Yi-Fu Tuan, 1930-2022: The Father of Humanistic Geography

Yi-Fu Tuan, known as the father of humanistic geography, which seeks to place emphasis on the multiple aspects of personality and community present at physical locations, died on August 10 in Madison, Wisconsin. A professor emeritus of geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he was 91.

Tuan wrote a number of career-defining books about place, starting with the classic Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values in 1974, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience three years later, and Landscapes of Fear in 1979. “People think that geography is about capitals, landforms and so on,” Tuan said. “But it is also about place — its emotional tone, social meaning, and generative potential.”

Tuan pictured in his office in 1998. (Photo: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison)

That sort of plain speaking, and Tuan’s willingness to look beyond his field for inspiration, led to both being lionized may many following in his path. “I was immediately captured by [Space and Place],” his former graduate student Tim Cresswell would write in Key Texts in Human Geography. “It was like nothing I had ever read in a geography class. It was full of ideas but engagingly written. It was not obviously geography (as I understood it at the time) but yet everything about it seemed central to how geography could or even should be. It didn’t have long sections on methodology or a review of recent literature. There was nothing pedantic about it. It just seemed to jump straight in and get on with thinking about some difficult questions.”

Those same features, however, would lead Tuan to be labeled an ‘academic outsider’ by others, and perhaps not as widely known as he merited – a decade after his retirement the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested Tuan “may be the most influential scholar you’ve never heard of.” But that catholicism also meant his work was appreciated well outside his field.

As John Bale wrote in the Encyclopedia of Geography, “there is no doubt that he popularized a concept that has been subsequently applied to a wide range of themes that deal with the ‘sense of place,’ or the cognate idea of genius loci.

Bale would add, “Two terms characterize Tuan’s oeuvre: humility and vitality. He continually seeks to explore the “good life.” As he seeks it in many of his works, he draws extensively on literature and self-reflection. To be sure, he has had his critics (though they are few and far between), yet he returns and modifies his examples by testing and editing his findings.”

One of the places Tuan would explore later in his career included himself, as he demonstrated in works such as Humanist Geography: An Individual’s Search for Meaning (2012) and the autobiographical Who Am I?  An Autobiography of Emotion, Mind and Spirit (1999). All told, Tuan penned more than 20 books.

Tuan was born in 1930 in Tanjin, China, although his father’s work as a diplomat meant the family rarely lived in any set place for very long, and he would later describe himself as a “cosmopolite” to reflect that peripatetic existence. He received his BA and MA degrees from the University of Oxford and his PhD from University of California, Berkeley. He taught at the University of New Mexico and the University of Toronto and in 1968 joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota, where he started to flesh out his ideas on humanistic geography.

As he would write in 2004, posting human geography against humanistic geography, “Human geography studies human relationships. Human geography’s optimism lies in its belief that asymmetrical relationships and exploitation can be removed, or reversed. What human geography does not consider, and what humanistic geography does, is the role [relationships] play in nearly all human contacts and exchanges. If we examine them conscientiously, no one will feel comfortable throwing the first stone. … I conclude that humanistic geography is neglected because it is too hard. Nevertheless, it should attract the tough-minded and idealistic, for it rests ultimately on the belief that we humans can face the most unpleasant facts, and even do something about them, without despair.”

Tuan moved to the Wisconsin–Madison in 1983, was named John Kirtland Wright Professor of Geography in 1985, and professor emeritus in 1998.

He was awarded various honors throughout his career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968, a Cullum Geographical Medal by the American Geographical Society in 1987 and the Vautrin-Lud Prize in 2012. He was a member of organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Academy in 2001 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tuan remained active in the university community after retiring by giving lectures, continuing to publish books and writing “Dear Colleague” letters, often reflecting on current events.

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Molly Gahagen

Molly Gahagen is a third-year student at Johns Hopkins University studying political science and international studies. She is currently the social science communications intern at SAGE Publishing.

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