What is Geography?

Geography is the study of life on the surface of the earth. Historically it has consisted of two main branches, human geography and physical geography. Human geography has three general foci:

  1. characterizing and explaining the differences between places in the present and throughout time
  2. theorizing and modeling the spatial structure, organization, and control of society
  3. explaining the meaning and significance of place, space, and landscape

Physical geography generally focuses on physical systems at the landscape scale, that is, not at the scale of the globe or below the surface of the earth, which is the realm of geology. Thus physical geographers study how features in the landscape are formed over time (geomorphology), how fluvial systems develop, and the spatial distribution, movements, and characteristics of flora and fauna. In recent years a third branch of geographic scholarship has emerged with the rapid development of computer-based geospatial methods of mapping and analyzing geographical phenomena, focused on GIS, computer cartography, and geographic visualization.

Geography is unusual among academic disciplines for being fundamentally interdisciplinary. While individual geographers may practice only one kind of geography, many are conversant with two or all three branches. Our scholarship commonly involves studying a place or a phenomenon from more than one disciplinary angle. We often combine layers of information that in most disciplines would be treated separately because understanding how places developed over time (for example) requires examining cultural and economic change as well as environmental conditions. We are more likely than many scholars to use maps as sources of evidence, to study the spatial relationships of multiple variables, and to represent the results of our analysis in graphic form. Geographers are also very sensitive to the significance of scale—the scale of evidence, the scale at which we study any question, and the different explanations our analyses provide depending on the scale of analysis.

In a liberal arts education, Geography performs the special service of helping students draw connections between the various disciplines they study. Geographers consider their discipline the premier integrating discipline.