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This article broadly positions the successful establishment of the field of French tropical geography in the immediate postwar period against developments stemming from a longer history of French colonial engagement in Africa, Asia and South America, and clarifies the seemingly late timing of, and paradoxes involved in, the creation of a body of French scientific knowledge about the tropics. Colonial scientific research did not develop in France until the end of the nineteenth century. However, the colonial geography appearing at this time did not rely on fieldwork but, rather, catered to the demands of the business class for overseas expansion and to public curiosity. Even while the medical geography of tropical areas and knowledge of tropical soils and ecology progressed greatly between 1900 and 1940, there were still only a few French geographers working in the tropics. With the advent of the Second World War, when “big science” appeared in France and its colonial empire, the number of French geographers involved in tropical research grew rapidly. The field of tropical geography built up by Pierre Gourou was a synthesis of approaches developed in South America, Africa and Indochina. Although it soon came under strong criticism for its pessimistic view of prospects for industrialisation and urbanisation in the tropics, it seduced French geographers because it matched the contemporary interest in zonality and relied on a genre de vie analysis of, typically, rural areas. Thus, the postwar blossoming of tropical geography shaped by Gourou was more a response to various internal dynamics within French geography than an exercise in imperialism. Its demise was not due to the eclipse of French colonialism but, rather, its inability to deal with the modernisation of tropical societies.
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Keywords: academic institutions; colonial geography; colonisation; medical geography; scientific research; tropical geography

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Institut de GĂ©ographie, UniversitĂ© de Paris-Sorbonne, Paris, France, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 2005-11-01

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