What is geography?

It’s a classic question that just about anyone involved in geography will be subjected to at some stage.  I get it in a variety of formats. Sometimes the plain ‘what is geography?’ oxbridge interview style question by people trying to trip you up, occasionally the disdainful ‘urgh geography?’ and probably most commonly the ‘geography is just colouring in isn’t it?’.

And I’ve got to confess, I’m not entirely innocent of involvement in these relatively inane questions. Like many of the people in the grad school I never really intended to do geography, it just happened by accident. I only actually did it at A-level because there was a  timetabling clash that stopped me doing my preferred choice of history, maths, philosophy and economics. Whilst I was looking at 6th form options, and presumably in a fairly bratty mood, I asked a geography teacher

“Why should I do geography? Isn’t it just a jack of all trades? Why not do pure subjects?”

and I received a suitably short reply:

“Well with that attitude you’ll get a C at A-level anyway.”

I’m not sure that exchange showered either of us with glory. So what is geography and what should that teacher have said? Wikipedia offers:

“Geography (from Greek γεωγραφία, geographia, lit. “earth description”[1]) is the science that studies the lands, the features, the inhabitants, and the phenomena of the Earth.”

That does cover it pretty well. But equally it’s uselessly vague and could essentially be applied to any natural or social science.  So what is geography and how should you respond to these questions? Well at that point I’m a bit torn.  Is the label ‘jack of all trades’ really an insult? Geography is often just a banner under which we tackle some extremely complicated systems using a range of techniques. Within my PhD I use sensor networks, time series statistical analysis, X-ray CT scanning and geotechnical lab experiments.  I could find enough material for a PhD in any one of those topics without much difficulty, but for me the interest is in applying a range of techniques to try and unpick a difficult and multifaceted problem.  It’s a skill to integrate them into a coherent piece of research and if that skill is spun as being ‘a jack of all trades’ I won’t take any offence.

But maybe a more corrosive approach is required. I’m not actually fussed what people think about geography because the definition is so broad I don’t feel much identity to the title. This is probably exacerbated by the disparate nature of research in geography departments. However you feel on a personal level about other researchers it’s hard to draw professional links between the extremes of human geography and my work.  Because of that I’ll generally introduce myself as a glaciologist, a title which I identify with closely.  Perhaps this is the same in every subject though and I’m just most familiar with the Crayola related taunts.

Either way, I don’t care.  I might be a geographer, but I’m definitely a glaciologist.


  1. ‘Geography is the study of relations between society and the natural environment. Geography looks at how society shapes, alters, and increasingly transforms the natural environment, creating humanized forms from stretches of pristine nature and then sedimenting layers of socialization one within the other, one on top of the other, until a complex natural-social landscape results’ (Peet 1998) Geography is about the world and life in it and therefore is a great subject to align oneself with!

  2. But if I don’t study the human impacts of my research then do I not fall outside of the remit of that definition? Evidently glacial change will have impacts on society, but equally so does something like oil and yet that falls into geology rather than geography. I think geography as a discipline has become outdated as physical geography has evolved after the quantitative revolution. We might be better off having geoscience departments instead that combine geology, physical geography and oceanography etc. and having sociology, anthropology and human geography grouped into a different department. Its not anything personal against human geography, it just seems like the departmental grouping is just a historic influence/tradition.

  3. Maybe it should be ‘Geography is the study of the natural environment and of the relations between society and the natural environment’. That said, aren’t all natural processes either influenced by human impacts, or have an influence on human life? and therefore shouldn’t be studied in isolation. I think you’re right that there’s a lot of sense in having a geoscience dept and grouping human geog with sociology, because although i enjoy the diversity of our dept. I would get a lot out of being surrounded by sociologists but perhaps that’s because I’m a social/cultural geographer rather than say an economic one. This should be a whole other blog post!

  4. I think that geography has a massive identity crisis!

    However, this creates scope for research that wouldn’t neatly fit into another academic pigeonhole and therefore makes geography a more intellectually creative discipline.

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