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1.1: The Where and the Why

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    Learning Objectives

    • Understand the principles of geographic study
    • Summarize the key physical and human features of the world
    • Distinguish between different types of regions
    • Understand the major subfields of geography and their key conceptual frameworks
    • Describe the process of globalization and the principal measures of inequality

    What is “geography”? It might seem like a simple enough term to define. In middle school or high school, your answer might have been something to do with the study of maps, of where things were located in the world. In fact, much of primary and secondary school geography is explicitly focused on the where, answering questions like where a particular country is located, what a country’s capital is, and where major landforms are located. Just as simple arithmetic operations form the backbone of mathematics as a discipline, these kinds of questions are foundational to geographic study. However, one wouldn’t likely define math as the study of calculators or of multiplication tables. Similarly, there is much more to geography and geographic inquiry than the study of maps.

    Geographers seek to answer both the “where” and the “why.” Simply knowing where a country is located is certainly helpful, but geographers dig deeper: why is it located there? Why does it have a particular shape, and how does this shape affect how it interacts with its neighbors and its access to resources? Why do the people of the country have certain cultural features? Why does the country have a specific style of government? The list goes on and on, and as you might notice, incorporates a variety of historical, cultural, political, and physical features. This synthesis of the physical world and human activity is at the heart of the regional geographic approach.

    The term “geography” comes from the Greek term geo meaning “the earth” and graphiameaning “to write,” and many early geographers did exactly that: they wrote about the world. Ibn Battuta, for example, was a scholar from Morocco and traveled extensively across Africa and Asia in the 14th century CE. Eratosthenes is commonly considered to be the “Father of Geography,” and in fact, he quite literally wrote the book on the subject in the third century BCE. His three-volume text, Geographica, included maps of the entire known world (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)), including different climate zones, the locations of hundreds of different cities, and a coordinate system. This was a revolutionary and highly regarded text, especially for the time period. Eratosthenes is also credited as the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth. Many early geographers, like Eratosthenes, were primarily cartographers, referring to people who scientifically study and create maps, and early maps, such as those used in Babylon, Polynesia, and the Arabian Peninsula, were often used for navigation. In the Middle Ages, as academic inquiry in Europe declined with the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi created one of the most advanced maps of pre-modern times, inspiring future geographers from the region.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Reconstruction of Eratosthenes’ Map of the Known World, c. 194 BCE (© E. H. Bunbury, A History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire, 1883, Public Domain)

    Geography today, though using more advanced tools and techniques, draws on the foundations laid by these predecessors. What unites all geographers, whether they are travelers writing about the world’s cultures or cartographers mapping new frontiers, is an attention to the spatial perspective. As geographer Harm deBlij once explained, there are three main ways to look at the world. One way is chronologically, as a historian might examine the sequence of world events. A second way is systematically, as a sociologist might explore the societal systems in place that help shape a given country’s structures of inequality. The third way is spatially, and this is the geographic perspective. Geographers, when confronted with a global problem, immediately ask the questions “Where?” and “Why?” Although geography is a broad discipline that includes quantitative techniques like statistics and qualitative methods like interviews, all geographers share this common way of looking at the world from a spatial perspective.

    This page titled 1.1: The Where and the Why is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Caitlin Finlayson.

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