A native and resident of Sweden, Hägerstrand was a professor (later professor emeritus) of geography at Lund University, where he received his doctorate in 1953. His doctoral research was on cultural diffusion. His research has helped to make Sweden, and particularly Lund, a major center of innovative work in cultural geography. He also influenced the practice of spatial planning in Sweden through his students.
Hägerstrand's father was a teacher at a remote elementary school and the family lived at the school. Hägerstrand recalled that his early education was based on the pedagogical ideas of Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi. Several of Hägerstrand's students speculated that his holistic and visionary thinking was rooted in his early education:
Hägerstrand entered Lund University in 1937. His 1953 doctoral thesis Innovation Diffusion as a Spatial Process gained fame for its innovative use of Monte Carlo simulation of demographic development. It showed how dynamic, incremental simulation of spatial processes could be used at the spatial scale of the individual as well as large spatial aggregates. Forty years later, geographer Andrew Cliff remarked on the foresight of Hägerstrand's methodology: "Bearing in mind that much of the research upon which the book is based dates from a time when computers were almost nonexistent, let alone used by geographers, it is remarkable that the simulation methodology which is so critically dependent upon computing power should have been contemplated."
Hägerstrand's research was aided by developments at Lund University, notably the establishment of the Siffermaskinen i Lund (SMIL), one of Sweden's first computers. Hägerstrand noted that the Swedish computer scientist Carl-Erik Fröberg, who had been Hägerstrand's "school-mate since secondary school", had introduced him to the Monte Carlo method that would define his doctoral thesis, following a trip by Fröberg and other young Swedish scientists to the United States, a trip that was financed by the Swedish government's project to build its own computer.
In 1969, he presented a paper titled "What about People in Regional Science?" to the European Congress of the Regional Science Association in Copenhagen, Denmark. This paper, published in 1970, developed two concepts:
- The need to study the individual in order to understand social and group practices. Modern cultural geographers commonly now study everyday practices on an individualistic basis, in order to understand larger scale patterns. The study of just groups creates a homogenization of reality and hides the truth.
- A link between space and time that had previously been poorly developed. Historically, social scientists had treated time as a relevant but external factor to spatial features. Hägerstrand's early work on innovation diffusion (studying the geographical spread of new technologies) made him realise that the two, though separate, were not independent of each other; they have what French theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a dialectical relationship.
Hägerstrand's initial work was primarily quantitative, which is important as the discipline of geography was, when he published his first paper in 1942, a highly descriptive subject. In the 1950s he was a pioneer of geocoding statistical primary data. He developed models and statistical techniques, such as the time–space cube and time–space prism, which later became important in the development of geographic information systems that process and visualize movement data. His work informed the likes of Allan Pred and Nigel Thrift, who helped take it to the English speaking world.
Hägerstrand's work contributed to the introduction of humanistic thought into geography, which led to the development of critical geography. While his early work was largely quantitative, Hägerstrand's later work paid closer attention to notions of embodiment and emotion. Still, his methods were critiqued by feminist geographer Gillian Rose, who claimed that his models showed a masculine and falsely-ordered view of the world. More recent geographers have tried to combine time geography with the qualitative research and affective phenomenology of feminist geography.
Development of Hägerstrand's work has continued to form part of the basis for non-representational theory, and a reappraisal of his work by new generations of social scientists and biologists means that he remains an influential thinker today. In 2005, Nigel Thrift summarized five benefits of Hägerstrand's time geography for contemporary social science:
He received honorary doctorates from University of Bergen, Norwegian school of economics and business administration, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, University of Bristol, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and Ohio State University. The commendation accompanying the honorary degree at Ohio State University noted that "his work on innovation diffusion, carried out in the 1950s and 1960s, continues to be cited as a standard against which current research is measured" and that "this distinguished individual...inspired a generation of scholars around the world."
He was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Finnish Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and a member of Société de Géographie in France. He was also one of the founding members of Academia Europaea.
In 1968 Professor Hägerstrand was awarded the Charles P. Daly Medal of the American Geographical Society and in 1968 received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Association of American Geographers. In 1979 he received the Victoria Medal from the Royal Geographical Society.
In 1992 Torsten Hägerstrand was awarded Lauréat Prix International de Géographie Vautrin Lud, the highest award in the geography research field.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1952). The propagation of innovation waves. Lund studies in geography: Series B, Human geography, 4. Lund: Royal University of Lund, Dept. of Geography. OCLC 254752.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1955). "Statistiska primäruppgifter, flygkartering och "data processing"-maskiner: ett kombineringsprojekt". Svensk Geografisk Årsbok (in Swedish) (31): 233–255.
- Hannerberg, David; Hägerstrand, Torsten, eds. (1957). Migration in Sweden: a symposium. Lund studies in geography: Series B, Human geography, 13. Lund: CWK Gleerup. OCLC 170619.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1967a) . Innovation diffusion as a spatial process [Innovationsförloppet ur korologisk synpunkt]. Postscript and translation by Allan Pred; Translated with the assistance of Greta Haag. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 536383.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1967b). "The computer and the geographer". Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (42): 1–19. doi:10.2307/621369. JSTOR 621369.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1970). "What about people in regional science?". Papers of the Regional Science Association. 24 (1): 6–21. doi:10.1007/BF01936872.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1973). On the definition of migration. Rapporter och notiser, 9. Scandinavian population studies. Lund: Lunds universitets kulturgeografiska institution. OCLC 185647319.
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- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1974). "Ecology under one perspective". In Bylund, Erik; Linderholm, Håkan; Rune, Olof (eds.). Ecological problems of the circumpolar area: papers from the international symposium at Luleå, Sweden, June 28–29, 1971. Luleå: Norrbottens Museum. pp. 271–276. OCLC 3035384.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1974). The impact of transport on the quality of life. Rapporter och notiser, 13. Lund: Lunds universitets kulturgeografiska institution. OCLC 185647393.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1975). "Space, time and human conditions". In Karlqvist, Anders; Lundqvist, Lars; Snickars, Folke (eds.). Dynamic allocation of urban space. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. pp. 3–14. ISBN 978-0347010528. OCLC 1364735.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1976). "Geography and the study of interaction between nature and society". Geoforum. 7 (5–6): 329–334. doi:10.1016/0016-7185(76)90063-4.
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- Buttimer, Anne; Hägerstrand, Torsten (1980). Invitation to dialogue: a progress report. DIA paper, 1. Lund: University of Lund. OCLC 8534714.
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- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1983). "In search for the sources of concepts". In Buttimer, Anne (ed.). The practice of geography. London; New York: Longman. pp. 238–256. ISBN 978-0582300873. OCLC 8629687.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten, ed. (1985). The identification of progress in learning. European Science Foundation; International Colloquium on the Identification of Progress in Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521300872. OCLC 10924966.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1985). "Time geography: focus on the corporeality of man, society and environment". In Aida, Shūhei (ed.). The science and praxis of complexity: contributions to the symposium held at Montpellier, France, 9–11 May, 1984. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. pp. 193–216. ISBN 9789280805604. OCLC 13025296.
- Hägerstrand, Torsten (1991). Om tidens vidd och tingens ordning (in Swedish). A selection of Professor Hägerstrand's 300-odd scholarly essays, articles, lectures, and papers, edited by Gösta Carlestam and Barbro Sollbe. Stockholm: Byggforskningsrådet. ISBN 978-9154053636. OCLC 29548202.
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- Hägerstrand, Torsten (2009). Tillvaroväven (in Swedish). Edited by Kajsa Ellegård and Uno Svedin, with a bibliography by Bo Lenntorp. Stockholm: Forskningsrådet Formas. ISBN 978-9154060337. OCLC 456875435.
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- "Torsten Hägerstrand" Encyclopædia Britannica