Preliminary Thoughts on Region and Period

by David Wishart


"The implication of periodization [regionalization] is that particular chunks of time [space] contain a certain unity, in that events, attitudes, values, social hierarchies within the chosen 'period' [region] seem to be closely integrated with each other, to share common features, and that there are identifiable points of change when a 'period' [region] defined in this way gives way to a new period [region]. (Marwick, 1998:5, with geographic equivalents added.)

It is strange how two such similar generalizations, region and period, have been subjected to such different degrees of reflection in their respective disciplines. The division of seamless space into regions-portions of the earth's surface that have discernibly distinctive characteristics which set them apart from other regions-has a vast epistemological literature in Geography: there are natural regions, defined by climate or soils, for example; nodal regions, involving circulation around a focal point, such as trade areas; vernacular regions that exist in peoples' minds as regional consciousness and which may or may not coincide with regions recognized by geographers as they practice regionalization; and, most closely analogous to periods, there are specific, or unique, regions (New England or the Great Plains, for example) which are the product of human interactions with a physical environment over time. There have also been endless debates over the properties of regions, their core areas and, especially, their boundaries.

The idea of region is so foundational to the practice of Geography that for about two decades following the publication of Richard Hartshorne's The Nature of Geography in 1939 most geographers agreed that the "ultimate purpose" of Geography was to describe and explain the "areal differentiation of the world" as expressed in regions (468). This ideographic view of Geography-focusing on the unique-eventually gave way to theory and an emphasis on similarities, rather than differences but regional geography is still central to the field: in recent years many geographers, informed by social theory, see regions as products of large scale political, social, and economic forces worked out locally in different expressions (Murphy 1991:29).

By contrast, the division of seamless time into periods-portions of human history that have discernibly distinctive characteristics which set them apart from other periods-has until recently been a largely unexamined assumption in History-as Morris puts it: "periodization, so central to historical practice, but so little discussed" (Morris 1997:97).

Periodization is not only central to historical practice but also unavoidable because, like regionalization in Geography, periodization makes understanding possible by managing complexity through classification. Period was inherent in Historicism, the interpretation of each era on its own terms, rather than by imposition of theories from the present: here, each period is unique, akin to the uniqueness of the geographer's specific region. In the New Historicism, in a similar trend to recent theorization of region in Geography, period becomes the setting for discourses, or particular ways of formulating knowledge, especially involving the exercise of power (Golden and Toohey, 1997: 4-5).

Still, despite the acknowledged centrality to their craft, historians for the most part continue to avoid "thinking of the forces that shape the act of periodization" (Morris 1997:131). There is no entry on period, for example, in Munslow's postmodernist dictionary of historical concepts, and Berkhofer's analysis of recent changes in historiography, while giving some attention to periodization as a "form of emplotment," does not deal with the underlying logic and assumptions (Munslow 2000; Berkhofer 1995:133-5). In fact, Berkhofer admits that the topic has rarely been broached (2002).

Many historians, wary of epistemological soul-searching, will argue that this is the way it ought to remain, and they might point out that geographers, more social-science-like, are sure to spend more time on such issues than humanists. But both geographers and historians have urged the "problematization" (sorry about the word, and some of the others too!) of, respectively, regionalization and periodization, while continuing to maintain their essential importance to conducting their trades (Strauss 1997:175; Agnew 1999). Perhaps this "problematization" can be achieved by reflecting on the similarities (mainly) between region and period, and then by entertaining different ways of regionalizing and periodizing, resulting in new possibilities for narratives.


Both regions and periods are intellectual concepts, and although the raw materials for their construction exist, on the ground and in time, they cannot be said to exist as wholes in any real sense. This is what geographer Donald Meinig is getting at in the following quote, to which I have added the historical equivalents:

Regions [periods] are abstractions, they exist in our minds. As a form of territoriality [temporality] they can become imbued with emotion and influence our actions, but we are using them first of all as tools of thought, as means of analysis and synthesis (Meinig 1978:1202).

As intellectual concepts, regions and periods will be characterized differently in different eras and by different interpreters, though presumably the places and times they enfold have an empirical reality. The Great Plains, for example, was variously described as a Garden and a Desert by early European and American explorers, partly because different parts of the region were encountered and at different times, but mainly because the Spaniards, British, French, and Americans brought specific expectations to, and harbored specific plans for, the area (Allen 1993). Certainly the Lakotas, who colonized the rich bison plains of present-day South Dakota in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, would have been astounded at Stephen Long's characterization of the region as the "Great American Desert."

Similarly, Morris, in his study of the period of ancient Greek history from 1200 to 700 BCE-centuries which, since 1890, have been regarded by scholars as a single period and variously characterized as a "Dark Age" or an "Heroic Age"-concludes that the periodization has less to do with hard evidence than with changing "disciplinary structures and professional goals of classicists." He concludes:

In periodizing the past, scholars necessarily bring the data, as they perceive them, within systems of thought that are generated outside those data. There is nothing in the evidence to itself to tell us what is important, nor to tell us what themes to group our facts around and to use as the basis for drawing lines through time (Morris 1997:129).

But surely regions and periods are experienced by their inhabitants as a consciousness of belonging, giving the place and time a degree of existence in reality? Vernacular regions exist in the minds of their inhabitants and find expression on the landscape and in everyday life in many ways, including architecture, place names, and foodways. Brownell has recognized such a region in the "Cultural Midwest," and Jordan has identified a mosaic of "Perceptual Regions" in Texas (Brownell 1960; Jordan 1978). The problem is, such regions may have little to do with scholars' regionalization schemes, which are based upon both more and less knowledge of the area being categorized. Brownell's Midwest, for example, consumes a great deal of the region that other scholars have labeled the Great Plains. Moreover, different qualities are ascribed to perceptual regions, meaning that they are not the same place for all residents. For some, an attachment to the Great Plains is intense, the result, perhaps, of a feeling of accomplishment from forging a life in a challenging land, while for others, particularly young people, it is a no-prospect place to flee as soon as possible.

Similarly, a period like the 1960s, readily recognizable by those who lived through it and by image ever since, carries a very different connotation for different groups of people: for some it was a time of emancipation from societal structures; for others it was the decline of all that was moral and secure. There is no simple "periodism" here, no evidence that the sixties had a distinctive reality separate from its invention as an intellectual concept.

As intellectual concepts, period and region have some analogous properties. Events, referenced by dates, are the basic building blocks of periods, and locations referenced by co-ordinates, are the building blocks of regions. Geographers have also identified other structural properties of regions. In his study of the "Mormon Culture Region," Meinig recognized a core, where Mormon population and ways of life predominated, which graded out through a domain to a sphere as Mormon influence declined (Meinig 1955). (This is incidently, a useful way to regionalize some Native American territories, from a village core through a hunting domain to a trading and raiding periphery, all reflecting decreasing intensity of occupancy.) Periods can be structured in a similar manner. Arguably the core of the 1960s, defined selectively as an era of youthful exuberance, was from about 1963 to about 1968, beginning with the year when British bands first dominated the American charts and ending with the decline of Haight Asbury from the summer of love (1967) into a heroin epidemic. The peripheries of the sixties, of course (again selectively defined), might be extended well back into the 1950s, to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and continued up to the present in the form of classic rock stations on the radio. (In his book, Marwick adopts a "long sixties" period, beginning with accumulating social changes in 1958 and ending with the oil crisis and withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973) (Marwick 1998:7).

 Figure 1: Fifty Versions of the Great Plains, Source: Rossum and Lavin 2000

Figure 1:
Fifty Versions of the Great Plains
Source: Rossum and Lavin 2000

 Figure 2: The Great Plains, Source: Wishart 2003

Figure 2:
The Great Plains.
Source: Wishart 2003

Which brings us to the issue of boundaries, marking the edges of regions and periods, on which there is rarely agreement. Take a look at Rossum and Lavin's map (Fig. 1) of Great Plains boundaries, based on fifty previously published maps of the region (Rossum and Lavin 2000). A core is identifiable, though it is a diminished Plains region, but there is no clear limit, only a tangle of boundaries extending over hundreds of miles. Called upon by the National Endowment of the Humanities to define the Great Plains region before they would fund an encyclopedia, I fell back on a postmodern concoction, constructing a boundary on political, physiographic, cultural, and climatic grounds (Fig. 2). The boundary can be justified, but no other regionalizer would likely duplicate it exactly (Wishart 2003).

Setting temporary boundaries around periods is similarly subjective, though less debated (the very act of putting geographic boundaries on maps gives them a prominence and a false authority). Historians and others often use such abstractions as decades and centuries, the latter lampooned by D. H. Fischer as "hectohistory" (Fischer 1971:145). The analogue in Geography would be a region delimited solely by latitude and longitude. Fischer also takes to task single issue periods, named after a presidential administration for example-(the "Clinton Years")-then used to characterize an entire era. But even periods, and their limits, that are defended on logical grounds can be challenged because of their inherent subjectivity. For example, the critic John Berger recently proclaimed a new period-the period of American supreme power and invulnerability-which began precisely on August 6, 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima and ended in another city of smoke and ashes on September 11, 2001 (The Guardian, June 29, 2002:18). It is risky to end a period when events are ongoing and, moreover, I for one certainly didn't feel invulnerable during the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War.

There are other similarities between region and period. They both emphasize differences rather than similarities, ruptures rather than continuities. The Great Plains region might, for example, be identified as a region because of its marginal rainfall, its rolling and sometimes flat topography, its late settlement by European Americans, and the vital importance of the railroad to that settlement process, among many other factors. But Great Plains residents watch the same television programs as other Americans, they experience much the same urban landscapes, and they consume through the same franchises. And while the 1960s can indeed be recognized as a period of revolutionary change, continuity-the Cold War, military engagement in Southeast Asia, domestic prosperity, and the dominance of males in political and economic spheres-was also the order of the day. In this sense then, regionalizing space and periodizing time, while enabling the practice of Geography and History, also distort, because differences are easier to identify than similarities.

Both region and period have limited scope as generalizations. Regions have a limited time span: Eastern Europe, for example, was a relevant regional designation only from 1945 to about 1980, the period of Soviet control. Before that, Poles, Czechs, and Roumanians looked westward for shared identities, and, within a few years, they will be reincorporated into the body of Europe as members of the European Union. Periods have a limited geographic span: the Renaissance, for example, was not experienced in China or India. Moreover, according to feminist historian Joan Kelly, it was not experienced by women in Europe either. In Kelly's opinion, as the transition was made from medieval feudal society to the early modern state, women faced a "loss of public power and new constraints on their social and personal lives" (Kelly 1986:47). This led Kelly to propose that "one of the tasks of women's history is to call into question accepted schemes of periodization." (Kelly 1986:19).

There is one significant way, at least, in which regions and period differ. Periods are past, and the reality they purport to represent cannot, in itself, be altered; regions are both past and present and are being actively shaped by institutional forces and by human agency-as the Marxist geographer David Harvey puts it, "the geographic mosaic has always been in motion at all scales" (Harvey 2000:79). Of course, periods change too, as different questions are asked of the past, but that's a function of changing historical interpretation, not of changing historical reality.

Alternative Narratives

Following Kelly's lead, I'm proposing two alternative narratives based on new ways of dividing up space and time. The first involves periodizing Native American dispossession, the second offers a different way to regionalize world geography.

An examination of the newly published and seminal Plains volume of the Handbook of North American Indians (2001) reveals that for all their knowledge of Native American societies, the contributing scholars mainly encase their ethnographies in periods that are derived from American, not indigenous, realities. There are different degrees of disjuncture. In the worst cases the narratives are divided into decades or centuries, as if those abstractions meant anything to Plains Indians (or to anyone else for that matter). Then there are divisions according to significant dates in American history, such as 1803, when Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States. Eventually the imposition of American sovereignty would mean something (loss of lands, loss of population, loss of aspects of culture, and so on), but at the time 1803 meant nothing to the Pawnees. The year 1831 did: that was the turning point in Pawnee history, when their population was cut in half by smallpox, leaving them vulnerable to the Lakotas and beginning a long decline that would take almost a century to reverse. Or, to give another example, an Omaha historian might choose the years 1888 and 1989 as decisive dates and periodize accordingly: the first was when their Sacred Pole, the charter of the Omaha nation, was removed to the Peabody Museum; the second marked its return.

 Figure 3: Periodizing Native American History - A Model

Figure 3:
Periodizing Native American History - A Model

 In a broader sense, a periodization sensitive to the actual conditions of Plains Indian history might use demographic stages as its logic. A population graph of Plains Indian societies from the eighteenth century to the present is like a barometer, the line charting the changing prevailing conditions of life. Based on a number of case studies, four general stages of population change can be seen, with the specific dates varying from place to place according to the onset of contact with European Americans and the pace of destruction of the Indians' resource base (Fig. 3).

In stage one, which for the Pawnees, for example, would have been the time before about 1750 (a time for which there are few records, making this generalization quite an assumption), life may have had a stability punctuated by reversals brought on by climatic change and, even then, catastrophic epidemic disease introduced from mainly distant Europeans and Americans. But an intact resource base, including bison, and a well-functioning social and religious system, meant that populations could recover from reversals and even thrive for long periods of time.

For the Pawnees, the second period, extending from the middle of the eighteenth century to about 1840 was one of increasingly close contact with Spaniards, French, and Americans, bringing more frequent epidemic disease. Rapid population declines were followed by equally rapid recoveries, because the resource base was still intact and the traditional systems that regulated life still worked. For Plains Indians further to the west, this stage, or period, ended a few decades later.

In the third period, which for the Pawnees and, indeed, most Native Americans, ended in the first two decades of the twentieth century, populations plummeted. Even when epidemic diseases ceased to be so frequent and catastrophic, because of inoculation and growing immunity, populations kept going down because of poor conditions of living and associated diseases like tuberculosis. With the bison herds smaller, then gone, and territories reduced by cessions, there was no possibility for demographic recovery.

That occurred, in the final period, only in the twentieth century, with the slow introduction of modern health care, which reduced death rates while birth rates remained high. Living conditions on many Plains reservations are still poor, but the reservations now stand out as islands of population growth in a regional sea of depopulation.

Such a periodization, while still dependent on introduced linear time, at least takes the Indians's own experiences as the referent. Narratives based on the Indians' understanding of circular time, with cycles beginning and ending in spring, would be even more reflective of Indian historical reality: Gene Weltfish did this in her sensitive reconstruction of one year (1867) in the life of Pawnees.

Standard ways of dividing up space on the surface of the earth, to enable geographic understanding, are manifested in world regional geography books. Criteria such as climate, physiography, population, economy, and various aspects of culture are used as the basis of the partitioning, and, with only minor variations, the same regional breakdown-Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, North America, and so on-is adopted (though there is considerably more variation in the kinds of topics that are discussed within each region) (e.g., de Blij and Muller, 2002; Pulsipher, 2002).

Figure 4: Status of Women in the mid-1980s Source: Seager 1986

Figure 4:
Status of Women in the mid-1980s Source: Seager 1986

Consider, instead, basing the regionalization on another geographic reality: half of the world's population are women, and their status and well-being varies greatly from place to place. Seager and Olsen, in their Women in the World atlas (1986), include a map entitled "Women's Status," based on an index that combines women's literacy, suffrage, contraceptive use, paid work, and life expectancy. The patterns on the map reveal that conditions are best in much of Europe and North America and worst in Sub-Saharan Africa and much of the Middle East (Fig. 4). Regions would be grouped into larger realms according to their women's status index; from there discussion would branch out into other factors such as economy, religion, and so on. Sub-regions, such as Scandinavia, where women's status is the highest in the world, would also be featured. The fact that, according to Seager (2002), no one is yet teaching a world regional geography course in this manner suggests that there may be difficulties in putting this new regionalization into practice, but it also suggests that there is resistence to approaching the subject from a new angle of vision.


In brief, periods and regions are necessary generalizations that facilitate the understanding of events and processes that unfold across space and over time. Yet once established, periods and regions, so similar in their properties and purposes, gain an inertia that can inhibit new ways of understanding. Reflection on what we take for granted in periodizing and regionalizing can yield fresh insights, opening up possibilities for new narratives and stimulating new conclusions.


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