What is the Science of Geography?

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Image by Paula Sincero

Science is about inquiry, so geography fits right in! Image by Paula Sincero

The science we call geography is a funny animal and very different from what most people picture it to be. I, for instance, always enjoyed studying the subject in school, primarily because I loved to color maps and learn about far-away places. That’s what I thought geography was all about, and spending a summer in Antigua at age sixteen further fueled my interest.

When I later pursued the subject in university, however, I discovered that the discipline contained far more depth and breadth than simply maps and places. Imagine the surprise of this non-mathematician when presented with a list of required readings that included W. Gregory’s Statistical Methods and the Geographer.

Defining the Science of Geography

So, what is this science called geography, this science whose root, like Geology, derives from Gaia, the mother of the Earth? What is this world beyond maps and places? Well… to be honest, maps and places are a good place to start because, in my opinion, geography, at its core, is simply a spatial point of view. Let me explain.

Sometimes, in the classroom, my students would want to study such broad topics as terrorism and world poverty, or some political topic that was in the news at the time. Knowing me, however, they would ask if their planned inquiry was geographical. In response, I would ask if they thought their results could be mapped: I would generally support their proposal if they could convince me of the mapping possibilities and the feasibility of their study.

With my permission granted, they would generate their questions, do background research, construct a hypothesis, investigate using primary and secondary data, analyze and draw conclusions, and then present a geographic report. But, in explaining their findings, they often realized that they required an understanding of other disciplines such as statistics, biology, psychology, politics, and medicine to name a few.

It is this integrative nature of geography, however, that has often led to its practitioners being labeled ‘jack of all trades but master of none.’ One analogy of geography, for instance, pictures it as a wheel with many spokes (cartography, computer science, geomorphology, biology, economics, sociology, etc.) and a hole at the center: a wheel without a purpose. Further inquiry, of course, shows it is anything but that.

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