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 Home » Tutorials » Geography » Human Geography » Nature & Scope

Nature & Scope


We learnt earlier that Geography is ‘the study of the earth as home of humans’. Its nature is interdisciplinary and integrative. Geography looks at the earth’s surface from two different but interrelated perspectives, known as systematic and regional. Accordingly, it has two broad branches: systematic geography and regional geography. Human geography is a branch of systematic geography. It studies the locational and distributional aspects of cultural phenomena, resulting from ever changing human-nature interaction. Before we know more about human geography, it would be useful to understand its nature and scope. In the following pages, we will study its emergence as a branch of geography, its scope, approaches and present status.

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Age of explorations from approximately the later half of the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century led to appreciable advances in techniques of map making and accumulation of vast information through expeditions undertaken to different parts of the world. The information on geographic facts thus collected were examined, classified and organised by the professional geographers on scientific lines. A good example of this scientific approach is the work of Bernhard Varenius. His Geographia Generalis divides the subject of geography into two parts: the general and the special. The former considers the earth as a whole and explains its properties, whereas the latter focuses on the constitution of individual regions. This idea of division of geography has been in existence since the time of early Greeks. In his treatise on regional geography, Varenius outlined its contents under three sections: Celestial properties, Terrestrial properties and Human properties. During the nineteenth century, with the rapid development of scientific methods, attempts were made to restrict the scope of geography. The major emphasis was on the study of relief features. It was, perhaps, easier to describe the relatively stable features of the earth than the more variable cultural features. Relief features were measured and tested in various ways, and through this activity a special branch of geography developed. It was originally called physiography, but later modified as geomorphology. This field of physiography/geomorphology was cultivated at the cost of other sub-fields of geography. Partly as a reaction against this school of geography, which overemphasised physical features, scholars began to examine the relationship between humans and their natural environment. Thus originated the school of human geography.

The development of human geography as a special branch of geographic study was stimulated in the later half of the nineteenth century with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Buckle in History of Civilisation of England (1881) supported this new field by devoting a considerable portion of the book on the dependence of humans upon their environment. Friedrich Ratzel’s book Anthropogeographie is considered a landmark in history for giving human-centric orientation to geography. Ratzel, known as the father of modern human geography, defined it as the synthetic study of relationship between human societies and the earth’s surface. Similarly, Ellen C. Semple, disciple of Ratzel, defined human geography as the study of ‘the changing relationship between the unresting man and the unstable earth’. French geographer Vidal de la Blache’s classic work entitled Principles de Geographie Humaine emphasisd that human geography provides a new understanding of ‘interrelationship between the earth and the man’. It synthesises the knowledge of the physical laws governing our earth and the relations between the living beings inhabiting it.

The role of humans vis-à-vis nature is both active and passive. Humans continue to act and react. The story of human progress both in space and time, is a process of humans’ adaptation to their geographical milieu. E. Huntington defined human geography as the study of relation of geographic environment to human activities and qualities. Thus, human-environment relationship is dynamic rather than static. Jean Brunhes, another French geographer, paraphrased it as retrogression and progression of human phenomena, which like all terrestrial phenomena, never remains stationary. So, we must study them in evolution.

Human geography has been defined by different scholars at different times. The early scholars, such as Aristotle, Buckle, Humboldt, and Ritter focused on the influence of land upon history. Later on, in the works of Ratzel and Semple, the thrust shifted to examination of the question how physical environment influenced the human activities? Blache viewed ecological and terrestrial unity as the two principles of human geography. Huntington emphasised upon the influence of climate upon society, culture and history. It can be seen from the above discussions that in all the works the major thrust has been on the study of human society in relation to its habitat/environment.

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