What is Geography?

By Keith M. Bell, Associate Professor of Geography, VSCC


Literally interpreted, geography is a word that comes from the Greek geo- referring to Earth, and -graphy meaning picture or writing. Geography is known as the "mother of all sciences" because all other disciplines took root from its existence. Geography is a spatial science that deals with many aspects of social science (e.g. history and anthropology), physical science (e.g. weather and climate), and technical science (e.g. GIS and remote sensing). The concepts of space/location, place, human environment interaction, movement/diffusion, and regions are all important aspects to the study of geography. Geography is the tool used to analyze all things spatial - people, landscapes, money - the uses are endless.

History of Geography

Geography has been around for centuries in all corners of the globe. From Europe to Africa to Asia, the early Greeks (e.g. Eratosthenes), Chinese (e.g. Xu Xiake), and Arabs (e.g. al-Idrisi) amassed and synthesized incredible amounts of information about the place we call home - Earth. Building on the body of knowledge of early geographers, nineteenth century philosopher/geographer Emmanuel Kant distinguished between the two ways of classifying things: the category of space (spatial) and the category of time (temporal). Modern geography evolved from the works of prominent German geographers Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter. Those two geographers felt that geography should be redirected away from voluminous tomes of directionless data and toward a "new scientific geography," one that focused on the region for the ultimate understanding of earth. Thereafter, geography as a distinct discipline in education slowly deteriorated as specialization grew in the various scientific fields. For instance, this is what geography books used to encompass:

[Formal geography texts] constitute(d) most of the body of schoolbooks in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the United States. Texts on history, for example, did not appear until the 1880s. These early geography texts were compendiums of knowledge, widely used in schools and the more literate homes. The early geography texts were the encyclopedias of their day.1

By comparison, for example, the field of geology only came into existence in the 18th Century. The word "geology" was first used in the year 1778 by Jean-André Deluc. The new term represented the science that deals with the history of the earth as recorded in the lithosphere. While geology has helped answer many questions about planet Earth (i.e. 4.6 billion years old, paleoclimatology, plate tectonics, etc.) the field was so focused on one aspect of our world that it failed to see a larger picture, one that had human action and environmental events intertwined.

Today we see all of the disciplines emanating from the core of geographic sciences. Below is a diagram that grew from the work of American geographer Nevin Fenneman.2

Nevin Fenneman's diagram showing how geography relates to other scientific disciplines

Fenneman's Presidential Address delivered before the Association of American Geographers in December, 1918, was titled "The Circumference of Geography." He maintained that, "There is, then, in geography this central core which is pure geography and nothing else, but there is much beyond this core which is none the less geography, though it belongs also to overlapping sciences." He further contends that, "… the seeds are in the core, and the core is regional geography, and this is why the subject propagates itself and maintains a separate existence." He concluded his statements by saying, "The effective way is to set in the midst of them a great light, the light which comes alone from the comprehensive, rational, systematic study of regions." It is this spatial analysis that gives geography its strength. In addition to being the bedrock of scientific inquiry, geography has a systematic side to it. Study within the separate fields yields a specific kind of geographer (e.g. GIS analyst, climatologist, political geographer).

In the United States, unfortunate circumstances have arisen from a tumultuous past. Geography remains an elusive, ever-changing subject matter. It refuses to be pigeonholed or agree with any one definition. Geography, to many, remains a baffling subject, seemingly simplistic yet intimidating. Moreover, the absence of direction of the discipline over the years has led to a decrease in the effectiveness of this once proud institution. In fact, the following passage by geographer Susan Hanson illustrates the problems geography and geographers have had of recent:

Few Americans seem able to forget the "geography" they encountered in the fourth or fifth grade: The challenge of facing a blank outline map of the United States with the charge to name the states, a map with wavy lines on it with the assignment to identify the rivers, or a map of linear lumps with the job of to write names on mountain ranges. The tenacity of these memories - correctly associated with geography as we encountered it in elementary school - together with the total absence of any further instruction under the rubric of geography in junior high or high school (and often college as well), places us who are professional geographers in the position of frequently having to define our chosen field. Why would fully grown adults freely choose to spend their days labeling states, rivers, and mountain ranges? What do we do with our time once all the blank maps are filled in? The same memories seem also to require us frequently to defend our chosen field: Why does the world need geography? What have geographers really done for the the world (beyond labeling all those features on maps)?3

The observations made by Ms. Hanson are a true perception by most Americans of the relevance of geography. Is it just the rote memorization of states and capitals and place names? Geographers know this is not the case. For further illumination on the question of geography, one should consult Geography for Life, a book published by the major professional geography organizations in the United States. The authors answer the following questions this way:

Where is something? Why is it there? How did it get there? How does it interact with other things?

Geography is not a collection of arcane information. Rather it is the study of spatial aspects of human existence. People everywhere need to know about the nature of their world and their place in it. Geography has much more to do with asking questions and solving problems than it does with rote memorization of facts.

So what exactly is geography? It is an integrative discipline that brings together the physical and human dimensions of the world in the study of people, places, and environment. Its subject matter is the Earth's surface and the processes that shape it, the relationships between people and environments, and the connections between people and places.4

This publication is good news for the United States. The professional geographers now seem to have a game plan for reintegrating the subject in our K-12 classrooms, and if it is applied correctly our students and future citizens will be ready to make well-informed decisions about the future of our country and planet. For too long geography has been a discipline relegated to insignificant status in our classrooms, where globes and maps are only used as props and not as scientific tools of learning. This is unlike the rest of the world where students from Armenia to Zimbabwe study the subject every year of their education. They feel quite passionate about it as well. Read this commentary from a London newspaper:

Geography embraces every fact on earth: every aspect of the composition, occupation and history of the planet. It is the monitor of our abuse of our environment and our guide to its preservation. As such, geography knows no intellectual boundaries. It deserves to sit at the centre of any liberal education. ....Geography should be encouraged to seize the central fortress, ejecting both pure science and that grossly over-promoted intellectual exercise called mathematics. Geography should stand alone on the scientific pedestal, joined only with its one educational equal, the study of the human spirit in English language and literature. Geography is queen of the sciences, parent to chemistry, geology, physics and biology, parent also to history and economics.5

I, for one, hope this vision for the future becomes a reality for Americans. This subject matter is too important to be dismissed in the offhanded way it has been over the last few decades. But the onus lies with the professional geographers to get their message out. Much of the literature produced by those individuals are for like-minded persons within the discipline and are useless to any layperson. In essence, the scientific geographic community resides on an island unconnected to the mass of people on the mainland. Thus, their studies are rendered worthless for the people who actually need the education the most. So we too have work to do.

Uses of Geography

Geography is a richly diverse field of study. With the breadth of geography, every individual should be able to find something that appeals to them in terms of a career path. Geography has three essential components:

Physical geographers are concerned with the natural aspects of such phenomena as water resources, soil formation, vegetation patterns, landforms, weather and climate.
An individual who focuses on the physical world could be a professional in the field of weather forecasting, or activities that include outdoor guides and park rangers, coastal zone managers, soil conservationists (e.g. United States Geological Survey employees), or hydrologists.
Human geographers deal with the spatial aspects of human existence. The distribution (or spatial arrangement) of things on the landscape are of great importance to the human geographer. They study how people and their activities are distributed in space, how they use and perceive space, and how they create and sustain the places that make up the earth's surface.
An individual who focuses on human aspects might be a professional in international business, a travel agent, an area specialist (i.e. foreign ambassador or consultant), community developer, demographer, map librarian, transport planner, or health services planner.
The technical field of geography is the fastest growing field of geography. Individuals in this field must have a broad range of knowledge about both the physical and human world, as well as training in computer and analytical equipment (e.g. GPS units, computer mapping programs, etc.), as well as superior mathematical skills. The technical geographer is in great demand in today's job market. That means one could make lots of money if they had the proper training.
A technically trained geographer could hold jobs like a Geographic Information Systems specialist, computer mapper/cartographer, surveyor, or remote-sensing analyst.

Critical Current Issues in Geography

The events of September 11, 2001 have focused attention on the diversity of our planet, especially the radical Arab/Islamic world. How do we as Americans contend with the various groups of people who seek to bring us down, to destroy us? We do it by educating ourselves in the geographic sciences. Learning about our world is essential to understanding what makes other people tick. Understanding their decision-making process and geopolitical situation is a must in today's globalized world. You had better believe the rest of the world knows about us. How do you think they infiltrated us and caused so much damage and grief, not to mention the harm they brought to our economy? The more one knows, the less there is to be afraid of in this world. (Also, fear mongering by our government will have less of an impact. Remember, if the government can keep you afraid it can do just about anything its wants.)

If you know what jihad, al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hizbollah, Hamas, takfir, and al-Nakba mean then you're already ahead in the game. These are scary Arabic words to the uneducated mind. But if you know their meaning and the events or ideals they reference then you'll know why Muslims would be willing to sacrifice themselves in suicidal attacks of martyrdom. Where did the 19 hijackers come from? If you don't know the answer to that question then how could you even begin to understand what occurred on the dreadful autumn day?

In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, the world grieved with us. The world sympathized with us. The world wanted to help us in any way they could. They did this by aiding us in our war on terror in Afghanistan. No country in the world flinched from our stance on terror in Afghanistan. They gave troops, money, air space, and forgave debt to a fledgling government in Kabul. But in the second phase of the war the world cringed. With the "war on terror" in Iraq, the current administration alienated some of our closest allies (i.e. France, Germany, and Canada) and did it by duplicitous means. It fueled Arab/Islamic enmity for the US. It made us a virtual pariah state in the world geo-political realm. (To read more about our fall from grace, take this link to the Pew Research Center.) Furthermore, the recent Iraq war has seen faulty thinking by our government which stems from, what I believe to be, geographic illiteracy. We, as a country, don't understand our friends, much less our enemies.

Remember that ignorance stems from the act of not knowing, while stupidity stems from knowing but choosing not to follow logic. My point is not to call Americans and our government stupid, only ignorant of geography. At least we're starting to figure this out in regards to the war on terror. Max Boot, a Los Angeles Times reporter, notes the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review (2006). In that report the Defense Department realizes that 'concepts such as "swiftly defeating" the enemy may not be applicable in this type of campaign, and that it will call for very different skills from our warriors, who will have to "understand foreign cultures and societies and possess the ability to train, mentor and advise foreign security forces."'6 (Emphasis added by K. Bell) This quote bears out what has come to be considered poor planning for what would transpire after we won on the battlefield. Moreover, even though the Defense Department acknowledges this necessary change in approach they haven't funded this initiative adequately. "The entire budget for language and cultural training - $181 million - comes to less than the cost of one F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter Plane)."6

Americans still have a long way to go in understanding the world. In another example, when the tsunami struck the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 the world responded by donating millions of dollars in aid. The United States of America was among the greatest donors. Along with money we donated relief supplies like food and clothing. Unfortunately, because many people had good hearts but not a lot of understanding of the region, they sent winter clothing to places like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is very close to the Equator and they certainly didn't need a good winter coat. Our understanding was that since it was winter time and cold here, they must be cold too. But we were ignorant of their physical situation in the Tropics.


We must begin to learn about the world in which we live. We need to understand the different landscapes and cultures that inhabit this amazing blue marble we call home - Earth. Education can help solve so many problems. We will obviously not ignore geography at this institution. In fact, you may receive a bigger infusion of knowledge about the world than you ever dreamed possible. You probably have a lot of information in your head already, but this class will help tie it all together and sharpen the cognitive image (i.e. your mental map of the world). It will take time and effort though. I've got the time and the energy to educate you. Will you accept what I'm offering?

If you would like more information about a future or career in geography, you may visit the web site of the Association of American Geographers. Moreover, you may check the following web site to see the geography departments of the United States and the degrees each offers: I would also be glad to speak to you concerning your future in the field of geography. It can be a rewarding venture, both financially and in terms of self fulfillment. It should be clear that you will be in demand in today's labor market.


  1. Representing the Republic: Mapping the United States, 1600 - 1900 - John Rennie Short
  2. Diagram from GeoTutor CD-ROM: Prentice Hall 1999
  3. Ten Geographic Ideas That Changed the World - Susan Hanson, Editor, 1997
  4. Geography for Life - Geography Education Standards Project, 1994
  5. Excerpt from the Times (London), June 1990
  6. Max Boot, "The Wrong Weapons for the Long War" - Los Angeles Times, February, 8, 2006