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Discuss the similarities and differences between human and physical geography

Geography is a dynamic and ever-expanding science that covers a broad range of topics. The study of geography has been, fairly recently, divided into two main categories, the human and the physical, whilst it is often difficult to draw a line between where relationships between the two aspects of geography start and end, a general understanding would suggest that human geography concentrates on the relationship between human beings and the environment whilst physical geography concentrates on the scientific understanding of the environment itself.

This essay will examine the similarities and links between the two areas of geography and the evolution of these areas before looking in more depth at how the two fields contrast in their attempt to gain a geographical understanding.

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Initially, most geography books covered both the human and physical aspects of science although this began to change as geographers started to specialize in certain areas, mainly in physical geography between the 1920s and 1940s. Early works by geographers also link human and physical geographies to the presence of a superior being.

These teleological ideas made assumptions that geographical factors were in fact God’s creations, so for a long time physical and human geography involved linking geographical processes and patterns to religious beliefs, these ideas were explored by geographers such as Carl Ritter. In the United Kingdom, human geography was not really explored in detail until after 1945.

According to The American Heritage(r) Dictionary of the English Language, a study of a field of interest is a science if it observes, identifies, describes, investigates experimentally and theoretically explains phenomena, therefore both physical and human geography must be considered to be science due to the fact that both areas of geography can be studied methodologically. Despite the fact that the two aspects of geography are moving apart they are both considered to be sciences that have drawn on the idea of space.

Spatiality is what bonds together both aspects of geography; both physical and human geographies are concerned with the idea of space, whether it is the relationship between people and space or nature and space. The notion of space has been important in geography since the geographers during empirical times needed to gain an understanding of the land in a mainly cartographic way so as to expand their empires through colonization and to begin trading with foreign lands.

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Together human and physical geography went through a period of change when the approach to the subject was scrutinized by scientists, geography was no longer useful as a descriptive science, so scholars began to study the subject in more depth. At this time the two disciplines were divided up into further categories, human geographers began to concentrate on topics such as social, urban, economic, industrial and later political and cultural geographies, whilst according to physical geographers concentrated on areas such as the Earth’s atmosphere through Meteorology and Climatology, animal and plant life through Biogeography, physical landscape through Geomorphology, soils through Pedology, and waters through Hydrology,

Despite the fact that both disciplines evolved under the heading of “geography” and that there are many relationships between the human and physical areas, the two aspects of geography are continuously moving apart. Thrift (2002) suggests that there is now a lack of common knowledge between physical and human geographers and that scientists are increasingly looking to start research with people from disciplines outside of geographies such as economists or biologists. However, despite the fact that the two areas are “splitting” they are both becoming more popular, in that more physical geography articles are being published in natural science journals and more human geography articles are being published in social science journals.

Regardless of the fact that human geography is seen to be humanity or social science as opposed to a natural science (such as physical geography) both elements are related to one another and overlap with each other. This is due to the fact that human influences affect the environment and environmental issues affect humans whether it is their behaviour, distribution, culture or wealth etc. In other words, the nature of an area will determine the type of practices that are carried out there, for example, mining can only take place where natural resources are abundant and urbanization generally requires large areas of relatively flat, accessible land.

Due to the interaction between the two areas of geography, it is often difficult to decide if some processes are solely physical or human; human processes such as urbanization and globalization can lead to physical problems such as pollution and global warming yet the impact of such problems will be on both the environment and human beings.

Since the cultural turn human geographers have tried to move away from the study of regional geography in order to gain a more intellectual understanding of the world rather than producing descriptive catalogues of relatively small areas. Therefore human geographers are interested in the relationship between people and space. It is then the study of real lives rather than the description of an area that human geographers are interested in. Human geography tries to understand the complexity of people, their culture and their behaviours.

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Blackwell’s dictionary of human geography suggests that Human geographers look at how all aspects of human life such as economic, environmental, political, social, cultural and historical factors are concerned with spatiality and the ways they are connected through processes and economic systems such as globalization and migration. Aspects of human geography are constantly changing due to the fact that there are always new issues arising in the ‘real world’.

On the other hand, according to Mary Sommerville (1855), physical geography describes the earth, sea and air including their inhabitants, whether animal or vegetable and the distribution of the earth’s inhabitants. Somerville states that people are merely inhabitants of the earth but that they affect and are affected by the environment.

Although physical geography concentrates on how the environment works, the way in which the subject of human geography has been studied has changed over the years, for a long time the focus was simply on geomorphology, Stoddart (1987), and the appearance of natural landscapes, Birot (1966), at that time the human influences and their relationships with nature were largely ignored, even Sommerville does not seem to have a true interest of the effects that human beings have on the environment. However more recently this has changed and physical geographers have become interested in the human impact on the environment, which has lead to the study of current issues that threaten the natural world, for example, climate change and desertification.

There is a contrast in the way in which the two aspects of geography are studied, it seems that much of human geography is based on geographers’ theories that can be rejected or followed but sometimes not proven, for example, structuralism and humanism are two theories that contradict each other yet they both have been accepted at one time or another. This seems to have led to a sort of “battle of the isms” which does not seem to have taken place to the same extent in physical geography, due to the fact that, research can often give definitive answers so that theories become facts.

For example, there is no debate over how a volcano erupts or why rivers erode their banks. This is not to say that there is no element of controversy within physical geography for instance some scientists do not agree with the idea that global warming is taking place.

In conclusion, human geography focuses on all that is human and physical geography concentrates on the physical processes of the environment. Both elements are interrelated and the focus of their study has changed over time, both areas of geography have made an effort to move away from outdated simplistic theories and both areas have an interest in current affairs. It can be said that although both areas come under the heading of “geography” recently the two disciplines have moved away from each other and have established their knowledge in separate fields of expertise, this can be seen by the fact that human geography articles are published in journals of social science and physical geography articles are published in natural science journals.

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Space is the key to both sides of geography as both areas are concerned with how communities or environments and their distribution change dependant on their location. Despite the fact that there are many linkages between the two sides of geography, the fact that they are diverging suggests that there are rarely similarities within the two disciplines. That is not to say that this was always the case as geography began as one subject which was concerned with the mapping and cataloguing of regions in order to describe parts of the earth.

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Birot, P. (1966) General physical geography.Harrap, London

Cloke, P., Crang, P., Goodwin, M.(1999) Introducing human geographies. Oxford university press, Oxford.

Johnston, R.J, Gregory, D., Pratt, G. , Watts, M. (2000) the dictionary of human geography.4th edition, Blackwell, Padstow.

Somerville, M. (1855) Physical Geography. Blanchard and Lea, Philadelphia Stoddart, D.R. (1966) Darwin’s impact on geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 56 683-698.

Stoddart, D.R. (1987) Geographers and geomorphology in Britain between the wars. London institute of british geographers, London.

Thomas, D.S.G & Goudie, A. (2000) The dictionary of human geography. 3rd edition. Blackwell, Padstow.

Thrift, N. (2002) The future of geography. Geoforum, 33, 291-298

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