Behavioural Approach in Geography UPSC

Behavioural Approach in Geography (Behaviouralism) – UPSC

In this article, You will read Behavioural Approach in Geography (Behaviouralism) for UPSC (Geographical Thought in Human Geography).

Behavioral geography is an approach to human geography that attempts to understand human activity in space, place, and environment by studying it at the disaggregate level of analysis—at the level of the individual person. Behavioral geographers analyze data on the behavior of individual people, recognizing that individuals vary from each other.

Behavioural Approach

By the mid-1960s use of statistical techniques in research for precision has been largely accepted by geographers. The duality of systematic versus regional geography was resolved as both were now accepted as important components of the discipline through interdependent and equally useful.

It was increasingly realized by the geographers that the models propounded and tested with the help of quantitative techniques, provided poor descriptions of geographic reality as well as the man-environment relationship.

Consequently, progress towards the development of the geographical theory was glaringly slow and its predictive powers were weak. Theories such as Central Place Theory, based on statistical and mathematical techniques, were found inadequate to explain the spatial organization of

The economic rationality of decision-making was also criticized as it does not explain the behaviour of man. It was a psychological twist in human geography which emphasized the role of subjective and decision-making processes that mediate the association between environment and spatial behaviour of man.

It can be said that the dissatisfaction with the models and theories developed by the positivists, using the statistical techniques which were based on the ‘economic rationality’ of man led to the development of behavioural approach in geography.

The axiom of ‘economic person’ who always tries to maximize his profit was challenged by Wolpert, in his paper entitled ‘The Decision Process in Spatial Context’, Wolpert (1964) compared the actual and potential labour productivity of Swedish farmers and came to a conclusion that optimal farming practices were not attainable. He concluded that the farmers were not optimizers but, satisfies.

Thus human behaviour was seen to be a product of decision-making and it was a human tendency to have incomplete information, to make imperfect choices, and even then be satisfied with sub-optimal options.

Behavioural Concept in Geography – Historical Perspective

  • The very emergence of behavioural concept had taken place in 1951 when Kirk had used the term “Behavioural Environment” to explain some complicated socio-economic problems, but this work could not receive attention in the midst of the tornado of Quantitative Revolution
  • Similar work was done by Boulding in 1956 who presented a book titled “Progress in Geography” in which he expressed arguments in favour of behavioural explanation of some complicated geographical problems but he also failed to get due recognition
  • By the end of the 1960s, there was a realization that scientific models and theories are unable to provide a realistic explanation of several socio-economic problems and in that situation, behavioural explanations were sought and it was this approach that provided satisfactory conclusions.
  • Gradually, Quantitative Revolution started declining and Behavioural Geographers started criticizing some components of the Quantitative Revolution like considering man as economic and rational, isotropic surface, etc.
  • It is rightly observed that the emergence of behavioural geography was due to disillusionment with the axioms on which the models of geography were based as these axioms were far removed from reality (they were idealistic)
  • Minshull, in his book “Making of Geography“, stated that “by giving some models and preparing some theoretical statements you cannot explain geography”
  • In other words, behavioural revolution in counter-revolution of Quantitative Revolution –“ where Quantitative Revolution failed to give a scientific explanation, behavioural concept solved the problem”
  • Behavioural Revolution refined some loopholes of Quantitative Revolution, therefore it is also called as refinement/extension of Quantitative Revolution
  • Behaviouralism is antithetical to Quantitative Revolution in 2 regards –
    • In Quantitative Revolution, the man was considered economically rational and it neglected normative questions of a man like value system, culture, moral, his choices, sentiments whereas in Behavioural Revolution, perceptions of man are taken into consideration
    • Behaviouralism believed in per capita or per individual study whereas Quantitative Revolution was based on gross generalization. In behaviouralism, model building and theorization was not neglected. It wanted to construct a law by induction, and collection of primary data by field surveys. Thus, it is not against positivism but it differs on the point that it is against overgeneralization and considering man as a point on the surface

What is Behavioural geography?

  • The essence of behavioural approach in geography lies in the fact that the way people behave is mediated by their understanding of the environment in which they live or by the environment itself with which they are confronted
  • The behavioural approach has taken the view that a deeper understanding of man environment interaction can be achieved by looking at the various psychological processes through which man comes to know the environment in which he lives and by examining the way in which these processes influence the nature of resultant behaviour (i.e. perceptions of man, Downs concept, Mental Maps, etc) at the psychological level
  • The behaviouralistic approach is largely inductive aiming to build general statements out of observations of ongoing processes i.e. generalisation achieved through specific cases.

Models of Man-Environment interaction

  • The followers of behavioural geography do not recognize the man as a rational person or an ‘economic man’ who always try to optimize profits
  • Man always does not take into consideration the profit aspect while performing an economic function
  • Most of his decisions are based on behavioural environment rather than on the objective or real environment
  • The decisions are influenced by Perceptions of man

Conventional Models of Man-Environment interaction

  • Boulding in 1956 presented a model for Man-Environment interaction
  • The fundamental arguments of behavioural geography are
    • People have environmental images (based on perception)
    • Those images can be identified accurately by researchers, and
    • There is a strong relationship between environmental images and actual behaviour

Down’s Model (1970)

Behavioural Approach in Geography - Down's model
  • It is completely based on perceptions from the real world
  • These perceptions are filtered as per the value systems to create an image
  • Image then helps in taking a decision, which is reflected in behaviour.

Porteous(1977) suggested 3 environments –

  • Physical Environment (Physical objects),
  • Personal Environment (perceived images of phenomenal or real environment), and
  • Contextual Environment (culture, religion, beliefs, and expectations that influence behaviour)

On the nature of changes in behavioural environment, American geographer Pred presented a behavioural matrix in 1969 which is as follows –

  • Application of perceived information creates different scenarios such as B11, B32 etc.

American geographer Sonnenfield has also presented a model to explain the importance of behavioural environment in Human Geography

  • He viewed that behavioural environment is in the centre of understanding of the universe and once the universe is understood, the development plans can be prepared for the betterment of society
  • His model is as follows –
  • It consists of nested set of Environments according to which the perception of any observer will be reflected in Behaviour
  • By presenting this model, Sonnenfield has also viewed that developed societies have a greater geographical environment in comparison to developing societies. Consequently, they are capable to make greater use of resources
  • Developing societies have not been able to develop a greater operational environment due to a lack of information. Consequently, They depend on traditional operational behaviour

Advantages of Behavioural Concept

Revolution has brought phenomenal changes in the understanding of socio-economic problems in Geography

Olosor (Sweden) has rightly observed that the behavioural approach has the key of social geography

Although every field of human geography is within the investigation realm of behavioural approach, but there are two important fields which have received greater advantages from this method –

  1. Study of movement in Geography (contributors – Wolpert, BJL Berry, Hagerstrand)
  2. Study of Locational Decision (contributors – Smith, Gould, Hotteling, Hagerstrand, Felter)

1. The study of movement can be broadly divided into –

(a). Consumer Movement / Marketing Behaviour
(b). Migration, and
(c). Intra-moves (Knox)

  • All these spatial activities can properly be explained with the help of behavioural approach
  • Marketing pattern is no more simply depending on space proximity and Nearest market is not necessarily the preferred market
  • Marketing depends on behavioural perceptions. Hence, there has been a need to redirect transport system
  • Migration pattern has also the impact of behavioural pattern
  • All over the developing countries, there is a rural-urban migration because the urban centres provide more job opportunities while in developed countries they have urban-rural migration because urban areas are environmentally degraded and is preferable to settle in nearby rural areas for healthier environment
  • Knox in his work “An introduction to the study of Urban Social Geography” developed the concept of intra-moves
  • Intra-moves means residential movements within urban areas.

2. All kinds of functional locations are influenced by Behavioural environment, so behavioural explanation is needed

  • Hotteling cites an example that in the USA, Miami beach has tremendous growth of ice-cream industry
  • According to Hoover, a minimum production cost centre is the most favourable centre for industrial growth
  • According to Weaver, a minimum transport cost centre is most favourable for industrial growth, But in the case of Miami, none of these 2 views are applicable because here both the production and transport cost is maximum as milk is brought from California (2000 Km away) and sugar from the northern parts of USA
  • It is the behavioural environment of tourists due to which the industry has emerged here. So, it is only the behavioural approach which can explain the location of industries
  • It is in opposition to Quantitative Revolution’s optimum location where cost should be minimum and profit should be maximum
  • Smith’s industrial location theory is known as maximum profit point theory
  • Industry will emerge at a point where profit is maximum
  • Purchasing capacity depends upon income and behaviour
  • This is in contradiction to theories of Quantitative Revolution
  • Gould worked in an agricultural location
  • He viewed that farmers often change the crop on the basis of changes in demand and changes in meteorological conditions
  • Hagerstrand has given a model on the diffusion of innovation and their impact on agricultural efficiency
  • He has viewed that all farmers of a region would not adopt new seeds and techniques, only a few progressive farmers would take the risk and once the high yield would be established, there would be a sweeping use of seed on new environment
  • These are some studies and some examples to substantiate the fact that behavioural revolution has brought about a major change in the explanation of human geography in general and complicated socio-economic problems in particular
  • Quantitative Revolution cannot be applied everywhere and perceptions of man help us better to understand human geography.

Limitations /Disadvantages

  • Harvey has a famous book to his credit known as “Explanation in Geography” published in 1969, according to which behaviouralism is a complex phenomenon and has been oversimplified in geographical explanation. Behaviouralism plays a greater role in sociological and historical events rather than events of geography
  • H.J.Eysenck (psychologist) has also viewed that this type of approach will bring psychology of politics in social sciences as bringing subjectivity in Geography will make it more complicated
  • Herbert Simon has also been of different view. According to him, behavioural environment is a hypothetical perception. It needs satisfying knowledge which is never possible
  • Skinner (psychologist) in his book “Beyond dignity and freedom” viewed that behavioural approach may become the basis of reactionary political doctrines in social sciences
  • Several geographers have also been afraid of the distortion and deviation of behavioural environment due to ill-conceived and biased information. So, Information is the principal issue
  • Perceptions can be Hypothetical which can reduce objectivity in Geography
  • The information can be irrelevant from Geographical perspective
  • If the flow of information is proper, then the behavioural information may be an instrument of geographical explanations
  • But any situation leading to distortion of information will be suicidal for this new anthropocentric approach in geography and will lead to deviation from Man-Environment Focus.


  • One of the main weaknesses of behavioural geography is that it lacks in the synthesis of empirical findings, poor communication, inadvertent duplication, and conflicting technology
  • The terminology and concepts remain loosely defined and poorly integrated, primarily owing to the lack of a systematically organized theoretical basis.
  • Another shortcoming of behavioural geography lies in the fact that most of its data are generated in laboratory experiments on animals and the findings are applied directly to human behaviour.
  • Behaviouralist theories are elegant but unhelpful when it comes to understanding the real world man-environment interaction.
  • Behavioural geography has too often put too much emphasis on ego-centred interpretations of the environment.
  • It is difficult to bring the concept into the mainstream of geography due to the lack of subjectivity
  • Another significant deficiency has been the gap between theory and practice
  • In fact, behavioural geographers remain observers than participants
  • Behaviouralism has failed to produce any model or law related to man
  • Some models that were built have limited credibility
  • Due to this, after 1970s, post-behaviouralism entered geographic researches
  • Post-behaviouralism is close to humanism in its methods, ideologies and approaches
  • It finally merged into humanism and welfare geography

Despite several constraints and methodological limitations, behavioural geography is now widely accepted within the positivist orientation. It seeks to account for spatial patterns by establishing generalizations about people-environment interrelationship, which may then be used to stimulate change through environmental planning activities that modify the stimuli which affect the spatial behaviour of us and others.

The research methods of behavioural geography vary substantially but the general orientation – inductive generalization leading to planning for environmental change remains. Eventually, it is hoped, a ‘powerful new theory’ will emerge.

Golledge argued that substantial advances in understanding spatial behaviour have already been made by studying ‘individual preferences, opinions, attitudes, cognitions, cognitive maps, perception, and so on – what he terms processes variables.

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