1.1 What is Geography?

What is “geography”? It might seem like a simple enough term to define. In middle school, your answer might have been something to do with the study of maps, of where things were located in the world. In fact, much of primary and secondary school geography is explicitly focused on the where, answering questions like where a particular country is located, what a country’s capital is, and where major landforms are located. Just as simple arithmetic operations form the backbone of mathematics as a discipline, these kinds of questions are foundational to geographic study. However, one wouldn’t likely define math as the study of calculators or of multiplication tables. Similarly, there is much more to geography and geographic inquiry than the study of maps.

Geographers seek to answer both the “where” and the “why.” Simply knowing where a country is located is certainly helpful, but geographers dig deeper: why is it located there? Why does it have a particular shape, and how does this shape affect how it interacts with its neighbors and its access to resources? Why do the people of the country have certain cultural features? Why does the country have a specific style of government? The list goes on and on, and as you might notice, incorporates a variety of historical, cultural, political, and physical features.

The more we understand our world, the better prepared we will be to address the issues that confront our future. Hopefully, this book will help you to better understand our global community and its current affairs.

What can you do with geography?

Geography helps us make sense of the world through historical traditions:

  • Earth science
    • Earth science includes the study of landforms, climates, and the distribution of plants and animals.
  • Area studies
    • Area or regional studies focus on a particular region to understand the dynamics of a specific interaction between human activity and the environment.
  • Human-landscape interactions
    • Researchers studying human-landscape interaction examine the impact of humans on their landscape and find out how different cultures have used and changed their environments.

Geography often explains why or how something occurs in a specific location!

The term “geography” comes from the Greek term geo meaning “the earth” and graphia meaning “to write,” and many early geographers did exactly that: they wrote about the world.

Eratosthenes is commonly considered to be the “Father of Geography,” and in fact, he quite literally wrote the book on the subject in the third century BCE. His three-volume text, Geographica, included maps of the entire known world, including different climate zones, the locations of hundreds of different cities, and a coordinate system. This was a revolutionary and highly regarded text, especially for the time period.

19th-century reconstruction of Eratosthenes’ map of the known world, c. 194 BC.

Eratosthenes is also credited as the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth. Many early geographers, like Eratosthenes, were primarily cartographers, referring to people who scientifically study and create maps, and early maps, such as those used in Babylon, Polynesia, and the Arabian Peninsula, were often used for navigation.


Geography today uses more advanced tools and techniques and draws on the foundations laid by these predecessors.

The discipline of geography can be broken down into two main areas of focus: physical geography and human geography. These two main areas are similar in that they both use a spatial perspective, and they both include the study of place and the comparison of one place with another.

Physical geography is the spatial study of natural phenomena that make up the environment, such as rivers, mountains, landforms, weather, climate, soils, plants, and any other physical aspects of the earth’s surface. Physical geography focuses on geography as a form of earth science. It tends to emphasize the main physical parts of the earth—the lithosphere (surface layer), the atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water), and the biosphere (living organisms)—and the relationships between these parts.

The water cycle is something that might be studying in physical geography (or earth science).

Human geography is the study of human activity and its relationship to the earth’s surface. Human geographers examine the spatial distribution of human populations, religions, languages, ethnicities, political systems, economics, urban dynamics, and other components of human activity. They study patterns of interaction between human cultures and various environments and focus on the causes and consequences of human settlement and distribution over the landscape. While the economic and cultural aspects of humanity are the primary focuses of human geography, these aspects cannot be understood without describing the landscape on which economic and cultural activities take place.

Learning about different ethnicities and cultures is something that is studied in human geography.

The cultural landscape is the term used to describe those parts of the earth’s surface that have been altered or created by humans. For example, the urban cultural landscape of a city may include buildings, streets, signs, parking lots, or vehicles, while the rural cultural landscape may include fields, orchards, fences, barns, or farmsteads. Cultural forces unique to a given place—such as religion, language, ethnicity, customs, or heritage—influence the cultural landscape of that place at a given time.

This map of Vatican City shows a cultural landscape. It’s an area of the earth that has been created and altered by people. You can see streets, buildings, and landscaped areas. The religious culture of Vatican City has helped shape it.

In Guest Hollow’s Geography & Cultures, you will learn all sorts of interesting facts about the people and places around the world!

Key Takeaways

✎ Geography is the spatial study of the earth’s surface.
✎ Eratosthenes was an early geographer.
✎ The discipline of geography bridges the social sciences with the physical sciences.
✎ The two main branches of geography include physical geography and human geography.

Next: 1.2 Climate and Human Habitation

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Image Credits for this page:

Water cycle:
By Water_Cycle_-blank.svg: *Wasserkreislauf.png: de:Benutzer:Jooooderivative work: moyogo (talk)derivative work: Alexchris (talk) – Water_Cycle-_blank.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17327287
Eratosthenes map
By Bunbury, E.H. (1811-1895) / Eratosthenes? – Bunbury, E.H. (1811-1895), A History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire. London: John Murray, 1883.Digital original: http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/Ancient%20Web%20Pages/112.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2298975
Traditional Dress
By TheVedicWarrior – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83657520
Vatican City
By Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25238059

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