History without Geography

7 Oct

In the latest issue of The Journal of the Historical Society Harold Dorn has an interesting article, “Saints and Scientists,” about the relationship between the physical environment and history. It’s a subject I think about quite a bit as I work on my dissertation, and I found the first sentence of Dorn’s article particularly striking:

The Mormon corridor, highlighted in red

"Mormon corridor" or Midwestern deserts? Image from Wikipedia

History without Geography is an incomplete discipline.

Dorn uses the Mormon settlement of Utah to draw parallels between the way that geography determined ancient societies such as the Egyptians and how it led Mormons to become masters of the sciences necessary to tame the harsh environments of the Midwestern deserts (see image to the right). Relying substantially on Donald Worster (Rivers of Empire) and Leonard J. Arrington (Great Basin Kingdom), Dorn offers a largely determinist view of the relationship between geography and history. I don’t mean this in an entirely disparaging way–Dorn has a short, but concise case to make about the relationship between the kind of sciences the Mormons excelled in (agricultural) and their physical surroundings. Yet there are unresolved questions about this relationship. Is geography without history also an incomplete discipline? Where do we draw the line about geography’s contribution to history?

I struggle to find the right balance between geography and history in my own work, and determining the right proportions seems to be strongly influenced by the kinds of evidence we choose to privilege. Dorn, for his part, relies on a theoretical model abstracted from its ecological bases to explain a historiographical observation about why the Mormons led the nation in scientific publications (and in particular on issues relating to agriculture.) Worster’s argument has always seemed to me most important for its regional construction of the West. Dorn would be more convincing if his evidence extended beyond Mormons to other scientists from that arid region who publish with particular vigor on agricultural issues. Worster is often criticized for the way his argument fails to be applicable beyond the narrow confines of its own geography (i.e., the Pacific Northwest is clearly West, but is not part of the empire Worster sees.) Shouldn’t Dorn be criticized for his similarly narrow vision?

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2 Responses to “History without Geography”

  1. Matt McConeghy October 12, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    I have a comment regarding determinist issues, as in the Spanish administration of early New World settlements, but that will have to wait. Meanwhile, I am interested in anyone’s response to the question: How should a Blog differ from traditional academic discourse? That is, what should an academic Blog consist of and how should it be structured?

  2. D. McConeghy October 13, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    Your first question seems on point here… let the comment fly.

    On the second point, that conversation is fairly extensive in the linked-to original post that I was responding to in

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