What is Geography?

In very simple words “Geography is the description of the earth”. Eratosthenes, a 3rd century BC Greek scholar coined the term geography (from “geo” meaning “the earth” and “graphe” meaning “the description”). Thus, the literal meaning of geography is to describe the earth.

Geography is concerned with the study of nature and human interaction. The geographical phenomenon both the physical and human are not static but highly dynamic. They change over time as a result of the interactive process between ever-changing earth and untiring and ever-active human beings.

Human is an integral part of nature and nature has the imprints of human. Nature has influenced different aspects of human life. Its imprints can be noticed on food, clothing, shelter, and occupation.

The present society has passed the stage of primitive society, which were directly dependent on their immediate physical environment for sustenance.

Present society has modified their natural environments by inventing and using technology. With the gradual development of technology, human beings were able to loosen the shackles of their physical environment.

The interaction between the physical environment and human beings has been very succinctly described by a poet in the following dialogue between human and nature (God). “You created the soil, I created the cup. You created night, I created the lamb. You created wilderness, hilly terrains, and deserts, I created flower beds and gardens”.

Human beings have claimed their contribution using natural resources with the help of technology, human beings moved from the stage of necessity to the stage of freedom. They have put their imprints everywhere and created new possibilities in collaboration with nature.

Thus we now find humanized nature and naturalized human beings and geography studies this interactive relationship.

Throughout the Classical Phase of its development, geography was considered as a descriptive field of study and the inquiries of geographical nature had begun with the basic question, i.e. “Where?”. The nature of query shifted to “Why?” after the Age of Discovery. However, a further refinement was seen in the Modern Period, when geographers began to seek an answer to the questions as “How?”.

Geographers ask where things are located on the surface of the earth, why they are located where they are, how places differ from one another, and how people interact with the environment.

In an attempt to answer each set of these questions, geography has gained a new and more meaningful definition every time. As it is also clear from the views expressed by the scholars from time to time.

Development of Geography:

Classical Period:

Strabo defined the subject in his book “Geographica” and expressed that “Geography acquaints us with the occupants of the land and oceans and the peculiarities of the various quality of the earth”.

The earliest records illustrate the interests of scholars in understanding the physical domain of the earth by making maps and astronomical measurements. The Greeks are given the credit of being the earliest geographers, prominent among them being HomerHerodotusAnaximanderEratosthenes, and Hecataeus.

Hecataeus collected and classified information of the Greek world and the unknown distant areas in his book “Ges Periodos” (description of the earth). It is the first systemic description of the world and because of this fact Hecataeus is known as the “Father of Geography”.

Medieval Period:

It confirms the views of Arabian Geographers who defined Geography, that it is a description of various areas, places, natural landscape. It is concerned with the earth and its relations with the solar system. Al-Idrisi and Ibn-Khaldun was the prominent geographer at that time.

Renaissance Period:

Geography took a new shape because of travel and exploration of new areas. German geographer Bernhardus Varenius gave a new definition in his book “Geographia Generalis”. He said that Geography pays its attention to the study of the surface of the earth. “It examines and explains the climatic, relief, physical features, waters, forest, deserts, minerals, animals, and inhabited men of the earth”. This definition indicates that Geography was known as the subject of the description of natural facts of earth.

Varenius was the first geographer to divide geography into systematic and regional geography. Thus, he laid the foundation of the dichotomy of systematic vs. regional geography.

The early seventeenth century witnessed the beginning of new scientific geography. Christopher Columbus and Vasco de GamaFerdinand Magellan and Thomas Cook were important explorers and travelers among those. They contributed to the development of cartography and discovering new lands, and developing geography into a scientific discipline.

Early Modern Period:

In the second half of the 18th century, the definition of Geography got a new scientific approach. It has started to emphasize the studies of man along with the earth.

Immanuel Kant said that “Geography is that science, in which the earth is studied as the home of man”.

According to Carl Ritter, “Geography is that branch of science that deals with the globe in all its features, phenomena and relations as an independent unit and shows the connection of this unified “whole” with the man and with man’s creator”.

Alexander Von Humboldt gave much emphasis on the direct field survey in geography. A study of an area should be made based on direct personal experiences. These experiences provide the base to the subject and thus he concluded that “Geography is concerned with the study of nature… all other systematic sciences whether natural or biotic are concerned with earth’s phenomena studies the form, constitution, and process of individual animals or plants, solid objects or fossils… but geography is concerned with all those objects as they exist together related to each other casually in an area”.

Vidal De La Blache regarded geography as natural science, rather than social science.

Ritter and Humboldt have frequently referred to us the founders of modern geography. Generally, the latter half of the nineteenth century is considered as a period of modern geography.

The first modern geographer in the true sense was Friedrich Ratzel who built the structure of modern geography on the foundations laid down by classical geographers.

All the above definitions reveal that geography was considered as a subject of explanation and description of the characteristics of various parts of the earth, till the end of the 19th century.

A change in the aptitude of the scholars was noticed with the beginning of the 20th century. They gave much emphasis on the study of differences, inter-relation and inter-dependence of areas, inter-connectivity of physical and cultural elements.

Post-Modern Period:

The development of geography during the post Second World War period has been very rapid. The American and European geographers such as Richerd Hartshorne have contributed the maximum during this phase.

Richerd Hartshorne described “Geography is concerned with the description and explanation of the areal differentiation of the earth’s surface. The present-day geographers look upon a regional approach and systematic approach as complementary rather than contradictory”.

Edward Augustus Ackerman opined that “Geography is a chronological science. It does not study a region alone, but it examines the physical and human differentiation and equalities from one place to another place”.

All these thoughts have made geography as a progressive science. It is a natural science and as well as a social science.

Approaches to Study Geography:

Geography has changed its approach. The earlier geographers were descriptive. Later, geography came to be developed as analytical science. Today the discipline is not only concerned with descriptions but also with analysis as well as prediction. There are two major approaches to study geography Systematic Approach and Regional Approach.

Systematic Approach:

This approach was introduced by Alexander Von Humboldt, a German geographer. He is considered the ”Father of Modern Geography”. In a systematic approach, a phenomenon in the world is studied as a whole, and then the identification of topologies or spatial pattern is done.

For example, if one is interested in studying natural vegetation, the study will be done at the world level as a first step. The typologies such as equatorial rain forests or conical forests, or monsoon forests, etc. will be identified and discussed.

It deals earth systems like atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water), the lithosphere (earth solid rock) and biosphere, which encompasses all of earth’s living organisms. It focuses on various kinds of forests, grasslands, distribution of flora and fauna, human-nature relationships and the quality of the living environment and its implications for human welfare.

Regional Approach:

This approach was developed by another German geographer and a contemporary of Humboldt, Karl Ritter. In the regional approach, the world is divided into regions at different levels and then all the geographical phenomena in a particular region are studied.

Regions could be based on a single factor like relief, rainfall, vegetation, per capita income. They could also be multi-factor regions formed by the association of two or more factors. Administrative units like, states, districts, tehsils also can be treated as regions.

Branches of Geography:

Major Branches of Geography

Geography as an integrating discipline has the interface with numerous natural and social sciences. It is generally divided into two major branches based on the systematic approach.

Physical Geography:

All the branches of physical geography have the interface with natural sciences. Physical geography is linked with geology, meteorology, hydrology, and pedology, and thus, geomorphology, climatology, oceanography and soil geography respectively have a very close link with the natural sciences as these derive their data from these sciences. Biogeography is closely related to botany, zoology as well as ecology.

Physical Geography is the study of characteristic features of the lithosphere (geomorphology), atmosphere (climatology), hydrosphere (oceanography), biosphere (biogeography), and environment.


Geomorphology is the study of the characteristics, origin, and development of landforms. According to A.L. Bloom “Geomorphology is the systematic description and analysis of landscape and the processes that change them”.


Climatology is the study of average atmospheric conditions of a place or region over a long period. Howard J. Critchfield has defined Climatology as “that science which studies the nature of the climate, the causes, and interpretation of its spatial variations and its association with the elements of the natural environment and human activities”.


Oceanography is a description of the marine environment. This covers a wide range of topics from ocean currents and waves to the depth, and distribution of oceans, their composition, life forms, and ecology.


Biogeography is the study of the distribution patterns of plants and animals, and how these patterns change over time.

Soil Geography:

It studies various soil-forming processes, their physical, chemical and biological constituents, their color and types, texture, and distribution and carrying capacity, etc.

Environmental Geography:

It is the study of systematic description of different components of the environment and interactions of man with these components.

Human Geography:

All the social science disciplines, viz. sociology, political science, economics, and demography study different aspects of social reality. The branches of geography, viz. social, political, economic, population, and settlements are closely linked with these disciplines.

For example, the core concern of political science is territory, people and sovereignty while political geography is also interested in the study of the state as a spatial unit as well as people and their political behavior. Economics deals with basic attributes of the economy such as production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.

Each of these attributes also has spatial aspects and here comes the role of economic geography to study the spatial aspects of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.

It is the part of systematic geography that deals with social, economic and behavioral processes that differentiate places.

According to Friedrich Ratzel “Human geography is the study of the relationship between human societies and earth’s surface”.

According to Ellen Churchill Semple “Human geography is the study of the changing relationship between the unresting man and the unstable earth”.

Population Geography:

It is the study of various dimensions of the population like its population distribution density, composition, migration, fertility, and mortality, etc.

Settlement Geography:

It concerns with “who build/inhabit settlements, where and how”.

Urban Geography:

It is the study of site, evolution, morphology, spatial pattern, and classification of towns.

Economic Geography:

It refers to the study of the location and distribution of economic activities at the local, regional, national and world scale. According to Erich Walter Zimmerman, “Economic Geography deals with the economic life of human in relation to the environment”.

Agricultural Geography:

It is the study of spatial patterns in agricultural activity. The word “agriculture” includes not only the domestication of plants and animals useful to man but also many of the operations involved in marketing them.

Resource Geography:

It concerns with the study of the distribution and characteristics of resources which distinguish one region from another, with interest focused on utilization, evaluation, conservation, and management of resources concerning the environment.

Political Geography:

It is the study of the spatial (territorial) variations and interrelationships of political activities and systems. It looks at the space from the angle of political events and studies boundaries, space relations between neighboring political units, delimitation of constituencies, election scenario and develops a theoretical framework to understand the political behavior of the population.

It is clear from the above discussion which shows that geography has a strong interface with natural and social sciences. But one more branch of knowledge is concerned with the geography that is “Practical work in Geography”, i.e. related to data collection, representation, and analysis.

The practical work in geography constitutes both the laboratory and field-work. The data collected in the field, or from the statistical reports, are translated into maps and diagrams in the laboratory.

This practical work is based on cartography, surveying, various quantitative techniques, and more recently on Remote Sensing, computers and Geographic Information System (GIS).

Methods and Techniques in Geography:

Geography has many tools, techniques, and methods on which it depends. Important among them are globes, maps, diagrams, relief models and spatial analytical methods. Important methods in geography are deductive and inductive. Various statistical techniques and models are used for regional analysis and to understand spatial distribution and interaction.


Cartography is the study and practice of making maps and diagrams. Cartography is concerned with the preparation of maps and diagrams to show the distribution of geographical phenomena. It represents the earth with maps and abstract symbols.

Maps have traditionally been made using pen, ink, and paper, but computers have revolutionized cartography and with GIS methods one can prepare maps and diagrams with greater choice and efficiency.

Most commercial-quality maps are now made with map-making software that falls into one of three main types; Computer-Aided Data management (CAD), Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

Geographic Information System (GIS):

GIS is a computer-based data processing tool or methodology used for gathering, manipulating, and analyzing geographic information to produce a holistic, interactive analysis.

Maps have traditionally been used to explore the Earth and to exploit its resources. GIS technology, as an expansion of cartographic science, has enhanced the efficiency and analytic power of traditional mapping.

Now, as the scientific community recognizes the environmental consequences of human activities, GIS technology is becoming an essential tool in the effort to understand the process of global change. Various map and satellite information sources can combine in ways that recreate the interactions of complex natural systems.

Such visualization can help to predict what will happen to an area if it is repeatedly flooded, or what changes are expected if a particular industry is located or developed in an area.

Remote Sensing:

Remote Sensing is the scanning of the earth by satellite or high-flying aircraft to obtain information about it. In this method information acquired from a distance, without physical contact with the object; for example, photography or orbital imagery.

Quantitative Methods in Geography:

These aspects of geographical techniques deal with numerical methods most commonly found in geography.

Aims and Purpose of Geography:

Geography is an organic, active and dynamic science. It is an inter-disciplinary subject. Its main aim is to understand the ecological relations of human beings in the changing environment of different areas of the earth, and also is to contribute towards the prosperity of human society at the regional and local level by enhancing the utility of physical and human resources.

In brief, the aims of geography can be put into five groups:

  • To describe the earth surface- It includes the external and internal structure of the earth,
  • To explain the distribution of physical and human elements- It is also concerned with the temporal changes in their distribution.
  • To analyze the mutual relations between natural and human elements.
  • To study the integrated study of different regions, and also to explain the ecology of the environment and also to make a comparative study with other regions.
  • To give effective cooperation in the formulation of the plans of resource utilization and resource appraisal for the human progress, by the optimal use of resources of each region.

It is revealed from the above discussion that geography is the study of the evolving character and organization of the Earth’s surface. Geographers look at the world from the viewpoint of geographic space, focus on the synthesis of ideas from different disciplines, and develop and use special techniques for the representation and manipulation of spatial information.