GEOG 597i
Critical Geospatial Thinking and Applications


While most Americans have been exposed to basic place-name geography, few understand the central focus or analytical power of the discipline. Despite its ancient origins, and utility relative to spatial analysis, many think of geography as little more than the memorization of places on a map. Even the more enlightened often believe that geography's only potential contribution is to describe unique places.

Whereas it is true that “chorography” (the description of places) and “chorology” (the study of the interrelationships between things and people) are among the oldest applications of geographic thought and knowledge, the central mission of geography focuses on spatial analysis. Just as history cannot be understood by simply looking at a calendar, it is also impossible to understand the nature of places by merely looking at a map.

History and geography are integrative disciples (history integrates the humanities and social sciences while geography integrates the social sciences and science). The unifying link for historians is time. For geographers, the transcendent theme is space (Berdichevsky, May, 2008: pp. 1-7).

Evolution of the Discipline

Although geography is rooted in the Greek Scholarly tradition, in the United States, it has been a recognized academic discipline for little more than a century. Nevertheless, American geography rests upon a solid foundation built by European geographers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In the last years of the 18th, and the early years of the 19th centuries, Immanuel Kant (a German intellectual) sought to bring geography under the organizational methods and philosophies of scientific inquiry. In doing this, he called for the systematic grouping of facts, and the temporal and spatial evaluation of information. Moreover, his call for the systematic grouping of facts led to the creation of academic disciplines organized around unifying themes. Additionally, his recognition that all observable phenomena occur in time and space established the foundations upon which the modern disciplines of history and geography now rest (James, and Martin, 1981:pp.110-111).

In Europe, 19th century German scholars Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter transformed geography into a recognizable academic discipline. Whereas von Humboldt was a field geographer who traveled widely throughout the world (especially in South America), Ritter relied on the field observations of others. Despite these differences, both men sought to describe the earth as the home of humankind. Von Humboldt was among the last of the universal scholars, because he was interested in almost everything. In 1799, he set out to explore South and North America. On his return trip to Europe, he stopped at Monticello to visit Thomas Jefferson. Soon after this, he began to write his thirty volume work, Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent. Additionally, immediately prior to his death in 1859, he pulled together all the scientific and conceptual discoveries of his career into one volume called Cosmos. Both Ritter and von Humboldt believed that the mission of geography is to describe and analyze the impacts of nature on people, and the role of human beings in creating the personality of places on the surface of the earth (Broek, 1965: 14-16).

During the middle years of the 19th century, geographers tended to concentrate on the physical sciences, and seemed content to let scholars from other disciplines study systems of human occupancy. In the 1880s, Friedrich Ratzel, another German geographer, built upon Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest, to argue that human culture is actually a product of the natural environment. His ideas soon became the foundation of an early, but unfortunately flawed, version of human geography called "environmental determinism."

Although Ratzel lived and worked in Germany, his American student, Ellen Churchill Semple, greatly influenced US geography at the beginning of the 20th century. Semple was a prolific and elegant writer who, through her eloquent prose, convincingly argued that the physical environment is almost totally responsible for the ways in which people occupy the earth. She was supported in this approach by Yale professor Ellsworth Huntington, who was a well-published scholar (Lewis, Feb. 10, 2011: pp. 1-9). By the middle years of the 20th century, however, environmental determinism was discredited by most professional geographers. Even so, some amateur geographers still continue to insist that cultures and places are almost totally products of the physical environment.

At about the same, a group of professional geographers came together to create the Association of American Geographers (AAG). In 1904, the first meeting of the AAG took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

During the years between the two world wars, human geography reemerged as important part of the discipline. In the 1920s, Carl O. Sauer (who eventually lead the Geography program at the University of California, Berkeley), initiated a campaign against environmental determinism. In his study, The Morphology of Landscape, he contended that geography should be chorology (the study of landscapes and the interrelationships and associations between phenomena in the various regions of the earth). Moreover, he insisted that it is not nature that creates culture, but instead it is culture reacting to the natural world that creates landscapes (Mitchell, 2000: pp. 20-25). As Sauer progressed in his career, he and his followers greatly influenced the nature of cultural geography. It was not enough, they argued, for geographers to merely describe regions. Instead, they were interested in exposing the factors that create regional realities.

Check Your Understanding

Short Answer

The geographer who led the campaign against environmental determinism was who?

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ANSWER: Carl Sauer

In 1964, William D. Pattison defined the essence of geography in his article entitled The Four Traditions of Geography. Pattison suggested that geography encompasses four individual, but related, traditions. These include a spatial tradition, an areas studies tradition, a man-land tradition, and an earth-science tradition. Although his use of the term “man-land” is clearly dated, his work set forth a useful operational framework for the discipline of geography (Pattison 1964: pp.211-216).

Check Your Understanding

Short Answer

What are the “four traditions of geography” as defined by William Pattison?

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ANSWER: The four traditions are spatial; areas studies; man-land; and earth-science.