Possibilism : Meaning, Case Studies and Limitations

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Possibilism attempts to explain the relationship between human and environment in a different way, in which man is seen as an active agent of changes happening around him/her and responsible for alteration in the history, culture, Polity and living standard of society.

Also Read: Determinism/Environmental Determinism : A School of Thought in Human Geography

Meaning of Possibilism

The essence of Possibilism is that the environment does not determine the history, culture or present conditions rather attitude, culture and habits of the humans and society are responsible.

In other words Possibilism asserts that there are numerous possibilities in environment, the number of which increases with increase in knowledge and technology. Human chooses one or more out of these  possibilities on the basis of their culture attitude and habit.

Evolution of Possibilism

This theory was named as 'Possibilism' by Febvre. According to him:-

The  true and only one geographical problem is that of utilisation of possibilities. there are no necessities only possibilities.

The Possibilists saw a series of possibilities in physical environment for the development of human society. But argued that the actual ways in which development took place were related to the culture of the people concerned, except perhaps in regions of extreme climate like Desert, Tundra, Equatorial region and High Mountainous region.

Possibilism defines that similar locations across the world have multiple social groups whose culture, lifestyle, habits, work culture and living standards are very much different this happens because of the fact that human being is an active agent not a passive one as argued in Environmental Determinism.

Possibilists also argued that it is impossible to explain the difference in human society and the history of that society with reference to the physical environment. They held that man himself brings his influence to bear on that environment and changes it.

Vidal de La Blache

Although the concept of of Possibilism was spread and became more popular after the 1st World War, but Vidal was the one who developed and established the "School of Possibilism". Lifestyles were at the Centre of Vidal's work, which was originated at different geographical environments.

Vidal stressed that the differences in lifestyles in different geographical environments were not due to physical environment rather these were due to differences in attitudes, values and habits in different human beings.

In his opinion, lifestyles are the products or and reflections of the civilisations which differ from one another due to different physical and cultural and social influences surrounding the man in a particular area.

Variation in human attitudes and habits create numerous possibilities, this is the concept which is considered as the basic philosophy of the School  of Possibilism.

After Vidal Possibilism spread across Europe and America. Jean Brunches of France was big protagonist of the school of Possibilism. He ws the one who emancipated the first explicit formulations Human Geography as a systematic approach to the study of geography.

The more acceptable concept of Possibilism was presented by Carl O. Sauer (1920). He asserted that if a geographer investigate the nature of transition from natural to cultural landscape of region than he/she can easily understand that how the succession of the groups brought change in them.

It's importance is often greater in the region, where it get acclimatised than the region where it was originally domesticated and evolved.

Example : Wheat was originally domesticated for the first time in South-West Asia but now the largest producers of wheat are USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia, China, India and Pakistan where it was diffused later due to human influence.

Case Studies on Possibilism

  1. Yakuts of Siberian region persuaded their horses and cattle to eat dried meat of Reindeer and fish instead of fodder and rice. This is one of the best example of human's influence on physical environment.
  2. Gujjars & Bakkarwals live in Jammu & Kashmir and use the slope as the grazing field for their sheep and goats; while Kashmiris living in the same slopes become settled cultivator and uses arable lands available on slopes of the valley for cultivation.  Gujjars and Bakkarwals are Nomads while Kashmiris living in the same geographical environmental conditions are settled agriculturists.


In marginal environment such as deserts, Tundra Region, High Mountains region, Equatorial region and at a low stage culture (having low level of knowledge and technological advancements), possibilities are very much limited in number hence human has man has no option to choose different options. Despite the presence numerous possibilities in environment, man has to choose one of the options provided by nature. Hence, he/she cannot override the nature's call.

While criticising Possibilists, he said that geography is to study the natural environment and it's impact on humans and not to study all problems of human Kind and their cultural landscape. He further said that Determinists at least turn the attention of geographers to the environment, which is the primary goal of studying geography.

Studies now-a-days focus on, how and why humans have altered the environment and their impact on the Sustainability of the Ecosystem.