What is Geography?

Geography is the study of spatial variation, of how and why things differ from place to place on the surface of the earth. It is, further, the study of how observable spatial patterns evolved through time.

Geography is a large and vibrant academic discipline, with roots in the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities.


It is an academic discipline whose main concerns are describing and understanding areal differentiation in the distribution of various phenomena across the earth’s surface.

It focuses on the interrelationships among three main concepts – environment, space and place.

Geographers focus on the interaction of people and social groups with their environment— planet Earth—and with one another; they seek to examine how human culture interacts with the natural environment, and the way that locations and places can have an impact on people.

Because geographers study both the physical environment and human use of that environment, they are sensitive to the variety of forces affecting a place and the interactions among them.

Evolution of the Discipline

Geography’s combination of interests was apparent even in the work of the early Greek geographers who first gave structure to the discipline. Geography’s name was reputedly coined by the Greek scientist Eratosthenes over 2200 years ago from the words geo, “the Earth,” and graphein, “to write.”

From the beginning, that writing focused both on the physical structure of the Earth and on the nature and activities of the people who inhabited the various lands of the known world.

To Strabo (c. 64 B.C.–A.D. 20), the task of geography was to “describe the several parts of the inhabited world, . . . to write the assessment of the countries of the world [and] to treat the differences between countries.”

Even earlier, Herodotus (c. 484–425 B.C.) had found it necessary to devote much of his writing to the lands, peoples, economies, and customs of the various parts of the Persian Empire as necessary background to an understanding of the causes and course of the Persian wars.

Greek (and, later, Roman) geographers measured the Earth, devised the global grid of parallels and meridians (marking latitudes and longitudes), and drew upon that grid surprisingly sophisticated maps of their known world.

They explored the apparent latitudinal variations in climate and described in numerous works the familiar Mediterranean Basin and the more remote, partly rumored lands of northern Europe, Asia, and equatorial Africa.

Employing nearly modern concepts, they described river systems, explored cycles of erosion and patterns of deposition, cited the dangers of deforestation, described variations in the natural landscape, and noted the consequences

of environmental abuse. Against that physical backdrop, they focused their attention on what humans did in home and distant areas—how they lived; what their distinctive similarities and differences were in language, religion, and custom; and how they used, altered, and perhaps destroyed the lands they inhabited.

Strabo, indeed, cautioned against the assumption that the nature and actions of humans were determined by the physical environment they inhabited. He observed that humans were the active elements in a human-environmental partnership.

The interests guiding the early Greek and Roman geographers were and are enduring and universal. The ancient Chinese, for example, were as involved in geography as an explanatory viewpoint as were westerners, though there was no exchange between them.

Further, as Christian Europe entered its Middle Ages between A.D. 800 and 1400 and lost its knowledge of Greek and Roman geographic work, Muslim scholars—who retained that knowledge—undertook to describe and analyze their known world in its physical, cultural, and regional variation.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, European voyages of exploration and discovery put geography at the forefront of the scientific revival. Modern geography had its origins in the surge of scholarly inquiry that, beginning in the 17th century, gave rise to many of the traditional academic disciplines we know today.

In its European rebirth, geography from the outset was recognized—as it always had been—as a broadly based integrative study. Patterns and processes of the physical landscape were early interests, as was concern with humans as part of the Earth’s variation from place to place.

The rapid development of geology, botany, zoology, climatology, and other natural sciences by the end of the 18th century strengthened regional geographic investigation and increased scholarly and popular awareness of the intricate interconnections of things in space and between places.

By that time, accurate determination of latitude and longitude and scientific mapping of the Earth had made an assignment of place information more reliable and comprehensive. A key figure during this period of geographic research was Alexander von Humboldt.

Humboldt, for whom Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, is named, led ambitious scientific expeditions to distant places and synthesized vast amounts of geographic data in his famous writings.

Subfields of Geography

Traditionally geography has been divided into physical geography, human geography, and regional geography respectively, with the first two each containing a substantial number of separate systematic subfields.

Physical Geography

Physical geography is the study of the spatial patterns of weather and climate, soils, vegetation, animals, water in all its forms, and landforms. Physical geography also examines the interrelationships of these phenomena to human activities.

Some disciplines within physical geography include geomorphology, glaciology, pedology, hydrology, climatology, biogeography, and oceanography.

Geomorphology is the study of landforms and the processes that shape them. Geomorphologists investigate the nature and impact of wind, ice, rivers, erosion, earthquakes, volcanoes, living things, and other forces that shape and change the surface of the Earth.

Glaciologists focus on the Earth’s ice fields and their impact on the planet’s climate. Glaciologists document the properties and distribution of glaciers and icebergs. Data collected by glaciologists has demonstrated the retreat of Arctic and Antarctic ice in the past century.

Pedologists study soil and how it is created, changed, and classified. Soil studies are used by a variety of professions, from farmers analyzing field fertility to engineers investigating the suitability of different areas for building heavy structures.

Hydrology is the study of Earth’s water: its properties, distribution, and effects. Hydrologists are especially concerned with the movement of water as it cycles from the ocean to the atmosphere, then back to Earth’s surface. Hydrologists study the water cycle through rainfall into streams, lakes, the soil, and underground aquifers.

Hydrologists provide insights that are critical to building or removing dams, designing irrigation systems, monitoring water quality, tracking drought conditions, and predicting flood risk.

Climatologists study Earth’s climate system and its impact on Earth’s surface. For example, climatologists make predictions about El Nino, a cyclical weather phenomenon of warm surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

They analyze the dramatic worldwide climate changes caused by El Nino, such as flooding in Peru, drought in Australia, and, in the United States, the oddities of heavy Texas rains or an unseasonably warm Minnesota winter.

Biogeographers study the impact of the environment on the distribution of plants and animals. For example, a biogeographer might document all the places in the world inhabited by a certain spider species, and what those places have in common.

Oceanography, a related discipline of physical geography, focuses on the creatures and environments of the world’s oceans. Observation of ocean tides and currents constituted some of the first oceanographic investigations.

For example, 18th-century mariners figured out the geography of the Gulf Stream, a massive current flowing like a river through the Atlantic Ocean. The discovery and tracking of the Gulf Stream helped communications and travel between Europe and the Americas.

Human Geography

Human geography is concerned with the distribution and networks of people and cultures on Earth’s surface. A human geographer might investigate the local, regional, and global impact of rising economic powers China and India, which represent 37 percent of the world’s people.

They also might look at how consumers in China and India adjust to new technology and markets, and how markets respond to such a huge consumer base.

Human geographers also study how people use and alter their environments. When, for example, people allow their animals to overgraze a region, the soil erodes and grassland is transformed into a desert. The impact of overgrazing on the landscape as well as agricultural production is an area of study for human geographers.

Finally, human geographers study how political, social, and economic systems are organized across geographical space. These include governments, religious organizations, and trade partnerships. The boundaries of these groups constantly change.

The main divisions within human geography reflect a concern with different types of human activities or ways of living. Some examples of human geography include urban geography, economic geography, cultural geography, political geography, social geography, and population geography.

Human geographers who study geographic patterns and processes in past times are part of the subdiscipline of historical geography. Those who study how people understand maps and geographic space belong to a subdiscipline known as behavioral geography.

Many human geographers interested in the relationship between humans and the environment work in the subdisciplines of cultural geography and political geography.

Cultural geographers study how the natural environment influences the development of human culture, such as how the climate affects the agricultural practices of a region.

Political geographers study the impact of political circumstances on interactions between people and their environment, as well as environmental conflicts, such as disputes over water rights.

Some human geographers focus on the connection between human health and geography. For example, health geographers create maps that track the location and spread of specific diseases.

They analyze the geographic disparities of health-care access. They are very interested in the impact of the environment on human health, especially the effects of environmental hazards such as radiation, lead poisoning, or water pollution.

Regional Geography

Regional geography is a major branch of geography. It focuses on the interaction of different cultural and natural geofactors in a specific land or landscape

Regional geographers take a somewhat different approach to specialization, directing their attention to the general geographic characteristics of a region.

A regional geographer might specialize in African studies, observing and documenting the people, nations, rivers, mountains, deserts, weather, trade, and other attributes of the continent.

There are different ways you can define a region. You can look at climate zones, cultural regions, or political regions. Often regional geographers have a physical or human geography specialty as well as a regional specialty.

Regional geographers may also study smaller regions, such as urban areas. A regional geographer may be interested in the way a city like Shanghai, China, is growing. They would study transportation, migration, housing, and language use, as well as the human impact on elements of the natural environment, such as the Huangpu River.

Whether geography is thought of as a discipline or as a basic feature of our world, developing an understanding of the subject is important. Some grasp of geography is essential as people seek to make sense of the world and understand their place in it.

Thinking geographically helps people to be aware of the connections among and between places and to see how important events are shaped by where they take place.

Finally, knowing something about geography enriches people’s lives—promoting curiosity about other people and places and an appreciation of the patterns, environments, and peoples that make up the endlessly fascinating, varied planet on which we live.

Geography’s Core Concepts

Space: Geography has always been involved in the analysis of space and this provides the first core concept. Geographical space comprises location, or where we are on the Earth’s surface in relation to geographical coordinates; distances measured in a variety of ways; and directions that complete the interrelationships of different locations on the Earth’s surface.

A key corollary of the focus on geographical space has been the ways in which the Earth’s surface is depicted. Maps, cartography, and, most recently, satellite images, qualifi ed by scale and forms of representation, are the working tools for much geographical analysis.

Place is another core concept in geography. Place is not independent of space because it involves an area or territory; it is a form of bounded space. Place can be applied at a variety of scales from a state or country to a neighborhood or home area.

Place, therefore, includes the search for boundaries, edges, and limits that contain a definable and recognized territory. When describing the differences between places, the focus may be on natural boundaries such as rivers or mountain ranges, but boundaries are also set by human decision-makers who may be intent upon identifying political states or arbitrating among disputed

The physical boundaries are not always unambiguous, and the lesson of history is that major disputes and conflicts can arise over the designation of relatively small parcels of land. Geography also includes the mental maps and images that defi ne places subjectively.

Environment is the third core concept for geography. In its most unambiguous interpretation, it is the natural environment, but that environment is occupied by people and in that sense, it has a wider meaning.

The environment, like place, encompasses human perceptions and aspirations as well as the biophysical characteristics that can be measured and monitored. The shape of the Earth’s surface and the processes enacted upon it, both physical and human, are part of the essence of geography.

Similarly, the reciprocal relationship between the natural environment and people always has been and remains a key question. The emphases have changed over time, from early ideas that suggested definitive environmentally determined limitations on people, to greater awareness of the human impact on the natural environment.

Current issues of sustainability, custodianship of the environment, protocols to reduce holes in the ozone layer, and world summits to limit the use of carbon fuels all belong to the imperative to understand and manage this key relationship.

Geographers would argue that they alone focus on the holistic view and that this is a view of increasing importance in a world where issues such as environmental change and globalization are becoming pressing.

Applying Geography

Geography was invented as an academic discipline because of its potential applied value in promoting world understanding. Since then, the importance of an applied stance has varied, in part at least because of the demands made on the discipline, and indeed on academia in general; in some societies, of course, such as the USSR and Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989, the practice of geography was almost entirely determined by the demands of the state apparatus.

The applied value of geography was particularly appreciated in the Second World War with the ability of geographers to provide information about other countries; their cartographic and photogrammetric skills were widely employed in intelligence work.

From the 1950s on, the role of geographical work, first in data collection and later in their analysis and use in prescription, as in the preparation of town and regional plans, was increasingly recognized and some of the technical developments since (as in GIS) have been oriented to practical applications: indeed, some argue that one of the geographer’s most important roles is to add value to data, which can then be ‘sold’ to spatial decision-makers, while US geographers have identified GIS and related skills as important ‘selling’ points for a geographical education (NAS-NRC 1997).

The growing concern over environmental issues – local, regional, national and global – has attracted much attention. Geographers’ stress on both the processes that operate in the physical environment and the impact of human activity on those processes and their outcomes has generated much work, in the conduct of environmental impact assessments, for example, and in the moves towards sustainable development at a variety of scales.

Much of this work sees geographers applying the methods and goals of the positivist approach in seeking solutions to a variety of perceived problems, in engineering social futures on the basis of scientific understanding. This technocratic view has been challenged by others, who see such work as promoting the status quo within society, thereby maintaining its many inequalities and injustices, and sustaining both the capitalist mode of production and the state apparatus whose goal is to promote and legitimize what is perceived as an unjust system.

For such critics, there are other applied roles for geographers, in promoting awareness of the nature of the changing world in which we live (both self-awareness and awareness of others) and in advancing the cause of emancipation, whereby people are enabled to obtain control over society and steer it towards their own ends. Each is a contested political goal; all involve geography as the servant of particular causes.

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