Berkeley School

Defining the Berkeley School

The Berkeley School is a collective term applied to the geographers and their publications that emanated from the work of Carl Sauer (quod vide) and the colleagues and postgraduate students taught by him during his long term as head of the department of geography at Berkeley from 1923 to 1955. By extension it must also include those taught by Jim Parsons, a student and colleague of Sauer’s, and subsequently head of the department from 1960 to 1966 and from 1975 to 1979.

A hint of the flavor of the ‘School’ comes from the names of some of the 27 postgraduates who completed their PhDs under Sauer. They included Homer Aschmann, Robert Bowman, Jan Broek, Henry Bruman, Andrew Clark, George Carter, Leslie Hewes, Fred Kniffen, John Leighly, Marvin Mikesell, Jim Parsons, Joseph Spencer, Fred Simoons, David Sopher, Dan Stanislawski, Philip Wagner, and Wilber Zelinsky. Of the 38 PhD recipients under Parsons, we can include William Denevan, Robin Doughty, David Harris, Paul Starrs, Thomas Veblen, Bert Wallach, and Karl Zimmerer. Kindred spirits come in the names of David Lowenthal who received his Master’s degree at Berkeley, Yi Fu Tuan who received his PhD in geomorphology under Kesselli, and Clarence Glacken, the author of the unsurpassed and magisterial Traces on the Rhodian Shore (1967), written when a member of the department and thoroughly enmeshed in the Sauer tradition, though with the new dimension of classical scholarship. The School could be said to have ended with the death of Parsons in 1997, or perhaps sooner with his last PhD in 1994, or it may have lingered on until Barney Nietschmann’s death in 2000.

Sauer had an original, independent, and wide ranging mind, and did not adopt a doctrinal position and expect his students to tread a ‘narrow path’. But it was inevitable that they were influenced by his broad horizons and attitudes, especially as he encouraged them to take courses in kindred departments like biology, plant sciences, anthropology, Latin American history, and palaeography, as well as foreign languages in order to read German, French, and Spanish geographical and historical works in the original. They were made well aware of the antiquity and continuity of geography. Moreover, he was an inspiring and persuasive teacher and supervisor. Consequently, they focused on the relationship between human communities and the natural world, investigating the transformations of the natural landscape into cultural landscapes, especially in Mexico and Lower California, with American Indian cultural survivals, plant and animal domestication and diffusion. There was an emphasis on the elements of material culture that gave character to an area. None focused on Sauer’s other and later interests, for which he is probably more well known, such as land degradation, the entry of early man into the Americas, global plant and animal domestication, or the impoverishment of the cultural and natural environment through colonial expansion, and modern imperialism.

His lifelong colleague in Berkeley, John Leighly, said that he ‘‘always disclaimed any intention of founding a ‘school’ or of shaping students over a common last. He expected the individual to find his own objects of interest and his own ways of satisfying his curiosity.’’ Jim Parsons said, ‘‘There was no ‘program’, no formal requirements that graduate students were aware ofy. We were on our own, an assorted group of aspiring scholars immersed in our work, seldom questioning or concerned about how geography might be defined by others.’’ All this was perfectly in accord with Sauer’s deeply held conviction that the individual scholar knew best what questions were worth asking. What Sauer did require, however, was that ‘a thesis must have a thesis’; in other words, it could not be an endless compilation of facts (an important consideration in the regionally orientated geography of the 1920s–50s) but must formulate a problem or unanswered question, the solution to which came through thorough archival work and field work to see what the landscape and its inhabitants offered. Parsons was even more freewheeling than Sauer (if that were possible), and equally concerned with subjects in cultural and historical geography, the human impact on the environments, biogeography, and especially Latin America, but with a far greater emphasis on the contemporary.

The catholicity of the School is emphasized by the fact that it contained studies on urban geography by John Leighly and Warren Thornthwaite, and ranged in location well away from Mexico and Baja California and into, for example, New Zealand (Andrew Clark), Southeast Asia (David Sopher), Morocoo (Marvin Mikesell), Ethiopia (Fred Simoons), and KenyaTanzania (Lee Talbot), together with five studies in and around the Caribbean. The commonality of these studies was characterized as much by their nontheoretical approach, intellectual initiative, direct observation, and ‘a good honest job of reporting’ as by topic. All were major works of scholarship that synthesized impacts of humans on the environment.

Sauer’s Ideas

The importance and influence of the School was out of all proportion to the work actually done. It has been suggested by Cole Harris that this was partly because Sauer and his associates were among the very few groups who cultivated ‘an intellectual environment that kept the past open’ in American geography during its antihistorical, regional, and positivist decades. It is difficult to pigeonhole Sauer and be sure of his methodology because he seems to dart about the geographical scene like some intellectual Voortrekker who moved on when he saw the other man’s methodological smoke. He recog nized his own shifting position; ‘‘I have the idiosyncrasy that once having written something I do not refer to it again myself, except to refresh my mind as to statements of factyI thus escape commitment to previous opinions and conclusions of mine and am therefore not obliged to defend my past self,’’ he told Kinvig in 1953.

The ‘idiosyncrasy’ was not difficult to understand. Like any contemplative and wide reading scholar of worth, he clarified, extended, and redefined his ideas during the long 64 writing years of his 85 years of life. Thus his own continuing intellectual development, together with his distaste for the increasing professionalization of American academic life, and disenchantment with aspects of American society and world events, all affected his writing. The world and its many questions were simply too exciting and interesting to commit oneself to a single approach over a long period. Second, he disliked methodological writing. He told Richard Hartshorne that he was not competent in, nor did he like, logic and its application in dialectics. Any such writing he did was pragmatic; merely a ‘sort of habilitation’, in order to work his way through a literature and draw attention to topics that were worth looking at.

Nevertheless, he wrote so authoritatively and engagingly that one of his earliest ‘habilitations’, ‘Morphology of landscape’ (1925), which was basically a rebuttal of the then prevailing environmental determinism as an explanation to human action, set American human geography off on a new road of exploration. ‘Morphology’ has been taken by some as the hallmark statement of the Berkeley School, especially its oft quoted dictum, ‘‘the cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a culture group.’’ But it is doubtful if any students other than perhaps Jan Broek in his study of the Santa Clara Valley, California, ever attempted to do simply that. Sauer was far more concerned that his students engaged in voyage of discovery and exhibited curiosity, restricted only by competence, as to what a landscape offered, and employ a methodological pluralism. ‘Morphology’ certainly emphasized the role of culture(s) in the landscape, and was probably the first introduction of the German concept of a ‘cultural geography’ into the English speaking world.

But the most abiding characteristic of the School was its emphasis on human processes of change – ‘evolutionistic’, ‘genetic’, and ‘historical’ were all words that he used to describe this. His ‘Foreword to historical geography’ (1941) was another of his ‘successive orientations’ as he pursued his wider theme of the study of humans on earth through time. For Sauer, all geography was essentially historical, and human geography had little meaning and few valid labels unless it dealt with cultural origins, and the mechanisms of their spread, growth, and extinction. Parsons confirms that ‘morphology’ was seldom referred to in Berkeley, least of all by Sauer, who was convinced that several Midwestern geographers must have spent more time reading it than he had in writing it. It saddened him that few seemed to have taken equal notice of his substantive historical works on Baja California and Mexico that had more thoroughly engaged him throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Indeed, it was Sauer’s discovery of the Hispanic lands to the south, and his cooperation with the anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, which gave his work and that of the students who accompanied him in the field such a marked Central American tinge. These included Peveril Meigs (1932), Donald Brand (1933), Henry Bruman (1940), George Carter (1942), Dan Stanislawski (1944), Robert West (1946), Philip Wagner (1954), Homer Aschmann (1954), and Brigham Arnold (1954).

After 1954, Sauer tended to switch focus when he became the advisor to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and used its funds to support postgraduate work in the Caribbean and surrounding lands, for example, Edwin Doran (1953), Burton Gordon (1954), Gordon Merrill (1957), Donald Innes (1958), and Carl Johannessen (1959).

The Parsons Era

It was inevitable that every one of those students who passed out under Sauer took something of his approach and attitude with them. Some went on to found prestigious postgraduate departments of their own, for example, Fred Kniffen in Louisiana State University, and, particularly, Andrew Clark at Madison, Wisconsin, who employed a very similar attitude to Sauer on the importance of the historical approach and the need for cross disciplinary approaches. The roll call of his students is impressive in its own right and included Roy Merrens (1962), David Ward (1963), Cole Harris (1964), James Lemon (1964), Terry Jordan (1965), Sam Hilliard (1966), Jim Gibson (1967), Clarissa Kimber (1969), and Robert Mitchell (1969). But to include them within the definition of the Berkeley ‘School’ would be tenuous and misleading.

However, the students that emanated from the teaching of Jim Parsons, a graduate student of Sauer’s, who completed his work on the colonization of western Colombia in 1948, and stayed on in Berkeley as professor and then head of department, are well within the definition of the Berkeley School.

Parsons admired Sauer but had too independent a mind to be his intellectual clone. He certainly did work on ancient agricultural systems, agricultural origins and dispersions, but these were not the main emphases of his work. Parsons’ studies were generally focused on the present, but with a good appreciation of what had gone before to produce that ‘present’. He also encouraged a more ‘cultural ecological’ approach. Prolonged field research, far greater in breadth and depth than Sauer’s, in a variety of locations and environments was a hallmark of his work, as was also his tendency in later years to return to old field sites in order to chart changes and transformations. A good example of his innovative approach was his 1972 paper ‘Spread of African pasture grasses to the American Tropics’. The beginning was pure Sauer in that it traced the origins and spread of Guinea, Para[/], Molasses, Jaragua[/], Kikuyu, and Pagola grasses from Africa to Latin America from the seventeenth century onward. But the conclusion was ground breaking as the paper was probably the first alarm call about the extent and rapidity of Central and Latin American tropical deforestation, about 20 years before the term ‘tropical deforestation’ had even been coined and became the ‘hot’ environmental topic it is today.

‘‘The once limitless forests of humid tropical America are rapidly being converted to grass,’’ he said, and drawing on the changes he had seen on his many field visits in previous decades he continued,

Where once stood great tracts of lowland forest along the Pan American Highway in Mexico and Central America, on the northern coast of Colombia, on the Andean spurs of eastern Venezuela, in the interior of Brazil, on the islands of the Greater Antilles today one sees pasture lands stretching to the horizon, interrupted only by scattered palms, remnant woodlots or rows of trees planted originally as live fences. (Parsons, 1972: 12 17)

Outstanding geographical contributions from his stu dents came from David Harris (1963) on plant domesti cation and biogeography, William Denevan (1963) on agricultural systems in the Americas, Thomas Veblen (1975) on biogeography, and Karl Zimmerer (1988) on cultural and political ecology, rural land use and development, and the Andes, and there were many more.

The Berkeley School and Cultural Geography

During the 1980s, a reaction occurred in which the scholarship and striking achievements of the Berkeley School were belittled. A false and unnecessary contrast was made between Berkeley’s ‘traditional’ cultural geography and the ‘new’ cultural geography of the post 1970s as the new cultural geography defined itself in part by contrast with what went before. The Berkeley School was typified as empiricist, parochial, obsessed with relict artifacts, and having an antiquarian ‘object fetchism’ in landscapes, and not concerned with the inner workings of culture. It was also represented as ossified and showing little variation over the years, with little concern for indigenous landscape interpretation and contemporary change. Only occasionally were its multiple concerns with environmental problems and human ecological processes acknowledged. Its political overtone was said to be conservative if not reactionary. The new cultural geography, on the other hand, proclaimed that it was all that the old was not, and more concerned with patterns of significance in the landscape and the reflexive role in moulding social relations on the spatial patterns of race, class, and gender.

In a spirited rebuttal of this ‘reinvention’ of cultural geography Price and Lewis (1993: 1–17) showed how the Berkeley School had been, in their words, ‘‘subjected to misrepresentation,’’ ‘‘selective amnesia,’’ and ‘‘gross generalization.’’ Equally, they showed that the general izations did scant justice to the variations and innovations in the School. In particular, they demolished the charge of ‘object fetichism’ by showing how few of Sauer’s students actually focused on artifacts. From a list of 1148 articles by Sauer’s students in Sixty Years of Berkeley Geography, only 49 (or 4.3%) are concerned with artifacts in a narrow sense. If the works of Kniffen and Doran are excluded, the number drops to a mere 2.5%. Other departments in the United States, totally unconnected to Berkeley, adopted the artifactual approach, and even contemporary cultural geographers in any continent did not neglect houses, fields, barns, shopping malls, memorials, and the like.

Another forgotten factor in the criticism of artifacts is that Sauer’s concept of a human artifact included plants and animals, and human modifications of landscape, and it emphasized the interrelationships between humankind and the environment. In later years, Sauer’s interests moved more from the past to the present, and even to the future, which gave him ‘the cold horrors’. In the concluding sentences of his Bowman lectures on Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (1952), he pointed out that humans would for ever remain part of the organic world and therefore needed to develop a respect and understanding for nature.

yas we intervene more and more decisively to change the balance and nature of life, we have also more need to know, by retrospective study, the responsibilities and hazards of our present prospects as lords of creation. (Sauer, 1952)

Also, Sauer’s conservatism must not be confused with simplistic political meanings of that word. He was convinced (and with good reason) that academic life was becoming overbureaucratized, and that individual curiosity in research was being supplanted by social engineering and complex research programs dreamt up by social science theorists distant from the places and people studied. The individual was being squashed. Similarly, his distrust of Eurocentric viewpoints led to a prescient appreciation of, for example, the true magnitude and diversity of the New World population numbers. Although regarded initially with suspicion, the point about ‘ecological imperialism’ causing massive population decline in the western hemisphere is now generally accepted. Again, his insistence on the primacy and persistence of the role of fire in altering landscapes is now firmly embedded in ecological thinking. Finally, Sauer’s rejection of modernity and capitalist development was deeply felt, and during the 1950s he went on record voicing the then wholly revolutionary idea that capacity to produce and capacity to consume were the twin spirals of the new age that had no foreseeable end. He also had a distaste for the elimination of durable native systems of living in the name of progress. These fears align him more clearly with modern day radical environmentalists than with the conservatives.

Since Price and Lewis’s article, the pendulum has swung again, and while the new cultural geography certainly has, and still, defines itself in part by contrasting itself with what went before, few contemporary practitioners would now entirely disown the contributions of the Berkeley School.

Parsons’s contribution and those of his students has been entirely underestimated when analyzing the Berkeley School. Two thirds of the 36 PhDs supervised by Parsons were based on field studies in nonwestern countries, and transcended any Eurocentric perception. Some have mentioned already but many pioneered a new variation of Berkeley human–environment geography in the form of ‘cultural ecology’. This was a profound move, not wholly by the later Berkeley group to be sure (others were Carl Butzer and Harold Brookfield) but one which maintained the Sauerian landscape and historical interests but refocused them within a more scientific framework. This approach emphasized micro level studies of human adaptation and their cultural contexts, but also used theory to informed problems, systematic data collection, and attempted to contribute to general concepts and explanations. Prominent among the Berkeley graduates in this innovative approach were Bill Denevan (and his student Billy Lee Turner) and Karl Zimmerer. Additionally, studies founded on political issues, which had been absent from the work of the older Sauerian students, loom large in John Wright’s and Paul Starr’s works on the political economy of the Rockies and western states.


If we accept Billy Lee Turner’s recent conceptualization that geography’s ‘contested identities’ have fluctuated around variants of two basic approaches that have dominated the field during the twentieth century – (1) the spatial–chorological and (2) the human–environment – then the Berkeley School in all its different developments and manifestation is firmly a major component and practitioner of the latter. One can certainly agree with Pierce and Lewis that Pred’s judgment that cultural geography should cast aside ‘‘the heavy ballast of Sauer influenced landscape study’’ which must be seen for what it is, a premature and needlessly bitter, and surprisingly naı¨ve, view of what the individual members of the loosely defined Berkeley School were doing. A perusal of many of the theses emanating from the Berkeley department during recent years and deposited in the departmental library show that the gulf is nowhere as great as supposed. Making allowances for the changes that 75 years would make to any subject, the commonalities are closer than suspected. One most not fall into the all too common trap that anything old in geography (say before 1960) is worthless.

Even if some geographers find the Berkeley ethos and emphasis does not answer their questions, we can be sure that environmental historians have grasped its themes with both hands and find it helps to explain the complexities of a modern world. Sauer’s project of elucidating the cultural landscape, suggests Livingstone, was ‘‘as much as anything else, an exercise in moral recovery. It was a double directed vision – back to the wisdom of the past and forward to posterity.’’ Sauer’s plea at the end of his contribution to Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (1956) that ‘‘what we need yy is an ethic and aesthetic under which man, practicing the qualities of prudence and moderation, may indeed pass on to posterity a good earth’’ has (the gendered language aside) a decidedly contemporary and relevant ring to it.