1.1 Geography as a Science

The discipline of geography bridges the social sciences with the physical sciences and can provide a framework for understanding our world from a unique perspective. By studying geography, we can begin to understand the relationships and common factors that tie our humanity together. The world is undergoing globalization on a massive scale as a result of the rapid transfer of information and technology and the growth of modes of transportation and communication. To counter the growth of globalization, local forces around the world are trying to reclaim their cultural identity. Some nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have gone so far as to return their focus back towards isolationism, the idea that nations avoid political or economic entanglements with other countries.

The more we understand our world, the better prepared we will be to address the issues that confront our future. There are many approaches to studying world geography. This textbook takes a regional approach, with a focus on current affairs.

Themes of Geography

Geography helps us make sense of the world through four historical traditions:

  • Spatial analysis of natural and human cultures
  • Earth science
  • Area studies
  • Human-landscape interactions
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Bathemetic data from NOAA (https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/global/global.html)

Spatial analysis includes many of the concepts tied to geospatial technology: the study and analysis between the interactions and distribution patterns of the physical and human environments using spatial technology such as geographic information systems, satellite imagery, aerial photography and drones, global positioning systems, and more. Earth science includes the study of landforms, climates, and the distribution of plants and animals. Area or regional studies focus on a particular region to understand the dynamics of a specific interaction between human activity and the environment. Researchers studying human-landscape interaction examine the impact of humans on their landscape and find out how different cultures have used and changed their environments. Geography provides the tools to integrate knowledge from many disciplines into a usable form by providing a sense of place to natural or human events. Geography often explains why or how something occurs in a specific location. World geography utilizes the spatial approach to help understand the components of our global community.

Geography is the spatial study of the earth’s physical and cultural environments. Geographers study the earth’s physical characteristics, its inhabitants and cultures, phenomena such as climate, and the earth’s place within the universe. Geography also examines the spatial relationships between all physical and cultural phenomena in the world. And last, but not least, geographers also look at how the earth, its climate, and its landscapes are changing due to cultural intervention. Geography is a much broader field than many people realize. Most people think of area studies as the whole of geography. In reality, geography is the study of the earth, including how human activity has changed it. Geography involves studies that are much broader than merely understanding the shape of the earth’s landforms. Physical geography involves all the planet’s physical systems. Human geography incorporates studies of human culture, spatial relationships, interactions between humans and the environment, and many other areas of research that involve the different subspecialties of geography. Students interested in a career in geography would be well served to learn geospatial techniques and gain skills and experience in GIS and remote sensing, as they are the areas within geography where employment opportunities have grown the most over the past few decades.

The discipline of geography can be broken down into two main areas of focus: physical geography and human geography. These two main areas are similar in that they both use a spatial perspective, and they both include the study of place and the comparison of one place with another.

Physical geography is the spatial study of natural phenomena that make up the environment, such as rivers, mountains, landforms, weather, climate, soils, plants, and any other physical aspects of the earth’s surface. Physical geography focuses on geography as a form of earth science. It tends to emphasize the main physical parts of the earth—the lithosphere (surface layer), the atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water), and the biosphere (living organisms)—and the relationships between these parts.

The significant forms of study within physical geography include the following:

  • Geomorphology (the study of the earth’s surface features)
  • Glaciology (the study of glaciers)
  • Coastal geography (the study of the coastal regions)
  • Climatology (the study of climates and climate change)
  • Biogeography (the study of the geographic patterns of species distribution)

Some physical geographers study the earth’s place in the solar system. Others are environmental geographers, part of an emerging field that studies the spatial aspects and cultural perceptions of the natural environment. Environmental geography requires an understanding of both physical and human geography, as well as an understanding of how humans conceptualize their environment and the physical landscape.

Physical landscape is the term used to describe the natural terrain at any one place on the planet. The natural forces of erosion, weather, tectonic plate action, and water have formed the earth’s physical features. Many states and national parks in the United States attempt to preserve unique physical landscapes for the public to enjoy, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.

Human geography is the study of human activity and its relationship to the earth’s surface. Human geographers examine the spatial distribution of human populations, religions, languages, ethnicities, political systems, economics, urban dynamics, and other components of human activity. They study patterns of interaction between human cultures and various environments and focus on the causes and consequences of human settlement and distribution over the landscape. While the economic and cultural aspects of humanity are the primary focuses of human geography, these aspects cannot be understood without describing the landscape on which economic and cultural activities take place.

The cultural landscape is the term used to describe those parts of the earth’s surface that have been altered or created by humans. For example, the urban cultural landscape of a city may include buildings, streets, signs, parking lots, or vehicles, while the rural cultural landscape may include fields, orchards, fences, barns, or farmsteads. Cultural forces unique to a given place – such as religion, language, ethnicity, customs, or heritage – influence the cultural landscape of that place at a given time. The colors, sizes, and shapes of the cultural landscape usually symbolize some level of significance regarding societal norms. Spatial dynamics assist in identifying and evaluating cultural differences between places.

Geospatial Technology

Traditionally, the field of cartography, or mapmaking, has been a vital discipline for geographers. While cartography continues to be an essential part of geography, geographers also look at spatial (space) and temporal (time) relationships between many types of data, including physical landscape types, economies, and human activity. Geography also examines the relationships between and the processes of humans and their physical and cultural environments. Because maps are powerful visual graphics tools that allow us to illustrate relationships and processes at work in the world, cartography and geographic information systems have become prominent in modern sciences. Maps are the most common method of illustrating different spatial qualities, and geographers create and use maps to communicate spatial data about the earth’s surface.

Geospatial techniques are tools used by geographers to illustrate, manage, and manipulate spatial data. Cartography is the art and science of making maps, which illustrate data in a spatial form and are invaluable in understanding what is going on at a given place at a given time.

Global Positioning Systems

Making maps and verifying a location has become more exact with the development of the global positioning system (GPS). A GPS unit can receive signals from orbiting satellites and calculate an exact location in latitude and longitude, which helps determine where one is located on the earth or for verifying a point on a map. GPS units are standard equipment for many transportation systems and have found their way into products such as cell phones, handheld computers, fish finders, and other mobile equipment. GPS technology is widely implemented in the transport of people, goods, and services around the world.

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How global positioning systems (GPS) works.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing technology acquires data about the earth’s surface through aerial photographs taken from airplanes or images created from satellites orbiting the earth. Remotely sensed images allow geographers to identify, understand, or explain a particular landscape or determine the land use of a place. These images can serve as essential components in the cartographic (map-making) process. These technologies provide the means to examine and analyze changes on the earth’s surface caused by natural or human forces. Google Earth is an excellent example of a computer tool that illustrates remotely sensed images of locations on the earth.

Geographic Information Systems

Geographic information systems (GIS), uses a computer program to assimilate and manage many layers of map data, which then provide specific information about a given place. GIS data are usually in digital form and arranged in layers. The GIS computer program can sort or analyze layers of data to illustrate a specific feature or activity. GIS programs are used in a wide range of applications, from determining the habitat range of a particular species of bird to mapping the hometowns of university students.

GIS specialists often create and analyze geographical information for government agencies or private businesses. They use computer programs to take raw data to develop the information these organizations need for making vital decisions. For example, in business applications, GIS can be used to determine a desirable location for a retail store based on the analysis of spatial data layers such as population distribution, highway or street arrangements, and the locations of similar stores or competitive establishments. GIS can integrate a number of maps into one to help analysts understand a place in relation to their own specific needs.

GIS also focuses on storing information about the earth (both cultural and natural) in computer databases that can be retrieved and displayed in the form of specialized maps for specific purposes or analyses. GIS specialists require knowledge about computer and database systems. Over the last two decades, GIS has revolutionized the field of cartography: nearly all cartography is now done with the assistance of GIS software. Additionally, analysis of various cultural and natural phenomena through the use of GIS software and specialized maps is an integral part of urban planning and other social and physical sciences. GIS can also refer to techniques used to represent, analyze, and predict spatial relationships between different phenomena.

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Introduction to World Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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