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This paper discusses four key phases in the study of the tropical milieu of monsoon Asia by French geographers and colonial actors over the last 150 years. First, it sees how the natural milieu initially occupied a central and determining place in French colonial and scientific assessments of Indochina, and how the notion of monsoon Asia appeared within the framework of an academic geography (and formatively in the two regional theses produced by Charles Robequain and Pierre Gourou). It then shows how, after the Second World War, francophone geographers developed a “tropicalist” approach to monsoon Asia, one that was inextricably linked with the culturalist approach that was pioneered by Gourou, which later evolved into new, model-building and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of tropical systems. It argues that these successive phases have marked a shift from a centred tropicality - a system of knowledge anchored in French colonialism and centring on debate about the determinist influence of the natural milieu - to a decentred tropicality that rejects environmental determinism, questions the ethnocentric character of tropical geography and integrates the study of tropical geography into the wider social sciences. The paper concludes with the suggestion that tropicality has had an epistemologically stronger and more institutionalised relationship with francophone geography than was the case in anglophone geography.
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Keywords: colonisation; history of geography; monsoon Asia; postcolonialism; tropical geography; tropicality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique-Migrations Internationales, Territorialités, Identités, Université de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 01 November 2005

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