Geography

I. Introduction

Geography, science that deals with the distribution and arrangement of all elements of the earth's surface. The word geography was adopted in the 200s BC by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes and means "earth description." Geographic study encompasses the environment of the earth's surface and the relationship of humans to this environment, which includes both physical and cultural geographic features. Physical geographic features include the climate, land and water, and plant and animal life. Cultural geographic features include artificial entities, such as nations, settlements, lines of communication, transportation, buildings, and other modifications of the physical geographic environment. Geographers use economics, history, biology, geology, and mathematics in their studies.

II. Branches of Geography

Geography may be divided into two fundamental branches: systematic and regional geography. Systematic geography is concerned with individual physical and cultural elements of the earth. Regional geography is concerned with various areas of the earth, particularly the unique combinations of physical and cultural features that characterize each region and distinguish one region from another. Because the division is based only on a difference in approach to geographic studies, the two branches are interdependent and are usually applied together. Each branch is divided into several fields that specialize in particular aspects of geography.

A. Systematic Geography

Systematic geography includes physical geography and cultural geography. These classifications are made up of specialized fields that deal with specific aspects of geography.

1. Physical Geography

Physical geography includes the following fields: geomorphology, which uses geology to study the form and structure of the surface of the earth; climatology, which involves meteorology and is concerned with climatic conditions; biogeography, which uses biology and deals with the distribution of plant and animal life; soils geography (see  Soil; Soil Management), which is concerned with the distribution of soil; hydrography, which concerns the distribution of seas, lakes, rivers, and streams in relation to their uses; oceanography, which deals with the waves, tides, and currents of oceans and the ocean floor (see  Ocean and Oceanography); and cartography, or mapmaking through graphic representation and measurement of the surface of the earth.

2. Cultural Geography

This classification, sometimes called human geography, involves all phases of human social life in relation to the physical earth. Economic geography, a field of cultural geography, deals with the industrial use of the geographic environment. Natural resources, such as mineral and oil deposits, forests, grazing lands, and farmlands, are studied with reference to their position, productivity, and potential uses. Manufacturing industries rely on geographic studies for information concerning raw materials, sources of labor, and distribution of goods. Marketing studies concerned with plant locations and sales potentials are based on geographic studies. The establishment of transportation facilities, trade routes, and resort areas also frequently depends on the results of geographic studies.

Cultural geography also includes political geography, which is an application of political science. Political geography deals with human social activities that are related to the locations and boundaries of cities, nations, and groups of nations.

Military geography provides military leaders with information about areas in which they may need to operate. The many other fields of cultural geography include ethnography, historical geography, urban geography, demography, and linguistic geography.

B. Regional Geography

Regional geography concerns the differences and similarities among the various regions of the earth. This branch of geography seeks explanations for the variety among places by studying the special combination of features that distinguishes these places. Regional geographers may study the development of a small area such as a city. This study is called microgeography. Or they may focus on large areas, called macrodivisions, such as the Mediterranean region or an entire continent. Regional geographers identify macrodivisions according to their cultural characteristics.

Regional geographers may divide macrodivisions into many smaller areas that share specific characteristics. For example, they may consider language, the type of agriculture or economy practiced by the population, terrain, or a combination of these factors to distinguish areas from one another.

III. Methods of Geography

The chief goal of the geographer is to describe the human environment on earth. To do this, it is necessary to collect geographical data; record the results of geographic studies in the form of charts, graphs, textbooks, and especially maps; and analyze the information. Geographers make use of a variety of techniques and tools for achieving these goals.

A. Collecting Data

Geographers may collect data in the field or from secondary sources, such as censuses, statistical surveys, maps, and photographs. Advances made since World War II (1939-1945) in the use of aerial photography, including the use of special films, and in techniques for obtaining three-dimensional views of the landscape from the air have enabled geographers to perform more detailed studies of the earth and its resources (see  Aerial Survey). Geographers also have made use of radar, artificial satellites, underwater crafts called bathyspheres, and deep drilling into the earth's crust to obtain information about the features of the earth.

B. Mapping

The map is the most important tool of geography and may be used to record either simple data or the results of a complicated geographic study. In addition to providing a wealth of factual information, the map permits visual comparison between areas because it may be designed to indicate, by means of symbols, not only the location but also the characteristics of geographic features of an area.

Geographers have developed a standard pattern of map symbols for identifying such cultural features as homes, factories, and churches; dams, bridges, and tunnels; railways, highways, and travel routes; and mines, farms, and grazing lands.

C. Analyzing Geographic Information

Techniques that use mathematics or statistics to analyze data are known as quantitative methods. The use of quantitative methods enables geographers to treat a large amount of data and a large number of variables in an objective manner. Frequently, geographers collect data and form a theory to explain their observation. They then test this theory using quantitative methods. Sometimes the theories are expressed as mathematical statements, called models. Nevertheless, in geography theories are not expected to be universally precise, but rather to explain an observed tendency.

IV. History of Geography

Hundreds of individuals have contributed to the development of geography, and the fruits of their work have accumulated over several thousand years. Many travelers, surveyors, explorers, and scientific observers have added to this growing store of information. Only since the late 1700s, however, has it been possible to collect and record truly accurate geographic information. Modern concepts of geography were not widely supported until the mid-1800s.

A. Early Geographers

The earliest geographers were concerned with exploring unknown areas and with describing the observable features of different places. Such ancient peoples as the Chinese, Egyptians, and Phoenicians made long journeys and recorded their observations of strange lands. One of the first known maps was made on a clay tablet in Babylonia about 2300 BC. By 1400 BC, the shores of the Mediterranean Sea had been explored and charted, and during the next thousand years, early explorers visited Britain and navigated most of the African coast. The ancient Greeks, however, gave the Western world its first important knowledge relating to the form, size, and general nature of the earth.

During the 300s BC, the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle became the first person to demonstrate that the earth was round. He based his hypothesis on the arguments that all matter tends to fall together toward a common center, that the earth throws a circular shadow on the moon during an eclipse, and that in traveling from north to south new constellations become visible and familiar ones disappear. The Greek geographer Eratosthenes was the first person to accurately calculate the circumference of the earth.

The Greeks' travels, conquests, and colonizing activities in the Mediterranean region resulted in the accumulation of considerable geographic information and stimulated geographic writing. The Greek geographer and historian Strabo wrote a 17-volume encyclopedia titled Geography, which served as a valuable source of information for military commanders and public administrators of the Roman Empire.

During the AD 100s, the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy compiled most Greek and Roman geographic knowledge up to his time. He also proposed new methods of mapmaking, including projection and the creation of atlases. In his famous Geographike syntaxis, Ptolemy divided the equatorial circle into 360 degrees and constructed an imaginary north-south, east-west network over the surface of the earth to serve as a reference grid for locating the relative positions of known landmasses, such as islands and continents. Although he used less accurate measurements of the circumference of the earth than those of Eratosthenes, Ptolemy nevertheless contributed useful descriptions and maps of the known world. His maps clearly indicated his understanding of the problems involved in representing a spherical earth on a flat surface.

B. Medieval Geography

During the Middle Ages, Europeans carried on little travel and exploration and practically no advancement in geography. Among Europeans, only the Vikings of Scandinavia were active in exploration. The Arabs of the Middle East, however, interpreted and tested the works of the earlier Greek and Roman geographers and explored southwestern Asia and Africa. As early as the 700s, Arab scholars were translating the works of the Greek geographers into Arabic. Only after these Arabic texts were translated into Latin did Greek geographic learning spread into Europe. Among the major figures of Arab geography were al-Idrisi, who was known for his detailed maps, and Ibn Batuta and Ibn Khaldun, both of whom wrote about their extensive travels. The Mongols and Chinese also learned much about the geography of Asia.

The trips of Venetian explorer Marco Polo in the 1200s, the Christian Crusades of the 1100s and 1200s, and the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration during the 1400s and 1500s opened up new horizons and stimulated geographic writings. During the 1400s, Henry the Navigator of Portugal supported explorations of the African coast and became a leader in the promotion of geographic studies. Among the most notable accounts of voyages and discoveries published during the 1500s were those by Giambattista Ramusio in Venice, by Richard Hakluyt in England, and by Theodore de Bry in what is now Belgium. Voyages and studies during this period proved beyond a doubt that the earth is a sphere. Previously, many people, including Christian leaders, believed the earth was flat.

C. Geography from the 17th to the 19th Century

Important in the history of geographic method is Geographia generalis (1650) by the German geographer Bernhardus Varenius. Varenius suggested that geography be divided into three separate branches: the first dealing with the form and dimensions of the earth; the second with tides, climates, seasons, and other variables that depend upon the relative position of the earth in the universe; and the third dealing with comparative studies of particular regions on the globe. His work remained a standard authority for more than a century.

The first comprehensive geographic work printed in English was published in 1625 by the English geographer Nathaniel Carpenter, who emphasized the spatial relationships among the physical features on the earth's surface. His approach became an important geographic point of view.

Many other European contributors increased geographic knowledge during the following two centuries. During the 1700s, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant played a decisive role in placing geography within the framework of science. Kant divided knowledge gained from observation into two categories. One category, comprising phenomena recorded according to logic, resulted in such classifications as the orders, genera, and species of plants and animals, regardless of when or where they occur. The other category included phenomena perceived in terms of time and space–classification and description according to time is viewed as history, and classification and description according to space is viewed as geography. Kant subdivided geography into six branches, one of which, physical geography, was considered essential to the five other branches. The other branches recognized by Kant were mathematical, moral, political, commercial, and theological geography.

Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, both of Germany, made major contributions to geographic theory in the early 1800s. An extensive traveler and a brilliant field observer, Humboldt applied his knowledge of physical processes to the systematic classification and comparative description of geographic features observed in the field. He devised methods for measuring the phenomena he observed. Humboldt produced a number of excellent geographic studies based on his travels in America. His work Kosmos (1844), which describes the physical geography of the earth, is considered one of the great geographic works of all time.

The views of Ritter differed in part from those of Humboldt. Whereas Humboldt promoted the systematic approach of treating physical features separately, Ritter endorsed a regional approach to geography. He stressed the comparative study of particular areas and the features that characterize those areas. His 19-volume work Die Erdkunde im Verhältnis zur Natur und Geschichte des Menschen (Geography and Its Relation to Nature and the History of Man,1822-1859) is an excellent geographic analysis of Asia and parts of Africa. Ritter was a keen field observer, well trained in natural sciences and history. He called his work comparative geography, considering it comparable to comparative anatomy, and proceeded from observation to observation to arrive at laws and principles. Ritter also believed that without systematic studies regional studies would be impossible.

Another German geographer, Friedrich Ratzel, also made significant contributions to geographic knowledge. He is best known for his work Anthropogeographie (1882), which attempted to show that the distribution of people on the earth had been determined by natural forces. Describing geography as the science of distribution, he favored the study of restricted areas, which he claimed would provide the basis for generalizations about larger areas or about the world as a whole. The German geographers Ferdinand von Richthofen and Alfred Hettner brought the ideas of Humboldt, Ritter, and Ratzel into a coherent system. Die Geographie: Ihre Geschichte, ihr Wesen, und ihre Methoden (Geography: Its History, Its Nature, and Its Methods,1927), by Hettner, is a valuable work on the history of geographic methods.

Outstanding among French geographers of the late 1800s was Paul Vidal de la Blache, who opposed the idea that the physical environment strictly determines human activities. He believed that human beings could mold their physical environment. He favored studies of small areas, stressing both physical and cultural processes in the distribution of the earth's features.

During the 1800s, many geographic societies emerged. Many sponsored geographic study and exploration and published geographic journals. Among the earliest of these societies were those founded in Paris, Berlin, and London, during the 1820s and 1830s. Of particular significance to geography in the United States was the founding of the American Geographical Society in 1851 and the National Geographic Society in 1888. International geographic conferences were initiated in 1871 at Antwerp, Belgium.

D. The 20th Century

During the first half of the 1900s, many geographic writers–British, American, French, and German–continued to carry on the tradition of early pioneers in geography. Studies of small areas all over the world, based on field observations, extended the frontiers of geographic knowledge, but the methods inherited from the late 19th century remained essentially unchanged. Beginning in the 1950s, however, geographers made increasing use of quantitative methods. The change in methodology in the 1950s and 1960s was so rapid that it is sometimes called the quantitative revolution. Geographers have also broadened their efforts to find practical applications for geographic studies.

Quantitative methods have been particularly useful in applications of location theory, a branch of geography that studies the factors that influence the location of geographic elements, such as towns or factories. Location theory was introduced by the German agriculturist Heinrich von Thünen in the early 1800s. The German geographer Walter Christaller made great contributions to location theory during the 1930s, by analyzing the location of urban centers. But it was not until the 1950s that their work was widely valued.

By the 1960s the field of geography had divided into several schools of thought. Disagreement between scholars of different schools–such as those who supported quantitative method and those who favored the descriptive approach–sometimes arose. Since the 1970s, however, different methods have been commonly used together and applied to many new areas of geographic study.

Computers have become a particularly useful tool in geography. During the 1960s, the Canadian government built the first geographic information system, or GIS, a computer system that records, stores, and analyzes geographic information. These computer systems can create two- or three-dimensional images of an area that are used as models in geographic studies. They are designed to process massive amounts of data, and help scientists conduct research much more quickly and accurately. The GIS has many applications in government and business. By the early 1990s, about 100,000 of these systems were in operation.

Contributed By:

Geoffrey J. Martin, Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Geography, Southern Connecticut State University. Author and archivist.

John H. Thompson, M.A., Ph.D.

Late Professor of Geography, Syracuse University. Editor, The Geography of New York State.

HOW TO CITE THIS ARTICLE

"Geography," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

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