Geography Geography and Empire
João Sarmento
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0227


Geography has engaged in the study of empire since its early days as an academic discipline. Few disciplines have such a clear complicity with this political formation, that feeds on territorial growth through military power, and that limits political sovereignty in the peripheries. In fact, a temporal correspondence exists between the birth of modern geography and the emergence of a new phase of capitalist imperialism during the 1870s. Viewed as the queen of the imperial sciences over a century ago, geographies of empire have changed throughout time, reflecting the modifications in the discipline and the transformation in the nature of empires. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and under environmental determinism, geographical knowledge produced by the likes of Frederich Ratzel or Alfred Mackinder lent scientific credibility to ideologies of imperialism while, at the same time, they legitimized the scientific claims of geography as an academic discipline. Climatic and acclimatization studies and prerogatives were pivotal to construct moralistic considerations of both people and places. During the first half of the 20th century, geographies of empire were dominated, in part, by the regional tradition of French geographic inquiry, which cultivated a regional, zonal approach, while work with a focus on empire had a global and zonal tropicality architecture. Quantitative and neopositivist geography approaches in the second half of the 20th century had a less marked influence. Since the late 1980s, a concern for “empire” has returned to geography, and various subdisciplines have focused on the imperial genealogy of the discipline, the links between geography and empire, and the consequences of those links. A more critical engagement with the history of geography has provided contextual histories of global spatial practice and discourse over the past two centuries. The reconsideration of imperialism in view of postcolonial theory, tackling “historical amnesia,” has also promoted a new wave of studies. In a broad way we can be tempted today to make a division between geographical research, which participated in imperial development and maintenance, and geographical research “after Empire,” which aims to study and understand the past and present spatialities of empire.

General Overviews

Despite the diversity of empires throughout history—Roman, Ottoman, Imperial Chinese, Russian, Soviet, Austro-Hungarian, Napoleonic, British, French, Spanish, Portuguese—geographical research on empires has been dominated by the history and consequences of modern Western colonization in the “Age of Empire” (c. 1870–1914). Furthermore, scholarship has been dominated by Anglo-American geography, which has worked from a constricted notion of empire, mostly drawn from a 19th-century European model, especially the British Empire. Young 2015 provides a good starting point, as it offers a straightforward introduction to related concepts like empire, colony, imperialism and colonialism, anti-colonialism and decolonization, neo-colonialism, and postcolony and postcolonialism. Various studies, notably within historical geography, and those concerned with the history of science, have attempted to assess how geography has worked as an imperial discipline. Livingstone 1992 provides a refined analysis of how geography has been inexorably connected with imperialism, from the “Age of Reconnaissance” in the 15th century to “Geography, Race and Empire” in the 19th and 20th centuries. Godlewska and Smith 1994 and Bell, et al. 1995 present a diverse range of geographical research on the history of imperialism and are good examples of the reexamination of the heritage of the discipline of geography and interest in the historical relationship between geography and imperialism. Driver 1992, indicates how the construction of empires stimulated and was stimulated by geographical knowledge. The author first coined the term geography’s empire to capture both the discipline’s 19th-century service to empire and how such assistance helped to shape the ways in which geography became a professional discipline, at the same time as empire developed into a key concept of theoretical debate within geography. Singaravélou 2008 focuses on the French Empire at the turn of the 19th century. It underlines the existence of powerful, inseparable ties of interdependence between colonial expansion and the evolution of geography as a discipline. The book includes contributions from key French geographers who analyze the plurality and complexity of colonial geography and the evolution of geographic knowledge (see also Singaravélou 2011). Clayton 2003 and Clayton 2004 remain arguably the best introductory overviews to the subject of geographies and empire.

  • Bell, Morag, Robin Button, and Michael Heffernan, eds. Geography and Imperialism, 1820–1940. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995.

    The book includes eleven chapters that focus on the growth of the discipline of geography and its relation to the extension of European rule and influence, mostly in British Africa.

  • Clayton, Daniel. “Critical Imperial and Colonial Geographies.” In Handbook of Cultural Geography. Edited by Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Sarah Pile, and Nigel Thrift, 354–368. London: SAGE, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781848608252.n25

    A state-of-the-art text that crosses the boundaries of the subdiscipline of cultural geography.

  • Clayton, Daniel. “Imperial Geographies.” In A Companion to Cultural Geography. Edited by James S. Duncan, Nuala C. Johnson, and Richard H. Schein, 449–468. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    Locates geographical scholarship on colonialism, relating it to the postcolonial turn and to the historiographic revisitations, identifying key research avenues in the 2000s.

  • Driver, Felix. “Geography’s Empire: Histories of Geographical Knowledge.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10.1 (1992): 23–40.

    DOI: 10.1068/d100023

    Discusses the relations between modern geography and European colonialism during the “Age of Empire”; argues against a totalizing view of “imaginative geographies,” such as those related to Orientalism; and defends a heterogeneity of geographical knowledges.

  • Godlewska, Anne, and Neil Smith, eds. Geography and Empire. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    This collection of seventeenth essays, mostly written by geographers, presents a diverse range of themes, and the book was influential in the development of the study of geographies of empires in the 1990s. Book based on papers presented at a conference held at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, in April 1991.

  • Livingstone, David N. The Geographical Tradition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992

    Key publication on the contested tradition of the discipline of geography. It highlights how the tentacles of empire have stretched throughout the globe.

  • Singaravélou, Pierre, ed. L’empire des géographes: Géographie, exploration et colonisation, XIXe–XXe siècle. Mappemonde. Paris: Belin, 2008.

    Dealing with the French Empire, the book covers four aspects: the places where colonial geography was produced; the political and military uses of geography in colonial contexts, especially in North Africa; the colonial imaginary, including an analysis of the correspondence of Tahiti’s obsessed artist Paul Gauguin; and a discussion of the heritage of colonial geography, traced to tropical geography and development geography.

  • Singaravélou, Pierre. “The Institutionalisation of ‘Colonial Geography’ in France, 1880–1940.” Journal of Historical Geography 37.2 (2011): 149–157.

    An analysis of the practical and political roles of academic networks and the ways in which geographical knowledge was shaped in early colonial times.

  • Young, Robert J. Empire, Colony, Postcolony. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

    Interesting publication akin to a textbook that provides an introduction and educational resource to how colonial and imperial geographies can be revisited from postcolonial perspectives. It underlines how colonial injustice and domination are present conditions, engaging with current issues and debates such as the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the 2014 Scottish referendum.

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