TOPOGRAPHY (Social Science)

Translated literally from its Greek roots of topos (place) and graphein (to write), topography means "the writing of place." In modern usage, however, the term has taken on more complex significance. As J. Hillis Miller notes (1995, p. 3), the term has come to refer to both the practice of accurate, scientific representation of particular places on the earth’s surface and the actual configuration of those places. In social science, topographies (both representational and actual) are of interest to researchers investigating relationships between societies and local environments. Such studies are common within the disciplines of geography, anthropology, archaeology, and sociology, and are sometimes found within economics and political science. As the diversity of disciplines with topographical interests reveals, the term topography addresses a fundamental aspect of human experience (place) and thus serves as a foundational category around which social inquiry can be organized.

The dominant modern usage of the term has been in reference to the material configuration of places on the earth’s surface, typically with an emphasis on physical geography rather than the built environment. As Robert Christopherson makes clear (2002, p. 338), topographical studies based upon this emphasis are marked by the observation and recording of landscape features such as hill and mountain relief (dramatic or modest), slope angles (shallow or steep), drainage patterns (wetlands and rivers), and terrain characteristics (rugged or smooth, vegetated or barren) for specific locales. The goal of such studies is to define regional topographies (in the material sense) and provide the environmental knowledge (through representation) needed to facilitate land use decisions appropriate to specific social and economic goals. For instance, as Scott Kirsch (2002) outlines in an essay on John Wesley Powell’s (1834-1902) survey of the Colorado Plateau and surrounding area in the 1870s, in the late nineteenth century the U.S. government was keen to gain knowledge of the arid region of the American West so that land and resource use decisions could be made for an expanding nation. In particular, Powell was charged with ascertaining the irrigation potential of the region for agrarian settlement. Due to the undulating and arid topography, he argued, the grid system of land allotment typical of the Midwestern United States was not suited to the area. Instead, he recommended that all lots should abut water sources, even if that resulted in the alienation of land in irregular shapes. By observing and recording the characteristics of the physical geography of the region and combining the information for presentation in cartographic form, Powell’s work provided distant decision makers with knowledge of local environmental conditions, thereby enabling the setting of social policies regarding land allocation and resource rights. Of course, this relationship between topographical information and land and resource use marks a variety of enterprises and activities. From hikers’ use of maps to navigate mountain ranges to military officers’ use of electronic geographical information to locate specific place-based threats and targets, understanding the material arrangement of the physical environment of certain locales is central to decision making and interaction with places.


While modern topographical studies have tended to focus on the material configuration of places on the earth’s surface in order to facilitate land and resource use, this has not been an exclusive orientation. The term topography has been seized upon by a variety of researchers in the social sciences and humanities who are interested in place-based human experience. The humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1974) has written about the centrality of place to human experience, the appreciation of which he terms topophilia. Eugene V Walter, in an attempt to formulate a more general understanding of humans’ physiological attachment to place, has proposed the study of topisitics as a "framework to grasp the whole experience of space and place" (1988, p. 18). Asserting that "topostic inquiry seeks theories that represent and explain forces that make or break the integrity of located experience" (p. 18), Walter seeks to emphasize that places are more than the sum of their material components and that people’s interactions with places form a central front in inquiries into both environments and the human mind. And, in his work on the relationship between literature, philosophy, and place, Miller (1995, p. 4) deploys the term topography to question how particular ways of knowing places have been inserted into modern Western epistemologies through language. Noting that in modern usage topography shifts between signifying representations of places and signifying actual characteristics of places, he highlights the connections between the production of knowledge about places and the experience of them. In different ways, then, these authors and others have moved understandings of topographies beyond concern for merely the material configuration of places and instead highlighted the multiplicity of ways in which humans become attached to and interact with places.

In an essay that brings together the human and physical aspects of place through a historical materialist approach, Cindi Katz argues for a conceptualization of topography as the sociomaterial terrain produced by an ever-globalizing capitalism. She insists that topographical studies "encompass the processes that produce landscapes as much as they do the landscapes themselves, making clear the social nature of nature and the material grounds of social life" (2001, p. 720). Further, Katz argues, the production of topographies "simultaneously turns on, reveals, and specifies the intricate relations among discrete places." As such, topographical studies "can provide literal and figurative grounds for developing a critique of the social and political-economic relations sedimented into space and for examining the range of social practices through which place is produced" (pp. 720-721). Ultimately, Katz points out that this framework enables the development of a series of countertopographies. She envisions these as "linking different places analytically in order to both develop the contours of common struggles and imagine a different kind of practical response to problems confronting them" (p. 722). In combination, Katz’s conceptualization of topographies and countertopogra-phies provides a resource for critical analyses of place that takes seriously the impacts of political and economic history in shaping local terrain.


As is evident from this survey, topography is a malleable and widely used term. With its focus on place and human understanding of it, the term and the studies organized around it are central to a comprehensive pursuit of social science. Whether material, social, or both, topographies (both representation and actual) mediate the lives people lead and help to define the places in which they are lived.

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