The Four Traditions of Geography

William Pattison's Precepts Attempt to Define the World in Which We Live

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Geographer William D. Pattison introduced his four traditions of geography at the annual convention of the National Council for Geographic Education in 1963. With these precepts, Pattison sought to define the discipline by establishing a common vocabulary in the geographic community at large. His goal was to create a lexicon of basic geographical concepts so that the work of academics could be easily interpreted by laymen. The four traditions are the Spatial or Locational Tradition, the Area Studies or Regional Tradition, the Man-Land Tradition, and the Earth Science Tradition. Each of these traditions is interrelated, and they are often used in conjunction with one another, rather than alone.

Spatial or Locational Tradition

The core concept behind the Spatial Tradition of geography relates to the in-depth analysis of the particulars of a place—such as the distribution of one aspect over an area—using quantitative techniques and tools that might include such things as computerized mapping and geographic information systems, spatial analysis and patterns, aerial distribution, densities, movement, and transportation. The Locational Tradition attempts to explain the course of human settlements in terms of location, growth, and in relation to other locales.

Area Studies or Regional Tradition

Unlike the Spatial Tradition, the Area Studies Tradition determines as much as it is possible to glean about a particular place in order to define, describe, and differentiate it from other regions or areas. World regional geography, along with international trends and relationships are at its center.

Man-Land Tradition

The focus of the Man-Land Tradition is the study of the relationship between human beings and the land they live on. Man-Land looks not only at the impact people impose on their local environment but conversely, at how natural hazards can influence human life. Along with addition population geography, the tradition also takes into account the ramifications that cultural and political practices have on the given area of study as well.

Earth Science Tradition

The Earth Science Tradition is the study of planet Earth as the home to humans and its systems. Along with the physical geography of the planet, focuses of study include such things as how the planet's location in the solar system affects its seasons (this is also known as Earth-sun interaction) and how changes in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere impact human life on the planet. Offshoots of the Earth Science Tradition of geography are geology, mineralogy, paleontology, glaciology, geomorphology, and meteorology.

What Did Pattison Leave Out?

In response to the four traditions, in the mid-1970s, researcher J. Lewis Robinson noted that Pattison's model left out several important aspects of geography, such as the factor of time as it relates to historical geography and cartography (mapmaking). Robinson wrote that by dividing geography into these categories—while admitting consistent themes do run through all four—Pattison's precepts lacked a unifying focus. Robinson did, however, concede that Pattison had done a good job of creating a framework for the discussion of the philosophical tenets of geography. 

As a result, while it's not the be all and end all, most geographic studies are likely to at least begin with Pattison's traditions. While not perfect, they have nonetheless become essential to the study of geography since first being adopted. Many of the more recent specialized areas of geographic study are, in essence, new and improved versions—reinvented and using better tools—of Pattison's original ideas.