Contemporary Applications and Criticisms of Bildungsroman in Geography


Bildungsroman, translated from German as “formation novel” or “novel of education,” is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological, moral, and intellectual development of a protagonist as they transition from childhood into adulthood. This genre has a rich history in literature, but it has also found its way into the field of geography, where it has been both applied and criticized for its relevance and usefulness.

One of the key reasons for the adoption of Bildungsroman in geography is its applicability to the field. Geography is not limited to the study of physical landscapes and maps, but it also encompasses the study of human activities and their interactions with the environment. Therefore, understanding the growth and development of individuals is crucial in comprehending their relationship with the surrounding space. Furthermore, the Bildungsroman genre allows for the exploration of complex themes such as identity, socialization, and personal growth, which are essential to understanding human-environment interactions.

One contemporary application of Bildungsroman in geography is the examination of people’s spatial experiences and how they shape their understanding of the world. For example, in a study by Wolch and Emel (1995), they used the concept of Bildungsroman to analyze the spatial development and identity formation of refugees in Los Angeles. Through their narrative approach, they were able to show how these individuals’ journeys and experiences in different spaces influenced their understanding of place and community. The study highlights the significance of Bildungsroman in understanding the complexities of spatial experiences and how they shape people’s perceptions and behaviors.

Another relevant application of Bildungsroman in geography is its ability to bridge the gap between physical and human geography. Traditionally, these two branches of geography have been studied separately, with little attention paid to their interconnectedness. However, the Bildungsroman genre has been used as a tool to understand how individuals navigate and interact with both physical and social environments. In a study by Massey (1984), she used the Bildungsroman structure to analyze the changing spatial experiences of a working-class girl in a London suburb. Through this, she was able to show the interdependent relationship between physical and social landscapes and how they can shape individuals’ growth and development.

Despite its practical applications, Bildungsroman has also faced criticism in its use in geography. One of the main criticisms is that it largely focuses on the individual’s story and neglects the structural and societal factors that shape their experiences. In essence, it can perpetuate an individualistic perspective and undermine the significance of broader social and political contexts. To address this criticism, some geographers have started incorporating collective narratives and experiences into their Bildungsroman analyses, highlighting the role of society and power structures in shaping individuals’ growth and development.

Moreover, the Bildungsroman genre has also faced criticism for its potential for essentialism, where individuals’ experiences are reduced to a linear and predetermined narrative structure. As Epitropoulos (2018) argues, Bildungsroman in geography can reproduce social and cultural norms, creating a limiting and homogenizing portrayal of people’s spatial experiences. Therefore, it is crucial for geographers to be critical of how they use and apply this genre, ensuring that it does not reinforce stereotypes or essentialized narratives.

In conclusion, the contemporary applications of Bildungsroman in geography have provided valuable insights into the complexities of human-environment interactions. Its ability to bridge the gap between physical and human geography and explore themes of identity and personal growth has made it a useful tool in understanding spatial experiences. However, its use should be accompanied by a critical lens to avoid reinforcing essentialism and individualism. With further refinement and inclusion of diverse perspectives, Bildungsroman will continue to be a valuable genre in geography, providing a nuanced understanding of individuals’ relationship with the environment.