Initiating An Affair: Human Geography And Behavior Analysis


William Norton


Geographers study physical environments, human behavior that changes physical environments, and resulting regionally distinct landscapes. As such, geography faces the challenge of being both a physical and human science, a challenge resulting in an uncertain disciplinary identity. Within human geography there is a significant but erratic history of objectivist analyses, including work in cultural geography and behavioral geography. However, most contemporary human geography rejects objectivist analyses, favoring instead subjectivist ideas related to developments in such areas as cultural studies. There are important links between human geography and psychology, especially concerning environmental and cognitive approaches, but behavior analysis has been either ignored or misunderstood.

An open access article from The Behavior Analyst Today 2: 283-289, viewed from



It is not unusual for behavior analysts to bemoan the fact their work is sometimes inadequately or unfairly represented by other psychologists, especially in the context of the introductory textbook (Jensen & Burgess, 1997). Writing as a human geographer, I might add that behavior analysis has received minimal attention within the academic discipline of human geography and even such minimal attention has typically misrepresented this approach to the study of human behavior.

Behavior analysts might not be surprised to hear about the lack of interest and characteristic misrepresentation of their work within human geography. However, they might be surprised to hear that human geographers have regularly claimed human behavior as core human geographic subject matter. Thus, human geography has a “long tradition of studying environment and behavior interactions” (Kitchin, Blades, & Golledge, 1997, p. 555), being concerned with "questions of human behavior to the same degree, though not necessarily in the same way, that the other social sciences are” (Ginsburg, 1970, p. 293). According to the Dictionary of Human Geography, the discipline is “concerned with the spatial differentiation and organization of human activity and its interrelationships with the physical environment” (Johnston, Gregory, Pratt, & Watts, 2000, p. 353).

If such is the case, behavior analysts might wonder: Why is it we do not know more about this discipline and why has it not made effective use of the concepts and principles of behavior analysis? Human geographers might respond by noting that their discipline has displayed much uncertainty about subject matter and approaches, accompanied by an almost alarming tendency to abandon established approaches at the expense of newer approaches. Behavior analysts might have different responses to these questions that focus on some of the limitations of their work (Hayes, 2001).

The purpose of this paper is to seek to uncover past and present links between human geography and behavior analysis. The paper is organized into three sections. First, the history and goals of geography are summarized. This history introduces the complexity of geography as both a physical (physical geography) and a human (human geography) discipline, a complexity that behavior analysts and other psychologists will readily appreciate. Second, the characteristically tentative and flawed links between human geography and behavior analysis are outlined, with emphasis on the subdisciplines of cultural and behavioral geography and on the current preference for subjectivist rather than objectivist approaches. Third, there is a concluding discussion anticipating the contents of a proposed second paper focusing on the challenges of and prospects for conducting behavior analytic studies in human geography.

Introducing human geography to behavior analysts

The discipline of geography is difficult to define in a few phrases. Unlike many other scholarly fields, it is not characterized by a discrete subject matter or method or even philosophy” (Gaile & Willmott, 1989, p. xxiv).

Geography has a long academic pedigree with important contributions made by early Greek, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations, and steady growth from the fifteenth century onwards in Europe. Prior to the late nineteenth century, central concerns were with mapping what proved to be an ever-expanding known world and with providing written descriptions of lands and peoples. As such, geography has always been concerned both with the physical world of climate, landforms, soils, and vegetation, and with the human world of population distribution, settlement patterns, agriculture, and industry. The principal common bond between these two interests is a concern with how physical and human characteristics are distributed on the surface of the earth, specifically with how they are located such that there are distinct regions—areas of the earths’ surface displaying common physical and/or human landscape features. Indeed, by the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant identified geography as the study of regions. A second longstanding bond between the two relates to relationships between physical and human worlds, with emphases on possible physical geographic causes of human landscape features and on human modifications of physical geography. These two bonds continue to be evident in contemporary geography.

There is a penalty to pay for this breadth of interest. By the nineteenth century, when the various academic disciplines were formally delimited and institutionalized within a growing university system, geography had an uncertain status, being a physical and human discipline at a time when these two types of discipline were increasingly separate. Geographers proposed various definitions of their discipline in the late nineteenth century with the two most significant being geography as the study of regions and geography as the study of human and nature relations and related landscape creation.

From the 1920s until the mid-1950s the regional approach dominated. Regions were delimited and described with emphasis on a gradual correction or verification of facts. The alternative landscape approach focused on the evolution of human landscapes emphasizing the impact cultural groups had on the physical landscapes they occupy. In the mid-1950s both regional and landscape approaches were criticized for lacking an explicitly scientific focus. With the key concern being to explain the location of geographic facts, an objectivist approach developed based on a positivist philosophy and with theoretical and quantitative content. This spatial analytic approach was a major concern from the late 1950s until about 1970. Since about 1970, there has been an increasing separation of physical and human geographic interests. Physical geography is allied to other physical sciences, while human geography has experienced a series of re-inventions and transformations that, in accord with trends in social science generally, typically involve a preference for subjectivist rather than objectivist approaches.

Contemporary geographers continue to express frustration and discontent at the uncertain status of the geographic discipline. A few quotes from leading geographers suffice to make this point. Reflecting on a long and distinguished career, Haggett (1990) observed that geography occupies “a very puzzling position within the traditional organization of knowledge .... it is neither a purely natural nor a purely social science” (p. 9). In some cases, geographers argue for a single discipline that integrates physical and human geography. The classic position is that “it is in bridging the gap between physical and human phenomena that geography finds its distinctive role” (Wooldridge & East, 1951, p. 25). A more recent version of this view is that it is “the roles that place and its locational attributes play in natural and human processes occurring on the Earth’s surface that are at the heart of geographic inquiry and knowledge” (Gaile & Willmott, 1989, p. xxv). Other geographers question the legitimacy of separate human and physical geographic disciplines. For example, Orme (1985) argued that “geography without a physical base is sociology” (p. 259), while Stoddart (1987) argued that “outside a more general framework physical geography loses its coherence” (p. 330).

But there is a different view. Johnston (1996) stated: “I find the links between physical and human geography tenuous, as those disciplines are currently practised. The major link between them is a sharing of techniques and research procedures, but these are shared with other disciplines too, and are insufficient foundation for a unified discipline” (p. x).

Notwithstanding the long history of links between physical and human geography, especially in the area of environmental studies, the position stated by Johnston (1996) is a fair reflection of contemporary North American geography with typically separate textbooks, college courses, and specialist journals for the two interests. Tellingly, in 2001 the leading American geographical publication, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, introduced separate sections for physical (environmental sciences) and human (people, place, and region) geography. This paper acknowledges this fundamental division being concerned only with human geography.

Removing, or perhaps merely ignoring, confusion related to the traditional dualism of geography does not result in a neatly defined discipline of human geography. Contemporary human geography exhibits what some identify as an alarming diversity of subject matter and method. Harvey (1990) noted a “seeming inability or unwillingness to resist fragmentation and ephemerality" (p. 431), while Eyles (2001) worried the discipline was becoming “almost terminally irrelevant” (p. 41). The best explanation for such comments of distress appears to be the post 1970 theoretical uncertainty of human geography with a corresponding lack of focus and direction. The current embracing of cultural studies, postmodernism, and poststructuralism is especially noteworthy in this respect. Eyles (2001) concluded: “I must say the incredibly nuanced theoretical and philosophical debates, the frequent lack of attention to methodological rigor, and the liberal borrowings from other disciplines have left me feeling that geography is largely irrelevant and that the world has passed it by” (pp. 60-61).

Brief encounters: human geography and behavior analysis

Behavior analysts might question why they ought to be interested in an academic discipline so uncertain of its’ own identity. The answer is that much human geography is indeed concerned with human behavior, specifically behavior contributing to modification of physical landscapes and related creation of human or cultural landscapes. At the risk of oversimplifying, human geographers have used two approaches conceptually similar to the underlying logic of behavior analysis. The first concerns attempts to provide a conceptual basis for the study of human and land relations and the second concerns the behavioral geography that emerged from the spatial analytic interest.

Searching for Causes of Human Behavior: Cultural Geography

Several approaches to the study of human and land relations adopted a perspective that might be considered implicitly behaviorist. Environmental determinism, an influential argument until the mid 1950s, is based on the premise that physical environment controls human behavior. Scholars from the Greeks onwards accepted this view and it was a part of the newly institutionalized discipline of geography in the late nineteenth century. Explaining interest in this approach, Taylor (in Spate, 1952) stated: “as young people we were thrilled with the idea that there was a pattern anywhere, so we were enthusiasts for determinism” (p. 425). Two modifications of this perspective, environmentalism possibilism and environmental probabilism, allow culture to play a role.

The landscape approach advocated by Sauer (1925) is the most influential approach in favor of culture as cause of behavior modifying landscapes with the key argument being that: “Such behavior does not depend on physical stimuli, nor on logical necessity, but on acquired habits, which are its culture. The group at any moment exercises certain options as to conduct which proceed from attitudes and skills which it has learned. An environmental response, therefore, is nothing more than a specific cultural option with regard to the habitat at a particular time” (Sauer, 1941, p. 70). Behavior analysts might be heartened to read this statement and to hear Sauer was the doyen of cultural geographers from the 1920s until about the 1970s. However, only a few practitioners, notably Carter (1968) and Zelinsky (1973), concerned themselves with the conceptual implications of the landscape approach and even then the concern was with links to the superorganic concept of culture from anthropology (Kroeber, 1917) and not with behaviorist concepts from psychology.

Working within this landscape approach, cultural geographers conducted research with behaviorist overtones. For example, there is a considerable body of literature recognizing the role played in human behavior in landscape by what Hudson (1994) labeled, the “authority of tradition” (p. 3), with different ethnic groups behaving differently in similar environmental contexts. More specifically, with reference to American frontier movement east of the Great Plains, Newton (1974) identified an Upland South culture possessing eleven preadaptive traits facilitating successful expansion and related landscape change. In much of the work on ethnic landscapes and preadaptation the concept of rule-governed behavior is implicit.

The first explicit recognition that the landscape approach might be interpreted as adopting a behaviorist position referred negatively to the "behaviorist claim that habit should be construed not as thought but as activity” (Duncan, 1980, pp. 194-195). This critical interpretation of the landscape approach was not rebutted and proved highly influential, contributing to the emergence of alternative approaches to cultural geographic study based on a variety of subjectivist social theoretical and cultural studies ideas.

The Rise of Behavioral Geography(ies)

The positivistically inspired spatial analysis that dominated human geography briefly during the 1960s arose in opposition to the descriptive empiricism of regional geography and to the perceived atheoretical character of the landscape approach. Along with normative theories, models, hypothesis testing, and quantitative methods, spatial analysis incorporated a mechanistic conception of humans derived from economics but also in accord with similar conceptions employed in other social sciences. The initial flowering of behavioral geography was an innovative but uncertain component of spatial analysis.

Some geographers took an interest both in overt behavior and in the role played by human thoughts and knowledge, an interest that was a critical response to the assumption of rational human behavior employed in spatial analysis. Focusing on the world as it is rather than as it ought to be, this was an engagement with developments in cognitive psychology and produced a body of research using such concepts as mental maps, cognition, and perception. Other geographers turned to ecological and environmental psychologies, an engagement prompting publication of a new journal, Environment and Behavior, in 1969. Focusing on behavior and the environmental settings in which it occurs, human geographers studied especially the perception of and responses to environmental hazards. Both cognitive and ecological/environmental versions of behavioral geography are outlined in Aitken, Cutter, Foote, and Sell (1989).

There were some suggestions concerning the possible merits of adopting a behaviorist philosophy. Most notably, Golledge (1969) identified the learned basis of behavior and the law of effect, and suggested human geographers pursue the work of such psychologists as Guthrie, Skinner and Estes. In similar vein, Downs (1970) argued for behavioral geography as the science of human behavior and spatial decision making, while Harvey (1969) referred favorably to stimulus-response psychology. These proposals were not well developed at the time and have not lead to a human geography informed by behaviorism and employing the concepts and principles of behavior analysis. However, several areas of research employed ideas sympathetic to behaviorist logic. Two examples are noted.

The push-pull model of migration assumed environmental determinants of movement, specifically identifying negative push factors at the immigrant source area and positive pull factors at the immigrant receiving area (Bogue, 1969). In this model, the behavior of moving is a response to specific environmental stimuli with the intended consequence of improved well-being. More generally, Chapin (1974) developed a model to explain human activities that recognized the role played by motivated behavior aimed to satisfy individual wants through activity in the environment. In both of these examples, the basic concept is operant conditioning, referring to the environment reinforcing behaviors that are most adaptive and effective in achieving reinforcers and avoiding or escaping from aversive stimuli, but in neither case was there explicit integration with the behavior analytic literature.

From about 1970 onwards, behavioral approaches evolved in two different directions. First, humanistic geography moved the behavioral interest further from its’ spatial analytic roots. Condemning earlier work for being dehumanizing, this approach centered on humans as active agents, on verstehen, and on participant observation. Second, cognitive approaches were increasingly favored on the grounds that “the pattern of human phenomena on the Earth’s surface was best understood by examining the thoughts, knowledge, and decisions that influence the location and distribution of those phenomena” (Kitchin, Blades, & Golledge, 1997, p. 557). This analytic behavioral geography retained the scientific method but rejected components of positivism seen to be unnecessary, such as the claim that a researcher was a passive observer of an objective reality and the claim that facts and values could be separated. The key argument of analytic behavioral geography “is that human beings respond to the environment as it is perceived and interpreted through previous experience and knowledge” (Couclelis & Golledge, 1983, p. 333). This research tradition is detailed in Golledge and Stimson (1997).

The Road Not Taken

A third possible direction for behavioral geography—a road informed by behaviorism—was not followed. Humanistic behavioral geographers had a different agenda while, confusingly, analytic behavioral geographers claimed they were “particularly sensitive to the excesses of the ‘operant-conditioning’ school of Skinnerian behaviorism” and noted the “more moderate ‘stimulus-response’ approaches of Watson, Hull, etc” (Couclelis & Golledge, 1983, p. 338). Reflecting a general hostility towards objectivist approaches, both humanistic and analytic versions of behavioral geography condemned behaviorism without engaging in meaningful debate, often failing to distinguish between the various versions of behaviorism. For example, Pipkin (1979) asserted: "No matter how much we prefer to focus on overt behavior and to eschew mentalistic concepts, we cannot emulate the extreme behaviorist stance, rejecting theoretical structure in general and unobservable variables in particular” (p. 311). Similarly, Gold and Goodey (1984) stated: "behaviorism viewed human behaviour in terms of stimulus-response relationships in which specific responses could be attached to given antecedent conditions" (pp. 544-545). More recently, Pile (1996, p. 36) described behavioral geography as behaviorist and identified both Watsonian and Skinnerian versions of behaviorism as being stimulus and response centered. Failure to recognize the several different versions of behaviorism meant human geographers viewed behaviorism in overly simplistic terms. In particular, there was no meaningful consideration of radical behaviorism and of behavior analysis. Inevitably, then, human geographers remain unaware of the important changes occurring in behaviorist logic and practice in recent years, especially the convergence of behaviorist and cognitive approaches (Slocum & Butterfield, 1994).

Overall, behavioral geographers failed to engage seriously the work accomplished by behavior analysts. The tendency was to reject any and all behaviorisms without attempting a critical review of psychological literature. This failure is regrettable but unsurprising as, by the 1960s, human geographers were disenchanted with, indeed embarrassed by, the simplistic logic of environmental determinism and, accordingly, most approaches suggestive of environmental control of behavior were viewed unfavorably. Perhaps this failure explains the dismissive comment by Relph (1984): “Since I have never been able to establish just what ‘behavioral geography’ is and how it distinguishes itself from other sorts of geography, I have assumed it to be a version of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism somehow transferred from psychology to geography” (p. 209). There is a further explanation for the failure of human geographers to engage seriously the work of behavior analysts, namely invitations were lacking. Behavior analysts conducted research on topics of minimal interest to human geographers, employed specialist vocabulary, and published in specialist journals.

Expanding Horizons

On the basis of the account so far, behavior analysts might question if there are any prospects for a behavior analytic informed human geography. After all, if human geographers proved unable to turn to behavior analysis at the height of the spatial analysis movement it seems unreasonable to suggest they might do so within the context of a contemporary human geography primarily inspired by a body of subjectivist ideas. Indeed, there is little evidence today that human geographers wish to debate seriously the use of any objectivist research procedures. But there are some positive indicators.

There is a growing body of argument favoring naturalism, the view that the social sciences can be studied in the same way as the natural sciences. Most notably, Hutcheon (1996) presented a powerful and detailed argument for an evolutionary naturalism in social science, an argument that included a sympathetic review of radical behaviorism. “We seldom pause to reflect that the premises of naturalism are also the philosophical prerequisites for any behavioural or social discipline attempting to be scientific in fact as well as in name” (Hutcheon, 1996, p. viii). Similarly, Kuznar (1997) argued for a scientific anthropology: “when contemporary anthropologists analyze and evaluate accounts they are abandoning the basic tools of scientific analysis—logic and empirical data” (p. ix). In human geography, Entrikin (1991) identified the naturalism in both environmental determinism and the landscape approach noting: “The natural historian offered an attractive model for those seeking to establish the scientific moorings of the study of the areal diversity of culture and human attachment to place” (p. 73).

Importantly, two human geographers recently introduced concepts that are implicitly behaviorist. Appleton (1990) proposed human behavior in landscape be studied with reference to animal behavior, emphasizing biological drives and denying the relevance of human imagination and creativity. Habitat theory is the idea of spontaneous human response to, rather than rational appraisal of, landscapes, with learned patterns of behavior being secondary to inner needs. Prospect-refuge theory is the idea that the ideal environment is one humans can retreat to safely, meaning it is a refuge in which they cannot be seen and also one providing the opportunity to observe surroundings, meaning it serves as a prospect.

Wagner (1996) asked how we might behave more appropriately towards each other and towards the environment. The answer was that we are born to show off, to strive for what is called, Geltung: “human beings are innately programmed to persistently and skillfully cultivate attention, acceptance, respect, esteem, and trust from their fellows” (Wagner, 1996, p. 1). Personal Geltung explains both social relationships and human behavior in environment, for example relating to the need to respect both other people and places, to moderate population growth, and to challenge spatial monopolies of power. The ambitious agenda implied by these ideas has parallels in behavior analysis: “A major role of applied behavior analysts is to help people act in ways that will have long-range benefits for the actors and for humanity” (Malott & Malott, 1991, p. 239).

There is another reason for suggesting the time may be ripe for a rapprochement between human geography and behavior analysis, as behavior analysts are actively seeking to expand their horizons. Most notably, some behavior analysts do not have a wholehearted commitment to a radical behaviorism ignoring cognition. Although there are differences of opinion concerning the extent to which it is necessary for behaviorists to incorporate cognitive concepts in their analyses, some “behavioral psychologists now concede that reference to cognitive mechanisms is necessary to provide explanations of behavioral regularities" (Smith, 1994, p. 215). Other behaviorists contend they analyze cognition under the general rubric of such behavior-analytic concepts as rule-governed behavior and establishing operations. "A distinction was gradually drawn between behavior shaped directly by its consequences and behavior under the control of a rule. It was a distinction that not only breathed new life into the field, it unequivocally linked behavior analytic research and cognitive processes" (Vaughan 1989, p. 98).


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Concluding thoughts

As this account suggests, human geographers have barely engaged with behavior analysis. References to Skinner are few and the specific concepts and principles of behavior analysis have not been discussed. In retrospect, it is evident that the positivistically inclined spatial analytic movement of the 1960s was a missed opportunity. The past thirty years are characterized by human geographic excursions into a variety of primarily subjectivist approaches—exceptions to this generalization are the references to naturalism and the habitat, prospect-refuge, and Geltung concepts. Accordingly, at this time it appears there is only limited prospect for a behavior analytically informed human geography.

This limited prospect might be improved if two things happen. Behavior analysts might fruitfully investigate the human geographic literature and begin to think in terms of landscapes as they are related to behavior, specifically the behavior of individuals as members of groups. In such investigations there is a need for behavior analysts to seek to address a wider audience of social scientists through non-specialist journals and through the use of more accessible language.

But the principal onus is on human geographers to apply the concepts and principles of behavior analysis in their studies. A subsequent paper aims to develop this claim through identifying means by which human geographers might begin to apply some concepts and principles of behavior analysis, specifically the concept of rule-governed behavior. The context for a proposed second paper is a focus on group identities, such as national, ethnic, and religious identities, and on the landscapes these groups occupy, value, and change. Rather than yet another brief encounter, the time is ripe for a full-blooded affair. Both human geography and behavior analysis deserves no less.