Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines geography as “a science that deals with the description, distribution, and interaction of the diverse physical, biological, and cultural features of the earth’s surface.” (523) But geography also has an important component – human geography – that deals with how we live in, on, and around those features.In other words, the purpose of geography is to study the physical features of Earth and how the people who live among them interact with the landscape. To help break their study into more manageable groups, geographers consider their subjects in five different ways.
1. The world in spatial terms: This mostly focuses on the location of features on Earth such as cities, rivers, and mountains. Two types of location prevail: absolute and relative. Absolute location refers to a place’s longitude and latitude; for example, Wisconsin is located at about 45 degrees north and 90 degrees west. Relative location is concerned with where something is compared to other features: for example, Wisconsin is west of Lake Michigan and north of Illinois. Both relative and absolute location can be used to place a feature on a map.
Wisconsin: west of Lake Michigan, north of Illinois, and located at about 45 degrees north and 90 degrees west. (See citation at end.)
Two additional terms concern location: site is absolute location, while situation is relative location.
2. Places and regions: A place is simply a spot, independent of anything else and completely unique. One important task of geography is to understand the difference between places, and to do this it can sometimes be helpful to classify similar places near each other as forming a region, such as Kentucky or the Great Plains.
Regions are divided into three types: formal, functional, and perceptual. A formal region is simply an area with a defining characteristic. For instance, the Great Plains are all grassland, cropland, or pasture. A functional region is composed of a central location, such as a city, and the places around it, such as the suburbs. Finally, a perceptual region is a region that is viewed in a certain light and does not necessarily have any geographic similarities throughout. The Bible belt, for instance, is almost always seen as being overwhelmingly religious.
3. Physical and human systems: Geography is divided into two basic branches: physical and human. Physical geography is, of course, concerned with the actual features of Earth’s surface such as mountains and rivers. Human geography is more concerned with how people inhabit these features; it focuses on population patterns. Both physical and human geography are further divided into even more specific branches such as climatology (the study of climates) and historical geography (human geography changing over time).
Physical geography can consider how Earth changes over time, and some of this branch focuses on the interactions between organisms and habitat to form an ecosystem. A particularly important focus of human geography is how people shape the earth and how they move across it over time, along with objects and ideas.
4. Environment and society: Geography is often particularly interested in human-environment interaction, or how we shape the environment and how it shapes us. Often study in this area is helpful in recommending strategies for land and resource use, and this branch of geography will become extremely important as more and more people must live in a world with a limited number of resources.
5. The uses of geography: Although it can sometimes be helpful to have simple knowledge of the world around us, the most common use of geography is to find patterns in human and natural distribution and characteristics, and then to recommend how best to respond to those patterns in anticipation of future needs. This allows governments in particular to decide how to most effectively distribute resources and plan infrastructure to accommodate expected changes in population and environment.
Each of these five methods for viewing geography can help us understand a different part of the science. Together, they can lead to a fuller understanding of the world around us – which was the object of geography in the first place.
This map of the US represents both primary branches of geography (physical and human) by showing towns and cities in addition to natural features. (See citation below.)
Boehm, Richard G. “The Elements of Geography.” World Geography and Cultures. Columbus: Glencoe/McGraw Hill, 2012. Print.
“Geography.” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. 2003. Print.
“PrimaryUS.” Image. World Maps Online. World Maps Online, 1998-2011. Web. 5 January 2012. http://www.worldmapsonline.com/classroommaps/united_states_political_maps.htm.
“Wisconsin Reference Map.” Image. YellowMaps. YellowMaps, 2003-2010. Web. 5 January 2012. http://www.yellowmaps.com/map/wisconsin-reference-map-519.htm.