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Modern geography has many elements, drawing upon nearly all other academic areas. Geographers tap into various other disciplines in accordance with their own fields of study within the science of geography. Many, for instance, are powerfully influenced by biology and economics, but there are numerous geographers who call upon concepts from psychology, sociology, anthropology, and a variety of other subjects as well.

As with all sciences, there have always been tensions among those attempting to define geography. Is it about science or humanity? Is it systematic or regional? These differences of opinion persist, but the concepts of place and space provide a common bond among those who study geography, so that certain fundamentals of the science are agreed upon by all.



While many believe that geography is simply a system for naming places and identifying a location’s characteristics, this is not the case at all. Geography is the study that analyzes, classifies and compares natural phenomena, and seeks to understand their influence upon man. Geography is a science of argument and reason, cause and effect. Within this science, there are many areas of specialization, and most modern geographers do specialize in one branch or sub-branch. However, all geographers need to understand the main branches of the subject.

Physical geography

Physical geography focuses on Earth science, working to understand and interpret physical aspects of the planet, such as flora and fauna. It makes use of geology, especially in the study of weather and movement patterns of sediment. Physical geography can be divided into the following categories: Geomorphology, Hydrology, Glaciology, Biogeography, Climatology, Pedology (soil study), Coastal/Marine studies, Geodesy Palaeogeography, Environmental Geography, landscape ecology. Oceanography used to be included under this branch, but is now considered a branch of its own.

Human geography

Human geography focuses on patterns and processes shaping human interaction with different environments. It covers human, cultural, social, political and economic elements. Physical geography and environmental geography are closely linked to this branch, which can itself be divided up into sub-branches as follows: Economic, Development, Urban, Social, Behavioral, Cultural, Historical, Regional, Feminist, Strategic and Military geography, as well as Demography (population geography).

Socio-environmental geography

At one time, geography was defined as the study of how humans and the natural environment interact. This definition has been replaced by the one cited on this page, but there is still a strong tendency among geographers to address those relationships, especially in two sub-fields, known as cultural and political ecology, and risk-hazards research.

Cultural and political ecology

Cultural and political ecology examines how human beings adapt to their natural environment. Sustainability science is an outgrowth of this field. Political ecology arose when some geographers examined hierarchies and power to see how they affect people's use of the environment.

Risk-hazards research

Risk-hazards research was born when geographer Gilbert E. White sought to understand why people would choose to reside in disaster-prone floodplains. The hazards field has since expanded into a multidisciplinary field exploring both natural and technological hazards. Geographers in this field study the dynamics of the hazard itself as well as how individuals and societies cope with it.

Historical geography

This branch studies the manner in which cultural features of multifarious societies across the Earth evolved and developed. Landscapes are examined, especially in relationship to their environments.

Geographers in this sub-branch believe, to some extent, that a landscape and the cultures it hosts can only be understood if all of its influences throughout time have been studied. This includes physical, environmental, cultural, political and economic factors. At one time, regional specialization was believed to be the best way to accomplish this. Such specialists still exist today, but many modern geographers feel that this method resulted in too much data collection and classification, but not enough analysis and explanation. Studies became so region-specific, that crucial broader studies were neglected. This may have led to the 1950’s “Crisis in Geography,” where a huge lack of attention to the overall science almost rendered it extinct.

History of geography

The Greeks were the first recorded culture to actively pursue geographical studies. The Romans created maps of new lands that were used during the Middle Ages. Arabs built upon Greek and Roman techniques while developing their own as well.

Following Marco Polo’s explorations, an interest in geography spread through Europe. People wanted geographic details. By the 18th century, Geography was an official, though still lesser-known discipline covered in several universities across Europe.

In the two centuries since then, the sheer volume of knowledge and the number of tools has grown exponentially. During the 20th century, the Western world saw geography through four major phases: environmental determinism, regional geography, quantitative revolution and critical geography. Today, geography has strong links to geology, botany, economics, sociology and demographics, as well as other scientific disciplines.

Geographic techniques

Maps and globes, which explore spatial relationships, are key tools in this synoptic science. Traditional cartography now shares the spotlight with computer-based geographic information systems.

Cartography — the study of maps — has been developed from a collection of drafting techniques into a science unto itself. Cartographers study cognitive psychology and ergonomics to determine which symbols will best convey information about the Earth to people. They also study behavioral psychology to understand how they can motivate map readers to act on the information they take in. They master geodesy and advanced mathematics to figure out how the shape of the Earth affects the distortion of map symbols projected onto a flat surface. Most geographers recall a childhood fascination with maps when recalling how they came into the field of geography. Maps are probably the seed from which the entire science has grown.

GIS has revolutionized geography to such an extent that virtually all mapmaking is now performed with some assistance from GIS software.

Quantitative methods in geography deal with numerical tactics commonly found in geography. In addition to spatial analysis, there is cluster analysis, discriminant analysis, and non-parametic statistical tests. Qualitative methods, on the other hand, or ethnographic research techniques, are used most often by human geographers. They use much of the data that is also used in anthropology, and sociology, the type often amassed through observation and interview.