Human geography, History

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Human geography is one of the two major sub-fields of the discipline of geography. Human geography is a branch of the social sciences that studies the world, its people, communities and cultures with an emphasis on relations of and across space and place. Human geography differs from physical geography mainly in that it has a greater focus on studying human activities and is more receptive to qualitative research methodologies. As a discipline, human geography is particularly diverse with respect to its methods and theoretical approaches to study.


Geographical knowledge, both physical and social, has a long history. In the history of geography, geographers have often recorded and described features of the Earth that might now be considered the remit of human, rather than physical, geographers. For example Hecataeus of Miletus, a geographer and historian in ancient Greece, described inhabitants of the ancient world as well as physical features.

It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries, however, that geography was recognised as a formal academic discipline.

The Royal Geographical Society was founded in England in 1830, although the United Kingdom did not get its first full Chair of geography until 1917. The first real geographical intellect to emerge in United Kingdom geography was Halford John Mackinder, appointed reader at Oxford University in 1887.

The National Geographic Society was founded in the USA in 1888 and began publication of the National Geographic magazine which became and continues to be a great populariser of geographic information. The society has long supported geographic research and education.

One of the first examples of geographic methods being used for purposes other than to describe and theorise the physical properties of the earth is John Snow's map of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Though a physician and a pioneer of epidemiology, the map is probably one of the earliest examples of health geography.

The now fairly distinct differences between the subfields of physical and human geography developed at a later date. This connection between both physical and human properties of geography is most apparent in the theory of environmental determinism, made popular in the 19th century by Carl Ritter and others, and with close links to evolutionary biology of the time. Environmental determinism is the theory that a people's physical, mental and moral habits are directly due to the influence of their natural environment. However, by the mid-19th century, environmental determinism was under attack for lacking methodological rigour associated with modern science, and later as serving to justify racism and imperialism.

A similar concern with both human and physical aspects is apparent in the later regional geography, during the later 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The goal of regional geography, through regionalization, was to delineate space into regions and then understand and describe the unique characteristics of each region, in both human and physical aspects. With links to possibilism and cultural ecology, some of the same notions of causal effect of the environment on society and culture, as with environmental determinism remained.

By the 1960s, however, the quantitative revolution led to strong criticism of regional geography. Due to a perceived lack of scientific rigour in and overly descriptive nature of the discipline, and a continued separation of geography from geology and the two subfields of physical and human geography, geographers in the mid-20th century began to apply statistical and mathematical model methods to solving spatial problems. Much of the development during the quantitative revolution is now apparent in the use of geographic information systems; the use of statistics, spatial modelling and positivist approaches is still important to many branches of human geography. Well-known geographers from this period are Fred K. Schaefer, Waldo Tobler, William Garrison, Peter Haggett, Richard J. Chorley, William Bunge, and Torsten Hägerstrand.

From the 1970s a number of critiques of the positivism now associated with geography emerged. Known under the term 'critical geography' this signalled another turning point in the discipline. Behavioural geography emerged for some time as a means to understand how people made perceived spaces and places, and made locational decisions. More influentially, 'radical geography' emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, drawing heavily on Marxist theory and techniques, and is associated with geographers such as David Harvey and Richard Peet. Seeking to say something 'meaningful' about the problems recognised through quantitative methods, to provide explanations rather than descriptions, to put forward alternatives and solutions and to be politically engaged, rather than the detachment associated with positivist methods. (The detachment and objectivity of the quantitative revolution was itself critiqued by radical geographers as being a tool of capital). Radical geography and the links to Marxism and related theories remain an important part of contemporary human geography (See: Antipode (Journal)) Critical geography also saw the introduction of 'humanistic geography', associated with the work of Yi-Fu Tuan, which, though similar to behavioural geography, pushed for a much more qualitative approach in methodology.

The changes under critical geography have led to contemporary approaches in the discipline such as feminist geography, new cultural geography, and the engagement with postmodern and post-structural theories and philosophies.

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External Links

  • WikipediaWorldmapperOnline Human Geography ResourceOnline AP Human Geography Resource

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