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Dialectica Interrupta: The Idea of 'Race' in the Discipline of Geography

February 22, 2013

My past president’s address at the 2013 AAG Annual Meeting in Los Angeles will focus on race and explore Ellsworth Huntington’s 1924 speculation on environmental determinism, as well as Harold Rose’s 1969 “Geographies of Despair.”
I begin by making a case for the study of the history of the geography as a basis for understanding the social project that is our discipline, including the content and perspectives of geographical knowledge, and the potential for change that is geography’s future. The concept of race has been one of the most significant drivers of the geographical imagination, starting with Immanuel Kant in the 1750s. Environmentalism, now largely discredited but a major perspective during the first half of the 20th century, arose in part from geography’s deeply racialized and colonial past.
I trace the concept of race through American geography, focussing on articles published in the Annals of the AAG, and particularly on the presidential addresses customarily published in the first issue of the journal each year following the term of office of an AAG president. Ellsworth Huntington’s “Geography and Natural Selection: A Preliminary Study of the Origin and Development of Racial Character,” presented in Cincinnati in 1923, is widely viewed as the most extreme statement of racial science; and Harold Rose’s “The Geography of Despair,” presented in New Orleans in 1978, is viewed as the first overtly anti-racist statement made from the presidential podium. Both reflect currents of thought and controversy that guided the discipline at specific times, and both are part of the larger social and intellectual context. The fact that these two men, and all of the AAG Presidents before and since, made a choice of both topic and ideological perspective is an important part of our disciplinary legacy.
Just as significant are the intellectual silences and the axiomatic taken-for-granteds that mark the slow transformation of the race idea over the course of the 20th century. Defined as a force of nature, an independent variable, a derivative of class, a cultural figment, or, more recently, a social construction, the idea has both exemplified and shaped much of the ideological framework of our discipline, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. The politics of racial geography nonetheless reflect a larger intellectual context in which the discipline has emerged.  And what of the future of geography? Has attention to the race concept over the past two decades resulted in forging new directions that will help to change, or at least to understand, the variable circumstances of human life, or will it be cast aside as new ideas enter our intellectual, and ideological horizons? Perhaps some speculation on such questions is in order.
The Past President’s Address will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at the AAG Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. See for details and to register.
Audrey Kobayashi


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