Geography Essay

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The word geography is rooted in the Greek and literally translates to “writing the earth.” As a modern academic discipline, it is characterized by multiple traditions usually regarded as sharing a common concern for the spatial qualities and problems of the world, and the complex relationships between human beings and nature. Following a period of low academic profile, the discipline is apparently resurgent, especially as global environmental problems and issues have emerged centerstage and the spatial and scalar nature of contemporary social and economic problems has become increasingly apparent.

The foundations of the modern discipline of geography are found in other disciplines and throughout history. For example, ancient Greek writers-including Aristotle-frequently commented on the nature and order of the environment and society. During the 16th and 17th centuries, by uniting religion and academic observation of the world, theology played an important part in thinking about environment. Natural Theology, for example, assumed that since God made the world’s features, studying them could enlighten humankind as to the character of God. These and other diverse bodies of academic scholarship made it possible to eventually build a discipline-geography-that is concerned exclusively with features of the natural and social world.

Geography and Determinism

Emerging in the 19th and early 20th century, geography used the world’s regions as a basic explanatory unit on scales ranging from continents to the political and natural subdivisions of countries. At first, this regional geography purely described region’s social and natural contents. Gradually, however, the interaction of the natural environment and human behavior was accorded dedication attention. Drawing on Darwin’s work, the theory of Environmental Determinism, for example, argued that local environmental conditions determine the character of people and their activities. Such arguments were used to explain European “achievements” over peoples living under less ideal environmental conditions and, not surprisingly, served to reinforce European supremacy in the world. Meanwhile, other influential geographers such as the German Friedrich Ratzel and the Englishman Halford Mackinder examined the territorial growth of states and empires. In his 1904 paper The Geographical Pivot of History Mackinder introduced his Heartland Theory, which argued that in order to dominate the world and dictate world affairs, the world’s heartland (Eurasia) must be occupied. He famously stated, “Who rules East Europe commands the heartland, who rules the heartland commands the world island, who rules the world-island commands the world.” These kinds of ideas filtered into the turbulent and aggressive European politics of the era. At this time a divide was also growing between physical and human geography. The former being concerned with the working of the world’s physical environment, the latter-as the above discussion of nation states indicates-being concerned with society and environment.

Spatial to Humanistic Geography

By World War II, human geography had begun to develop a scientific rationale and approach. In his 1939 book The Nature of Geography, Richard Hartshorne argued that geography existed purely to discover the functional spatial integration of phenomena. Based on these ideas, a growing assumption in the discipline of society being logically and geometrically distributed over space provided the theoretical basis of spatial science, which, as a paradigm, dominated geography until the 1970s. Assisted by emerging computer technologies in their attempts to articulate the world’s various spatial orders, geographers focused their attentions on distances, directions, locations, and spatial associations. Geographers typically refer to the rapid emergence of spatial science in their discipline as the “quantitative revolution.”

During the 1970s, spatial science was attacked and undermined from within the discipline. Many geographers were concerned that, through spatial science, geography was incorrectly privileging distance above all other relational features of social and economic life and moreover, in doing so, was isolating itself as an exclusive science of space. Another criticism of spatial science highlighted the abstraction of people and places in this research to dots on maps and numbers in equations. It was thought that this filtered the complexity of individuals and humanity out of geographical writing. Critics were also concerned about the assumption made in spatial science that people behave rationally, predictably, and economically. In this regard, critics emphasized people’s capacity for individuality, irrationality, to follow fashions and act on their own tastes and whims.

From these critiques, a humanistic tradition grew in human geography and emphasized human agency and individuality. Humanistic geography pioneered a much more sensitive approach to the study of people, which remains in the contemporary discipline to this day. Moreover, they started to think about the complexities of places, beyond being physical locations or boundaries of human activity to being social phenomenon that facilitate human actions, interactions experiences, attachments, identities and possess symbolic meaning. The new subjects studied by humanistic geographers were diverse and included considerations of art, history, poetry, and fiction.

At the same time, in a search for explanations of fundamental social processes, a Marxist approach emerged within the discipline. This work was based on the observation that, to exist, Marx’s political economy of capitalism depended on the production of a space-economy. David Harvey called it the “spatial fix of capitalism,” referring to how capitalism is reliant on space, the availability of which determines its success and nature of its development. In terms of how this works out in the world, Marxist geography thought of urban space as being shaped by the unequal division of capital (owners and workers) and being contested by these respective classes.

During the early 1980s, the humanist paradigm was critiqued for its lack of theoretical depth and for its general descriptiveness. Meanwhile, Marxist geography was criticized primarily for privileging capitalism in determining societal orders to the neglect of other identities in society. Indeed, during the 1990s and into the new millennium, a growing number of human geographers have become interested in the relationship between culture and place. In a rapid disciplinary movement, postmodern theoretical perspectives and qualitative methods have been adopted by the discipline. Cultural geographers explore how language, meaning, experience, and subjectivity are related to place. Amongst geographers, these emerging interests have become known as the cultural turn.

Modern Geography

Human geography is now composed of a number of highly overlapping subdisciplines, some of which are distinguishable by their focus on a specific type of place (for example, rural geography and urban geography), others that are more clearly distinguishable by their focus on a specific empirical subject or theme (for example, development geography, tourism geography, and health geography) and others that are more clearly distinguishable by their specific conceptual focus (for example, historical geography, feminist geography, and moral geography).

Moreover, overlapping the borders of many are recognized debates or bodies of literature (geographies of caring and emotional geographies). Meanwhile, physical geography has retained its scientific basis and approach and has escaped many of the paradigm shifts and trends outlined above. Its scope remains broad, investigating the spatial character and patterning of natural phenomenon such as vegetation, soils, landforms, climate, and various water masses. In terms of disciplinary connections, physical geography incorporates-and has obvious broad overlaps with-geomorphology, geology, hydrology, meteorology, climatology, and even oceanography.

Human and physical geography might be distinguishable, yet there are obvious overlaps, particularly in considerations of environment and society. Moreover, institutionally they are often taught together in universities and schools the world over.


  1. Crang, Cultural Geography (Routledge, 1998);
  2. Gregory, Geographical Imaginations (Blackwell, 1994);
  3. Harvey, Social Justice in the City (Arnold, 1973);
  4. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change (Blackwell, 1989);
  5. J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, and M. Watts, eds., The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th ed. (Blackwell, 2000);
  6. Livingston, The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise (Blackwell, 1992);
  7. Relph, Place and Placelessness (Pion, 1976).

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