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Is there progress in human geography? The problem of progress in the light of recent work in the philosophy and sociology of science

Is there progress in human
geography? The problem of progress
in the light of recent work in the
philosophy and sociology of science


Keith Bassett

Department of Geography, University of Bristol, University Road, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK


Progress in Human Geography 23,1 (1999) pp. 27–47 


Abstract:

   In this article I discuss the meaning of progress in geography and the social sciences in general in the light of recent debates in the philosophy and sociology of science. I review the way in which notions of progress derived from different philosophies of science have been used in geography in the past, before focusing on the kinds of constructivist challenges posed in recent work by authors such as Barnes. I criticize these approaches from a realist-constructivist perspective and argue for a deeper engagement with social epistemology. 

Key words: constructivism and realism, metaphors, paradigms and incommensurability, scientific progress, social epistemology, sociology of scientific knowledge. 

I Introduction 
  
  On the face of it, it is very reassuring to have a journal called Progress in Human Geography. The very title seems to confirm that human geography is indeed making measurable progress, issue by issue, and year by year. The inclusion of a wide range of regular ‘progress reports’ suggests that this progress is occurring on almost all fronts. Yet when I read these reports I often find it difficult to detect what concepts and measures of progress the authors are actually using. The reports are usually summaries of what different people have published in different problem areas since the last report. As a result of the tyranny imposed by output indicators and research assessment exercises, publication rates have been forced up as a matter of departmental prestige and individual survival, so there is more and more to review in each subject area. At the same time one also gets the sense of accelerating change, with frameworks, concepts and ideas experiencing a rapidly diminishing half-life. This may be all very exciting, but increased output and rapid conceptual shifts do not necessarily imply progress. Are we then really making progress and, if so, in what sense?

  This issue has been addressed in this journal before (e.g., Lowe and Short, 1990) but it seems to me that the issue is important enough to keep under continuous review, particularly in the light of recent developments in the philosophy and sociology of science. Thus my interest in the issue has been stirred by the recent publication of books by Johnston (1997) and Barnes (1996), both of which present wide-ranging reviews of the development of human geography, one written from a realist position and the other decidedly anti-realist in tone. Whereas Johnston preserves a notion of progress (though a multidimensional one), Barnes draws upon a neopragmatist, postmodernist and social constructivist literature to try to undermine the very notion of progress itself.

   Now if Barnes and others who think like him are right it would seem a heroic but increasingly empty gesture to go on calling a journal Progress in Human Geography. Perhaps it is time to rename the journal Endless Reinterpretations in Human Geography or, even more simply, Summaries of What Aacademics Have Been Doing to Further Their Careers Since the Last Issue? This is not a view I feel very comfortable with because I believe that some sense of making progress is central to what we do. Without some belief in, and conception of, progress I find it difficult to see what would motivate most academic work. Indeed, ‘without some overriding sense of intellectual direction how is anyone to justify any programme of inquiry?’ (Rule, 1997: p. 173). Hence my interest in focusing on the issue of progress here.

  I start with some simple definitions before reviewing the way ideas of scientific progress have been incorporated in geography. I then summarize Johnston’s multiparadigmatic framework before exploring in more depth the kind of challenges posed by Barnes and the literatures he draws upon. I defend the notion of progress from a ‘realist-constructivist’ perspective that I hope will become clearer as I go along. I end with some comments drawn from social epistemology on the relationships between disciplinary progress and social and institutional contexts.

VII Conclusions 

   I have tried to explore critically a number of areas of philosophical and sociological inquiry which have a direct bearing on debates about the nature and possibility of social scientific progress. I have at least convinced myself that such debates about progress can and must be kept alive in the face of extreme forms of philosophical and sociological constructivism. The kind of framework with respect to geography which I favour I have briefly outlined in my discussion and critique of Johnston’s approach, but my suggestions clearly need much more development than I have given them here. Finally, I hope my references to social epistemology will raise normative questions on possible links between progress and organization of social scientific communities.



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