What is Geography?

What is geography? Put simply, geography is the study of the evolving character and organization of the Earth’s surface. It is about how, why, and where human and natural activities occur and how these activities are interconnected.

What makes geography different from other disciplines? Geography adopts a unique set of perspectives to analyze the world and its human and natural phenomena. These perspectives include the spatial viewpoint of geographers, the interest of geographers in the synthesis of ideas across the boundaries of conventional studies, and geographers’ usage of tools to represent and manipulate spatial information and spatial phenomena.

The first unique perspective of geography is its spatial viewpoint. Geographers are interested not only in how something happens, but also where it happens and how it is related to other happenings nearby and far away. The spatial viewpoint can focus at three levels. At the place level, geographers study how processes are integrated at a single location or within a single region. For example, an urban geographer may study the spatial structure of a particular city—how and where neighborhoods and commercial centers develop and take on their unique characteristics. Or a physical geographer may study the ecology, climate, and soils of a national park. At the space level, geographers look at how places are interdependent. An economic geographer may examine how flows of goods, information, or money connect cities and towns that are of different sizes and at different distances apart. Or a physical geographer may map the sources of sediment flowing into a river and chart their downstream effects. Geographers also look at human and natural activities at different scales, sometimes zooming in for a close look at something small or pulling back for an overview of something large. Often what looks important at one scale is less important at another. 

The second perspective of geography is synthesis. Geographers are very interested in putting ideas together from different fields and assembling them in new ways—a process called synthesis. Of particular interest to geographers are studies that link conventional areas of study. In physical geography, for example, a biogeographer may investigate how streamside vegetation affects the flood flow of rivers, thus merging the physical geography subfields of ecology and hydrology. A human geographer may study how economic innovation—developing new kinds of goods and services—varies from region to region according to cultural and legal factors, thus merging the human geography subfields of economics, politics, and sociology. The many connections between environmental processes and human activities are also subjects of geographic synthesis. For example, a classic study area in geography is perception of hazards—why do people build houses next to rivers or beaches when it is only a matter of time before floods or storms will wash their homes away? Here, geographers study the interaction of hydrology with perception and cognitive learning. 

The third perspective of geography is geographic representation. Here, geographers develop and perfect tools for representing and manipulating information spatially. Cartography—the art and science of making and drawing maps—is a subfield of geography that focuses on visual display of spatial relationships. Visual display also includes remote sensing—acquiring images of the Earth from aircraft or spacecraft and enhancing them to better display spatial information. Verbal descriptions use the power of words to explain or evoke geographic phenomena. Mathematical and statistical models predict how a phenomenon of interest varies over space and through time. Geographic information systems store, manipulate, and display spatial information in very flexible ways. Cognitive representation refers to spatial relationships as they are stored in the human brain—mental mapping of real space into the subjective space that people experience. Taken together, the perspectives of viewpoint, synthesis, and representation define geography as a unique discipline that focuses on how the natural and human patterns of the Earth’s physical and cultural landscape change and interact in space and time. 

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