In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Historical Geography

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Other General Overviews

Geography Critical Historical Geography
Dan Clayton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0281


This is an interesting entry to compile in that while most work in historical geography—the subdiscipline of geography concerned with the past and its relations with the present—might now be called “critical historical geography,” the term is scarcely defined. Its story involves changing geographies of environmental and social change (encompassing problems of capitalism, modernity, empire, nation, globalization, violence, and planetary peril, to name just the most prominent) and thus serves as a commentary on changing times and current predicaments from a specific (if eclectic) area of inquiry. This story has been integral to the journey of “critical geography” over the last sixty years: to fostering recognition that the questions and things the geographer studies are bound up with the past and have a history. Geographical interest in the past is not the preserve of historical geography (the boundaries of the subdiscipline are porous), and not all work referenced in this bibliography comes from researchers who identify themselves as historical geographers. Our term shall be annotated in three (overlapping) ways: to denote, first, work in historical geography that is informed by theory and philosophy (especially questions of power, knowledge, representation, materiality, identity, memory, difference, and human-animal-nature linkages) and has a normative concern not simply with understanding the world but also with trying to change it for the better; second, wider theoretical debates that have grappled with how questions of geography and space are critical (vital) to understanding time and history, and vice versa; and third, historical geographers’ instinctive sensitivity to methodological questions and how the times and spaces in which they live and work influence what they do—and with “the archive” a key material and social entity and relation (object, site, practice, and way of seeing and knowing). A general overview of this tripartite definition is followed by more detailed commentaries on the three facets, which are given the section headings “Critical of . . .”; “Critical to . . .”; and “Critical Reflexivity . . .” With over one hundred references, the first section is the mainstay of the entry. It recounts the growing and changing scope of critical historical geography by decade and theme (albeit with some intersecting threads), and chronicles from where new and different interests and bodies of work emanate. In all, the following attempt to “curate” this entry is just that: a selective and subjective story, a construct.

General Overview

Work in the “Critical of . . .” vein has a core normative (diagnostic and moral) concern both with questions of change and transformation, and with the constructed (produced, arbitrary, and contingent) character of geographical knowledges, forms, and relations (Clayton 2014; Philo 1994; Domosh, et al. 2021). The “Critical to . . .” section encompass debates since the 1970s about how modern social theory has privileged time over space, and the critical significance of thinking about history and geography, and nature and culture, as intrinsically linked rather than separate entities. The “Critical Reflexivity . . .” section extends consideration of the subdiscipline’s long-lasting concern (and in some senses introspection) over what Darby 1953 (p. 1) described as the “debatable land between history and geography”—how the two are connected, and how this has been debated—and with critical historical geography deemed heterogeneous to itself (more diverse than prevailing accounts of it and the home it provides). This third section can thus be treated as an “in-house” barometer of what “critical” in the first two senses of the definition has meant at specific moments and through different ways of conceiving and practicing historical geography. Work along these three tracks has had various triggers, trajectories, and textures, ones that have transfigured the subdiscipline (albeit with some theoretical concerns having a wider reach and longer shelf life than others), but also emboldened its core commitment to meticulous scholarship and enduring interest in questions of environment, land, landscape, location, and geographical change. The entry should not be read as an exclusive roll call of innovation and impact. Critical inquiry (in any domain) is an inherently social and creative activity. It never takes place in an individual or isolated vacuum, and the notion that one can find an Archimedean point from which to distinguish between a “critical” and “pre-critical” (“atheoretical” or “apolitical”) historical geography needs to be dispelled. As both a theoretical and substantive project, critical historical geography has helped to reaffirm geography’s place in the humanities. Yet historical geographers have also been wary of theory, scrutinizing its assumptions and arguing for its firm grounding in empirical research and contextualization in particular places.

  • Clayton, Daniel. “Transformations.” In The Sage Handbook of Human Geography. Vol. 1. Edited by Roger Lee 148–180. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2014.

    Dwells on the significance of the idea of “transformation” to the three facets of critical historical geography sketched here: how humans have transformed the earth, the diverse and changing nature of transformation, and debate about how past and present geographies are entangled.

  • Darby, H. C. “On the Relations of Geography and History.” Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers) 19 (1953): 1–11.

    A pivotal figure in British historical geography, Darby’s paper is seminal to understanding what “historical geography” was, is, and might be—and starting with his declaration, “All geography is historical geography, either actual or potential” (p. 1).

  • Domosh, Mona, Michael Heffernan, and Charles W. J. Withers, eds. The Sage Handbook of Historical Geography. 2 vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2021.

    This flagship—two-volume, fifty-chapter—handbook is almost a one-stop-shop for understanding the evolution and range of historical geography as a critical undertaking—although our term is not defined outright.

  • Philo, Chris. “History, Geography and the ‘Still Greater Mystery’ of Historical Geography.” In Human Geography: Space, Society, and Social Science. Edited by Derek Gregory, Ron Martin, and Graham Smith, 252–281. London: Palgrave, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-23638-1_10

    A survey of the subdiscipline (as of the 1990s) that historicizes and questions the distinction between “conventional” and “critical” work by returning to Jean Mitchell’s 1954 primer Historical Geography (which is where the “mystery” partly comes in—it was her phrase).

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