Career. Halford Mackinder was born in Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire, England, the eldest son of a doctor. He studied natural science at Oxford University and graduated in 1883; four years later he gained a chair in geography at that university which he held until 1905. In 1899 he created a geography department, contributing to the institutional professionalization of geographical study. This development also illustrates what was occurring throughout the social sciences at the time, the formation of distinct “disciplines.” From 1903 to 1908 he served as Director of the London School of Economics. Shortly thereafter he entered politics and was elected to Parliament as a Conservative, where he served from 1910 to 1922.
Scholarship. His first significant publication was the article “The Scope and Methods of Geography.” Here he formulated methods of geographical inquiry and helped to lay the foundation of the new discipline. In this article he stated that to properly understand human activity of any kind, one must first place it upon its physical geographic base. Indeed, human activity could not be fully understood apart from its formative geographical context. He exemplified this method in Britain and the British Seas, which he published in 1902. This book is a case study of regional geography in which Mackinder deftly and intricately depicts the geographic base of Britain’s political power. His most influential work, however, is the article “The Geographical Pivot of History,” published in 1904. Mackinder expanded his idea in the book Democratic Ideals and Reality, which appeared in 1919. In the article and the book he advanced the following: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World Island commands the World.” This idea was granted even greater credence in the 1930s and 1940s with the competition between Germany and the Soviet Union and may have influenced Karl Haushofer, the Nazi geopolitician, to urge Adolf Hitler to invade the U.S.S.R. in 1941.
The Discipline. Mackinder also is famous for holding the first university chair in geography and establishing the contours of the new discipline through his influential writings. In doing so he moved geography away from environmental determinism without compromising the environmental perspective of the field (here he was influenced by the writings of the Germans Alexander von Humboldt and Karl Ritter). He envisioned a geopolitical application of his ideas and affirmed that the knowledge gained from geographical study could strengthen and further unify Britain’s empire as it faced the rising power of Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For Mackinder the New Imperialism and the new discipline of Geography mutually reinforced one another.
Brian W. Blouet, Halford Mackinder: A Biography (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1987).
David Livingston, The Geographical Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
W. H. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).