In this essay the concepts of empiricism and empirical methods and their use in geography will be critically discussed. The main points that will be discussed include the origins of empiricism, what empiricism means, why empiricism might be useful, what empirical methods are, the advantages and disadvantages of empirical methods, how they are applied in geography including examples and the benefits of applying these in geography.
Starting with the origins of empiricism, Aristotle was the first person to introduce the theory of the tabula rasa’ which means ‘blank slate’. He believed that we are born without mental content and that all of our knowledge comes from experience through our five senses. About a thousand years later in the 1 lth century came ‘Avicenna’ and he emphasised the importance of observation in making universal laws. The most famous of all was probably Francis Bacon he was even known as the father’ of the empiricist tradition.
Around his time philosophy used ‘deductive reasoning to understand the natural world but Bacon introduced the idea of ‘inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning involves repeated observation to determine facts. Empiricism in Britain involved three very influential men and they included John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. John Locke, the originator of British empiricism, strongly believed in the concept of tabula rasa’. The next two points made will discuss the definition of empiricism and why it might be useful.
There are a few definitions for empiricism and some of them are, “empiricism refers to a restrictive methodological doctrine which claims that researchers may only use mpirical methods” (Mende, 2005), empiricism is a theory that all of our knowledge comes from the five senses and we are basically a ‘blank slate’ at birth and according to Bowen ( 2009) “an essential characteristic of empiricism which takes its name from the Greek word for experience (empeiria), is its commitment to the position that all knowledge is dependent upon experience”. One of the benefits of empiricism is the reliance on physical, raw data.
This data can be shared among other scientists and then they can make experiments that are similar. When enough members in a certain scientific area come to the same conclusions, the data can then become established as a theory. Under normal circumstances our senses do not lie and that is why empiricism is useful. Empiricism and empirical methods differ in that empiricism is the theory or philosophical doctrine that experience rather than reason is the source of knowledge whereas empirical methods are the scientific methods used to derive and develop knowledge. The empirical part of scientific research nvolves systematically observing cases in order to record measurements of variables that reflect properties of those cases” (Montello and Sutton, 2006). Empirical methods are studies that include observation and experiments rather than theoretical ideas. For Sauer “geographic knowledge rests upon disciplined observation and it is a body of inferences drawn from classified and properly correlated observation” (Cloke et al, 2004). With empirical methods come advantages and disadvantages. Empirical methods help people understand and respond more appropriately to the dynamics f situations.
They can also help build on what is already known. Since people are fallible by nature, empirical methods, therefore, help these people get rid of their methods is that when experiments are observable, they are able to be confirmed and therefore easily replicated. A disadvantage of this method is if the experiment is short-run and not done enough times it results in an invalid conclusion. There have been a lot of critiques to these methods in the past. Gould stated that ???Great scientists… re distinguished by their powers of hunch and synthesis than by their skill in experiment and observation” (Mende, 2005).
According to Mende (2005) “Empirical methods merely enabled Galileo to discover the law of falling, whereas theoretical methods enabled Newton to discover the theory of Mechanics”. Empirical methods continue to be practiced in geography today. While empiricism has lost a lot of its power nowadays, empirical methods are still important in geographical research. An example of how this method is used is the Bruun Rule. This rule is the rediction that the shoreline of sandy coasts will retreat and the sea level will rise (lcm rise to 0. 5m retreat).
This rule is used worldwide even though it has some problems. Another example of an empirical method is ‘quantitative research’ and it refers to the scientific investigation of quantitative properties and their relationships by using statistical methods. It includes the development of spatial theory and mathematical models of spatial processes. It can be used to recommend a final course of action, project results to a larger population, identify and size market egments and test specific hypotheses and examine specific relationships.
Quantitative research is still used to this day. To sum up, empiricism existed in geography in the past but now it’s pretty much inexistent. However, empirical methods continue to be used as they are structured and free of biases. Although “there are few skills more important in intellectual growth than the development of the ability to ‘see what’s there” (Cloke et al, 2004), a structured approach is still required with proper knowledge of the under-lying theory.