The Four Traditions of Geography

The Spatial, Area Studies, Man-Land, and Earth Science Traditions

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The four traditions of geography were originally espoused by geographer William D. Pattison at the opening session of the annual convention of the National Council for Geographic Education, Columbus, Ohio, November 29, 1963. His four traditions attempted to define the discipline:

  1. Spatial tradition
  2. Area studies tradition 
  3. Man-land tradition
  4. Earth science tradition

All of the traditions are interrelated and often used concurrently, of course, rather than being worked with in isolation.

Pattison's attempt to define geography's tenents was for the purpose of establishing a common vocabulary among people in the field and to define the field's basic concepts, so the work of the academics could translate easily for the ordinary person.

Spatial Tradition (Also Called Locational Tradition)

The core concepts of the spatial tradition of geography have to do with in-depth analysis of the particulars of a place, such as the distribution of one aspect over an area, using quantitative techniques and tools. For example, consider computerized mapping and geographic information systems; spatial analysis and patterns; areal distribution; densities; movement; and transportation. Central place theory attempts to explain people's settlements, as far as location and relation to one another, and growth.

Area Studies Tradition (Also Called Regional Tradition)

The area studies tradition, by contrast, finds out everything there is to know about a particular place to define, describe, and differentiate it from other regions or areas.

World regional geography and international trends and relationships are at its center.

Man-Land Tradition (Also Called Human-Environmental, Human-Land, or Culture-Environment Tradition)

In the man-land tradition, it's the relationship between human beings and the land that is studied, from the effects that people have on nature and environmentalism to natural hazards and the effects that nature can have on humans.

Cultural, political, and population geography is also a part of this tradition.

Earth Science Tradition

The Earth science tradition is the study of planet Earth as the home to humans and its systems, such as how the planet's location in the solar system affects its seasons or the Earth-sun interaction; the layers of the atmosphere: the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere; and physical geography of the Earth. Offshoots of the Earth science tradition of geography are geology, mineralogy, paleontology, glaciology, geomorphology, and meteorology.

What's Left Out?

In response to Pattison, researcher J. Lewis Robinson noted in the mid-1970s that Pattison's model leaves out several aspects of geography, such as the time aspect when working with historical geography and cartography (mapmaking). He wrote that the dividing of geography into such specialties made it feel as if it's not a unified discipline, though themes do run through it. However, Pattison's approach, Robinson opined, does a good job of creating a framework for the discussion of the philosophical tenets of geography.  A geographic area of study likely at least starts with Pattison's categories, which have been essential to the study of geography for at least the prior century, and some of the more recent specialized areas of study are in essence the old ones, reinvented and using better tools.


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Rosenberg, Matt. "The Four Traditions of Geography." ThoughtCo, Feb. 26, 2018, Rosenberg, Matt. (2018, February 26). The Four Traditions of Geography. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "The Four Traditions of Geography." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).