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Meaningful yet useless? Factors behind the retention of questionable concepts in human geography

Dymitrow, Mirek; Brauer, René


Mirek Dymitrow

René Brauer


The concepts ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ have long been criticized by geographers for their lack of analytical and explanatory power, yet have remained a vital source for conceptual guidance in human geography. Realizing that the continued use of questionable concepts inadvertently runs the risk of compromising communication, misdirecting resources and downgrading social theory, the current status of ‘rural/urban’ creates a paradoxical epiphenomenon of progress-making in geography. We disentangle this paradox in two dimensions. Firstly, we show how a conflation between meaning and utility is what renders us desensitized to the problem. Secondly, we outline 12 extra-scientific factors likely to actuate the binary’s persistent retention. We finally sketch a sensuous template set out to minimize its undesired impact. We concede that the confusion surrounding ‘rural/urban’ in human geography cannot be understood unless the influence of extra-scientific factors is fully taken into account, revealing the concepts’ vestigiality. This, we argue, is the only way forward if we truly want to embrace the rationale of the scientific approach. The principal contribution of our paper is laying the groundwork for this particularly underresearched dimension of ‘rural/urban’ amidst an exceptionally rich conceptual literature on what ‘rural/urban’ ‘are’ or ‘mean’.


Dymitrow, M., & Brauer, R. (2018). Meaningful yet useless? Factors behind the retention of questionable concepts in human geography. Geografiska annaler. Series B, Human geography, 100(3), 195-219.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 15, 2017
Online Publication Date Jan 9, 2018
Publication Date Jul 3, 2018
Deposit Date May 9, 2019
Journal Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography
Print ISSN 0435-3684
Electronic ISSN 1468-0467
Publisher Taylor and Francis
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 100
Issue 3
Pages 195-219
Keywords Rural; Urban; Concept retention; Knowledge production; Extra-scientific factors; Geographers
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Peer Review Statement: The publishing and review policy for this title is described in its Aims & Scope.; Aim & Scope: