restricted access What Is Geography?
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What Is Geography? Richard Wright “Geographer” literally means someone who writes about the Earth. It comes from the Greek geo- (Earth) and graphia (writing). That covers a lot of things, right? So just what is geography? In the Department of Geography at Dartmouth College, where I work, we’ve come up with this definition: “Geographers study the material and symbolic transformation of the Earth in relationship to both human and natural processes.In keeping with shifts in culture,the environment, politics,and economics,the boundaries of the geographic discipline are dynamic. For example, environmental change, international development, globalization, and new spatial technologies exemplify important arenas of study in geography.” Geography spans the social sciences (human geography) and the natural sciences (physical geography) and, I would add, even drifts into the arts and humanities. Human geographers ask questions about the political, economic, social, and cultural processes and resource practices that give definition to particular places. Physical geography focuses on the Earth systems that create the natural environment, such as weather, soils, biogeography, and Earth-sculpting processes. It is an interdisciplinary discipline, and its practitioners are expected not only to roam about in their own intellectual (and physical!) backyard but also trespass into other areas of inquiry. Lots of disciplines traverse traditional subject boundaries.In fact,such scholarship is celebrated and encouraged in colleges and universities.So what makes geography different? While geography shares with anthropology,sociology,and economics a central concern for the study of cultures,society,and economies,and shares with geology and ecology goals of understanding natural landscapes and the nature of society relations,geography examines social and physical processes through the lenses of location, place, scale, and region. What Is Geography? 171 Well, you may say, that’s all well and good, but when I studied geography in fifth grade it was all about maps: we used a map to learn where things were and, worse,had to memorize state capitals.(Go ahead; take a trip down memory lane through Seterra Geography, whose website and apps let you “learn geography while having fun.”) Mapping is a big part of geography.Geographers are particularly drawn to research questions about the relationships among places. Maps help us see these questions. You may therefore suspect I am going to discuss potentially boring topics like “What’s the best route from A to B?” and “How many bananas are grown in Costa Rica?”Or “What is the capital of the United States?” And just where is Nauru? Well, I am, but not in the ways you might think. Getting There from Here I recently went on vacation to the United Kingdom. My family and I flew to London and rented a car at the airport. One of the first things we had to do after we packed our luggage into our smaller-than-expected Renault was to figure out the navigation system. Almost all cars (and phones!) now come with sophisticated maps and a GPS—a Geographic Positioning System.These technologies help us find our way from one location to another—from Heathrow airport to the hotel where we were staying in Bedfordshire, for example. In more technical terms, the maps show the location of the airport (using latitude and longitude) relative to the location of the hotel about fifty miles away. And then a disembodied voice, which is part of that GPS, talks us through the drive, telling us when to turn and so on. A GPS helps us understand the relationships between places—something that is fundamental to geography. Because GPS units depend on satellites, they are a very recent technology. How did people find their way before our cars and our phones “told” us how and where to go? They used maps printed on paper, of course. And before that they found other ways to navigate and find their way using the landscape and the positions of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Some cultures also used local knowledge and understandings to find their way in the world. Some of these ancient geographic techniques remain a mystery. For example, Westerners are still trying to understand how Polynesian mariners navigated across the Pacific using celestial bearings as well as the swell of the ocean,wind,and other natural features. “Finding our way”is thus something fundamental to human activity. People 172 Richard Wright have used maps to find their way for millennia. Earlier maps were much cruder than ones we use today, as information back then was sparser. Some...