What is Geography?

Geography is a fundamental branch of Earth Science, that deals with the study of physical features, natural processes of Earth, population, environment, and relationships among people. Geography is a multidisciplinary field that connects elements of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to understand the Earth’s landscapes, environments, and the processes that shape them. We can further divide it into two main branches:

  1. Physical Geography: The Earth’s natural features and processes are studied under this branch. Physical features may include landforms, climate, weather, and ecosystems, while the physical processes may include the forces that affect these features and shape the planet’s surface. Physical geographers study phenomena like plate tectonics, erosion, climate change, and natural disasters.
  2. Human Geography: Human geography discusses the mutual influence of human activities and physical/natural features and processes of the earth.  It includes topics of population, migration, urbanization, cultural landscapes, economic activities, rural and urban development, and political boundaries. Human geographers examine how people interact with and shape the spaces in which they live.

Definitions of Geography by different scholars and experts

Because Geography is a multifaceted field, therefore, various experts and scholars have provided their own definitions of geography over the years. Let’s see a few definitions from some notable geographers:

Immanuel Kant: Immanuel Kant, a famous German philosopher, defined geography as “the science of the Earth as the abode of human beings.” He emphasized human activities in this abode and the relationship between people and their environment.

Carl Ritter: Another German geographer, Carl Ritter, who is often considered the father of modern geography defined geography as “the science of the Earth in relation to natural features and man.”

Richard Hartshorne: Richard Hartshorne, an influential American Earth scientist, defined geography as “the study of the Earth as the home of people.” His definition circulates around the human-environment relationship.

Paul Vidal de la Blache: He was a French geographer who emphasized the idea that geography is “the science of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” Vidal de la Blanche’s work contributed to the development of modern human geography.

William D. Pattison: Famous US Navy sailor and winner of the Navy Cross William D. Pattison was well versed in Earth studies. He, in his influential essay “The Four Traditions of Geography” (1964), proposed that geography is a composite of four traditions: the earth-science tradition, the culture-environment tradition, the location tradition, and the area-analysis tradition. Each of these traditions approaches geography from a slightly different perspective.

Yi-Fu Tuan: Tuan was a prominent cultural geographer. He defined geography as “the study of how people make sense of the world.” He focuses on the perceptual and cognitive aspects of human-environment relationships.

David Harvey: David Harvey, the British economic geographer, defined geography as the impact of economic and social behaviors on geographic patterns. He observes geography as “an outcome of human activities.”

The above-given definitions drafted by various scholars indicate the evolving nature of geography and the diversity of approaches within the field. While some emphasize the physical aspects of the Earth, others highlight the human and societal dimensions. Geography is a dynamic discipline that encompasses a wide range of perspectives and methodologies.

Branches of Geography

In the above lines, we classified Geography into two branches; Physical and Human Geography. Each branch can further be divided into many subfields.

01. Physical Geography

Physical geography is a fundamental subfield of geography that focuses on understanding the physical features and processes of the Earth’s surface. It encompasses a wide range of topics and branches, including:

Climatology: This branch of physical geography studies the Earth’s climate, including long-term weather patterns, climate classification, and the factors that influence climate such as atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, and greenhouse gases.

Geomorphology: Geomorphology examines the Earth’s landforms and the processes that shape them, such as erosion, weathering, and tectonic activity. It also investigates features like mountains, valleys, and coastal landforms.

Hydrology: Hydrology is the study of Earth’s water systems, including the distribution and movement of water on the planet. It covers topics like rivers, lakes, groundwater, and the water cycle.

Glaciology: Glaciology is the study of glaciers and ice sheets, including their formation, movement, and impact on the landscape. It is important for understanding past and present climate conditions.

Biogeography: Biogeography explores the distribution of living organisms on Earth and the factors that influence their distribution. This includes topics like ecosystems, biodiversity, and the impact of human activities on natural habitats.

Pedology (Soil Science): Pedology is concerned with the study of soils, including their formation, classification, and properties. It is essential for understanding agriculture, land use, and environmental quality.

Oceanography: Oceanography focuses on the Earth’s oceans and seas, including the physical, chemical, and biological aspects. It encompasses the study of ocean currents, marine life, and the impact of human activities on marine environments.

Astronomical Geography: This branch deals with the study of celestial bodies and their influence on Earth. It includes topics like the Earth’s position in the solar system, astronomical cycles, and their effects on the planet.

Environmental Geography: Environmental geography is concerned with the interactions between human societies and the natural environment. It examines issues such as environmental conservation, resource management, and the impact of human activities on ecosystems.

Volcanology: Volcanology is the study of volcanoes, volcanic activity, and volcanic landforms. It aims to understand volcanic processes and assess volcanic hazards.

Seismology: Seismology focuses on the study of earthquakes and the Earth’s internal structure. It involves monitoring and analyzing seismic waves to understand the Earth’s composition and the causes of earthquakes.

Atmospheric Science (Meteorology): While closely related to climatology, meteorology concentrates on short-term weather patterns, including forecasting, weather systems, and atmospheric phenomena.

02. Human Geography

Like Physical geography, Human Geography is also a subfield of geography, but it focuses on the study of human societies, their interactions with the environment, and the spatial distribution of various human phenomena rather than Earth’s natural phenomena. Within human geography, there are several branches or subfields that explore different aspects of human activities and their relationship to the physical world. Some of the main branches of human geography include:

Cultural Geography: Cultural geography examines the distribution and spatial patterns of various cultural practices, beliefs, languages, and traditions. It explores how culture influences and is influenced by the physical environment.

Economic Geography: Economic geography studies the spatial distribution of economic activities, such as agriculture, industry, trade, and services. It explores the impact of economic systems, globalization, and economic development in different regions.

Urban Geography: Urban geography focuses on the study of cities and urban areas, including their growth, structure, and the social, economic, and environmental issues associated with urbanization.

Political Geography: Political geography examines the spatial distribution of political entities, boundaries, and the influence of geography on political processes and geopolitical conflicts.

Population Geography: Population geography studies the distribution, growth, and movement of human populations. It addresses issues such as population density, migration, urbanization, and demographic trends.

Social Geography: Social geography explores the spatial distribution of social groups, communities, and the impact of social structures, identities, and inequalities on different geographic regions.

Environmental Geography: Environmental geography focuses on the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It explores topics such as environmental degradation, conservation, and the human impact on ecosystems.

Health Geography: Health geography examines the spatial distribution of health-related factors, such as disease outbreaks, access to healthcare, and the impact of the environment on human health.

Tourism Geography: Tourism geography studies the spatial aspects of tourism, including the locations of tourist destinations, the impact of tourism on local economies and cultures, and the environmental consequences of tourism.

Rural Geography: Rural geography concentrates on the study of rural areas, agriculture, and the social and economic dynamics of rural communities.

Transport Geography: Transport geography explores the spatial distribution and organization of transportation systems, including roads, railways, airports, and ports, and their impact on regional development and accessibility.

Historical Geography: Historical geography looks at the changing geography of the past, exploring how past events and human activities have shaped the present-day landscape.

These subfields of human geography are so closely connected that they often overlap and intersect, and researchers in this field frequently draw on interdisciplinary approaches to understand the complex relationships between humans and their environments.

Function of Geography

Geography is a diverse and interdisciplinary field that examines the Earth’s physical features, human societies, and their interactions. It provides valuable insights into the world’s physical and human phenomena, making it a fundamental discipline for understanding and addressing a wide range of global and local issues. Its primary functions and roles include:

Spatial Geography: Spatial Geography helps us understand the distribution and arrangement of physical and human phenomena on Earth. It involves mapping, which is essential for visualizing the spatial relationships between various features.

Environmental Study: Geography explores the Earth’s physical environment, including landforms, climate, ecosystems, and natural resources. It plays a crucial role in understanding and addressing environmental issues like climate change, deforestation, and pollution.

Human Geography: This subfield focuses on the study of human societies, their cultures, behaviors, and interactions with the environment. It examines population distribution, urbanization, migration patterns, and socio-economic disparities.

Regional Analysis: Geography helps us analyze and compare different regions of the world. It considers the unique characteristics, cultures, and challenges of specific areas, which is essential for planning and development.

Cartography: Geography plays a central role in map-making and cartography. It helps in creating accurate maps for navigation, spatial analysis, and decision-making in various fields.

Geospatial Technologies: Geography employs geospatial technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing to collect, analyze, and interpret spatial data for a wide range of applications, including urban planning, disaster management, and resource allocation.

Land Use Planning: Geography is crucial for land use planning and land management. It aids in determining suitable locations for various activities, such as agriculture, industry, and urban development.

Cultural Understanding: Geography helps us appreciate and understand diverse cultures, languages, and traditions. It examines how culture is shaped by the environment and how it, in turn, impacts the landscape.

Economic Geography: This subfield studies the spatial distribution of economic activities, trade, and resources. It provides insights into the development and globalization of economies.

Disaster Management: Geography plays a pivotal role in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery by analyzing risk factors, vulnerability, and the distribution of natural hazards.

Conservation and Sustainability: Geography contributes to the study of conservation and sustainability by assessing the impact of human activities on the environment and promoting sustainable practices.

Transportation and Urban Planning: Geography informs transportation and urban planning decisions by analyzing traffic patterns, infrastructure development, and the design of cities for efficient and sustainable living.

Political Geography: This subfield explores the spatial aspects of political processes, borders, geopolitics, and the distribution of political power and resources.

Education and Research: Geography is a subject of academic study and research, contributing to the advancement of knowledge across various subfields and topics.