1.2 The Geographic Perspective

Most individuals define geography as a field of study that deals with maps, yet this definition is only partially correct. A better definition of geography may be the study of natural and human-constructed phenomena relative to a spatial dimension.

The discipline of geography has a history that stretches over many centuries. Over this period, geography has evolved and developed into an essential form of human scholarship. Examining the historical evolution of geography as a discipline provides some essential insights concerning its character and methodology. These insights are also helpful in gaining a better understanding of the nature of physical geography.

As stated by Dartmounth Library, “the study of the interrelationships between people, place, and environment, and how these vary spatially and temporally across and between locations. Whereas physical geography concentrates on spatial and environmental processes that shape the natural world and tends to draw on the natural and physical sciences for its scientific underpinnings and methods of investigation, human geography concentrates on the spatial organization and processes shaping the lives and activities of people, and their interactions with places and nature. Human geography is more allied with the social sciences and humanities, sharing their philosophical approaches and methods.

History of Geography

Some of the first genuinely geographical studies occurred more than four thousand years ago. The primary purpose of these early investigations was to map features and places observed as explorers traveled to new lands. At this time, Chinese, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations were beginning to explore the places and spaces within and outside of their homelands. The earliest evidence of such explorations comes from the archaeological discovery of a Babylonian clay tablet map that dates back to 2300 BC.

The early Greeks were the first civilization to practice a form of geography that was more than just map-making or cartography. Greek philosophers and scientists were also interested in learning about the spatial nature of human and physical features found on the Earth. One of the first Greek geographers was Herodotus (circa 484 – 425 BC). Herodotus wrote some volumes that described the human and physical geography of the various regions of the Persian Empire.


The ancient Greeks were also interested in the form, size, and geometry of the Earth. Aristotle (circa 384 – 322 BC) hypothesized and scientifically demonstrated that the Earth had a spherical shape. Evidence for this idea came from observations of lunar eclipses. Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth casts its circular shadow on to the moon’s surface. The first individual to accurately calculate the circumference of the Earth was the Greek geographer Eratosthenes (circa 276 – 194 BC). Eratosthenes calculated the equatorial circumference to be 40,233 kilometers using simple geometric relationships. This first calculation was unusually accurate. Measurements of the Earth using modern satellite technology have computed the circumference to be 40,072 kilometers.

Most of the Greek accomplishments in geography were passed on to the Romans. Roman military commanders and administrators used this information to guide the expansion of their Empire. The Romans also made several notable additions to geographical knowledge. Strabo (circa 64 BC – 20 AD) wrote a 17 volume series called “Geographia.” Strabo claimed to have traveled widely and recorded what he had seen and experienced from a geographical perspective. In his series of books, Strabo describes the cultural geographies of the various societies of people found from Britain to as far east as India and south to Ethiopia and as far north as Iceland. Strabo also suggested a definition of geography that is quite complementary to the way many human geographers define their discipline today. This definition suggests that geography aimed to “describe the known parts of the inhabited world… to write the assessment of the countries of the world [and] to treat the differences between countries.”

During the second century AD, Ptolemy (circa 100 – 178 AD) made some important contributions to geography. Ptolemy’s publication Geographike hyphegesis or “Guide to Geography” compiled and summarize much of the Greek and Roman geographic information accumulated at that time. Some of his other notable contributions include the creation of three different methods for projecting the Earth’s surface on a map, the calculation of coordinate locations for some eight thousand places on the Earth, and development of the concepts of geographical latitude and longitude.


Little academic progress in geography occurred after the Roman period. For the most part, the Middle Ages (5th to 13th centuries AD) were a time of intellectual stagnation. In Europe, the Vikings of Scandinavia were the only group of people carrying out active exploration of new lands. In the Middle East, Arab academics began translating the works of Greek and Roman geographers starting in the 8th century and began exploring southwestern Asia and Africa. Some of the essential intellectuals in Arab geography were Al-Idrisi, Ibn Battutah, and Ibn Khaldun. Al-Idrisi is best known for his skill at making maps and for his work of descriptive geography Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq or “The Pleasure Excursion of One Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World.” Ibn Battutah and Ibn Khaldun are well known for writing about their extensive travels of North Africa and the Middle East.

During the Renaissance (1400 to 1600 AD) numerous journeys of geographical exploration were commissioned by a variety of nation-states in Europe. Most of these voyages were financed because of the potential commercial returns from resource exploitation. The voyages also provided an opportunity for scientific investigation and discovery. These voyages also added many significant contributions to geographic knowledge. Important explorers of this period include Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Cartier, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Francis Drake, John and Sebastian Cabot, and John Davis. Also during the Renaissance, Martin Behaim created a spherical globe depicting the Earth in its true three-dimensional form in 1492. Behaim’s invention was a significant advance over two-dimensional maps because it created a more realistic depiction of the Earth’s shape and surface configuration.

In the 17th century, Bernhardus Varenius (1622-1650) published an important geographic reference titled Geographia generalis (General Geography: 1650). In this volume, Varenius used direct observations and primary measurements to present some new ideas concerning geographic knowledge. This work continued to be a standard geographic reference for about a 100 years. Varenius also suggested that the discipline of geography could be subdivided into three distinct branches. The first branch examines the form and dimensions of the Earth. The second sub-discipline deals with tides, climatic variations over time and space, and other variables that are influenced by the cyclical movements of the Sun and moon. Together these two branches form the early beginning of what we collectively now call physical geography. The last branch of geography examined distinct regions on the Earth using comparative cultural studies. Today, this area of knowledge is called cultural geography.

During the 18th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed that human knowledge could be organized in three different ways. One way of organizing knowledge was to classify its facts according to the type of objects studied. Accordingly, zoology studies animals, botany examines plants, and geology involves the investigation of rocks. The second way one can study things is according to a temporal dimension. This field of knowledge is, of course, called history. The last method of organizing knowledge involves understanding facts relative to spatial relationships. This field of knowledge is commonly known as geography. Kant also divided geography into some sub-disciplines. He recognized the following six branches: Physical, mathematical, moral, political, commercial, and theological geography.

Geographic knowledge saw strong growth in Europe and the United States in the 1800s. This period also saw the emergence of a number of societies interested in geographic issues. In Germany, Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Ritter, and Fredrich Ratzel made substantial contributions to human and physical geography. Humboldt’s publication Kosmos (1844) examines the geology and physical geography of the Earth. This work is considered by many academics to be a milestone contribution to geographic scholarship. Late in the 19th Century, Ratzel theorized that the distribution and culture of the Earth’s various human populations were strongly influenced by the natural environment. The French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche opposed this revolutionary idea. Instead, he suggested that human beings were a dominant force shaping the form of the environment. The idea that humans were modifying the physical environment was also prevalent in the United States. In 1847, George Perkins Marsh gave an address to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. The subject of this speech was that human activity was having a destructive impact on the land, primarily through deforestation and land conversion. This speech also became the foundation for his book Man and Nature or The Earth as Modified by Human Action, first published in 1864. In this publication, Marsh warned of the ecological consequences of the continued development of the American frontier.

During the first 50 years of the 1900s, many academics in the field of geography extended the various ideas presented in the previous century to studies of small regions all over the world. Most of these studies used descriptive field methods to test research questions. Starting around 1950, geographic research experienced a shift in methodology. Geographers began adopting a more scientific approach that relied on quantitative techniques. The quantitative revolution was also associated with a change in the way in which geographers studied the Earth and its phenomena. Researchers now began investigating the process rather than a mere description of the event of interest. Today, the quantitative approach is becoming even more prevalent due to advances in computer and software technologies.

In 1964, William Pattison published an article in the Journal of Geography (1964, 63: 211-216) that suggested that modern Geography was now composed of the following four academic traditions:

  • Spatial Tradition – the investigation of the phenomena of geography from a strictly spatial perspective.
  • Area Studies Tradition – the geographical study of an area on the Earth at either the local, regional, or global scale.
  • Human-Land Tradition – the geographical study of human interactions with the environment.
  • Earth Science Tradition – the study of natural phenomena from a spatial perspective. This tradition is best described as theoretical physical geography.

Today, the academic traditions described by Pattison are still dominant fields of geographical investigation. However, the frequency and magnitude of human-mediated environmental problems have been on a steady increase since the publication of this notion. These increases are the result of a growing human population and the consequent increase in the consumption of natural resources. As a result, an increasing number of researchers in geography are studying how humans modify the environment. A significant number of these projects also develop strategies to reduce the negative impact of human activities on nature. Some of the dominant themes in these studies include environmental degradation of the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere; resource use issues; natural hazards; environmental impact assessment; and the effect of urbanization and land-use change on natural environments.

Considering all of the statements presented concerning the history and development of geography, we are now ready to formulate a somewhat coherent definition. This definition suggests that geography, in its purest form, is the field of knowledge that is concerned with how phenomena are spatially organized. Physical geography attempts to determine why natural phenomena have particular spatial patterns and orientations. This online textbook will focus primarily on the Earth Science Tradition. Some of the information that is covered in this textbook also deals with the alterations of the environment because of human interaction. These pieces of information belong in the Human-Land Tradition of geography.

Elements of Geography

Geography is a discipline that integrates a wide variety of subject matter. Almost any area of human knowledge can be examined from a spatial perspective. Physical geography’s primary subdisciplines study the Earth’s atmosphere (meteorology and climatology), animal and plant life (biogeography), physical landscape (geomorphology), soils (pedology), and waters (hydrology). Some of the principal areas of study in human geography include human society and culture (social and cultural geography), behavior (behavioral geography), economics (economic geography), politics (political geography), and urban systems (urban geography).

Holistic synthesis connects knowledge from a variety of academic fields in both human and physical geography. For example, the study of the enhancement of the Earth’s greenhouse effect and the resulting global warming requires a multidisciplinary approach for complete understanding. The fields of climatology and meteorology are required to understand the physical effects of adding additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere’s radiation balance. The field of economic geography provides information on how various forms of human economic activity contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases through fossil fuel burning and land-use change. Combining the knowledge of both of these academic areas gives us a more comprehensive understanding of why this environmental problem occurs.

The holistic nature of geography is both a strength and a weakness. Geography’s strength comes from its ability to connect functional interrelationships that are not generally noticed in narrowly defined fields of knowledge. The most apparent weakness associated with the geographical approach is related to the fact that holistic understanding is often too simple and misses essential details of cause and effect.

Spatial Thinking

At no other time in the history of the world has it been easier to create or to acquire a map of nearly anything. Maps and mapping technology are literally and virtually everywhere. Though the modes and means of making and distributing maps have been revolutionized with recent advances in computing like the Internet, the art and science of map-making dates back centuries. This is because humans are inherently spatial organisms, and in order for us to live in the world, we must first somehow relate to it. Enter the mental map.

Mental Maps

Mental or cognitive maps are psychological tools that we all use every day. As the name suggests, mental maps are maps of our environment that are stored in our brains. We rely on our mental maps to get from one place to another, to plan our daily activities, or to understand and situate events that we hear about from our friends, family, or the news. Mental maps also reflect the amount and extent of geographic knowledge and spatial awareness that we possess. To illustrate this point, pretend that a friend is visiting you from out of town for the first time. Using a blank sheet of paper, take five to ten minutes to draw a map from memory of your hometown that will help your friend get around.

Mental Map

What did you choose to draw on your map? Is your house or where you work on the map? What about streets, restaurants, malls, museums, or other points of interest? How did you draw objects on your map? Did you use symbols, lines, and shapes? Are places labeled? Why did you choose to include certain places and features on your map but not others? What limitations did you encounter when making your map?

This simple exercise is instructive for several reasons. First, it illustrates what you know about where you live. Your simple map is a rough approximation of your local geographic knowledge and mental map. Second, it highlights how you relate to your local environment. What you choose to include and exclude on your map provides insights about what places you think are important and how you move through your place of residence. Third, if we were to compare your mental map to someone else’s from the same place, certain similarities emerge that shed light upon how we as humans tend to think spatially and organize geographical information in our minds. Fourth, this exercise reveals something about your artistic, creative, and cartographic abilities. In this respect, are not only mental maps unique, but also how such maps are drawn or represented on the page is unique too.

To reinforce these points, consider the series of mental maps of Los Angeles provided below. Take a moment to look at each map and compare the maps with the following questions in mind:

  • What similarities are there on each map?
  • What are some of the differences?
  • Which places or features are illustrated on the map?
  • From what you know about Los Angeles, what is included or excluded on the maps?
  • What assumptions are made in each map?
  • At what scale is the map drawn?
Mental Map of Los Angeles
Mental Map of Los Angeles.
Mental Map of Los Angeles.

Each map is probably an imperfect representation of one’s mental map. However, we can see some similarities and differences that provide insights into how people relate to Los Angeles, maps, and, more generally, the world. First, all maps are oriented so that north is up. Though only one of the maps contains a north arrow that explicitly informs viewers of the geographic orientation of the map, we are accustomed to most maps having north at the top of the page. Second, all but the first map identify some prominent features and landmarks in the Los Angeles area. For instance, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) appears on two of these maps, as do the Santa Monica Mountains. How the airport is represented or portrayed on the map, for instance, as text, an abbreviation, or symbol, also speaks to our experience using and understanding maps. Third, two of the maps depict a portion of the freeway network in Los Angeles, and one also highlights the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek. In a city where the “car is king,” how can any map omit the freeways?

What you include and omit on your map, by choice or not, speaks volumes about your geographical knowledge and spatial awareness—or lack thereof. Recognizing and identifying what we do not know is an essential part of learning. It is only when we identify the unknown that we can ask questions, collect information to answer those questions, develop knowledge through answers, and begin to understand the world where we live.

Asking Geographic Questions

Filling in the gaps in our mental maps and, more generally, the gaps in our geographic knowledge requires us to ask questions about the world where we live and how we relate to it. Such questions can be simple with a local focus (e.g., “Which way is the nearest hospital?”) or more complex with a more global perspective (e.g., “How is urbanization impacting biodiversity hotspots around the world?”). The thread that unifies such questions is geography. For instance, the question of “where?” is an essential part of the questions “Where is the nearest hospital?” and “Where are the biodiversity hotspots concerning cities?” Being able to articulate questions clearly and to break them into manageable pieces are valuable skills when using and applying a geographic information system (GIS).

Though there may be no such thing as a “dumb” question, some questions are indeed better than others. Learning how to ask the right question takes practice and is often more difficult than finding the answer itself. However, when we ask the right question, problems are more easily solved, and our understanding of the world is improved. There are five general types of geographic questions that we can ask and that GIS can help us to answer. Each type of question is listed here and is also followed by a few examples (Nyerges 1991). Nyerges, T. 1991. “Analytical Map Use.” Cartography and Geographic Information Systems (formerly The American Cartographer) 18: 11–22.

Questions about geographic location:

  • Where is it?
  • Why is it here or there?
  • How much of it is here or there?

Questions about geographic distribution:

  • Is it distributed locally or globally?
  • Is it spatially clustered or dispersed?
  • Where are the boundaries?

Questions about geographic association:

  • What else is near it?
  • What else occurs with it?
  • What is absent in its presence?

Questions about geographic interaction:

  • Is it linked to something else?
  • What is the nature of this association?
  • How much interaction occurs between the locations?

Questions about geographic change:

  • Has it always been here?
  • How has it changed over time and space?
  • What causes its diffusion or contraction?

These and related geographic questions are frequently asked by people from various areas of expertise, industries, and professions. For instance, urban planners, traffic engineers, and demographers may be interested in understanding the commuting patterns between cities and suburbs (geographic interaction). Biologists and botanists may be curious about why one animal or plant species flourish in one place and not another (geographic location/distribution). Epidemiologists and public health officials are undoubtedly interested in where disease outbreaks occur and how, why, and where they spread (geographic change/interaction/location).

A GIS can assist in answering all these questions and many more. Furthermore, a GIS often opens up additional avenues of inquiry when searching for answers to geographic questions. Herein is one of the greatest strengths of the GIS. While a GIS can be used to answer specific questions or to solve particular problems, it often unearths even more interesting questions. It presents more problems to be solved in the future.


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Introduction to Geographic Information Systems by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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