Yi-Fu Tuan is a Chinese-American geographer. He is one of the key figures in human geography and arguably the most important originator of humanistic geography.
Born in 1930 in Tianjin, China to an upper-class family, he was educated in China, Australia, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. He attended University College London, but graduated from the University of Oxford with a B.A. and M.A. in 1951 and 1955 respectively. From there he went to California to continue his geographic education. He received his Ph.D. in 1957 from the University of California, Berkeley.
From New Mexico where he taught at the University of New Mexico from 1959 to 1965, Tuan then moved to Toronto between 1966 and 1968 teaching at University of Toronto. He became a full professor at the University of Minnesota in 1968. In the same year he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. It was while he was at Minnesota that became known for his work in humanistic geography, but his forays into this approach began earlier with an article on topophilia that appeared in the journal Landscape. In a 2004 "Dear Colleague" letter he described the difference between human geography and 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. As for deception, significantly, only Zoroastrianism among the great religions has the command, "Thou shalt not lie." After all, deception and lying are necessary to smoothing the ways of social life. From this, 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.
After 14 years at the University of Minnesota, he moved to Madison, Wisconsin and continued his professional career at University of Wisconsin–Madison as the J.K. Wright and Vilas Professor of Geography (1985–1998). He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1986, of the British Academy in 2001 and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Tuan was awarded the Cullum Geographical Medal by the American Geographical Society in 1987 and the Vautrin Lud Prize in 2012.
Tuan is an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He occasionally gives lectures, continues to write his "Dear Colleague" letters and to publish new books on geosophy. His most recent books are Human Goodness (2008) and Religion: From Place to Placelessness (2010). He resides in Madison, Wisconsin.
Key Ideas and Approaches
Tuan describes his approach as humanist, however his humanism does not entail replacing spirituality with rationalism or promoting human beings as wholly self-directed. Instead, he sees humanist geography as a way to reveal "how geographical activities and phenomena reveal the quality of human awareness" and to show "human experience in its ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity". To do so requires empathy, and for this he seeks assistance from literature, the arts, history, biography, social science, philosophy, and theology. Tuan's approach is qualitative, but more narrative and descriptive than philosophical, in light of his concern that a philosophical theory can become "so highly structured that it seems to exist in its own right, to be almost 'solid,' and thus able to cast (paradoxically) a shadow over the phenomena it is intended to illuminate" whereas he prefers for theories to "hover supportively in the background."
Contradictions and paradoxes
Tuan is most interested in ambivalent human experiences that resonate with the opposing pulls of space and place, the intimate and the distant. His approach is suggested by titles such as Segmented Worlds and Self, Continuity and Discontinuity, Morality and Imagination, Cosmos and Hearth, Dominance and Affection, and above all, Space and Place. These existential dialectics propel people between a pole of experience characterized by rootedness, security and grounding, on the one hand, and a pole characterized by outreach, potentiality and expansiveness, on the other hand. These opposites interact: there is a certain distance in what is nearby and a certain nearness in what is far away. Therefore, ambivalence is the norm when it comes to the human experience of dwelling in the world with its existential pulls between space and place, mobility and stasis, the distant view and embodied engagement.
Tuan is fundamentally an optimist. Even Tuan's gloomiest book, Landscapes of Fear, concludes that things were worse in the past. For Tuan, historical changes have been for the better overall: "In the larger view, the human story is one of progressive sensory and mental awareness ... culture, through laborious and labyrinthine paths traversed over millennia, has greatly and variedly refined our senses and mind." Progress itself depends on particular ways of dealing with the tensions between space and place, cosmos and hearth, dominance and affection, morality and imagination. The promise of the future lies in recognizing the existential poles of nearness and remoteness and how they are reflected in each other.
Tuan has foregrounded the importance of language in the making of place. Throughout his works, texts such as poems, novels, letters, and myths are understood as integral elements in the creation of a sense of place. Human communications form the basis for the social processes of imagining, understanding, planning and conceiving places. Representations guide the human and material interactions creating, sustaining, and destroying places. Tuan's deep reflection on the role of representation in the creation of place forms an important foundation for the geography of media and communication.