What is Geography?



Definition: Geography is the study of the surface of the Earth. The word derives from the Greek words hê gê (“the Earth”) and graphein (“to write”).  Geography is much more than Cartography, the study of maps. It not only investigates what is where on the Earth, but also why it’s there not somewhere else, sometimes referred to as “location in space”. It studies this whether the cause is natural or human. It also studies the consequences of those differences.


Spatial interrelationships are key to this synoptic science, and it uses maps as a key tool. Geographers use four interrelated approaches:

  1. Systematic – Groups geographical knowledge into categories that can be explored globally
  2. Regional – Examines systematic relationships between categories for a specific region or location on the planet.
  3. Descriptive – Simply specifies the locations of features and populations.
  4. Analytical – Asks why we find features and populations in a specific geographic area.

Physical geography

This branch focuses on Geography as an Earth science, making use of biology to understand global flora and fauna patterns, and mathematics and physics to understand the motion of the earth and relationship with other bodies in the solar system. It also covers mapmaking and navigation, and includes environmental geography.

atmosphere — archipelago — cape — city — continent — desert — gulf — island — lake — lagoon — atoll — mountain range — ocean — peninsula — plain — river — sea — valley — ecology — climate — soil — geomorphology — biogeography – Timeline of geography, meteorology, paleontology

Human geography

The human, or political/cultural, branch of geography – also called anthropogeography focuses on the social science, non-physical aspects of the way the world is arranged. It examines how humans adapt themselves to the land and to other people, and in macroscopic transformations they enact on the world. It can be divided into the following broad categories: economic geography, political geography (including geopolitics), social geography (including urban geography), environmentalism, cartography, and military geography.

Countries of the world — country — nation — state — union — province — county — city — municipality

Historical geography

This branch seeks to determine how physical and cultural features of the planet evolved and came into being.

Urban and Regional Planning

Urban planning and regional planning use the science of geography to assist in determining how to develop (or not develop) the land to meet particular criteria, such as safety, beauty, economic opportunities, the preservation of the built or natural heritage, etcetera. The planning of towns, cities and rural areas may be seen as applied geography although it also draws heavily upon the arts, the sciences and lessons of history. Some of the issues facing planning are considered briefly under the headings of rural exodus, urban exodus and Smart Growth.

History of Geography

The Greeks are the first known culture to actively explore geography as a science and philosophy, with major contributors including Thales of Miletus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Aristotle, Dicaearchus of Messana, Strabo, and Ptolemy. Mapping by the Romans as they explored new lands added new techniques.


During the Middle Ages, Arabs such as Idrisi, Ibn Battuta, and Ibn Khaldun built on and maintained the Greek and Roman learnings. Following the journeys of Marco Polo, interest in geography spread throughout Europe. During the Renaissance and into the 16th and 17th centuries the great voyages of exploration revived a desire for solid theoretical foundations and accurate detail. The Geographia Generalis by Bernhardus Varenius and Gerardus Mercator’s world map are prime examples.

By the 18th century, geography had become recognized as a discrete discipline and became part of a typical university curriculum. Over the past two centuries the quantity of knowledge and the number of tools has exploded. There are strong links between geography and the sciences of geology and botany.

Regional Science

In the 1950s the regional science movement arose, led by Walter Isard to provide a more quantitative and analytical base to geographical questions, in contrast to the more qualitative tendencies of traditional geography programs. Regional Science comprises the body of knowledge in which the spatial dimension plays a fundamental role, such as regional economics, resource management, location theory, urban and regional planning, transportation and communication, human geography, population distribution and environmental quality.

Overview of Geography

If you’re looking to dive into a deeper understanding of geography and aren’t sure where to start, Matt Roseberg provides a roundup in his “Geography 101” page at About Geography.  Matt guides you to topics on the divisions of geography, the history of geography, how and where to study geography, and learning about a career in geography.