Environmental determinism

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Environmental determinism, also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism, is the belief that the physical environment predisposes human social development towards particular trajectories. A nineteenth- and early twentieth-century approach to the study of geography argued that the general laws sought by human geographers could be found in the physical sciences. Geography, therefore, became focused on the study of how the physical environment affected, or even caused, human culture and activities. At the time that this field was expanding it's knowledge, practices and theories, it allowed for geographers to create "scientific justification for the supremacy of white European races and the naturalness of imperialism".[1] A prominent member in the study of environmental determinism, Ellen Churchill Semple, chose to apply her theories in a case study which focused on the Philippines, where she, "sought to map the distributions of 'Wild', 'Civilized' and 'Negrito' peoples on the topography of the islands".[1] From Semple's works, other members within the field of study were able to find reasonable evidence to suggest that, "the climate and topography of a given environment" would cause specific character traits to appear in a given population, "leading geographers to feel confident on pronouncing on the racial characteristics of given populations." [1] The use of environmental determinism allowed for states to rationalize colonization, by claiming that the peoples within the given land were "morally inferior", therefore legitimizing exploitation.[2] Consequently, the use of this theory in explaining, rationalizing and legitimizing racism, ethnocentrism and development, has been strongly criticized, and in recent years, has become mostly obsolete." [3]



Environmental determinism's origins go back to antiquity, where it is first encountered in a fifth-century medical treatise ascribed to Hippocrates: Airs, Waters, Places.[4] In Roman times it is, for example, found in the work of the Greek geographer Strabo who wrote that climate influences the psychological disposition of different 'races.' Some in ancient China advanced a form of environmental determinism as found in the Works of Guan Zhong (Guanzi 管子), perhaps written in the 2nd century BCE. In the chapter "Water and Earth" (Shuidi 水地), we find statements like "Now the water of [the state of] Qi is forceful, swift and twisting. Therefore its people are greedy, uncouth, and warlike," and "The water of Chu is gentle, yielding, and pure. Therefore its people are lighthearted, resolute, and sure of themselves." [5]

Another early adherent of environmental determinism was the medieval Afro-Arab writer al-Jahiz, who explained how the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community. He used his early theory of evolution to explain the origins of different human skin colors, particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his theory:[6]

"[It] is so unusual that its gazelles and ostriches, its insects and flies, its foxes, sheep and asses, its horses and its birds are all black. Blackness and whiteness are in fact caused by the properties of the region, as well as by the God-given nature of water and soil and by the proximity or remoteness of the sun and the intensity or mildness of its heat."

The Arab sociologist and polymath, Ibn Khaldun, was also an adherent of environmental determinism. In his Muqaddimah (1377), he explained that black skin was due to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and not due to their lineage. He thus dispelled the Hamitic theory, where the sons of Ham were cursed by being black, as a myth.[7] Many translations of Ibn Khaldun were translated during the colonial era in order to fit the colonial propaganda machine.[8] The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained was written in 1841 and gives excerpts of older translations that were not part of colonial propaganda.[9] Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the decline of Ghana and rise of the Almoravids. However, there is little evidence of there actually being an Almoravid conquest of Ghana.[10][11] Ibn Khaldun also anticipated the meteorological climate theory later proposed by Montesquieu in the 18th century. Like Montesquieu, Ibn Khaldun studied "the physical environment in which man lives in order to understand how it influences him in his non-physical characteristics." He explained the differences between different peoples, whether nomadic or sedentary peoples, including their customs and institutions, in terms of their "physical environment-habitat, climate, soil, food, and the different ways in which they are forced to satisfy their needs and obtain a living." This was a departure from the climatic theories expressed by authors from Hippocrates to Jean Bodin. It has been suggested that Ibn Khaldun may have had an influence upon Montesquieu's theory through the traveller Jean Chardin, who travelled to Persia and described a theory resembling Ibn Khaldun's climatic theory.[12]

Environmental determinism rose to prominence in the late 19th century and early 20th century when it was taken up as a central theory by the discipline of geography (and to a lesser extent, anthropology). Clark University professor Ellen Churchill Semple is credited with introducing the theory to the United States after studying with human geographer Friedrich Ratzel in Germany. The prominence of determinism was influenced by the high profile of evolutionary biology, although it tended more to resemble the now-discredited Lamarckism rather than Darwinism.


Between 1920 and 1940, environmental determinism came under repeated attack as its claims were found to be severely flawed. Geographers reacted to this by first developing the softer notion of "environmental possibilism," and later by abandoning the search for theory and causal explanation for many decades. Later, critics charged that determinism served to justify racism and imperialism. The experience of environmental determinism has left a scar on geography, with many geographers reacting negatively to any suggestion of environmental influences on human society. Some believe this rejection has gone too far, and that incorporating environmental factors into explanations of social outcomes is not only useful but necessary.[13]

The fundamental argument of the environmental determinists was that aspects of physical geography, particularly climate, influenced the psychological mind-set of individuals, which in turn defined the behaviour and culture of the society that those individuals formed. For example, tropical climates were said to cause laziness, relaxed attitudes, promiscuity and generally degenerative societies, while the frequent variability in the weather of the middle latitudes led to more determined and driven work ethics and thus more civilized and 'stronger' societies. Because these environmental influences operate slowly on human biology, it was important to trace the migrations of groups to see what environmental conditions they had evolved under. However, since evolutionary processes manifest over very long time periods, the ability to adequately correlate human behaviour with any specific environmental condition is speculative at best, and impossible at worst. Key proponents of this notion have included Ellen Churchill Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Thomas Griffith Taylor, and possibly Jared Diamond or Philip M. Parker. Although Diamond's work does make connections between environmental and climatic conditions and societal development, it is published with the stated intention of disproving racist and eurocentric theories of development. [14]

While this accurately reflects the popular belief and perception in the geographic community towards environmental determinism, the debate was overlaid with hues of gray. Rostlund pointed out in his essay in Readings in Cultural Geography: "Environmentalism was not disproved, only disapproved." He also points to the fact that the disapproval was not based on inaccurate findings, but rather a methodological process which stands in contrast to that of science, something the geographers have arguably sought to ascribe themselves to. Carl O. Sauer followed on from this in 1924, when he criticized the premature generalizations resulting from the bias of environmentalism. He pointed out that to define geography as the study of environmental influences is to assume in advance that such influences do operate, and that a science cannot be based upon or committed to a preconception."

A variant of environmental determinism was popular among Marxists, employing the dialectical materialism concept of history. To Marx's basic model of the ideological and cultural superstructure being determined by the economic base, they added the idea that the economic base is determined by environmental conditions. For example, Russian geographer Georgi Plekhanov, argued that the reason his nation was still in the feudal era, rather than having progressed to capitalism and becoming ripe for the revolution into communism, was that the wide plains of Russia allowed class conflicts to be easily diffused. This Marxist environmental determinism was repudiated around the same time as classic environmental determinism.


The late 20th century saw a revival in environmental determinism as a branch of the new, broader study of environmental history. This has been helped by the quantitative revolution in geography and demography by authors such as Braudel, and several popular accounts such as the works of Jared Diamond.[15] Critics, however, suggest that the so-called "neo-environmental determinism" resurgence will promote harmful policies and should not merit scholarly discussion.[14]


Environmental determinism has been classified as a tool to legitimize colonialism. The practice of colonialism (the process of subjecting one group of people to domination by another group) was widely supported by geographers. However, in order to accept the brutality associated with colonialism, it was necessary that a moral rationale be established. Environmental determinism, which asserted that certain traits of populations were said to be determined by the environment, was one way to legitimize these actions. It was believed that certain environments made people inherently uncivilized. It was also believed that Western colonizers had the ability, as well as the moral obligation, to save these people by overhauling their indigenous cultures and establishing the superior western way of life. For example, the tropics were often viewed as areas that contained more degenerate people relative to Europeans civilizations that developed in more northern latitudes, which induced physical and mental strength, leading to their supposed superiority embodied in their “far greater achievements in inventiveness, control over nature, [and] their construction of elaborate political, economic, artistic, and intellectual structures.”[16] This explains the high historical concentration of colonies in the Americas, especially the Caribbean. However, colonialism through environmental determinism was not limited to tropical areas, but extended to include North and South America, Asia as well as Africa using the same moral justification.[17] Just as Stephen Howe wrote, “overarching the religious justification for empire, and to some extent replacing them over time, were cultural—or civilizational—ones,"[16] Campbell and Livingstone indicated that Neo-Lamarckians, positioned firmly in the belief of inheritance of acquired characteristics, utilized Lamarckian scientific principles and its application of acclimatization as ideological justification for imperialism and colonialism. Indeed, scientific considerations were increasingly used as justification for colonial enterprises, often complimenting religious motives and in some cases superseding them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics is a now-disproven evolutionary mechanism preceding Darwin’s natural selection, which states that any mutation of an organism forced upon it by environmental changes (acclimatization) or through frequent use of body parts/organs is preserved by reproduction and directly passed on to offspring without the need for the offspring to develop the trait in the same manner as its predecessors.[18] Campbell and Livingstone wrote, “Acclimatization attracted greater scientific attention towards the close of the nineteenth century with European and American imperial expansion in the tropics and sub-tropics,” and particularly note Neo-Lamarckism and acclimatization’s role as vindication and support of the doctrines of American manifest destiny.[19] Gilmartin wrote of geographical societies such as the Royal Geographical society in London and the Société de Géographie of Paris supporting and reinforcing the imperatives of colonialism and imperialism by providing financial support to explorers and other proponents of colonial enterprises.[20] Similar societies offered the same kinds of supports for colonialism, but in a much stronger scientific vein. Acclimatization societies, such as the Societé Zoologique d’Aclimatation in Paris (founded in 1854 as the first and largest acclimatization society of Europe) directly supported these enterprises and enjoyed their benefits, and Osborne noted not only that “the writings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck . . . provided theoretical backing for the acclimatization doctrine” of which these societies were based, but also that the Societé Zoologique d’Aclimatation was largely founded by Isadore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—son of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a close colleague and supporter of Lamarck.[21]



Climatic determinism is an aspect of economic geography, also sometimes called the equatorial paradox. According to this theory, about 70% of the economic development of a country can be predicted from the distance between that country and the equator.[citation needed] In other words, the further from the equator a country is located, the more developed it tends to be. The paradox applies equally well both north and south of the equator. Australia, for example, has a higher level of economic development than Indonesia. The paradox also applies within countries — the northern U.S. states are more developed than the southern U.S. states. Painter and Jeffrey argue that one of the first attempts geographers used to define the development of human geography across the globe was to relate a country's climate to human development.[22] With this ideology, geographers were able "to explain and predict the progress of human societies", based upon their findings in comparison to western societies.[22] By using the ideologies of environmental and climatic determinism, geographers were able to predict and rationalize the history and human distribution of a nation, as well as explain existing or perceived social and cultural divides.[22]

Singapore is a notable counter-example: it is located at 1.22° N and is one of the world's most prosperous countries. This prosperity is based on its position as a port. Other exceptions to the paradox tend to have large natural resources. (Although Singapore's strict and no-nonsense government system matches the "strict and authoritarian" system that Montesquieu cited as being necessary for a country in warmer areas to succeed by counteracting the environmental complacency of the tropics with human-induced strictures. Saudi Arabia is a good example.)

One popular theory to explain this phenomenon is that development is less necessary in tropical regions - "you can lie in a hammock and pick bananas,"[citation needed] as opposed to the need to invent agriculture and economy in order to prosper and survive. These environments "were seen as producing less civilized, more degenerate peoples, in need of salvation by western colonial powers." [23] With this philosophy, geographers were stating that nations outside of the western realm were not capable of developing on their own, and therefore, needed to be 'saved', and taught how to conform to the western way of life.[23] This explanation, while convenient, may not be sufficiently complex to truly explain the equatorial paradox.

Another theory is that tropical countries tend to be plagued by more diseases (such as Malaria, whose transmission depends on a warm climate). Since the tropical country's workers tend to be sicker and die sooner, they will be less productive, and over many centuries the cooler and more disease-free economies will tend to have faster economic growth.

It is noteworthy that the equatorial paradox only emerged from the Modern Era onwards, with more highly developed cultures and economies being present in the tropical and subtropical regions than outside it. In the context of a statistical analysis, the paradox is probably more a consequence of subjugation and colonization. The latter all but arrested economical and infrastructural development, except as needed to fulfil the colonial power's aims. Climatic Determinism was intensely studied by Ellsworth Huntington.

Economic Development[edit]

How big of a role does geography play in determining the economic growth of places? This idea that geography and nature matters to global development was shaped by notable scholars, Paul Krugman, Jared Diamond, and Jeffrey Sachs. The theory of Environmental determinism can be used to explain economic development at a local, regional, or global scale. Using the principles of Environmental determinism, and identifying where population densities cluster, trends in worldwide economic development can plausibly be accounted for. Economic growth is measured nationally to quantify material wealth, using GDP per capita and is adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).[24] These universal units quantify qualitative differences in equality. The direct variables that account for Environmental determinism are; climate, location (close to coast and or river) combined with land composition, latitude, if land locked, and presence of infectious disease.[24] Economies need labour to be productive and increase development, thus a population is vital for economic growth. There is no simple relationship for the distribution of population density and economic development, however conclusions can be made with reference to the above variables.


Climate and agriculture work hand in hand with the output of production. After controlling variables such as labour, machinery, soil treatment, and irrigation, agriculture in the Tropics suffers a 30% to 50% decrease in productivity relative to temperate- zone agriculture productions.[24] Without ideal weather conditions, agriculture wouldn’t produce the surplus supply needed to build and maintain economies. Locations with hot tropical climates lead to underdevelopment through the following mechanisms: Low fertility of soils, excessive plant respiration and lower rate of net photosynthesis, ecological conditions favoring infectious diseases, and high evaporation and unreliable supply of water.[25] Population densities are usually lower and not efficient in interior locations, however densities seem to be higher in inland areas that are suitable for agriculture settlements; with fertile soil, rivers close by, and climatic and ecological systems promoting of rice or wheat cultivation.[24] Thus due to climate contributions, good soil and water supply give way to dense inland populations.

Latitude and temperature[edit]

As latitude increases north or south from the equator, levels of real GDP per capita increase.[25]

The average GDP per capita in 1995, for tropical (low latitude) countries was $3,326 and for non-tropical (mid-high latitude) countries was $9,027.[24] It holds true that places in higher latitudes especially in the northern hemisphere experience higher standards of living, reap climatic advantages and better opportunities to input resources.

This fact is termed the 'equatorial paradox' (though it is not strictly speaking a paradox, merely a puzzle). Philip M. Parker in his book Physioeconomics attributes this to temperature, which explains two-thirds of the variation in GDP per capita. His explanation for this fact is that humans originated as tropical mammals, so those located in cold climates feel under pressure to restore their physiological homeostasis, for example by agriculture and wealth-creation to produce more food, better housing, heating, warm clothes, etc. Conversely, those in warmer climates are more physiologically comfortable simply due to temperature, and so have less incentive to work to increase their comfort levels. This suggests that GDP per capita is a poor measure of well-being, and that simply incorporating temperature would be a substantial improvement.

Location and Land Composition[edit]

Coastal regions are common areas for providing capital goods in global trade, are points of financial centers, and are essential to lower transportation costs.[24] Living on the coast has proven to be advantageous for centuries with people’s livelihood depending on the coastline for trade, irrigation, and fish resources. It has only been in the last few generations that railroads, cars, air transit, and telecommunications have decreased human’s dependence of coast location for economic edge.[24] However population densities still seem to concentrate on coastlines and provide many economic and social benefits for human wellbeing, including higher incomes for people compared to people in landlocked countries.[24]

Landlocked countries[edit]

Landlocked countries are surrounded by borders on all sides, with no direct access to the ocean of their own. The exception to stagnated economies for land locked countries are Austria and Switzerland whose proximity to European markets make them un-moldable to typical geographic explanations for underdevelopment.[26] Cross border migration of labor is considered more difficult than internal migration; coastal countries typically have military or economic motives which lead them to impose taxes on land locked countries when crossing their boarders for job opportunities or resource trafficking. These countries with neither coastlines nor ocean navigable rivers often have less urbanization and less growth due to the slow movement of information, therefore they are slower in technology advances and communication. They also lack access to regional and international markets.[24]

Infectious diseases[edit]

This is another large dimension of economic growth. Almost all of the 200-500 million per year malaria attacks occur in the tropics where the climate is hot, moist and in near the equator.[24] This is not an inequality problem that persists in poorer countries because solutions haven’t been put in place, these critters are increasing their resistance to insecticide, while at the same time the effectiveness of treatment is decreasing.[24] Malaria hasn’t flourished in mid-high latitudes because the ecology of parasites and vectors which it relys on, thrives in hot climatic conditions, thus enclosing this disease and many alike to lower latitudes with warmer climates.

Briefly, looking at a space and place at a smaller scale, correlations between the success of an urban area can be linked with the basket of attributes it possesses and if they enhance or decline the growth of the economy. An urban area is likely to flourish if exposed to a bundle of favourable location attributes.[27] For example, growth would be reinforced if close to a major city, situated on flat topography and fertile soil, near an airport or international border.


Africa is an example of a combination of unfavorable variables from the theory of environmental determinism and poor economic development. Africa’s per capita income has been steadily decreasing for the past 40 years, with Sub-saharan Africa becoming one of the least wealthy areas within the continent.[28] It has a large majority of land mass in the tropics, the population is concentrated in the interior with more than one-fourth residing in landlocked countries, and it has a low population density in the coastal regions.[29] Table 1 and map 1 from Geography and Economic Development outlines the geographic factors associated with development. For example, decent agricultural land is patchy, climate conditions bring low rainfall and risks of drought, high disease rates with malaria are prevalent, and Africa contains many small countries landlocked by borders which brings high transportation costs, and little cohesiveness amongst policies and governing.[25]

There are many theories that incorporate factors of the environment into the consideration of why certain places develop faster than others, but environmental determinism in economic terms puts nature and geography at the focus when understanding the distribution of growth and development.


Environmental determinism has been adopted by the urban design field to describe the effects the built environment may have on behaviour. This is the basis of the concept of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) which attempts to modify disruptive behaviours through appropriate design of the physical environment. This concept is also the basis of active space which tries to encourage activity through the design of a space.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Painter & Jeffrey, "Political Geopgraphy", Sage Publications, 2009, pg.177.
  2. ^ Shirlow, Peter, Gallaher, Carolyn, Gilmartin, Mary, "Key Concepts in Political Geography", SAGE Publications Ldt, 2009, pg.127.
  3. ^ Painter & Jeffrey, "Political Geography", Sage Publications, 2009, pg.200.
  4. ^ Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004
  5. ^ trans. Allyn Rickett (1998), in Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China: A Study and Translation. Volume II. Princeton University Press, p. 106.
  6. ^ Lawrence I. Conrad (1982), "Taun and Waba: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25 (3), pp. 268-307 [278].
  7. ^ El Hamel, Chouki (2002), "'Race', slavery and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean thought: the question of the Haratin in Morocco", The Journal of North African Studies 7 (3): 29–52 [39–42], doi:10.1080/13629380208718472 
  8. ^ http://www.jstor.org/pss/3590803 Translation and the Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldun Orientalist, by Abdelmajid Hannoum © 2003 Wesleyan University.
  9. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=6swTAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA61 The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained: "When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghanah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King's court was kept in the city of Ghanah, which, according to the author of the Book of Roger (El Idrisi), and the author of the Book of Roads and Realms (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world. The people of Ghanah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Susu; after which came another named Mali; and after that another known by the name of Kaukau ; although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kagho. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrur. The people of Ghanah declined in course of time, being overwhelmed or absorbed by the Molaththemun (or muffled people;that is, the Morabites), who, adjoining them on the north towards the Berber country, attacked them, and, taking possession of their territory, compelled them to embrace the Mohammedan religion. The people of Ghanah, being invaded at a later period by the Susu, a nation of Blacks in their neighbourhood, were exterminated, or mixed with other Black nations."
  10. ^ http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/~amcdouga/Hist446/readings/conquest_in_west_african_historiography.pdf Not Quite Venus from the Waves: The Almoravid Conquest of Ghana in the Modern Historiography of Western Africa by Pekka Masonen; Humphrey J. Fisher 1996
  11. ^ http://www.jstor.org/pss/3171598 The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076. I. The External Arabic Sources, by David Conrad and Humphrey Fisher © 1982 African Studies Association
  12. ^ Warren E. Gates (July–September 1967), "The Spread of Ibn Khaldun's Ideas on Climate and Culture", Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press) 28 (3): 415–422, doi:10.2307/2708627, JSTOR 2708627 
  13. ^ Ballinger, Clint (2011), Why Geographic Factors are Necessary in Development Studies MPRA Paper No. 29750
  14. ^ a b Andrew, Sluyter (2003), "Neo-Environmental Determinism, Intellectual Damage Control, and Nature/Society Science", Antipode 4 (35): 813–817, doi:10.1046/j.1467-8330.2003.00354.x. 
  15. ^ Diamond, Jared (1997), Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W.W. Norton, ISBN 9780393038910 
  16. ^ a b Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (New York, Oxford, 2002), 85.
  17. ^ Gilmartin, M. (2009). "Colonialism/Imperialism". Key concepts in political geography (pp. 115-123). London: SAGE.
  18. ^ Lamarck, 1809: 124 in Ernst Mayr, "Lamarck Revisited," Journal of the History of Biology 5 (1972): 79-80.
  19. ^ J.A. Campbell & D.N. Livingstone, "Neo-Lemarckism and the Development of Geography in the United States and Great Britain," Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 8 (1983): 278
  20. ^ Gilmartin, M. (2009). "Colonialism/Imperialism". Key concepts in political geography (pg 117). London: SAGE.
  21. ^ Osborne, Michael A. “Acclimatizing the World: A History of the Paradigmatic Colonial Science.” Osiris 15 (2000): 138, 143.
  22. ^ a b c Painter & Jeffrey, "Political Geography", Sage Publications, 2009, pg.177
  23. ^ a b Shirlow, Peter, Gallaher, Carolyn, Gilmartin, Mary, "Key Concepts in Political Geography", Sage Publications Ltd, 2009, pg.117.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Gallup, John Luke, Jeffrey D. Sachs and Andrew D. Mellinger. "Geography and Economic Development." International regional Science (1999 vol.22): 179-224. Print.
  25. ^ a b c Easterly, William and Ross Levine. "Tropics, germs, and crops: How endowments influence economic development." Journal of Monetary Economics (2003 vol.50): 3-39. Print.
  26. ^ Sheppard, Eric. "Geography, nature, and the question of development." Dialogues in Human Geography (2011 ): 1-46. Print.
  27. ^ Portnov, Boris A. and Moshe Schwartz. "On the Importance of the "Location Package" for Urban Growth." Urban Studies (2009): 46-1665. Print.
  28. ^ Venables, Anthony J. "Economic geography and African Development." Regional Science (2010 vol. 89): 469-483. Print.
  29. ^ Bloom, D.E and J.D Saches. "Geography, demography and economic growth in Africa." Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (1998 vol.2): 207-273. Print.