Definitions of Geography

Learn the Many Ways Geography Has Been Defined Over the Years

Hiker looks at map from rock buttress, sunrise
Philip and Karen Smith/ Iconica/ Getty Images

Many famous geographers and non-geographers have attempted to define the discipline in a few short words. The concept of geography has also changed throughout the ages, making a definition for such a dynamic and all-encompassing subject difficult. With the help of Gregg Wassmansdorf, here are some ideas about geography from throughout the ages:

Early Definitions of Geography:

"The purpose of geography is to provide 'a view of the whole' earth by mapping the location of places." - Ptolemy, 150 CE

"Synoptic discipline synthesizing findings of other sciences through the concept of Raum (area or space)." - Immanuel Kant, c. 1780

"Synthesizing discipline to connect the general with the special through measurement, mapping, and a regional emphasis." - Alexander von Humboldt, 1845

"Man in society and local variations in environment." - Halford Mackinder, 1887

20th-Century Definitions of Geography:

"How environment apparently controls human behavior." - Ellen Semple, c. 1911

"Study of human ecology; adjustment of man to natural surroundings." - Harland Barrows, 1923

"The science concerned with the formulation of the laws governing the spatial distribution of certain features on the surface of the earth." - Fred Schaefer, 1953

"To provide accurate, orderly, and rational description and interpretation of the variable character of the earth surface." - Richard Hartshorne, 1959

"Geography is both science and art" - H.C. Darby, 1962

"To understand the earth as the world of man" - J.O.M. Broek, 1965

"Geography is fundamentally the regional or chorological science of the surface of the earth." - Robert E. Dickinson, 1969

"Study of variations in phenomena from place to place." - Holt-Jensen, 1980

"...concerned with the locational or spatial variation in both physical and human phenomena at the earth's surface" - Martin Kenzer, 1989

"Geography is the study of earth as the home of people" - Yi-Fu Tuan, 1991

"Geography is the study of the patterns and processes of human (built) and environmental (natural) landscapes, where landscapes comprise real (objective) and perceived (subjective) space." - Gregg Wassmansdorf, 1995

The Breadth of Geography:

As you can see from the definitions above, geography is challenging to define because it is such a broad and all-encompassing field of study. Geography is far more than the study of maps and the physical features of the land. The field can be divided into two primary areas of study: human geography and physical geography

Human geography is the study of people in relation to the spaces they inhabit. These spaces can be cities, nations, continents, and regions, or they can be spaces that are defined more by the physical features of the land that contain different groups of people. Some of the areas studied within human geography include cultures, languages, religions, beliefs, political systems, styles of artistic expression, and economic distinctions. These phenomena are analyzed in relation to the physical environments in which people live.

Physical geography is the branch of the science that is probably more familiar to most of us, for it covers the field of earth science that many of us were introduced to in school. Some of the elements studied in physical geography are climate zones, storms, deserts, mountains, glaciers, soil, rivers and streams, the atmosphere, seasons, ecosystems, the hydrosphere, and much, much more.

This article was edited and expanded by Allen Grove in November, 2016