Introduction to Human Geography

Geography is much more than dry facts and figures. Geographers study the Earth to learn why and where certain processes happen. Geography is the "why of where."

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Introduction to Human Geography

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Geography is much more than dry facts and figures. Geographers study the Earth to learn why and where certain processes happen. Geography is the "why of where."

Physical geography and human geography are its two broad divisions. Physical geography is the study of Earth processes, while human geography studies how people relate to the Earth. Keep reading to learn more about the scope, types, and more.

Scope of Human Geography

Human geographers use several terms to refer to parts of the Earth:

  • SPACE. Physical space on the Earth (not "outer space").
  • LOCATION. A portion of space defined by coordinates (e.g., latitude and longitude).
  • PLACE. A specific location people experience.
  • LANDSCAPE. An area of space with places and connections between places.
  • REGION. A group of similar places and locations, and/or landscapes, spread over space.
  • TERRAIN. The physical aspect or shape of space over an area.
  • ENVIRONMENT. "Surroundings." In human geography, this means the natural environment as experienced by people.

Study tip: It is a GREAT idea to become comfortable with similarities and differences between the terms above and how they are used in AP Human Geography. Sometimes, the way they are used in casual language or in another discipline is different from how they are understood by geographers.

Geography's Tools

Geographers make maps to depict and find locations, places, landscapes, regions, and their interrelationships. They also use written texts that contain geographical descriptions, as well as photographs, satellite images, and other sources. Texts can be qualitative—like a journal or newspaper article—or quantitative, like the numbers in a census.

Geography's Goals

Once geographers decided on the scale they are using (a single place? a city? a country?), and the tools they are using, they gather data that allow them to describe and explain the processes and patterns they discover.

This might involve the application of geographic theories and models, querying a GIS database, or another method.

Types of Human Geography

Human geography's categories reflect three divisions of society: culture, economy, and politics/government. Each overlaps with the others and the natural environment, and each has various subdisciplines.

Cultural Geography

This is the geographic study of the symbols that humans make that give their lives meaning, like language, religion, and music, specific to the thousands of cultures and subcultures that comprise human society. Subdisciplines include geographies of religion, food, music, language, and others.

Introduction to Human Geography, street vendort food cart Bulacan Philippines, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Street vendor's cart in the Phillippines. A cultural geographer studying food might use this photo as a tool for qualitative descriptions of Filipino culture in food geography

Economic Geography

This branch of geography studies economic activities in places and across space. It includes industrial and agricultural economies, socioeconomic development, banking and real estate, businesses and corporations, and many more themes as they relate to the "why of where."

Political Geography

Political geography looks at how humans govern themselves across space—how we establish and rule territories and the boundaries between those territories. It is the spatial dimension of the studies of political science and government.

Environmental Geography or Human-Environment Relations

Every part of geography connects in some way to the natural environment, so this subdiscipline is connected to all the others. A good example is the geography of global climate change, which looks at connections between the natural environment, cultural issues, political aspects, and the economy.

Agricultural Geography and Industrial Geography

These subdisciplines of economic geography overlap with environmental, cultural, and political geography. Agricultural geography studies the distribution and other spatial characteristics of agriculture, part of the primary economic sector, and industrial geography looks at the spatial aspects of manufacturing and related components of the secondary economic sector.

Urban Geography

The geography of cities incorporates cultural, economic, political, and environmental aspects.

Medical Geography

Diseases and other health concerns have spatial aspects, and this field of geography, like urban geography, crosscuts the political, cultural, economic, and environmental spheres.

Introduction to Human Geography, map of COVID-19 Trinidad and Tobago, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Spatial distribution of COVID-19 cases in Trinidad and Tobago, an example of the use of maps in medical geography

Historical Geography

Though this is usually taught as a separate branch of geography, it is also part of just about every geographical study.

Philosophy of Geography

This branch deals with the ideas and theories behind geography.

History of Human Geography

People have always needed to know how to get from "point A" to "point B," along with everything that entails. What is at point B that could be useful? What is the weather going to be like next year at points A and B? It could be said that humans are essentially geographical creatures!

Recognizing this, the ancient Greeks created the science of geography as the study of the world. The original scope of geography has largely given way to separate disciplines, such as astronomy, but the term has remained.

"Geography" comes from the Ancient Greek word γεωγραφία (geōgraphía). It is comprised of , the earth (related to the Earth goddess Gaia), and gráphō, which means to write.

Every society has had its own type of geography, with China, India, Iran, the Arab World, and many other civilizations developing their own geographic fields and texts.

The post-1500 AD "Age of Discovery" saw European culture, economic systems, and politics come to dominate most of the planet through colonialism. Geographic knowledge was critically important to the conquerors. This resulted in a wealth of maps as well as extensive descriptions of peoples, places, and natural resources.

With the rise of Western science in the late 1700s, geographers like Alexander von Humboldt traveled the world to answer questions about the why of where—about the distribution of plants and animals, the location of ethnic groups and languages, and myriad more.

Introduction to Human Geography, Blaeser bust of Alexander von Humboldt, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Gustav Blaeser's 1869 bust of German geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) in New York City

Geography took a step backward in the early 1900s with environmental determinism, which explained places and the people that inhabited them by the influences of climate. It was taught that hot and humid climates made people lazy and "backward," while temperate climates made people more intelligent and hard-working. Geographers eventually rejected this notion through the theory of possibilism, which focused on how people both shape the Earth and are shaped by the Earth—but are never "determined" by it.

Since the 1940s, geography has come of age with the enormous growth of subdisciplines and major focuses on spatial analysis, adaptation, climate change, feminism, the use of advanced tools such as GPS and GIS, and much more.

Importance of Human Geography

Human geography has stayed true to its roots and remained a holistic science both broad and deep in scope. Geography's holistic approach is more relevant than ever as we seek to understand how humans can better co-exist with planet Earth.

Introduction to Human Geography, Earth from space, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The Earth as photographed by the Apollo 17 crew and used as the Earth Day flag

Human geography recognizes that the Earth is the only home of humankind and that we need to take care of it. Geography also sees the potential of humans to adapt to the Earth and its natural processes. Geography takes the point of view that humans are a part of the Earth, not separate from it.

Though it may seem like a cliche, geography recognizes that everything is connected and because of this, it is crucial to use the tools at our disposal to discover and analyze the patterns and processes that characterize our world, to attain goals such as sustainability and biodiversity conservation.

Human Geography Examples

Here are a few research questions that help make human geography accessible and relevant.

The Why of Where

Places don't just happen. They have reasons—a why—for being where they are.

Take New Orleans, Louisiana. A fine example of maladaptation to the physical environment. Squeezed between, but lower in elevation than, the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the "Big Easy" can only survive through human-made structures that keep the water out (most of the time). Why would anyone put a city in such a fragile and vulnerable location?

Introduction to Human Geography, New Orleans 1919 map, StudySmarterFig. 5 - New Orleans map from 1919 showing the city's historic wards squeezed between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River

New Orleans was a terrible place for the 17th-century French to put a city, right? In those days, however, it was necessary. The French needed somewhere not far from the Gulf Coast where they could patrol and control the river that provided trade access to a huge part of the continent while blocking access to Spanish and British enemies.

In those days, New Orleans wasn't so maladapted. The growing city was protected from the hurricane storm surges of the Gulf of Mexico by an unbroken forest 60 miles thick, and it was not below sea level yet.

In modern times, the forests and wetlands surrounding New Orleans were decimated by industrial development and agricultural pollution, and the land sank as it dried out, no longer exposed to yearly flooding from the Mississippi after the lake and river levees and floodwalls were built.

Because New Orleans became a major port for the world's largest economy, it had to remain next to the Mississippi, though its location became less and less tenable. Even the Mississippi River itself had to be kept in place because it would otherwise have naturally shifted away from New Orleans decades ago.

New Orleans is a textbook case of how a casual question about a seemingly illogical location can lead to many geographical lines of inquiry. Coastal Louisiana is a hotbed for the study of human-environment relations, cultural geography, climate change, and other concerns.

Voting Districts

In the US, where you live largely determines what elected officials you can vote for. Voters live in geographically-defined districts based on population, but voting district boundaries aren't stable over time. Redistricting is a hot topic in electoral geography (part of political geography) because major political parties engage in long-term strategies to shift voting district boundaries to get more voters for their own candidates, and less for the other sides' candidates.

Where is the Best Location for a Retail Store?

As the saying goes, retail is about "location, location, location." Major stores like Walmart don't locate in places that are difficult to reach. They seek to locate in the places that will attract the most consumers.

Introduction to Human Geography, Walmart in New Jersey, StudySmarterFig. 6 - Walmart store in New Jersey

Introduction to Human Geography - Key takeaways

  • Human geography studies the "why of where"—patterns and processes that shape and are shaped by the Earth.
  • Three subdisciplines of human geography—cultural geography, economic geography, and political geography—connect to other branches of geography such as historical geography, medical geography, environmental geography, urban geography, industrial geography, agricultural geography, and the philosophy of geography.
  • The importance of human geography is its ability to study the Earth in ways that allow us to better understand how humans can create a more sustainable planet, save biodiversity, and so forth.
  • Examples of human geography in practice range from the significance of the location of New Orleans to the redrawing of voting district boundaries and the location of retail stores.

Frequently Asked Questions about Introduction to Human Geography

Human geography is the study of the relationships between people and the Earth.

Four types of geography are cultural geography, political geography, economic geography, and environmental geography.

Human geography is the study of the relationships between people and the Earth.

Human geography is important because it is a holistic science that can help us solve important issues like sustainability and biodiversity conservation.

Five examples of human geography are the geography of retail locations, the geography of COVID-19 cases, the geography of New Orleans, electoral geography and voting districts, and the cultural geography of food in the Philippines.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of the following is NOT a natural resource?

Which of the following are abiotic natural resources? Select ALL that apply. 

Which of the following is NOT a non-renewable resource? 

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