Is Geography an Independent Discipline?

Why is Ratzel's geography regarded so central for the development of the discipline? In order to answer this question, an investigation into the broader academic context in which anthropogeography evolved is insightful. During the last third of the nineteenth-century, that is, by the time Ratzel was appointed as an academic geographer in Germany, geography underwent its insti tutionalization as an academic discipline. Although geography had been taught at universities for a long time before, the respective scholars had not been 'professionalized', that is, they did not have chairs in academic geography. This situation changed after 1870 when ''the young German national state under Prussian hegemony sought to educate loyal citizens'' (Brogiato, 2004: 53) and, therefore, promoted school subjects with a nationalistic bias, like history, German language, and literature or geography. As a consequence of the discipline's academic institutionalization, the question arose of how to delineate the new subject from already existent ones.

In order to legitimize geography as a true science with a distinct object of study, many scholars, at least in Germany, focused on the surface of Earth which was supposed to be explained in causal terms and by genetic arguments. As a consequence, geomorphology became the central approach, making Ferdinand von Richthofen one of the most important figures of this time. Richthofen, who had studied geology, defined geography as ''the science of the earth's surface and the phenomena which are causally and reciprocally related to the former'' (Richthofen, 1883: 5, transl. JL). Due to the natural scientific character of their frameworks, the time of Richthofen and like minded colleagues, for example, Oscar Peschel, is referred to as the 'geological period' of geography as an academic discipline.

It is in the context of the 'geological period' that the significance of Ratzel's geography becomes obvious. Ratzel, too, sought to justify the newly institutionalized discipline, reasoning about its position among other fields. In the opening pages of Anthropogeographie, he asks: ''Is geography actually nothing more than a heap of twigs effectively belonging to other trees that have been thrown together for (y) practical reasons, and are there boundaries to be drawn capable of separating geography sharply from neighbouring disciplines? Put differently, is geography an independent discipline?'' (Ratzel, 1882: 16). The latter question, however, seems to be of rather rhetorical character, since Ratzel makes it clear that, to him, geography enjoys a very privileged viewpoint to explore the world: ''And this viewpoint is the synopsis of the earth's surface and the life that belongs to it as whole combined by the most manifold reciprocal relations'' (Ratzel, 1882: 17).

Compared to many of his colleagues, Ratzel thus paid greater attention to the 'human factor', that is, to the relations between mankind and nature or the Earth's surface. ''Ratzel's innovation,'' Wolfgang Natter puts it, ''was to have developed a perspective for researching the reciprocal historical geographical development of humans and their social, cultural and political emplacements in relation to the earth's surface'' (Natter, 2005: p. 179). By putting ''humans back into the systematic pursuit of a general geography'' (ibid.), Ratzel's anthropogeography challenged the discipline's preoccupation with geology and physical geography more generally as it had been developed in the writings of scholars like Richthofen or Peschel. As one observer noted in Petermanns Mitteilungen: ''The publication of the second edition of the first volume of Ratzel's anthropogeography clearly indicates that the days in which geography was inclined to bend itself completely towards the side of the natural sciences, or indeed to become a branch of geol ogy, are over'' (Hahn, 1900: 140).