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Physical map of the Earth (Medium) (Large 2 MB)
Physical map of the Earth (Medium) (Large 2 MB)

Geography is the scientific study of the locational and spatial variation in both physical and human phenomena on Earth. The word derives from the Greek words ("the Earth") and graphein ("to write," as in "to describe").

Geography is also the title of various historical books on this subject, notably the Geographia by Klaudios Ptolemaios (2nd century).

Geography is much more than cartography, the study of maps. It not only investigates what is where on the Earth, but also why it's there and not somewhere else, sometimes referred to as "location in space." It studies this whether the cause is natural or human. It also studies the consequences of those differences.


History of geography

The Greeks are the first known culture to actively explore geography as a science and philosophy, with major contributors including Thales of Miletus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Aristotle, Dicaearchus of Messana, Strabo, and Ptolemy. Mapping by the Romans as they explored new lands added new techniques. One technique was the periplus, a description of the ports and landfalls a coastwise sailor would find along a coastline; two early examples that have survived are the periplus of the Carthaginian Hanno the Navigator and a Periplus of the Erythraean sea, which describes the coastlines of the Red Sea and the Persian gulf..

During the Middle Ages, Arabs such as Idrisi, Ibn Battuta, and Ibn Khaldun built on and maintained the Greek and Roman learnings. Following the journeys of Marco Polo, interest in geography spread throughout Europe. During the Renaissance and into the 16th and 17th centuries the great voyages of exploration revived a desire for solid theoretical foundations and accurate detail. The Geographia Generalis by Bernhardus Varenius and Gerardus Mercator's world map are prime examples.

By the 18th century, geography had become recognized as a discrete discipline and became part of a typical university curriculum. Over the past two centuries the quantity of knowledge and the number of tools has exploded. There are strong links between geography and the sciences of geology and botany.

In the West during the 20th century, the discipline of geography went through four major phases: environmental determinism, regional geography, the quantitative revolution , and critical geography.

Environmental determinism is the theory that characteristics of people and cultures are due to the influence of the natural environment. Prominent environmental determinists included Carl Ritter, Ellen Churchill Semple, and Ellsworth Huntington. Popular hypotheses included "heat makes inhabitants of the tropics lazy" and "frequent changes in barometric pressure make inhabitants of temperate latitudes more intellectually agile." Environmental determinist geographers attempted to make the study of such influences scientific. Around the 1930s, this school of thought was widely repudiated as lacking any basis and being prone to (often bigoted) generalizations. Environmental determinism remains an embarrassment to many contemporary geographers, and leads to skepticism among many of them of claims of environmental influence on culture (such as the theories of Jared Diamond).

Regional geography represented a reaffirmation that the proper topic of geography was space and place. Regional geographers focused on the collection of descriptive information about places, as well as the proper methods for dividing the earth up into regions. The philosophical basis of this field was laid out by Richard Hartshorne.

The quantitative revolution was geography's attempt to redefine itself as a science, in the wake of the revival of interest in science following the launch of Sputnik. Quantitative revolutionaries, often referred to as "space cadets," declared that the purpose of geography was to test general laws about the spatial arrangement of phenomena. They adopted the philosophy of positivism from the natural sciences and turned to mathematics—especially statistics—as a way of proving hypotheses. The quantitative revolution laid the groundwork for the development of geographic information systems.

Though positivist and post-positivist approaches remain important in geography, critical geography arose as a critique of positivism. The first strain of critical geography to emerge was humanist geography. Drawing on the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology, humanist geographers (such as Yi-Fu Tuan) focused on people's sense of, and relationship with, places. More influential was Marxist geography, which applied the social theories of Karl Marx and his followers to geographic phenomena. David Harvey and Richard Peet are well-known Marxist geographers. Feminist geography is, as the name suggests, the use of ideas from feminism in geographic contexts. The most recent strain of critical geography is postmodernist geography, which employs the ideas of postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists to explore the social construction of spatial relations.


Spatial interrelationships are key to this synoptic science , and it uses maps as a key tool. Classical cartography has been joined by the more modern approach to geographical analysis, computer-based geographic information systems (GIS).

Geographers use four interrelated approaches:

  • Systematic - Groups geographical knowledge into categories that can be explored globally
  • Regional - Examines systematic relationships between categories for a specific region or location on the planet.
  • Descriptive - Simply specifies the locations of features and populations.
  • Analytical - Asks why we find features and populations in a specific geographic area.


Physical geography

This branch focuses on Geography as an Earth science, making use of biology to understand global flora and fauna patterns, and mathematics and physics to understand the motion of the earth and relationship with other bodies in the solar system. It also includes landscape ecology and environmental geography.

Related Topics: atmosphere -- archipelago -- continent -- desert -- island -- landform -- ocean -- sea -- river -- lake -- ecology -- climate -- soil -- geomorphology -- biogeography - Timeline of geography, paleontology, palaeogeography,Hydrology

Human geography

The human, or political/cultural, branch of geography - also called anthropogeography focuses on the social science, non-physical aspects of the way the world is arranged. It examines how humans adapt themselves to the land and to other people, and in macroscopic transformations they enact on the world. It can be divided into the following broad categories: economic geography, political geography (including geopolitics), social geography (including urban geography), feminist geography, and military geography .

Related Topics: Countries of the world -- country -- nation -- state -- personal union -- province -- county -- city -- municipality

Human-environment geography

During the time of environmental determinism, geography was defined not as the study of spatial relationships, but as the study of how humans and the natural environment interact. Though environmental determinism has died out, there remains a strong tradition of geographers addressing the relationships between people and nature. There are two main subfields of human-environment geography: cultural and political ecology (CAPE), and risk-hazards research.

Cultural and political ecology

Cultural ecology grew out of the work of Carl Sauer in geography and a similar school of thought in anthropology. It examined how human societies adapt themselves to the natural environment. Sustainability science has been one important outgrowth of this tradition. Political ecology arose when some geographers used aspects of critical geography to look at relations of power and how they affect people's use of the environment. For example, an influential study by Michael Watts argued that famines in the Sahel are caused by the changes in the region's political and economic system as a result of colonialism and the spread of capitalism..

Risk-hazards research

Research on hazards began with the work of geographer Gilbert F. White , who sought to understand why people live in disaster-prone floodplains. Since then, the hazards field has expanded to become a multidisciplinary field examining both natural hazards (such as earthquakes) and technological hazards (such as nuclear reactor meltdowns). Geographers studying hazards are interested in both the dynamics of the hazard event and how people and societies deal with it.

Historical geography

This branch seeks to determine how cultural features of the multifarious societies across the planet evolved and came into being. Study of the landscape is one of many key foci in this field - much can be deduced about earlier societies from their impact on their local environment and surroundings.

What's in a name? Historical geography and the Berkeley School

"Historical Geography" can indeed refer to the reciprocal effects of geography and history on each other. But in the United States, it has a more specialized meaning: This is the name given by Carl Ortwin Sauer of the University of California, Berkeley to his program of reorganizing cultural geography (some say all geography) along regional lines, beginning in the first decades of the 20th Century.

To Sauer, a landscape and the cultures in it could only be understood if all of its influences through history were taken into account: Physical, cultural, economic, political, environmental. Sauer stressed regional specialization as the only means of gaining expertise on regions of the world.

Sauer's philosophy was the principal shaper of American geographic thought in the mid-20th century. Regional specialists remain in academic geography departments to this day. But many geographers feel that it harmed the discipline in the long run: Too much effort was spent on data collection and classification, and too little on analysis and explanation. Studies became more and more area specific as later geographers struggled to find places to make names for themselves. This probably led in turn to the 1950's crisis in Geography which nearly destroyed it as an academic discipline.

Geographic techniques

Cartography studies the representation of the Earth's surface with abstract symbols. It can be said, without much controversy, that cartography is the seed from which the larger field of Geography grew. Most geographers will cite a childhood fascination with maps as an early sign they would end up in the field. Although other subdisciplines of geography rely on maps for presenting their analyses, the actual making of maps is abstract enough to be regarded separately. Cartography has grown from a collection of drafting techniques into an actual science. Cartographers must learn cognitive psychology and ergonomics to understand which symbols convey information about the Earth most effectively, and [behavioral psychology] to induce the readers of their maps to act on the information. They must learn geodesy and fairly advanced mathematics to understand how the shape of the Earth affects the distortion of map symbols projected onto a flat surface for viewing.

  • Geographic Information Systems deals with the storage of information about the Earth for automatic retrieval by a computer, in an accurate manner appropriate to the information's purpose. In addition to all of the other subdisciplines of geography, GIS specialists must understand computer science and database systems. GIS has so revolutionized the field of cartography that nearly all mapmaking is now done with the assistance of some form of GIS software.
  • Geographic quantitative methods deal with numerical methods peculiar to (or at least most commonly found in) geography. In addition to spatial analyses , you are likely to find things like cluster analysis , discriminant analysis , and non-parametric statistical tests in geographic studies.

Related fields

Urban and regional planning

Urban planning and regional planning use the science of geography to assist in determining how to develop (or not develop) the land to meet particular criteria, such as safety, beauty, economic opportunities, the preservation of the built or natural heritage, etcetera. The planning of towns, cities and rural areas may be seen as applied geography although it also draws heavily upon the arts, the sciences and lessons of history. Some of the issues facing planning are considered briefly under the headings of rural exodus, urban exodus and Smart Growth.

Regional science

In the 1950s the regional science movement arose, led by Walter Isard to provide a more quantitative and analytical base to geographical questions, in contrast to the more qualitative tendencies of traditional geography programs. Regional Science comprises the body of knowledge in which the spatial dimension plays a fundamental role, such as regional economics , resource management, location theory , urban and regional planning, transportation and communication, human geography, population distribution , landscape ecology, and environmental quality.

External links

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45