Physical and human geography

All geographical research is guided by a set of philosophical beliefs, influencing or motivating the selection of topics for study. There has been and always will be differences in opinion in what or how geography is to be studied and where divides lie. This essay aims to look at the intellectual history of physical and human geography with reference to ideology, epistemology, ontology and methodology using specific example of geographical research over time.

This essay can only be ‘an’ interpretation of the history of geography, looking at key chapters and influential thinkers. It is difficult to write on a sequence of events without lapsing into narrative and such reconstruction will be open to much criticism. (Livingstone 1992) Defining Geography But establishing to what extent human and physical geography are divided or united is not straightforward. Nick Clifford (2003) highlighted the tension, as a result of divergent subject matter, between the two:

‘Who but geographers would seriously attempt to sustain a dialogue, let alone a working relationship into cosmogenic nuclides and the commodity chain of cut flowers?’ Viles (2005) acknowledges that geographers have difficulty in enjoying this meaningful dialogue across the divide of human and physical geography. ‘Physical geographers are from Mars, Human Geographers are from Venus.’ However even historical explanation of the landscape requires both knowledge of human and physical geography. So too do the effects of global warming and the development of the third world. The differences perceived are real but so too are the similarities.

The development of geography has been dependent on who geographers are. For the purpose of this essay the following definition of physical geography will be used. ‘The science of space and place that brings together Earth’s physical and human dimensions in the integrated study of people, places and environments.’ (National Geographic 2005) The Dictionary of Human Geography suggests that human geography is concerned with spatial differentiation, organization of human activity and the human use of the physical environment. It is important at this point to acknowledge the limitations of beginning a history with a definition. My history will inevitably have elements of presentism and personality as I have looked from a perspective to suit my purpose and interpretation.

Academic history Geography emerged as an academic discipline in the late 19th century and early 20th century as a bridge across the physical and social sciences. It was promoted as an integrated discipline and was considered to be an important part of citizenship. As a taught discipline geography remains a marginal discipline in many American schools. In the UK there has been a reduction in the number of secondary school pupils taking geography but it is always taught as a unified subject at this level. 1981 saw cutbacks in geography as a higher education disciplne it is now considered to be endangered. (Kish and Ward). It has been calculated that one in ten of the UK’s geography departments are disappearing as separate entities.

A clear difference between human and physical geography is that their academics publish in different journals. Human geographers contributing mostly to journals with geography in the title and physical geographers often contributing to inter disciplinary science journals and not explicitly geographical ones. Of course this does not mean to say that human geographers do not publish in inter-disciplinary journals but this occurs less often and mostly in specialized areas.

Resulting to a certain extent in sub-disciplines within human and physical geography working in separate academic communities. (Castree et al 2005) It is not uncommon for some geographical acaedemics to associate more closely with other academics from outside the discipline than within. The importance of Regional Geography The interwar years brought about the conviction that physical and human geography should be integrative to analyse specific regions. Offered the prospect of radically alternative governing, a idea with obvious influence by the current political climate. (Key Concepts in Geography)

Andrew Hebertson, heavily influenced by Geddes argued that Geography is an art of regional description. Herbertson’s view (1905) was that a region was an area which possessed unity in its cultural aspects. Gilbert (1960) continued to argue that regions were distinguishable as separate entities. Whilst Kimble (1951) contested that regions do not exist in reality nor are there clear perceivable boundaries. (The Place Of Geography) Underpinning such problems of definition of regional geography was the search for uniqueness and the search for generalities, highlighting further tensions between human (concerned with unique descriptions) and physical geographers (fighting for scientific recognition sought to use empirical-analytical methods to pursue general explanatory). (The Place of Geography)

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