Quantitative Revolution in Geography – UPSC Geography

In this article, You will read Quantitative Revolution in Geography for UPSC (Human Geography) – Geography Optional Paper 1.

Quantitative Revolution

  • Geography for more than 200 yrs. was confronted with the problem of generalization & theory-building while in all other Physical & Social Sciences, Theory building has a long tradition as in Sociology, Public Administration, etc
  • When Geography as a subject was evolving, debates and discussions followed on whether to follow a subjective approach or an objective approach in Geography
  • Making Geography objective required the use of laws of Physics, models, etc which shifted the focus of scholars towards the Quantitative Revolution, to make geography a scientific subject
  • Some scholars wanted Geography to be a descriptive subject
  • After the 2nd World War, Geographers, especially of developed countries, realized the significance of using Mathematical Language, rather than the language of Literature in Geography.
    • e.g. Af in Koppen’s classification of Climate meaning Tropical Rainforest
  • After the 2nd World War, only those subjects survived which had relevance for society, Therefore, in 1949, World Social Science Congress was held at Princeton University in the USA
  • 2 major conclusions in this were –
    • Subject Matter should be relevant for society i.e. Practically applicable
    • The approach has become obsolete in a changed socio-economic situation, hence there is a need to bring about methodology change in social sciences
  • Therefore, after the 2nd World War Quantitative Revolution became prominent because
    • World Social Science Congress held in 1949
    • America & Canadian University dropped Geography
    • Schaeffer’s argument supporting the Nomothetic Approach
    • Geographers themselves wanted Geography to be at par with Physical Sciences
  • Thus, in 1949 congress developed the concepts that social sciences should go to adopt Quantitative Methods or tools for scientific inquiry
    • This conference provided a new lease of life for social sciences
    • Immediately after the congress – Zipf (1st Geographer to use new methods) came up with a research paper titled – “Human Behaviour & Principles of least effort” in 1949
    • He used the Rank Size Correlation method of Spearsman to establish the amount of correlation between rank & Size of Population.
  • Therefore, a number of qualitative tools used extensively, new electronic devices made possible use of complex mathematical computation never attempted before.
  • Canadian Geographer Burton firstly introduced Statistical Methods in Geography and published a research paper “Qualitative Revolution & Theoretical Geography”.

Quantitative Revolution – Definition and Related information

  • The term ‘Quantitative Revolution’ was coined by Burton in 1963
  • Definition – “The application of Statistical and Mathematical techniques, theorems, proofs in the understanding geographical system is called as Quantitative Revolution in Geography”
  • Quantitative Revolution was developed in Geography by B.J.L Berry, Richard Chorley
  • Statistical Methods first introduced in Geography in the 1950s
  • Quantitative Revolution calls for a change in methodology, thereby imparting a scientific character to discipline
  • The methodology included Mathematical tools, Statistical Analysis, Laws of Physics, etc which provided objectivity and Scientific touch, as was desired by some Geographers
  • Quantitative Revolution provided Geography with a sound Philosophical and theoretical base
  • It aims at making the geographical study more useful by making precise generalization identifying the ideal location for economic activities
  • It aims at explaining & interpreting spatial patterns of Geographical phenomenon in a rational and objective manner using physics laws, mathematical tools, statistical analysis, etc
  • Quantitative Revolution was inspired by the positivistic school of thought
  • Profound supporters of the Quantitative Revolution were Neil Harvey, Schaeffer, Ackerman, Haggett, Chorley, etc.

Base of Quantitative Revolution

Quantitative Revolution was based on various methods-

  1. Statistical Methods – Mean (e.g. HDI), Median, Mode, Coefficient of Variability (e.g. Rainfall), Standard Deviation (e.g. Rainfall), Probability, Least Square Method (e.g. Agriculture)
  2. Mathematical Methods – Algebra (e.g. Locational Triangle), Geometry theorems, Triangular Methods, etc – All these led to Spatial Analysis in Geography
  3. Laws of Physics – such as
    • Gravity Laws – Gravity model such as Breakpoint theory
    • Thermodynamic Laws – in the study of Ecosystem
  4. Cybernetics – Branch of Physics which includes a study of regulating or self-regulating systems
  5. Neoclassical Economics – Ricardo, Adam Smith, Weber, Keynes, etc.

Approaches in Quantitative Revolution

Quantitative Revolution was based on 3 Approaches –

  1. Locational Analysis – It includes spatial analysis but seeks to find out the optimum location (where profit is maximum and cost is minimum) by applying statistical and mathematical techniques, physics laws, etc
  2. Spatial Analysis – It is the Study of Earth as a Space Geometry
    • It includes measurements & Divisions of space and man became a point on Surface
    • It means Geometrical analysis, the study of distance, the geometrical shape of CPT
  3. System Analysis – Study of various functional components of a system and their interrelationships
    • e.g. in Central Place Theory, the relationship between various settlements at various hierarchical levels.


Models and Theories formulated in this era were based on some common assumptions as these models follow ideal conditions such as –

  • Man is economic and rational
  • Man has infinite knowledge of his environment and resources
  • Space (Environment and Resources) is isotropic surface
  • There is no place for normative questions like cultural values, social values, emotions, etc in Geographical Research
  • Assumed prices to be the same everywhere.

Philosophy behind the Quantitative Revolution

  1. Positivism – It means reality is what is cognizable. It guides Quantitative Revolution
    • It means the formation of universal laws on the basis of the unification of sciences
    • It is against the normative questions of a man like values, morals, ethics, emotions, etc
    • It considers man as economic and rational
    • It considers reality as what can be defined through laws
  2. Functionalism – It leads to system analysis
    • It studies the various component elements of a phenomenon & its interrelationship
  3. Empiricism– It believes in direct observation.

Phases of Quantitative Revolution

Phases of Quantitative Revolution
  • Phase 1 – Genesis Phase
    • 1818-1915
      • Von Thunen Model for Agriculture
      • Weber Industrial Model
      • Migration laws of Ravenstein etc
    • 1915-1950
      • Settlement Geography
      • Rank Size Rule
      • Primate City Concept
      • Some economic models etc
  • Phase 2 – Zenith Phase
    • 1950-1970
      • Geographers dropped all other methods to adopt Quantitative Techniques
      • Dominance of the Quantitative Revolution
      • Quantitative Revolution term coined by Burton in 1963
      • Several models were created such as the Gravity Model, Distance Decay law, Losch Model, the sphere of Urban Influence, etc
  • Phase 3 – Declining Phase
    • Post-1970s
      • After 1976, the Quantitative Revolution was suddenly abandoned as its supporters stopped supporting it due to its lost relevance
      • Limitations of Quantitative Revolution came to the front
      • As a reaction, Critical Revolution started to grow which was more guided by humanism and took into consideration normative questions.

Advantages of Quantitative Revolution

  • The emergence of scientific approach and quantitative tools undisputedly improved the functional relevance of geography
  • It gave a new lease of Life to Geography
  • Geography became well structured & geographical ideas became precise and accurate
  • It developed objectivity from being overly descriptive
  • It helped in describing, analyzing, and simplifying Geographical Systems
  • Geographers are now being able to make use of primary information and are no more dependent on secondary and tertiary sources (such as other sciences)
  • Modern Geography is capable of developing scientific theories and models. Before the Quantitative Revolution, most of the theories and models were empirical and not scientifically tested
  • Quantitative Revolution provided the sound scientific and methodological base
  • Quantitative tools have been very helpful in the explanation of man-environment relation with the help of correlation and regression methods
  • The use of Central values and deviation methods has improved the quality of Geographical mapping. Presently, scattered diagrams, choropleth maps, and isopleth maps are drawn with scientific intervals and have been very helpful to developmental agencies.
  • The use of nearest neighbor statistics have been able to help in the understanding of spatial patterns of settlement of distribution
  • Now, it is possible to define areas of compact, dispersed, and randomly distributed patterns of settlements. This kind of information is helpful to planners for the development of infrastructure and socio-economic variables
  • Before the arrival of Quantitative tools, Geographical Regionalization was based on observation and assessment. Hence, there were problems with overlapping and non-inclusions. By making use of Gravitational models, it is now possible to bring a scientifically defined regionalization process
    • e.g. Crop combination Regionalization was developed by Weaver and is now popular throughout the world. It is based on the deviation method
  • There have been several investigations of socio-economic problems in geography. There have been problems in the management of multivariate information. With the help of Quantitative techniques, a multitude of information can be reduced to a manageable number of factors i.e. Generalisation of information
  • It served as an important tool to measure Reality & Deviation.

Demerits of Quantitative Revolution

  • It rejected man and his normative questions like faith, belief, emotions, customs, desires, prejudices, aesthetic values, etc but in the real world, man-environment relations and decision-making processes are affected by normative questions and social, moral, ethical values, etc
    • In any decision-making process about the utilization of resources, people, etc are largely governed by religious, moral, cultural, and social values
    • It is because of these values that dairying is not developed in Khasis (Meghalaya) and Lushais (Mizoram) where taking milk is a taboo
    • Muslims all over the world hate piggery and Sikhs dislike the cultivation of tobacco
    • Thus, by excluding the normative questions, the study may become objective but gives only a parochial picture of the man-environment relationship
  • Isotopic surface and other idealistic conditions are never found. Thus, models were mostly normative and lacked universal application
  • The man became a point on the surface
  • Geography became a space geometry where the measurement was the means of understanding a spatial dimension of Geographical phenomenon
  • The advocates of Quantitative Revolution focussed on ‘Locational Analysis’ which promotes Capitalism
  • Geography has the main task of studying the reciprocal relationship between man and nature. Thus, this task was itself offloaded during the Quantitative Revolution
  • The man became mechanistic and models developed with the help of Quantitative techniques reduced people to Passive agents. Such models may be seen as one of economic determinism
  • With the development of sophisticated machinery and automation, there is less scope of employment. Thus, it leads to unemployment
  • The man and environment relationship cannot be properly established by the mechanistic models designed with the help of Quantitative techniques
  • The advocates of the Quantitative Revolution pleaded for the language of Geometry, but Geometry is not an acceptable language to explain man and environment relation
  • The assumption that man is a ‘rational person’ who always tries to optimize his profit has been criticized.
    • In real-world, location decisions are seldom optimal in the sense of maximizing profits or minimizing resources
    • According to Simon, “Man in a limited number of alternatives chooses one that is broadly satisfactory rather than optimal”
    • In most of cases, the satisfying model applies and the man takes decisions about the utilization of his resources to satisfy his aspirations and desires
  • The assumption that man has ‘infinite knowledge’ of his space or environment has also been criticized as technology is a dynamic concept that keeps changing with resource
  • Applications of Quantitative Revolution demand reliable data which is rarely available in developing country like India
  • The estimates and predictions made with the help of sophisticated quantitative techniques proved erroneous many times and the danger of overgeneralization prevails
  • The models developed with the help of statistical techniques gave more prominence to some features and distorted some others
  • Making reliable models and universal laws in Human Geography with the help of Quantitative techniques is not possible
  • Among the early protesters of the Quantitative Revolution, O.H.K Spate and Dudley Stamp were prominent
    • O.H.K Spate argued that the use of the methodology needs mathematical and scientific temperament of investigation, but Geographers come from social science temperament so they may concede some fatal errors in judgement
    • Hartshorne also held that the views of Spate cannot be ignored
    • Dudley Stamp was opposed to the blind use of quantitative tools in Geography and opined that geography need not borrow any techniques
  • According to him, “Maps speak themselves” so there is no need to bring other scientific techniques
  • However, Statistical techniques improved the quality of maps which was ignored by Stamp
  • Quantitative tools provide precise and rigid conclusions, but geography is a social science where conclusions should have flexibility.


  • Despite all the merits and demerits of the Quantitative Revolution, it may be summarized that ‘spatial science’ was inaugurated in North America
  • By the end of the 1960s, it was dominating many of the journals published throughout the English speaking world and there was a growing consciousness among geographers about the usefulness of quantitative tools
  • Most of the researchers used Quantitative models, and thus contributed to the development of theories and models. But, these theories and models presented only a partial picture of the man-environment relationship
  • This methodology was criticized and as a reaction to this, behavioural and humanistic approaches were introduced in human geography
  • It was realized that the use of Quantitative tools cannot provide relevant conclusions for all geographic problems. Hence, after the 1970s, there has been an emphasis on the selective use of such tools
  • Often a combination of the quantitative and qualitative approach is more satisfactory for making estimations and predictions in geography
  • Whatever the limitations, the fact cannot be denied that it was a Quantitative Revolution which could bring scientific understanding in Geography and the very base of the present status of Geography lies in Quantitative Revolution

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