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So what is a Geographer anyway? (Part 1)

By Brian Doucet
October 31, 2007

What is geography?

That’s not an easy question to answer. As someone who has studied geography all my life, I find it difficult to convey exactly what our discipline is to others. I was at a party recently, when someone asked me what I studied.

“Geography,” I replied.

“That’s interesting. I read an article recently about the different types of rocks in the Alps and it was really fascinating.”

I paused for a second. “Actually, I study urban geography, so I don’t really know much about rocks.”

“Oh, so do you plan new cities?

“Not exactly,” I replied, “I study cities, but more how they work and evolve; why certain cities are wealthy while others are not; why neighbourhoods in cities change from rich to poor, or vice versa; or why immigrants live in certain parts of the neighbourhoods.”

After that, there was a long pause in the conversation, which was only broken when someone asked: “So what is the capital of Chile?!”

I think this is a problem that we all face: as geographers, we cannot generally describe what we study in one word. Biologists study biology, historians the past and so on, but you cannot say that geographers study geography without going into further explanation. In the same regard, when most people think of the word ‘geography,’ the image they conjure up is very different from what many of us actually do.

Part of the problem is that the term geography is very broad. In essence, I suppose, it is anything involving spatiality. But that doesn’t really narrow down the definition much, nor is it something that gives any real clarity to what we do. defines geography as: “the science dealing with the areal differentiation of the earth's surface, as shown in the character, arrangement, and interrelations over the world of such elements as climate, elevation, soil, vegetation, population, land use, industries, or states, and of the unit areas formed by the complex of these individual elements.” This seems like a very broad explanation of the term, so in search of a more simple definition, I looked to Wikipedia. They defined the term as: “the study of the earth and its features and of the distribution of life on the Earth.” Again, this would still leave a lot of follow up questions as to what exactly it is that you study.

What is clear by these definitions is that geography as a subject is incredibly varied. Climatologists, economic geographers, political geographers, environmental geographers, cartographers, GIS users, and hydrologists could all aptly consider themselves geographers, to name only a tiny fraction of those who fit under this term.

In the end, I think geographers have to be content with the fact that our field requires some explanation and cannot be explained in one word. And if they are still not sure of what we study, we can always impress them by our knowledge of capital cities!