Some people have trouble understanding the complete scope of the discipline of geography because, unlike most other disciplines, geography is not defined by one particular topic. Instead, geography is concerned with many different topics—people, culture, politics, settlements, plants, landforms, and much more.
What distinguishes geography is that it approaches the study of diverse topics in a particular way (that is, from a particular perspective). Geography asks spatial questions—how and why things are distributed or arranged in particular ways on Earth’s surface. It looks at these different distributions and arrangements at many different scales. It also asks questions about how the interaction of different human and natural activities on Earth’s surface shape the characteristics of the world in which we live.
Geography seeks to understand where things are found and why they are present ...view middle of the document...
The age-old practice of mapping still plays an important role in this type of exploration, but exploration can also be done by using images from satellites or gathering information from interviews. Discoveries can come by using computers to map and analyze the relationship among things in geographic space, or from piecing together the multiple forces, near and far, that shape the way individual places develop.
Applying a geographic perspective demonstrates geography’s concern not just with where things are, but with “the why of where”—a short, but useful definition of geography’s central focus.
The insights that have come from geographic research show the importance of asking “the why of where” questions. Geographic studies comparing physical characteristics of continents on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, for instance, gave rise to the idea that Earth’s surface is comprised of large, slowly moving plates—plate tectonics.
Studies of the geographic distribution of human settlements have shown how economic forces and modes of transport influence the location of towns and cities. For example, geographic analysis has pointed to the role of the U.S. Interstate Highway System and the rapid growth of car ownership in creating a boom in U.S. suburban growth after World War II. The geographic perspective helped show where Americans were moving, why they were moving there, and how their new living places affected their lives, their relationships with others, and their interactions with the environment.
Geographic analyses of the spread of diseases have pointed to the conditions that allow particular diseases to develop and spread. Dr. John Snow’s cholera map stands out as a classic example. When cholera broke out in London, England, in 1854, Snow represented the deaths per household on a street map. Using the map, he was able to trace the source of the outbreak to a water pump on the corner of Broad Street and Cambridge Street. The geographic perspective helped identify the source of the problem (the water from a specific pump) and allowed people to avoid the disease (avoiding water from that pump).