What is Geography and why do we study it?

What will we learn in this article?

In this article, the reader will start from learning a partial understanding of geography to a correct understanding of geography as a subject and discipline. People often ask , What is Geography?

Why are people wrong about geography?

To a layman, it is nothing more than memorizing the names of rivers, lakes, oceans, continents, islands, mountains, deserts, grasslands etc. which is a wrong understanding.

It is made of two words geo (earth) and graphy (study). Hence, the literal meaning of geography is study of earth. The earth includes three primary spheres i.e. lithosphere (land), atmosphere (air) and hydrosphere (water). These three spheres combine to form a biosphere where plants and animals thrive. A common student considers the study of these four spheres as the main subject matter of geography. This understanding is only partially correct. This is so because the role of humans as a key species, which modifies land, water and air, is completely ignored. However, it is a complex study of the relationship between man and its environment.

Geography: A Correct Understanding

The geographers have varied opinions regarding definitions of geography based on their area of expertise. For example:-

  • Environmentalists, such as Ratzel, Semple, Huntington etc., consider geography as a study of the relationship between man and its environment where environment is a key controlling factor of the human landscape.
  • According to Schafer, it specializes in the study of different spatial patterns in anthropogenic and natural phenomena.
  • According to Hartshorne, it is a study of areal differentiations.

However, all these famous geographers recognize the differences in cultural and natural environment over the surface of the earth as key drivers of variation in social, economic and political processes.

Definition: “Geography puts this understanding of social and physical processes within the context of place – recognizing the great differences in cultures, political systems, economies, landscapes and environments across the world, and exploring the links between them. Understanding the causes of differences and inequalities between places and social groups underlie much of the newer developments in human geography.” (Royal Geographic Society)

Click here to know, What is Geomorphology?

Let’s Disaggregate this definition of Geography

  • Socio-cultural, economic and political processes/activities are anthropogenic (originating from human knowledge and activities).
  • These anthropogenic processes/activities are partially delineated by the natural environment and rest by human knowledge or technology.
  • Since, the natural environment changes from one place to another due to differences of topography and climate. Anthropogenic activities also vary over different parts of earth.
  • It focuses on this varying relationship between anthropogenic activities and the natural environment over earth surface. This relationship is not unidirectional but both ways.

Simply and broadly put, it studies two things primarily i.e. a) the differences in social, cultural, economic, and political activities between different areas of earth as a result of differences in natural environment; b) the impact of different human cultures on their natural environment.

We study various phenomena related to physical, climatic, hydrological, chemical, biological, economic, social, political processes in geography. These phenomena are also part of other subjects and disciplines. 

So, why do we study geography as a separate discipline?

It is so because geography acts as a bridge between all these subjects by studying. The students of  study the basic ideas/theories/laws of all these different subjects which are important to understanding the human-environment relationship and its geographic/spatial patterns. Above all, geography introduces spatial analysis to these subjects. For example, in economics, scholars make laws of transport cost by assuming that all the surface is flat but geography takes topographical undulations over land surface into account while applying the laws of economics. This makes the application of government policies in different areas more practical. Similarly, geography applies the other laws of different subjects based on geographical understanding.

Hence, it is regarded as a key spatial science. It has a lot of potential use as an applied social science for policy formation and application.