Geography: Definition, Types, Scope, Subject Matter and Major Branches of Geography

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Geography is a discipline that has contributed to national development for quite a long time. The word geography can be broken into the two basic parts “GEO” and “GRAPHY.” GEO + GRAPHY literally means, “to write about the Earth.” Geocomes from the Greek word for Earth (the wordGaea,also meaning earth, is derived from the Greek as well). The “ography” part comes from the Greek wordgraphein, which means to write about something. However, geography means earths description.

Even though geography came out late in the academic environment, it is one of the oldest fields of study, which has attracted the attention of scholars from ancient times, the field of geography like any other man invented discipline has had its share of internal and external wrangling. The internal controversies were geared towards a critical reappraisal of its contents, philosophy, methodology and its relationships with other academic discipline.

These changes in the methodology of geography since 1950 have been discussed elaborately by Abler et al (1971), Harvey (1976), Chorley and Haggett (1967). The external treats involve the subjection of the discipline and its practitioners to scrutiny from outside. It was the response of these external challenges that produced the Pure and Applied angles of geography.

What is Geography?

Geography is the study of the differentiation of the earth surface, as shown in the character, arrangement, and inter-relations over the earth of elements such as climate, relief, soil, vegetation, population, land use, industries, or states, and of the unit areas formed by the complex of these individual elements. Geography is also defined as the science that describes the earths surface with particular reference to the differentiation and relationships of areas.

Geography as a Science

Geography in the past used to be strictly descriptive and taxonomic and therefore hardly stated and tested any hypothesis. Consequently, it was regarded as a non-scientific discipline no matter how exact it may be. Geography in the 19th century provided and even systematized data that was used by such sciences as geology, botany, sociology etc, but itself was considered a non-scientific or as a protoscience. Today, geography transcends its past descriptive outlook. It is a basic knowledge among geographers today that the discipline has shifted its emphasis (paradigm shift) from a basic concern with mere ordering of data to a major interest in scientific analysis. According to Boulding (1960), geography is in a state of intellectual ferment, busy developing and absorbing new methods, especially quantitative methods, on all sides and quite consciously aware of its role as an integrator of many social sciences.

Geography is both a natural science and social science; it forms an interdisciplinary bridge to be sure, individual geographers tend to emphasize different aspects of the spatial world. Some geographers focus in physical geography by devoting their study to such patterns as climate, vegetation, soils, and landforms, while others focus on patterns resulting from human activities and characteristics. Among the later, economic, social, and political geographers, investigate such problems as agricultural land use, settlement patterns boundary disputes, the trade areas of cities, cultural diffusion, the incidence of pollution and the perception of the environment

The position of geography as a science, however, needs further qualification. Some of the most important concepts that are basic in geography are those of the environment and the society. The two concepts are equally significant since the central issue in geography generally concerns man in the environment and man in the society. In particular, geography has a good understanding of the significance and factors of location, the complexity of the man-environment, interaction, the problems of the environmental quality and a good experience in dealing with environmental systems and processes. Geographers, however, realize that the problem of the environment must be looked at not only in physical, chemical and biological terms, but very importantly too, in relation to human perceptions, needs desires and locations. These general characteristic gives geography a comparative advantage in environmental studies over other subject.

What Does Geography Study?

Geographical studies are as divergent as reflected by its numerous definitions. This divergent views stern from the focus of study; thus, Peter Haggett (1969) defined geography as the study of the earth surface in the space within which human population lives. Ackerman (1958) stated that the fundamental approach to geography is the differentiation of the content of space on the earth surface and the analysis of the space relations within the same universe. According to Hartshorne (1959), geography is concerned with providing accurate, orderly and rational description and interpretation of the variable character of the earth surface.

From all these definitions, it will be noted that two themes run through: these are spatial association and areal differentiation themes which seeks to answer questions such as: are there any relationships between phenomena in various locations, where and why things are located as they are and whether places are different in terms of phenomena present there.

The major topics addressed by geographers under both themes concern the relationships between man and his environment. Answers to these questions are often provided through the analysis of cause-effect relationship, probabilistic processes etc. Any method adopted to usually depends on the values or objectives the investigator hopes to achieve, and it is the method adopted in answering the above questions that qualifies geography under any of the sciences.

Scope and Subject Matter of Geography

Geography is concerned with the patterns of phenomena and the processes that created them. Therefore, there is no special or specific subject matter which it studies, but rather its subject matter is the Earth, described and explained using the spatial perspective. History is somewhat similar to geography because its subject matter is Earth in the historical perspective. Geography is often described as two parts which makes up a whole: that is, geography is dichotomizedinto two types.

Typesof Geography

  1. Regional geography
  2. Systematic or topical geography

Regional geography

Regional geography focuses on areas of Earth space that have some degree of homogeneity for example regional geography of Nigerian, West Africa, South Africa ete. Regions may be basically physical, human or some combination of both and may vary in size from continents to a small ecosystem

Systemic or Topical geography

Systematic or topical geography considers systematic studies of climate, landforms, economics, and culture among others. Geographers may specialise and call themselves, for example, urban geographers, climatologists, biogeographers, geomorphologist, political geographers and historical geographers. One thing in common to all of them is their focus on the spatial perspective in their studies. They see their subject matter in terms of locational characteristics and seek answers to certain patterns of place or the interactions between places.

Branches of Geography

Geography cuts across a wide variety of subject matter, almost any area of human knowledge can be examined from a spatial perspective. Geography can be divided into two main branches

  1. The Physical geography
  2. The Human geography

What is Physical geography?

Physical geography is concerned with the natural processes that make the surface of the earth the way it is. Physical geography includes numerous sub-disciplines, some of which are mentioned below.

Sub disciplines of Physical Geography

  • Climatology– it is the study of the condition of the atmosphere with respect to the earth’s surface. A climatologist seeks to understand: The different climate patterns found on earth, the processes that cause these different climate patterns to take place in specific places (i.e. why are there different climate types), the places where these climates occur, how and why climates change over time.
  • Meteorology– the study of atmospheric weather processes, a meteorologist want to understand the different atmospheric processes that create our weather, where do these weather phenomena occur, how and why does the planetary weather system work the way it does.
  • Biogeography– it is the study of the distribution of species and ecosystem in a geographic space. A biogeographer studies the geographic distribution of plants and animals on the earth.
  • Geomorphology– is concerned with the origin and solution of topographic features created by physical, chemical and biological processes operating at or near the earth surface. A geomorphologist would ask questions such as: What are the different landforms, where the different landforms are; why they are where they are and how are they form in the first place.
  • Hydrology– this is the study of water resource, water cycle, movement and distribution of quality water on earth and other planets.
  • Oceanography– the study of physical and biological aspects of the ocean, oceanographer researches the coastal environments of the planet and find out how humans, coastal life, and coastal physical features interact with each other.

What is Human geography?

Human geography is the major branch of geography that studies people and their interaction with the earth and with their organization of space on the earth’s surface, various sub- disciplines under human geography are listed below.

Sub Disciplines of Human Geography

  • Cultural geography– this is the study of cultural differences among people.
  • Development– it is the study of standard of living and quality of human life.
  • Medical geography– it is the study of distribution of spatial or seasonal incidences of epidemic and endemic.
  • Economic geography– this is the science of distribution and spatial organization, how man organizes his space.
  • Political geography– it studies the effects of geography on international politics and relations.
  • Cartography– cartographyis the art and science of making maps and the oldest of the geographic techniques.
  • Urban geography– it is concerned with land use pattern, planning of the cities and regions that will constitute the geography and geographic.
  • Tourism geography– it is the study of travel and travel as an industry and as a social and cultural activity.
  • Social geography– it is the study of relations of social phenomena and its spatial components.
  • Geographic information system (GIS) – is the branch of geography that develops databases of geographic information and systems to display geographic data in a map-like format.
  • Remote Sensing– remote sensingutilizes satellites and sensors to examine features on or near the earth’s surface from a distance. A geographer in remote sensing analyses data from remote sources to develop information about a place where direct observation is not possible or practical.
  • Quantitative Methods– this branch of geography uses mathematical techniques and models to test hypothesis. Quantitative methods are often used in many other branches of geography but some geographers specialize in quantitative methods specifically.

Geography, by nature is an integrative and synthesizing science it is a spatial science that deals with both the physical and human environment. It is not surprising therefore to note that geography is probably the only academic discipline that is located in more than one faculty our universities. It is neither an academic monolith, nor a jack-of-all-trades, as some non-geographers would like to think.


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