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  The Greek roots of the word ‘geography’ (ge, ‘Earth’, graphia, ‘drawing’) suggest that this is a discipline concerned with ‘description of the Earth’, but geographers have always insisted that it studies ‘the Earth as the home of Man’. This apparently simple definition has a number of implications: (1) the concern is with the surface of the Earth not with its deep structure, which is the domain of geology; (2) geography includes physical, biological and social phenomena, and ideally seeks to show how they are integrated together; (3) because of its interest in the surface of the Earth, geography is very much concerned with location, place and distance.

The very wide range of phenomena studied by geographers, from landforms and climate to human cultures, has led different practitioners to adopt different emphases. Some have emphasized its role in linking natural science with the humanities, others its focus on man and Nature (or as we would now say ‘society and environment’), yet others its emphasis on relationships in geographic space. At worst, different geographers have drifted apart and become more interested in the specialist disciplines such as geology, meteorology, botany, sociology or economics than in other parts of geography. At best, and in aspiration, geography remains a holistic and humane discipline concerned to make sense of our lives in the context of nature and the whole of human society.

In the sense that geography deals with the practicalities of life in the home place, the ability to travel to neighbouring places and to find out about more distant places, all societies must have had a vital interest in the subject. As a recognizable academic discipline its roots lie in ancient Greece, though it was not clearly separated from astronomy. Two themes can be traced: some geographers, notably Strabo, sought to satisfy curiosity about exotic places, while others, led by Ptolemy, sought to measure and map the globe. Like other branches of learning, knowledge of Greek geographers was lost to western Europe, but preserved by Arab scholars.

Interest in geography was revived in western Europe in the 16th century by the voyages of discovery. These voyages stimulated the production of better maps (see cartography) and also created a strong interest in knowledge of the origins of commodities including spices, Oriental craft products and precious metals. Major advances came in the 19th century as scientific exploration moved beyond a focus on the commercial to take an interest in natural history. The leading geographical explorer was a German, Alexander von Humboldt, who travelled widely in South America and Asia. As well as cataloguing the variety of habitats and species, he argued that there was a ‘unity in diversity’ among the inhabitants of the Earth\'s surface. He was the main inspiration of the first university professor of geography, Carl Ritter, who ascribed this unity to divine purpose. But for nearly all of the 19th century most geography was pragmatic, a vital part of the spread of commerce and empire, and of the creation of the international division of labour. It was not until the latter part of the century that geography emerged as a self-conscious academic speciality in the universities of Germany, France and Britain.

While the academics were beginning to try to explain what makes places different, the promotion of their subject was still influenced by practical motives. The French government did so because it ascribed its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war to the Germans\' better knowledge of geography. Britain\'s first professor of geography, H. Mackinder, was not accepted as a member of the Royal Geographical Society until he had led an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But as geography became an accepted part of the school and university curriculum, a new problem appeared: how to organize and subdivide a subject whose scope was so wide?

Although understanding the Earth as ‘the home of Man’ was regarded as the ultimate purpose of geography, the task was soon seen as too big for any one person and so geographers began to specialize. For much of the 20th century the major division was between regional and systematic specialists.

Regional geography attempted to show how the physical, biological and social characteristics of an area combined to give it a unique way of life or personality. The art of ‘regional synthesis’ was particularly well developed in France before 1939.

The proponents of a systematic approach argued that it was premature to ask what was unique about a region until it had been established how particular features varied over the world. In turn, that required knowledge of the disciplines that specialized in particular phenomena. The result was the fragmentation of geographers\' interests and a major division between physical and human geography.

Physical geographers took an approach influenced by natural science. Geomorphology studies landforms and is influenced by geology and hydrology. Climatology studies the variation of climate over the world and blends into meteorology. Biogeography and soil geography map and explain the variability of plants, animals and soils. At a global scale it is clear that there is some coincidence of climate, plants, soils and landforms—but only very recently have attempts been made to model how change in one sphere will affect the others.

Human geography has become increasingly influenced by the social sciences. Consequently, historical geographers have been joined by economic, social and political geographers, and population geographers have interacted with demographers. Recently, cultural geography has gone beyond a quasi-anthropological concern with ‘primitive’ cultures to begin to investigate the symbolic and ideological processes which hold modern societies together.

The divisions of geography reflect more than just the practical difficulties of tackling the discipline\'s agenda. They also reflect the pressures of university organization and academic prestige. The division between physical and human geography became very real for students admitted to science or arts faculties, and in some universities, especially in the USA, geomorphology became a very minor part of geology.

During the 1960s a new approach to geography moved the subject a long way from its traditional concerns. A small number of geographers in the USA and UK became convinced that the discipline should not pursue questions of regional uniqueness, but model itself on the scientific method as applied in the physical sciences. The aim would be to seek for laws governing the phenomena of geography. There was a problem in that these phenomena also belonged to other disciplines. This was overcome by emphasizing that geography was concerned with the spatial patterns on the surface of the Earth, and that it was rendered distinctive by this ‘spatial perspective’. The approach was christened spatial analysis and soon became dominant, though always criticized by regional geographers, advocates of a humanistic approach and political radicals.

The key insight of spatial analysis was that certain spatial patterns resulted from the minimization of transport costs. So agricultural zones and urban land use could be shown to approximate to concentric bands, market towns to be ideally distributed in hexagonal patterns and industrial plants to be at the least cost location relative to major raw materials. So social processes had their own geometry. Unfortunately, this geometry was often obscured by other influences so the ambition to establish laws, in the sense of repeatedly observable patterns, was rather unsuccessful. It began to be realized that what was really needed was explanations which could account for what was observed, and could allow for the complex combinations of influences which geographers usually find to be present. Spatial analysis lost its dominance of theory, though it has subsequently been revived as part of the new information technology known as Geographical Information Systems.

The next step was to go beyond the long-standing concern of geographers with issues of practical relevance, and to develop Marxist explanations for geographical phenomena. This gave geography a more sophisticated view of social processes than had previously been available, but as the 1980s progressed it became clear that abstract categories, such as capitalism, could not account for the complexity of situations in different places. So geographers began once more to emphasize the effects of localities as well as global differences in levels of development.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment for the discipline of geography came in the early 1970s when environmental problems came on to the public agenda. The discipline whose historic role had been to identify the links between natural and human processes was then fragmented into physical and human subdivisions, and preoccupied with a debate between spatial analysts and Marxists. Only a small minority had maintained their global perspective on society-Nature relationships and, though they provided a nucleus around which many geographers regrouped to tackle urgent environmental issues, those issues seem now to be regarded as ‘ecological’ rather than as geographical. In practical terms, scientists and especially climatologists have found themselves on the forefront of studies which attempt to assess the causes and consequences of major environmental problems, such as global warming.

The discipline may be given a second chance because the Brundtland Report has identified sustainable development as the way forward. Geographers have done a great deal to show how the international division of labour has created uneven development at scales from local to global, and it has described how current economic and political systems generate social and environmental problems. They are, therefore, well placed to show how those systems need to be changed to make development sustainable. That is the challenge for the 21st century. PS

Further reading D.N. Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition.



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