. As Ikporukpo (2002) puts it, spatial engineering involves attempts at re-organizing the space in order to benefit the people. Two fundamental issues in spatial engineering are location and effective accessibility. The locational aspect refers to proximity to services and infrastructures while effective accessibility emphasis whether there are socio-economic or political constraint in the ways of utilization i.e., the use of spatio-social equity and environmental justices. To achieve equity and justice, there is the need to manipulate the political and economic space in a positive direction. This is the essence of spatial engineering in Geography.

By the same token, Geographers have collaborated with people in the medical field in area of medical provision. This development has given rise to a new branch of geography called Medical Geography Medical Geography according to Ajaegbu (1981) is concerned with spatial analysis of most aspect of human health problems. In other words, it is concerned with the spatial perspective of disease with particular focus on the physical environment especially environmental elements such as weather and climate (Iyun 1998). Geographers and medical health workers have collaborated to solve health care related problems especially in areas of planning the optimal location of various categories of health facilities; accessibility to health facility, spatio-temporal components of diseases etc (Ayeni 1992; Okafor 1991; Ikporukpo 1987; Kwan 2003; Guagliardo 2004).

Geographers are also interested in the political process. This has given rise to a branch of Geography called Political Geography. Political geography according Agnew (2008), is “the field of Human Geography that is concerned with the study of both the spatially uneven outcomes of political processes and the ways in which political processes are themselves affected by spatial structure” Political Geography focuses attention on the internal and external relations of a state and its localities. That is, the inter-relationships between people, state and territory. The spatio-political issues that are of concern to Geographers are issues of boundaries, resources, regionalism, regional groupings or ethnicity/tribalism, census, elections etc. (Adedokun, 2007, 2008)

Furthermore, Geographers are interested in the faith of people (religion) especially as they vary spatially. Geographers study religion not only because national boundaries are often influenced by the religious makeup of a population but also because religion can shape the very way that a culture looks at its landscape. The prevalence of religion throughout the world allows Geographers to study how religions vary and how they are distributed from one region to another. Geographers are interested in the distribution of religions as a way of studying how religions start and spread, and as a means of providing statistical data about the religious beliefs of a country’s population.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Geography of religion is the study of sacred sites and spaces. Certain locations are viewed as sacred because they are associated with religiously significant events or because of their unique geographic characteristics. For instance, Osun groove in Oshogbo acquired sacred significance because it was the site of Osun festival. Collectively, the sacred sites, paths and spatial relationships connected with a religion make up what is called a “Sacred Geography” in which these places are embodied with a specific meaning derived from the beliefs of that particular religion. In many cultures, mountains, hills, rivers, forests etc are viewed as links between humans and spiritual world. To people of many faiths, the act of traveling to a sacred site for the purpose of religious observance is itself a religious experience. Geographers’ interest in all these is that pilgrimages have greatly influenced communities housing sacred sites as they strive to accommodate large numbers of visitors. Lodging, food, hygiene, transportation and security must be provided to support the religious crowds.

Finally contemporary Geography is interested in gender issues or what is refereed to as Feminist Geography. Feminist geography is an approach in human geography which applies the theories, methods and critiques of feminism to the study of the human environment, society and geographical space. Feminist Geographers often focus on the life experiences of individuals and groups in their own localities, upon the geographies that they live in within their own communities, rather than theoretical development without empirical work. Many feminist geographers study the same subjects as other Geographers, but often with a focus on gender divisions. This concern has developed into a concern with wider issues of gender, family, sexuality, etc. Examples of areas of focus which stem from this includes: (a). Geographical differences in gender relations and gender equality (b)The geography of women – spatial constraints, welfare geography (c) The construction of gender identity through the use and nature of spaces and places and (d) Geographies of sexuality and children’s geographies In addition to societal studies, Feminist Geography also critiques Human Geography and other academic disciplines, arguing that academic structures have been traditionally characterized by a patriarchal perspective, and that contemporary studies which do not confront the nature of previous work reinforce the masculine bias of academic study.The British Geographer Gillian Rose’s Feminism and Geography is one such sustained criticism, focused on Human Geography in Britain as being historically masculinist in its approach.


This paper has examined the post scientific method in studying geography. However it should be noted that this does not mean the total rejection of scientific method. Scientific method still very influential in geographical research. This is expected to continue in the 21st Century which is characterized by computerization and Information Technology (IT). Geography as it is erroneously believeds, is not just about the names and location of places and geographical features, exploration, expedition and discovery. As Ikporukpo (2002) rightly noted, if these were what Geography is all about, the discipline must have died long ago and may have resurrected with relatively recent exploration of the outer space. Geography is an all encompassing scientific discipline concerned with humanities, as well as concern for the total environment including physical features and human environment and especially the interactions, interdependence, and inter-relationships among them. The conclusion to be drawn is that the study of geography should be encouraged at all levels of education and Geographers be recognized as having important roles to play in decision making and implementation, if any meaningful achievement is to be made in national development efforts.


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