Behavioral geography is the study of the behavior of people in, and in respect to, space. The spatial environment in which a human being lives massively influences personality and resulting behaviors. One of the important elements of this environment is the image that the human being has of it and its pieces. This image is a mental picture and the associated ideas. It essentially is the world as perceived by that person. This image may be a simple picture of a mountain, say for Switzerland. It may also be complex with multiple frames and pieces. For example the image of Switzerland for one who has made multiple visits may involve rich images of mountains, towns, people, roads, flowers, and animals. It may have a detailed information base of business and personal activities involving he Swiss. All of this becomes a set of images and facts in the mind.
This image is the perceived world. It is of great importance because we act on our images and perceptions. The real world imposes limits that may force corrections when reached, but the image guides behavior, not reality. For example, Texans may perceive North Dakota as a frozen wasteland, but this is not the full reality. North Dakotans may perceive Texas in terms of the television program Dallas, or in terms of cowhands and cattle, but this is not the full reality of Texas. Yet people act upon these perceptions. A Texan will resist moving to North Dakota because of the image that there is nothing here. The reality to the Texan is what he or she knows, not what others might know.
Essentials of the Image Process
The above chart outlines the sources of images. The brain is constantly learning about places from travel, events, parents, information, movies, television, music, books, magazines, religion, friends, people, maps, art, and other items. These elements are interpreted in terms of personal and cultural filters. The image is built in the mind. Action results from using the mental information in situations. The personal and cultural filter is also used to adjust the nature of output so that the action is personally and culturally appropriate or understandable. Some details:
- Sources. The sources of our images of places are varied. For any particular place we may have traveled to it and gained on-the-spot information. We may have seen it in movies, heard our parents talk about it, read a novel set in the location, fell in love with a song about it, seen it on maps, or dreamed about it after viewing a famous artists paintings of it. In all of these we are developing a perception of a place and building an image in our minds. On a personal level, my image of California is varied and complex, but it began with images generated by beach movies in the 1960's, the songs of the Beach Boys, Sunrays, Jan and Dean, and the Eagles ("Hotel California"), travel to San Francisco and San Diego, and a massive set of news events. California begins on a beach, slinks along in the sleaze and sex of Hollywood, builds to an earthquake, then smothers itself in a plethora of bad news. The pictures are numerous, yet they are the California I relate to and teach about.
- Personal Cultural Filters. There is no objective world. We all see a subjective world that is influenced by our personality and our culture. Our view of any place is determined by the intermixing of our personality and our cultural perspective. Multiculturalist philosophy asks that we maintain our sense of ourselves and glorify our "original" sense of place. Our view of the world is that of our group, with leeway for the vagaries of our own development as a person. We subjectively view the world and build our image through our cultural lens.
- Stereotypes. A stereotype is a regularized image, thought, symbol, or other form that a society holds about another person, group, thought, idea, or place. Part of the personal-cultural filter is the stereotype. With places, the stereotype is related to distance. Separated places, those with little regularized need to fully deal with each other, develop stereotypes to simplify the process of relating. One society simplifies another in order to grasp some essential understanding of the other society, yet not to mark it for detailed effort. Alternatively we might stereotype to make learning easier for children, or to ensure a unified knowledge base is held in common among a people. What is amazing is that stereotypes can be so widely held. The postmodern media makes this easy, yet such stereotypes predate the power of postmodern television and films.
- Action. When we act, the same filters come into play. What we do rarely reflects a total letting go of what we feel. We control ourselves because we have learned this is socially required. We have also learned that our society expects communication to occur in certain ways. We have a set of words that define the nature of communication and the message. For example, Americans have a limited set of words to describe snow types compared to Inuit peoples along the north coast of Canada and Alaska. Our communication about snow is therefore limited. We will also express recognition and understanding of stereotypes. These aid communication within a group.
In the end, the images we hold are our understanding of places. Just as when our understanding of one we love is shaped by our image, we act upon the reality as understood by our mind, not the full reality of the world.
Our image is a very serious thing. Given that it is a source of action, its inaccuracies can be costly. Take the following examples:
- The Prairie. Pioneers misunderstood the prairie. While the prairie has turned out to be a splendid productive resource, as settlers coming from the east first encountered it, they viewed it as worthless. They were people of forested areas. Forests were perceived as signs of good soil. Finding a treeless zone they assumed it was of no value. Their image varied from reality.
- Deserts. Europeans faltered in their ability to interpret the world as they explored it over the last 500 years because early reports of the Sahara area conflicted with culturally held beliefs about the percentage of the earth that was well watered. Finding such a desert was fully observable, yet they discounted it because the cultural filter called it impossible.
- Indian Markets. American firms have made differing investment decisions concerning India over the last several decades. Some corporate leaders have understood the giant potential of the Indian middle and upper classes, while other have seen it as a place of the poor. Executive images guided corporate policy on investment. Some correctly saw the large market for numerous goods, others failed to see these opportunities.
Thus our images and perceptions have great importance.