What is Geography?

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What is the Definition of the Word Geography?

The word ‘geography’ originates from two Greek words.  The first is ‘geo’ which means ‘the earth’ and the second Greek word is “graph” which means  ‘to write’).

Origins of the Word Geography

The first recorded use of the word geography was by Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar who lived from 276–194 BC who is credited with creating the discipline of geography (Eratosthenes’ Geography. Princeton University Press. 2010).  

What is Studied in Geography?

Therefore, Geography is the science that deals with the description of the Earth’s surface.  Geography is a multi disciplinary fields that studies spatial patterns and phenomenon.

Geography is much more than cartography, the study of maps or simply knowing the capitals of every country. The field of geography 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”.

19th century reconstruction of Eratosthenes' map of the known world, c. 194 BC.
19th century reconstruction of Eratosthenes’ map of the known world, c. 194 BC.

Geography studies this whether the cause is natural or human. It also studies the consequences of those differences.

How is the Field of Geography Organized?

Over the years, the field of geography has been organized in several different ways.

Three Types of Geography

Geography can be broadly categorized as three main focus areas:

1. Physical geography – the study of the natural environment. 
2. Human geography – the study of human populations
3. Environmental geography the study of how people are affected by and change the natural environment.

Major Branches of Geography

Geographers can also organized the study of geography as branches and sub-branches of geography. (More: What are the Branches of Geography?)

Those that study geography are divided into two main branches: physical geography and human geography.

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 environmental geography.

Learn more: Sub-branches of Physical Geography

Flash flooding can move soils and wear away bedrock, causing erosion. Runoff after a storm in the lower Park Avenue area of Arches National Park, Utah. NPS photo, public domain.
Geographers study how processes such as water affect the surface of the Earth. Flash flooding can move soils and wear away bedrock, causing erosion. Runoff after a storm in the lower Park Avenue area of Arches National Park, Utah. NPS photo, public domain.

atmosphere — archipelago — cape — city — continent — desert — gulf — island — lake — lagoon — atoll — mountain range — ocean — peninsula — plain — river — sea — valley — ecology — climate — soil — geomorphology — biogeography – Timeline of geography, meteorology, paleontology

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.

Learn more: Sub-branches of Human Geography

Geographers study how humans have altered the landscape.  In Chesapeake Bay: L-R: A waterfront residential community; row crops bordered by forest; Baltimore Harbor; piers and crab pots in a waterfront fishing community.  Photo: ason Burton, USGS. Public domain.
Geographers study how humans have altered the landscape. In Chesapeake Bay: L-R: A waterfront residential community; row crops bordered by forest; Baltimore Harbor; piers and crab pots in a waterfront fishing community. Photo: Jason Burton, USGS. Public domain.

It can be divided into the following broad categories: economic geography, political geography (including geopolitics), social geography (including urban geography), environmentalism, cartography, and military geography.

Countries of the world — country — nation — state — union — province — county — city — municipality

Historical geography

This branch seeks to determine how physical and cultural features of the planet evolved and came into being and have evolved over time.

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.

A view of a suburban subdivision being developed in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Image: USGS, public domain.
Geographers study the effects of urbanization on a local landscape. A view of a suburban subdivision being developed in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Image: USGS, public domain.

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.

Geography Methods

Spatial interrelationships are key to this synoptic science, and it uses maps as a key tool.

Geographers use four interrelated approaches:

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

Geographic Techniques

Many technologies and techniques have evolved to help geographers in their study of the Earth. Geographic information systems and remote sensing are two main areas of geographic study that focus on using geospatial technologies to map out and analyze the world. GPS, LiDAR and satellite data are the main technologies being used to collect data about the Earth.

A LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) instrument measures the 3-D structure of a ponderosa pine forest stand in Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, on July 13, 2009. Photo: Dennis G. Dye, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.
A LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) instrument measures the 3-D structure of a ponderosa pine forest stand in Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, on July 13, 2009. Photo: Dennis G. Dye, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.

Five Themes of Geography

The Five Geography Themes began as a framework for making geography accessible to children from kindergarten to high school. They describe a simple, effective method for parents and educators to teach children about geography and how it relates to nature, civilization, and other topics. More: Five Themes of Geography Explained

Though the National Geographical Standards replaced these themes in 1994, they remain a simple and effective way to teach children about geography.

A Brief History of Geography as a Field of Study

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.

Ptolemy's Geographica, translated by Emanuel Chrysoloras and Jacobus AngelusHarley 7182 ff. 58v-59, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, British Library.
Ptolemy’s Geographica, translated by Emanuel Chrysoloras and Jacobus AngelusHarley 7182 ff. 58v-59, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, British Library.

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.

Al-Idrisi completed a detailed map of the world in Tabula Rogeriana, which means the Map of Roger in Latin. This copy of Idrisi's map was created by K. Miller in 1928 as part of a restoration of the 1154 map. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.
Al-Idrisi completed a detailed map of the world in Tabula Rogeriana, which means the Map of Roger in Latin. This copy of Idrisi’s map was created by K. Miller in 1928 as part of a restoration of the 1154 map. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.

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.

A Move Toward 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 and environmental quality.

Quotes About the Definition of Geography

The purpose of the discipline of geography has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years.  Below are some notable quotes defining the study of geography.

Strabo

The geographer is the person who attempts to describe parts of the earth.  (Geography, AD 18 – 24).

Richard Hartshorne (December 12, 1899 – November 5, 1992),  a prominent American geographer, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His areas of specialization were economic and political geography and the philosophy of geography and he was a proponent of geography as a chorological science.  

From The Nature of Geography:

The ultimate purpose of geography, the study of areal differentiation of the world, is most clearly expressed in regional geography; only by constantly maintaining its relation to regional geography can systematic geography hold to the purpose of geography and not disappear into other sciences.  On the other hand, regional geography in itself is sterile; without the continuous fertilization of generic concepts and principles from systematic geography, it could not advance to higher degrees of accuracy and certainty in interpretation or its findings. (Hartshorne 1939; 468)

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