What is Geography?

Three Definitions

Earthrise (NASA, 1968)

Geography is a term with a wide variety of meanings and there is no single definition that covers the variety of activities that are performed by people that call themselves geographers or are in some way associated with the discipline of geography.

Like the word globalization, the term geography is another empty signifier that will have a different meaning depending on who you talk to. Indeed, there are probably as many definitions of geography as there are geographers and the question of what geography is has triggered many (sometimes vicious and, arguably, pointless) debates among geographers.

Below are three different definitions of geography that will usually be enough to cover things that are called geography in the academic community:

What is where, why is it there, and why do we care?

In 2002, geographer Charles Gritzner asserted that geography seeks to answer three types of questions:

  1. What is where: This is probably what most Americans think geography is based on their experience in elementary school geography memorizing the names of state capitals. The map is an exemplar of this idea as a graphical representation of where things are on the surface of the earth. "What is where" questions are commonly answered with geospatial technologies
  2. Why is it there: This aspect of geography deals with the processes and causes that put things where they are. These questions can be more interesting than "what is where" questions in that they give an understanding of how the past led to the present, and allow us to build models to anticipate what might happen in the future
  3. Why do we care: This aspect of geography deals with values and ethics. Values questions are often embedded within and hidden under the representations used in geospatial technology

Human, physical, and GIS

While activities that can be considered geography are performed in a variety of different professions, many (if not most) people that call themselves geographers work in the academy (colleges and universities). Within university geography departments there are three broad areas of study:

  1. Human geography explores human phenomena and commonly overlaps with sociology, anthropology, economics, urban planning, political science, and history
  2. Physical geography is a natural science that commonly overlaps with geology, biology, and ecology
  3. Geographic information systems (GIS) focuses on the development and use of geospatial technology. GIS commonly overlaps with computer science and is one of the few areas of geography where jobs are fairly plentiful

Geography is what geographers do.

Everything that is happens in a space and time. Therefore, everything has a history and everything has a geography. There is no Pope in geography that says what can and cannot be studied in geography, and since few people know (or care) what contemporary academic geography is, academic geographers are often free to be interdisciplinary and study what they want. Therefore almost anything can be and is studied within geography. If you visit the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, you can see presentations on a very wide variety of topics by a very heterogeneous collection of researchers.

Geography as Five Themes

Geography often focuses on the question of where and this is referred to as a spatial perspective (as opposed to a historical perspective, economic perspective, etc). In 1986 the National Geographic Society published a guide for educators defining geography in terms of five themes that define the types of knowledge geographers seek to gain (de Blij et al, 2007):

Geography as a Three Key Issues

Rubenstein (2005) defines geography as addressing three key issues:

How do geographers address where things are?
Why is each point on earth unique?
(idiopathic questions)
Why are different places similar?
(nomothetic questions)
  • Maps: Visual tools for recording and communicating spatial information
  • Contemporary tools: Technology for capturing, storing and communicating spatial information (GIS, GPS, Remote Sensing)
  • Place: Unique location of a feature (names, coordinates, meanings)
  • Regions: Areas of unique characteristics (landscape, association, factors)
  • Scale: The size or geographic extent of a phenomenon being studied (global, regional, national, local)
  • Space: The distribution of features
  • Interconnections: The relationships and interactions between places and regions

Geography as a Set of Core Concepts

The following are some core concepts that are significant in the study of globalization.

Space and Place

Academic geographers often define geography as the study of space and place, although the distinction between those two nouns is also often left undefined.

A common dictionary definition of space is a limited extent in one, two or three dimensions, and we often think of space as something empty.

However, beyond the physical dimensions (absolute space), we also define spaces by what has been placed in them (produced space), how they compare to other spaces (relative space), and the different meanings we attach to spaces (cognitive space).

In contrast to the objective concept of space, place is commonly considered to be the set of meanings that humans attach to spaces. This was most prominently articulated by the humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1979):

Place...is a unique entity, a 'special ensemble;' it has a history and meaning. Place incarnates the experiences and aspirations of a people. Place is not only a fact to be explained in the broader frame of space, but it is also a reality to be clarified and understoond from the perspectives of the people who have given it meaning.

The table below from Knox and Marston (2004) list some different kinds of spaces and the concepts used to describe those different spaces.

Absolute Space:
Mathematical Space
Relative Space:
Socioeconomic Space
Relative Space:
Experienced Space
Cognitive Space:
Behavioral Space


Scale is the size or geographical extent of area being studied. Scale can also refer to the "distinctive relative size, extent, or degree" of a phenomenon. The first definition refers to HOW phenomena are studied while the second (which is can also be referred to as scope) describes the phenomena itself.


For example, in the study of the geography of energy:

Scales are embedded and never completely independent. Activities at the local level combine to have national and global effects, and policy choices made by national leaders trickle down to have effects at the local level. For example: Overfishing in European waters has caused European fishermen to also overfish unregulated waters off the coast of Somalia, which has damaged the livelihoods of Somali fishermen and pushed them to turn to piracy to survive.

A similar common phenomena is scale jumping, where causes and effects can be analyzed at different scales. For example: airport expansion can have positive effects on a regional economy, but the negative effects of aircraft noise are felt locally in neighborhoods around the expanded airports.


Identity is psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.

People often define who they are (identity) by places, such as where they were born, where they go to school, where their ancestors were from, etc. As globalization has changed where people live, the pace of life, and the experiences people have, globalization has also changed the way that people define their identities relative to spaces.

For example: cuisines identified with places all over the world are now common in the smallest American cities, while the locavore food movement has arisen as a reaction to globalized food supply chains and attempts to reestablish the identity of food with the places where it is grown.

Geography as a Science

The word geography has its etymological roots in the Greek word geographein, which literally means to write (graphein) or describe the earth's (geo) surface. Getis et al (2004), among others, assert the word was first used by Eratosthenes (ca. 276 BC - 195 BC), although the word also reflects the prehistoric activity of map making (cartography).

Looking at the present there are at least four distinct usages for the word geography:

This brings up the question of what science is, which is yet another word that has a variety of meanings. The word also has political implications, such as when used by commentators who contrast the "science" of climate change with the supposed ignorance (or malice) of those who question the output of complex computational climate models.

There are two definitions of science of primary interest to geographers.

Geography as a Career

Geography is a fairly small profession and a large percentage of people who identify themselves professionally as geographers work in universities as professors/researchers, or as teachers in secondary education.

However, there are quite a number of other career opportunities for geographers in the public and private sector, usually working in some way with Geographic Information Systems (GIS):

The Association of American Geographers is the primary professional organization for geographers in the United States and their website provides more information on geography careers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook has information on the future of careers in geography.


de Blij, H.J., Alexander B. Murphy, and Erin H. Fouberg. 2007. Human Geography: People, Place and Culture, eighth edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Getis, Arthur, Judith Getis, and Jerome D. Fellmann. 2004 Introduction to Geography, ninth edition. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gritzner, Charles F. 2002. What is where, why there, and why care? Journal of Geography 101 (1), 38-40. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00221340208978465.

Joint Committee on Geographic Education. 1984. Guidelines for geographic education: Elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC and Macomb, IL: Association of American Geographers and National Council for Geographic Education.

Knox, Paul L. and Sallie A. Marston. 2004. Places and Regions in Global Context: Human Geography, third edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Natolia, Salvatore J. 1994. Guidelines for geographic education and the fundamental themes in geography. Journal of Geography 93 (1), 2-6.

Rubenstein, James M. 2005. An Introduction to Human Geography: The Cultural Landscape, eighth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and place: Humanistic perspective. In Philosophy in Geography, ed. Stephen Gale and Gunnar Olsson, pp 387-427. New York: Springer.