The scientific discipline of geography has taken on many important topics over the course of its history. From locating natural resources, to understanding the intricacies of human cultures in diverse locations, to predicting climate change and its impacts on society, geography has helped us better understand our world.
Students in grade schools are taught basic geographic facts such as the location of countries, because knowing where things are, is the first step to figuring out why those things are there. Geography began in a similar way; geographers documented where things were and developed better ways to measure and communicate that information. Eventually, geographers expanded onto questions of ‘why’ are things where they are. The description on the title page of Emanuel Bowen’s 1747 book (image to the right) may reflect a beginning of geography’s transition from cataloging spatial information to trying to make sense of it (understanding the system). Today, geography continues to document where things are (hence, a strong relationship with GPS) but spends most of its time studying the interactions between spatial phenomena. Because addressing modern problems require system approaches, understanding the time and space components of the processes involved is more important than ever.
Unfortunately, geography education has not progressed with the advancement of geography as a science. For many people the study of geography ended with location facts and they have never been exposed to the fruitful endeavor of scientific geography. The opportunities to increase scientific knowledge from geographic research are so immense that the discipline of geography has struggled to define a focused mission.
In addition to limited exposure to spatial science, people’s perception of geography is also confused by the diversity of issues that geographers work on. For example, what do topics in geomorphology have in common with topics in geopolitics (both topics regularly studied by geographers)? I think the answer is that the spatial component of these topics is crucial to understanding why phenomena occurred, are occurring, or will occur. Can these topics be studied by separate disciplines, focusing on the issues by subject (e.g. Geology, Political Science)? Of course, but what geographers bring to the table is a unique perspective on the complications of studying spatial phenomenon. And these complications are only beginning to be understood.
The complications of geographic research are regularly underestimated. For example, the basic concept of the modifiable areal unit problem was identified in the 1930s, but too often research is conducted oblivious to the dependency of the results on analysis scale. This concept is the primary concept behind gerrymandering, yet its potential to bias research (especially in the natural sciences) is rarely acknowledged.
As further evidence that the details of geographic concepts are often not fully appreciated, I point to the fact that fundamental terms for describing spatial concepts are ill-defined. The loose use of geographic terms leads to confusion in the scientific literature about what is actually being studied. One of the clearest examples of this is use of the term “scale.” Confusion about this term has been exasperated by the transition from paper to digital maps. Because of the constraints of drawing a map on paper, extent and map unit size were essentially bound together. Under those circumstances, map scale described both spatial concepts at once. However, on digital maps, resolution, map unit size (~analysis scale), representative fraction (cartographic scale), and extent are independent of one another. Digital methods provide a great deal more freedom to study spatial phenomena, but we must be careful to define our methods (i.e. by ‘scale’, is one describing resolution, extent, or analysis scale).
Geography needs to continue to work on the ‘applied’ topics that it has been working on, but in the process, geography should use the information gathered to further illuminate and define the characteristics of spatial phenomena (e.g. establishing standards for describing the different aspects of spatial structure). Progress in fundamental laws of geography will be difficult and slow going. Nonetheless, it is an endeavor with immense benefits for sorting out the complex world we live in.