Geographic Determinism

Fri Jul 17 18:41:27 2009
It always puzzles me to see people accepting and passing along ideas based on notions of geographic determinism. If the Spartans martial superiority was determined by their non-coastal location we should expect to see the same superiority in the Aetolians, Thessalians and Epirians. If a people were successful/unsuccessful based simply on their geographic location then we would have reached an equilibrium centuries ago and we could abandon history. But the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Mughals, etc. RISE as well as FALL, without much change in their geography.

I’m no expert on the Annales school but I was always under the impression that for Braudel, geography was not so much a cause but rather the first level of historical observation. It provides a backdrop for the longue durée of social and cultural change that takes place over many centuries and also for the deceptive surface effects of histoire événementielle, those supposedly great events we often describe as history but for Braudel are merely “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.”

Mentalités, our most basic social and cultural perceptions, interact and respond to the almost unchanging geography and environment, but are not determined by them as they tend to change over the centuries. On the other hand, geographic or environmental time is one of repetitions and cycles, rather than events and change. Change at this level is almost imperceptible to us and we tend to confuse it with the constant regular cycle of life.

“In fact, the apparent death of a coastal region may be no more than a change in the rhythm of life. It may pass in turn from coastal trading to long-distance voyages, that is for the historian, from an unrecorded to a recorded existence, vanishing again from his attentive gaze every time it lapses into its obscure everyday life. It is as if a regular law has determined the life-cycle of the population and the sea.” (Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1 p. 148)

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~ by severalfourmany on July 17, 2009.

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