Towards a new definition of Geography…

Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa
Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems and how they interact in the environment at the local, regional and global scales in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  1. What is the feature, process or system?
  2. Where is it found?
  3. Why there?
  4. How is it important?

I have recently updated my website to include a page on What is Geography?

I realize this sounds like navel-gazing to some extent, but I’ve been in a thirty year battle with the Five Themes of Geography, first introduced by the American Association of Geographers in 1984.

Location – Place – Human-Environment Interaction – Movement – Region

I have always found the five themes to be forced. To students sitting on the other side of the desk, they are five random words/concepts that unite only because a geography teacher gave them a handout and led them through a lesson, and, even then, the five concepts do not naturally flow, nor are they linked. they don’t “go” anywhere; they are just “there”.

Take Location and Place. Now, as a geographer, I know they are different (somewhat, anyway). But, c’mon, to most people they mean the same thing and will always mean the same thing. If you want to make something new and meaningful, don’t choose two words that are so closely linked that every thesaurus declares them the same (rightly or wrongly).

Then there is Human-Environment Interaction. Wow – what a mouthful compared to the other four  1-word themes. And, there’s no doubt this is a central theme. But it doesn’t fit amongst the other four,  almost trite, themes. Anyway – enough of this. The Five Themes do not work for me and never have.

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems…

Since entering teaching back in the early 1990s, I have always understood that Geography is where the sciences and humanities meet. Maybe this is a reflection of my own background as one who first completed a BSc (in Zoology, but always flirting with physical geography and biogeography) prior to completing a BA in Geography. I’ve always seen the disciplines of physical and human geography as a dichotomy, but one that is central to the concept of what geography is.

The shops in Karatu, Tanzania
Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

And we study more than just features – the processes that form those features and, ultimately, the systems are all central to our understanding of how the world works. Think of volcanoes, for example: they are features in the landscape but are also the result of physical processes. Those processes occur within a whole series of processes, all part of the Earth system we call plate tectonics. The same can be said of migration; it’s a process within the larger human systems of economics and politics. Yet, each of these phenomena – volcanoes and migration – occur at a variety of scales and interact within the greater environment.

…and how they interact in the environment…

Geography is where the two meet and interact: people responding to the physical world and physical world responding to us. This is the essence of geography and while it is espoused in the five themes it doesn’t carry them. When I developed my definition of geography many years ago, I recognized the importance of both disciplines as independent fields as well as the interactions between them. I took it one step further, though, to recognize how these fields operate at different scales.

…at the local, regional and global scales…

But more than that, learning is an investigative endeavour and students are naturally curious beings, so why not build that into our operative definition. To that end, I created a series of four questions to guide the inquirer from the known to the unknown from the simple to complex. They are a subset of the commonly-known 5Ws+H. As such, the questions encourage students to move up the hierarchy of learning. Students can determine where their understandings are and have a road map to where they need to go in working towards the next level. The questions turn the definition into an investigative framework.

…in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Where is it found?
  3. Why there?
  4. How is it important?

What is it? is further refined to What is the feature? or What is the process? or What is the system? and is meant to define the thing being investigated (a ___ is a ___ that ___s) and is descriptive in nature. It’s meant to be a simple introduction, low in the learning hierarchy, to bring in learners at all levels.

[Aside: There is a definite movement, as of late, to leap over these basic understandings. I first noticed it years ago when GIS became all the rage. Students were following recipe labs drawing polygons and querying databases without the slightest understanding of the underlying geography of the river systems or interactions. There wasn’t time to teach and learn those basics – a map had to be produced which analyzed and solved a problem. Hmmmm… the cart before the horse? It is also a trend in the new Gr 9 course from the Ontario Ministry of Education which is big on issues, but short on underlying concepts.]

Where is it found? begins to get at the geography of it all. Location is key – both absolute and relative. It also brings in the notions of site and situation – concepts I find easier to understand than absolute and relative locations.

Why there? or, more completely, why is the feature (or process or system) found there? or Why there and not elsewhere? begins to unravel the processes that create the feature. One of the key questions becomes: what processes created the feature? Students naturally move from description to explanation –”Why…?” begets “Because…” –  a higher level of understanding, distinct from description.

How is it important? is where it all comes together, where higher-level thinking skills are demanded. It’s where the two worlds – physical and human – interact. Students can delve into the depths of how the physical world influences our decisions and how our decisions and actions influence nature. Conflicts, issues, causes-effects-solutions, economics, politics, societies and cultures all come into play. I like how the textbook publishers Nelson have introduced the idea that geographers look at the world with each of these perspectives in mind. Brilliant. This is what sets us apart from every other discipline and what makes geography central to problem-solving.

Over the years, my students have responded very positively to this framework. When in doubt, just look to the four key questions to guide your inquiry, moving up the levels one step at a time.


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