The discipline of geography is difficult to define in a few phrases. Unlike many other scholarly fields, it is not characterized by a discrete subject matter or method or even philosophy” (Gaile & Willmott, 1989, p. xxiv).
Geography has a long academic pedigree with important contributions made by early Greek, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations, and steady growth from the fifteenth century onwards in Europe. Prior to the late nineteenth century, central concerns were with mapping what proved to be an ever-expanding known world and with providing written descriptions of lands and peoples. As such, geography has always been concerned both with the physical world of climate, landforms, soils, and vegetation, and with the human world of population distribution, settlement patterns, agriculture, and industry. The principal common bond between these two interests is a concern with how physical and human characteristics are distributed on the surface of the earth, specifically with how they are located such that there are distinct regions—areas of the earths’ surface displaying common physical and/or human landscape features. Indeed, by the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant identified geography as the study of regions. A second longstanding bond between the two relates to relationships between physical and human worlds, with emphases on possible physical geographic causes of human landscape features and on human modifications of physical geography. These two bonds continue to be evident in contemporary geography.
There is a penalty to pay for this breadth of interest. By the nineteenth century, when the various academic disciplines were formally delimited and institutionalized within a growing university system, geography had an uncertain status, being a physical and human discipline at a time when these two types of discipline were increasingly separate. Geographers proposed various definitions of their discipline in the late nineteenth century with the two most significant being geography as the study of regions and geography as the study of human and nature relations and related landscape creation.
From the 1920s until the mid-1950s the regional approach dominated. Regions were delimited and described with emphasis on a gradual correction or verification of facts. The alternative landscape approach focused on the evolution of human landscapes emphasizing the impact cultural groups had on the physical landscapes they occupy. In the mid-1950s both regional and landscape approaches were criticized for lacking an explicitly scientific focus. With the key concern being to explain the location of geographic facts, an objectivist approach developed based on a positivist philosophy and with theoretical and quantitative content. This spatial analytic approach was a major concern from the late 1950s until about 1970. Since about 1970, there has been an increasing separation of physical and human geographic interests. Physical geography is allied to other physical sciences, while human geography has experienced a series of re-inventions and transformations that, in accord with trends in social science generally, typically involve a preference for subjectivist rather than objectivist approaches.
Contemporary geographers continue to express frustration and discontent at the uncertain status of the geographic discipline. A few quotes from leading geographers suffice to make this point. Reflecting on a long and distinguished career, Haggett (1990) observed that geography occupies “a very puzzling position within the traditional organization of knowledge .... it is neither a purely natural nor a purely social science” (p. 9). In some cases, geographers argue for a single discipline that integrates physical and human geography. The classic position is that “it is in bridging the gap between physical and human phenomena that geography finds its distinctive role” (Wooldridge & East, 1951, p. 25). A more recent version of this view is that it is “the roles that place and its locational attributes play in natural and human processes occurring on the Earth’s surface that are at the heart of geographic inquiry and knowledge” (Gaile & Willmott, 1989, p. xxv). Other geographers question the legitimacy of separate human and physical geographic disciplines. For example, Orme (1985) argued that “geography without a physical base is sociology” (p. 259), while Stoddart (1987) argued that “outside a more general framework physical geography loses its coherence” (p. 330).
But there is a different view. Johnston (1996) stated: “I find the links between physical and human geography tenuous, as those disciplines are currently practised. The major link between them is a sharing of techniques and research procedures, but these are shared with other disciplines too, and are insufficient foundation for a unified discipline” (p. x).
Notwithstanding the long history of links between physical and human geography, especially in the area of environmental studies, the position stated by Johnston (1996) is a fair reflection of contemporary North American geography with typically separate textbooks, college courses, and specialist journals for the two interests. Tellingly, in 2001 the leading American geographical publication, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, introduced separate sections for physical (environmental sciences) and human (people, place, and region) geography. This paper acknowledges this fundamental division being concerned only with human geography.
Removing, or perhaps merely ignoring, confusion related to the traditional dualism of geography does not result in a neatly defined discipline of human geography. Contemporary human geography exhibits what some identify as an alarming diversity of subject matter and method. Harvey (1990) noted a “seeming inability or unwillingness to resist fragmentation and ephemerality" (p. 431), while Eyles (2001) worried the discipline was becoming “almost terminally irrelevant” (p. 41). The best explanation for such comments of distress appears to be the post 1970 theoretical uncertainty of human geography with a corresponding lack of focus and direction. The current embracing of cultural studies, postmodernism, and poststructuralism is especially noteworthy in this respect. Eyles (2001) concluded: “I must say the incredibly nuanced theoretical and philosophical debates, the frequent lack of attention to methodological rigor, and the liberal borrowings from other disciplines have left me feeling that geography is largely irrelevant and that the world has passed it by” (pp. 60-61).