Geography Definition

Learn the Many Ways Geography Has Been Defined Over the Years

Hiker looks at map from rock buttress, sunrise
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Many famous geographers and non-geographers have attempted to define the discipline in a few short words. The concept has also changed throughout the ages, making it difficult to create a concise, universal geography definition for such a dynamic and all-encompassing subject. After all, Earth is a big place with many facets to study. It affects and is affected by the people who live there and use its resources. But basically, geography is the study of the surface of Earth and the people who live there—and all that encompasses.

Early Definitions of Geography

Geography, a study of Earth, its lands, and its people, started in ancient Greece, with the study's name defined by the scholar and scientist Eratosthenes, who calculated a relatively close approximation of the circumference of Earth. Thus, this academic field started with mapping the land. Greco-Roman astronomer, geographer, and mathematician Ptolemy, living in Alexandria, Egypt, in 150 defined its purpose as providing "'a view of the whole' earth by mapping the location of places."

Later, Islamic scholars developed the grid system to make maps more accurately and discovered more of the planet's lands. Then, another major development in geography included the use in China of the magnetic compass (invented for divination) for navigation, the earliest known recording of which is 1040. European explorers started using it in the century to follow.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant in the mid-1800s summed up the difference between history and geography as history as being when something happened and geography being where certain conditions and features are located. He thought of it more descriptive than a hard, empirical science. Halford Mackinder, a political geographer, included people in his definition of the discipline in 1887, as "man in society and local variations in environment." At the time members of Britain's Royal Geographic Society wanted to ensure that it was studied in schools as an academic discipline, and Mackinder's work aided that aim.

20th-Century Definitions of Geography

In the 20th century, Ellen Semple, the first female president of the National Geographical Society, promoted the idea that geography also encompasses "how environment apparently controls human behavior" including affecting culture and the history of people, which was a controversial view at the time.

Professor Harland Barrows, who was influential in establishing the subdisciplines of historical geography and the conservation of natural resources and the environment, in 1923 defined geography as the "study of human ecology; adjustment of man to natural surroundings."

Geographer Fred Schaefer rejected the idea that geography wasn't a hard science and said in 1953 that the study should include the search for its governing scientific laws, defining the discipline as "the science concerned with the formulation of the laws governing the spatial distribution of certain features on the surface of the earth."

Throughout the 20th century, more subdisciplines thrived under targeted research. H. C. Darby, a historical geographer, was radical in that his area of interest was geographical change over time. In 1962 he defined geography as "both science and art." Social geographer J. O. M. Broek worked in the area of the field of how man affects the earth, not just the other way around, and in 1965 said geography's purpose was "to understand the earth as the world of man."

Ariid Holt-Jensen, who has been instrumental in the study in subdisciplines of settlement geography as well as environmental, local and regional planning, in 1980 defined geography as "study of variations in phenomena from place to place."

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who in 1991 defined geography as "the study of earth as the home of people," has written about how people think and feel about space and place in a personal sense, from their home and neighborhood to their nation, and how that's affected by time.

The Breadth of Geography

As you can see from the definitions, geography is challenging to define because it is such a broad and all-encompassing field. It is far more than the study of maps and the physical features of the land because people are influenced and influence the land as well. 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 with statistics and demographics 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.