Economic Geography

Overview of Economic Geography

Panama Canal
Locomotives help maneuver a ship through the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal as it is lowered into the lock. John Coletti/Getty Images

Economic geography is a sub-field within the larger subjects of geography and economics. Researchers within this field study the location, distribution and organization of economic activity around the world. Economic geography is important in developed nations such as the United States because it allows researchers to understand the structure of the area's economy and its economic relationship with other areas around the world.

It is also important in developing nations because the reasons and methods of development or lack thereof are more easily understood.

Because economics is such a large topic of study so too is economic geography. Some topics that are considered economic geography include agritourism, the economic development of various countries and gross domestic and gross national products. Globalization is also extremely important to economic geographers today because it connects much of the world's economy.

History and Development of Economic Geography

Economic geography, though not specifically identified as such, has a long history that dates back to ancient times when the Chinese state of Qin made maps tracing its economic activity around the 4th century B.C.E ( The Greek geographer Strabo also studied economic geography about 2,000 years ago. His work was published in the book, Geographika.

The field of economic geography continued to grow as European nations later began to explore and colonize different regions around the world.

During these times European explorers made maps describing economic resources such as spices, gold, silver and tea that they believed would be found in places like the Americas, Asia and Africa ( They based their explorations on these maps and as a result new economic activity was brought to those regions.

In addition to the presence of these resources, explorers also documented the trading systems that the people native to these regions engaged in.

In the mid-1800's farmer and economist Johann Heinrich von Thünen developed his model of agricultural land use. This was an early example of modern economic geography because it explained the economic development of cities based on land use. In 1933 geographer Walter Christaller created his Central Place Theory that used economics and geography to explain the distribution, size and number of cities around the world.

By the end of World War II general geographic knowledge had increased considerably. Economic recovery and development following the war led to the growth of economic geography as an official discipline within geography because geographers and economists became interested in how and why economic activity and development was occurring and where it was around the world. Economic geography continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1950s and 1960s as geographers attempted to make the subject more quantitative. Today economic geography is still a very quantitative field that mainly focuses on topics such as the distribution of businesses, market research and regional and global development.

In addition, both geographers and economists study the topic. Today's economic geography is also very reliant on geographic information systems (GIS) to conduct research on markets, the placement of businesses and the supply and demand of a given product for an area.

Topics within Economic Geography

Today's economic geography is broken down five different branches or topics of study. These are theoretical, regional, historical, behavioral and critical economic geography. Each of these branches is different from the other because of the approaches economic geographers in the branches use to study the world's economy.

Theoretical economic geography is the broadest of the branches and geographers within that subdivision mainly focus on building new theories for how the world's economy is arranged.

Regional economic geography looks at the economies of specific regions around the world. These geographers look at local development as well as the relationships that specific regions have with other areas. Historical economic geographers look at the historic development of an area to understand their economies. Behavioral economic geographers focus on an area's people and their decisions to study the economy.

Critical economic geography is the final topic of study. It developed out of critical geography and geographers in this field attempt to study economic geography without using the traditional methods listed above. For example, critical economic geographers often look at economic inequalities and the dominance of one region over another and how that dominance impacts development of economies.

In addition to studying these different topics, economic geographers also often study very specific themes related to the economy. These themes include the geography of agriculture, transportation, natural resources and trade as well as topics such as business geography.

Current Research in Economic Geography

Because of the different branches and topics within economic geography researchers today study a wide variety of issues. Some current titles from the Journal of Economic Geography are "Global Destruction Networks, Labour and Waste," "A Network-based View of Regional Growth" and "The New Geography of Jobs."

Each of these articles are interesting because they are very different from one another but they all focus on some aspect of the world's economy and how it works.

To learn more about economic geography, visit the economic geography section of this website.