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Editor: William A. Darity, Jr.
Date: 2008
International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Geography is the study of the field of knowledge relating to the temporal and spatial dimensions of the processes that shape the Earth’s surface. Implicit within geography as a discipline is an emphasis on ways that diverse systems interact over time, producing particular landscapes in particular places. Geography is distinct from other disciplines (such as spatial economics and geology) in that it emphasizes the dual dimensions of time and space as causal, and because it highlights the importance of feedback between these different dimensions. A landscape can be understood as a place-specific configuration of interacting systems (at any scale), whose features influence the geographical processes operating in that particular case (this interaction produces feedback). The term landscape is often used to describe systems in which natural processes predominate, while place is used to describe systems dominated by human processes, though this distinction is not absolute. Indeed, in human geography the term landscape is used by many to describe anthropogenic systems, giving the effect that the phenomenon is distinct from the humans inhabiting it.

There are several ways of subdividing the discipline of geography. A common distinction is often made between physical geography as an environmental science and human geography as a social science. Human geography can further be divided according to the topic of study, creating subfields such as urban, political, economic, social, historical or cultural geography. More abstract dividing lines can also be drawn on the basis of methodologies, so that a distinction can be made between quantitative approaches, which have much in common with orthodox economics and cartography, and qualitative approaches, which can be similar to sociology, planning anthropology, and political science. Since the quantitative revolution of the 1960s, geographers have also distinguished themselves according to their epistemological perspectives on the nature of reality and the possibility of individuals adequately understanding and describing that reality.


Geography as a discipline emerged in Germany in the eighteenth century in the context of attempts associated with Alexander von Humboldt at the University of Berlin to systematically harness the benefits that universities provided to society by creating applied disciplines linked to social needs. The ancient civilizations were interested in geographical topics such as cartography and cultural geography in the context of operating their military and trading empires. These proto-geographical ways of thinking were primarily concerned with describing the form of the earth, often in an attempt to better control a particular activity rather than produce pure knowledge of geographical systems. It is important to note that these applied uses of geography have created a continual stream of wealthy patrons willing to fund exploration to producing spatial Page 304  |  Top of Articleknowledges, which have often served those patrons’ own power interests.

According to Richard Hartshorne’s The Nature of Geography, geography as a discipline emerged from a growing body of practical studies after 1500, but it was from 1750 onward that serious attempts were made to establish the two preconditions for a discipline, namely a distinctive subject area and a rigorous analytic methodology. The renowned philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) saw a close and necessary connection between understanding the nature of the world, and developing a more general (abstract) philosophical method. Hartshorne relates that Kant’s physical geography course became a staple of his philosophy curriculum, being repeated forty-eight times from 1756 to 1796 at the University of Köningsberg (now Kaliningrad). Kant developed the idea of Länderkunde, of studying particular distinctive regions in detail to understand their emergence. This approach was extended throughout the early nineteenth century by other early geographers, such as Von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, who viewed the human and physical elements of places as inseparable elements of a unitary whole (die Ganzheit), of a region or landscape. Humboldt, in particular, tried to ensure that the focus of study was on classes of places (classified, perhaps by climate, geology, social form) rather than classes of objects (such as species).

Humboldt’s efforts to create a science of geography were ultimately responsible for a postmortem split between systematic geographers, studying physical processes and landforms, and regional geographers, studying societies in particular climatic and geological regions. This cleavage deepened in the course of the nineteenth century, as geographers sought to specialize and establish themselves in the many new and growing universities. However, this tension was never fully resolved, and as geography began to institutionalize, the newly formed learned societies reflected both halves of the discipline: systematic (physical) geography and regional (human) geography.


The story of geography since 1900 is one of an established discipline advancing rapidly, driven by and responding to the huge social and physical changes accompanying the rise of industrial society, alongside increasing technological opportunities for new forms of research and knowledge production. During the twentieth century, a number of currents of thinking emerged that were driven by ideological considerations. Environmental determinism, for example, provided an intellectual underpinning for the imperialistic “Race for Africa” in the late nineteenth century by arguing that climatic considerations meant that African civilizations were incapable of developing stable social institutions. Likewise, desire for Lebensraum (living space) of the National Socialists in Germany drew on geopolitical thinking that originated with the English geographer Halford Mackinder’s concept of geopolitics to rationalize these ideological desires within the school of Geopolitik. The collapse of both underpinning ideologies carried a collateral cost for their parent disciplines as a whole. It was this tendency for supposedly neutral geographical analyses to favor particular powerful groups that was the stimulus behind the radical turn in human geography that emerged in the 1970s.

In parallel with these changes, two important geographical movements emerged to reshape the discipline in the period from 1900 to 1970. The first of these was the systematization of regional (human) geography, which attempted to move beyond ideographic descriptions of societal phenomenon in particular places to more analytic expressions of places in terms of underlying processes. However, it is important to stress that national geographies remained highly distinctive at this time, and these new regional geographies reflected these national distinctions. British regional geography, particularly in the works of Henry Daysh, H. C. Darby, and Hilda Ormsby reflected national traditions of empiricism and pragmatism while emphasizing the importance of historical development. French writers, led by Paul Vidal de la Blache, produced the Annales school, named after its journal, which developed notions of “environmental possibilism,” in which social configurations (genres de vie) were influenced both by physical environment and social and political decisions. German writers, notably Walter Christaller and Alfred Weber, used mathematical modeling to understand the spatial allocation of human activity such as settlements and industry. This represented a more analytic attempt to understand human activity. Although these diverse national approaches differed in the extent to which they emphasized theory over practical observation, they clearly all represented an attempt to systematize the production of geographical knowledge.

This consensus emphasizing systematization enabled the second great geographical movement of the twentieth century, the quantitative revolution. Early systematic approaches, inspired by the natural sciences, suggested that everything in nature was knowable, given sufficient data and analytic capacity. The increasing “scientization” of society in general, and the rise of computer power after 1947 in particular, seemed to bring this dream of total geographical knowledge within reach. The basis for quantitative geography lay in creating mathematical spatial models to account for the distribution and evolution of particular phenomenon over space. The quantitative revolution became associated in the United States with the Regional Science movement, pioneered by Walter Isard, Page 305  |  Top of Articlethen a professor at University of Pennsylvania, and his supporters. By infusing geography with mathematical and statistical tools, Regional Science superficially avoided the charges of selectivity and ideological determination that afflicted more ideographic geographical approaches. In part, the popularity of these quantitative approaches derived from the apparent certainty of knowledge thereby produced, which gave policymakers a robust evidence base for making decisions about land use and economic planning.

However, quantitative approaches often suffered from failing to adequately capture the independent variables, the factors responsible for causing particular phenomena. Quantitative practitioners were making assumptions and using convenient proxy variables rather than capturing complex social and cultural phenomena. The increasing urban segregation and deprivation in the 1960s and 1970s in western Europe and America provided a direct challenge to quantitative geography’s capacity to explain away the emergence of ghettos, dereliction, and, frequently, rioting. Faced with the inability to measure causal variables, a number of geographers instead began to form theories to try to understand how large-scale “social structures” created micro- and meso-scale problems.

Arguably the most celebrated of these geographers is David Harvey, whose empiricist manifesto Explanation in Geography (1969) was supplanted by a Marxian commitment to understanding spatial process in terms of class struggle, beginning with his 1973 treatise Social Justice and the City. Harvey exemplified a “radical geography” in which class theory allowed hidden power relationships to be exposed and unexpected causalities to be identified. This radical approach fitted neatly with, and has since become associated with, a more general postmodern or relativistic turn in the social sciences. Harvey’s neo-Marxian writings reached what many regard as an apex of a theoretical research project with the publication of The Limits to Capital in 1982. This volume set out a sweeping vision for an ever-deepening form of capitalism that would eventually penetrate into every corner of the world, and it has proven to be an important foundation for radical critiques of globalization and neoliberalism.

Radical geography subsequently proceeded through a number of further “turns,” which have critiqued their predecessors in an attempt to better understand what drives the development of human societies. The cultural turn emphasized the importance of noneconomic interaction and transactions; the institutional turn noted the importance of durable organizations and social norms; and the relational turn highlighted the fact that people are influenced by what is close to them, and that proximity is not just physical but can be organizational, cultural, or virtual in nature. These turns were all led by movements comprising both established geographers who recanted or redacted their established positions and emerging geographers who became a new generation of intellectual leaders for geography. The cultural turn was signaled in 1989 by the parallel publications of David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies. Both books asked fundamental questions about the economic focus of much Marxian geography, and they laid the foundations for more reflexive understandings of economic activity. These “turns” have been contested by other geographers, who have expressed concerns that the intellectual efforts involved in reflexivity have detached them from geographers’ central task of understanding real places and spaces.

At the same time, quantitative approaches have continued to develop. Geographical information systems (GISs) are massive computer databases into which huge quantities of locational data is entered, allowing the performance of additional “fieldwork” capable of identifying regularities that are not immediately obvious. Although they are academic tools, much of the investment in them came from customers seeking to make sense of unknown and uncertain environments, notably the military and oil exploration companies. The continual investments these tools produce have generated a wide range of applications, and GISs are now commonplace across the spatial sciences beyond geography.

Quantitative geographers have also used novel mathematical techniques and increasing computing power to address “traditional” geographical problems of understanding how spatial distribution and irregularities in distribution cause geographical processes to behave in different ways in different places. These approaches are exemplified by the geographically weighted regression (GWR) technique. There has also been an increasing dialogue between physical and human geographers trying to deal with the complex environmental problems that have emerged with the increasing industrialization of society. This neatly emphasizes the ongoing indivisibility of the “natural” and the “anthropogenic” elements of geographical systems, as well as the mutual understanding necessary to understand the development of spatial systems.


Hartshorne, Richard. 1939. The Nature of Geography: A Critical Survey of Current Thought in the Light of the Past. Lancaster, PA: Association of American Geographers.

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Harvey, David. 1969. Explanation in Geography. London: Edward Arnold.

Harvey, David. 1973. Social Justice and the City. London: Edward Arnold.

Isard, Walter. 1956. Location and Space Economy. New York: John Wiley.

Scott, Alan. 2000. Economic Geography: The Great Half-Century. In The Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography, eds. Gordon Clark, Maryann Feldman, and Meric Gertler, 18–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul Benneworth

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3045300918