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The world discipline

Geography has been called "the world discipline".

Literally, "geography" means "to describe or write about the Earth". As "the world discipline", modern geography is an all-encompassing discipline that foremost seeks to understand the Earth and all of its natural (physical) and artificial (human) complexities. Not only does geography investigates where they are, but it also explores how they have come to be and their significance.

Geography has always fallen into two parts, physical geography and human geography. Physical geographers study the Earth’s surface as a physical entity with its landforms, vegetation cover, soils, climatic variation, and so on. Human geographers are concerned with the ways in which people occupy the Earth’s surface, their movements and settlements, and their perceptions and use of the land, resources, and space.

Definitions of contemporary geography

  • "Geography is the study of the surface of the Earth. It involves the phenomena and processes of the Earth’s natural and human environments and landscapes at local to global scales. Its basic division is between physical geography, which is unambiguously a science and analyses the physical make-up of the Earth’s surface, and human geography, where the focus is on the human occupancy of this area." – D. T. Herbert and J.A. Matthews (2001)
  • "The goal of geography is nothing less than an understanding of the vast interacting system comprising all humanity and its natural environment on the surface of the Earth." – E. A. Ackerman (1963)
  • "Geography is the science of place, its vision is grand, its view is panoramic. It sweeps the surface of the Earth, charting its physical, organic and cultural domains." – Harm de Blij (1995)
  • "Geography is a discipline concerned with understanding the spatial dimensions of environmental and social processes." – G. F. White (2002)
  • "Geography is the study and science of environmental and societal dynamics and society-environment interactions." – G. L. Gaile and C. J. Willmott (2003)
Scope of geography

Geography is concerned with both the natural environment and the human society.

Characteristics of geography

  • built upon the desire to discover more about the world in which we live
  • developed from the factual descriptions of different parts of the world
  • concerned with the natural environments and with the modifications brought about by human actions
  • geography is everywhere today: studies the Earth’s surface; examines locations, connections, territories, environments, places; understands their significance

Significance of geography

  • in the past: driven by missionary, commercial, political, or scientific considerations
  • today: useful in the increasingly interdependent and connected world beset with problems of global significance (e.g. global warming, environmental change, natural hazards, flows of refugees, rising levels of pollution, rapid onset of epidemics, burgeoning conflicts, etc.)

History of geography as an academic discipline

  • mapping goes back a long way in time
  • geographical concepts can be found in ancient writings
  • but various concepts were not drawn drawn together into an integrated subject area
  • Halford Mackinder, the first Professor of Geography at Oxford, developed the “Geographical Experiment”
  • integration of the study of the society and the environment under one umbrella
  • strength: includes nature and culture and their relationship, a concept no other discipline has claimed
  • weakness: different parts of geography relate to different intellectual traditions, and the touching points become very few or non-existent
  • Earth Observation (EO), Geographical Information Systems (GIS), etc. have been added to traditional methods
  • the need to understand the biophysical and human environments and their interactions is becoming increasingly urgent as issues of sustainability and the protection and preservation of planet Earth become imperative
  • the main difference between modern expeditions and those in the past is that the former lead to a management plan for sustainable development
  • the outer space may be the “final frontier” of exploration

Core concepts of geography

  • space: location, distances, directions
  • place: a form of bounded space
  • environment: encompasses human perceptions and aspirations as well as biophysical characteristics
  • the nexus where the three core concepts overlap: the concept of landscape
  • landscape is like a palimpsest: written over many times by both physical and human processes, but traces of the past are still discernible
Core concepts of geography

Newest Directions in Geography