human geography

HUMAN GEOGRAPHY FOCUSES on interpreting and describing the various ways in which humans in all places and cultures adapt to and possibly modify their natural geographic environments. At the local or national scale, human geographers look at how economic, political, and cultural issues are related to spatial organization in different parts of the planet. How have humans modified topography, changed microclimates developed and changed rivers, lakes, and even coastlines?

Human geography is distinguished from PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY by its focus on human activities regardless of specific cultures. Changes related to different cultures or social systems is the realm of CULTURAL GEOGRAPHY.

human geography


Today, human geography also looks at regional and global patterns. Because of the spread of modern technology, humans today can make changes in the natural environment at a much faster rate and much grander scale than at any other time in human history. In addition, conflicts such as war can cause immediate and widespread environmental damage, such as the oil fires and spills during the various conflicts in IRAQ and KUWAIT or the widespread killing of wildlife in various African conflicts. The extent of environmental degradation and pollution in the former Soviet Union and the demise of the ARAL SEA are other examples of human-created changes in geography. Like physical geography, human geography is divided into a wide range of subtopics. These include economics, transportation, cultural geography, urban geography, and political geography. For example, human geography, when dealing with environmental issues, is not limited to natural dynamics but also takes into account the fact that there are distinct social, economic, and political environments.

The problems dealt with by human geography have varied over the course of time. In addition, new models and technical abilities affect how problems in the human-physical environment are approached. Given the diversity of philosophies and models for the description and analysis of human-environment interaction, it would be more appropriate to speak of a plurality of human geographies rather than one single human geography.

In 1992, David N. Livingstone noted different approaches to the discipline. According to this English geographer, the whole set of problems, subjects, and concepts that have developed over time have come to form part of this tradition and to be called human geography. From the time of the explorers to the drawing of maps, from the days of proposals for the study of industrial locations to the study of the distribution of wealth throughout the world, or the spaces constructed by “gay” communities or “okupas,” up to the time of the survey of the surface of the Earth with remote sensors and cartography based on GEOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION SYSTEMS (GIS)—all of this has come to be a part of the human geography tradition and to distinguish it from the type of history and cultural or social and political analyses and description developed by other disciplines.

It is possible to distinguish four significant events that help to understand how different problems and subjects have become defined as human geography. These events were: 1) the formal recognition of modern geography (1870–1920); 2) the development of pragmatic perspectives (1950s); 3) the manifestation of radical and critical views (1970s); and 4) the development of what has been termed a postmodern approach along with more traditional cultural geographies (1980s and 1990s).


Human geographies developed in most European countries were influenced by the German, French, or British schools of geography and sometimes by all three together. Some maintain that it was in these three countries that the discipline was first institutionalized as something distinct from history and geology. Between the mid-19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and in the context of the construction and redefinition of national states and the process of imperialism and colonial expansion, geographical knowledge was clearly related to the extension of political and economic power. As it was considered, geography offered the kind of knowledge that made it possible to acculturate and integrate or control local populations.

During this period, human geography became a distinct program in the curriculum. For example, the first chair in human geography was set up in 1870 within the context of the unification of Germany, and under the responsibility of the geographer-philosopher, Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904). France recognized the importance of teaching geography after the loss of the territories of Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans. This was France's context for the creation of the chair of human geography under Paul Vidal de la Blache (1854–1904).

Ratzel developed a project for anthropogeography based on the analysis of the influence of natural conditions on humanity. For Ratzel, the greater the attachment to the earth (as Ratzel called the territory) the greater would be the need for a society to maintain its physical possession. Ratzel believed that it was for this reason that the state was created. The analysis of the relations between state and space was one of the main topics in anthropogeography. The development of any society would imply, as he saw it, the need to increase the size of territory and hence to conquer new areas. One can readily see the seeds of Adolf Hitler's Lebensraum (expanding “living space”) in this approach to the state.

On the other hand, the Frenchman de la Blache was critical of anthropogeography as an approach to human geography. Rather than being interested in the influence of natural conditions on societies, de la Blache sought to analyze how societies could challenge nature and come to develop an environment suited to their needs. Within this framework he formulated his concept of the genre de vie (lifestyle), understood as a historically constructed relationship built up by different human groups with their surroundings, based on the use of available technologies. This was a view that emphasized human abilities and influences in modifying the physical earth itself.

For this geographer, natural human regions and regional study was seen as an expression of lifestyle, which was the whole object of study of human geography. Seen in the light of this approach, for de la Blache, the map of France was the result of the harmonizing of its different regions. In the light of the theories and studies of de la Blache, the concept of a region (the study of the particular relation of a set of diverse elements in a given area) became one of the key concepts in human geography.

In Great Britain, the Royal Geographical Society was responsible for the institutional and financial organization of the two chairs in geography, one at Oxford University and the other at Cambridge University. The first was assumed by Halford J. MACKINDER (1861–1947). The second fell to Francis Guillermard (1852–1933). Mackinder considered that geography could be useful to statesmen since it is an integrating discipline, in which studies can be made of the causal relationships between man and the environment. These studies can be conducted in specific areas and have as their purpose the analysis of these relationships on a global scale.

Toward the end of the 19th century, biology was considered to be the most modern discipline. In the light of such thinking, the concept of geography as a natural science was the guarantee required for it to achieve qualification as a science. Thus, no one hesitated to qualify geography as a natural science, thus placing evolution at the heart of any geographic explanation.

For French geographers, human geography was a discipline that leads to knowledge of the relationship of societies with their environment. For Russian geographers, the purpose of geography in education was to reveal the battle of human beings with nature, thereby leading to a better understanding of the relationship between the two. Some Russians stressed that the study of human diversity implies showing what constitutes families of different peoples, bringing them together regardless of any racial differences, beliefs, or lifestyles. On the other hand, other geographers placed work as the mediator between the physical environment and society.

North American cultural geography presented by Carl SAUER (1889–1975) is one of the few proposals of that time that attempts to rise above a global and North American evolutionary framework (particularly as it was developed in the UNITED STATES by H. Barrows, T.G. Taylor, R.D. Salisbury along with W. DAVIS and E. Semple.). In fact, Sauer makes the whole concept of culture, linked to the anthropology, the key to the transformation of the natural landscape or the visible forms of nature into a cultural landscape.


In the years after World War II and to the beginning of the Cold War, regional analyses of human geographies had become the principal activity conducted in the field.

As financial capital was directed to the reconstruction of postwar Europe, a group of planning organizations were attempting to define the best locations for productive activities. They did this using a set of geographical engineering models that would define social problems before they became major challenges. The joining of the human geographies of political and economic perspectives led to the birth of a focus on pragmatic versus theoretical or descriptive studies. For most of the geographers following this line, mathematical language and models were considered to be the most appropriate methods for true science.

Human geographies that emphasized descriptive accounts were exchanged for a more statistical approach. Neoclassical models were formulated in the belief that subjects would behave rationally and with a view to seeking a maximization of earnings and opportunities. Now human geography became viewed as a discipline entrusted with spatial analysis. From this time on, spatial organization became the principal object of study of human geographers. The scientific base was to begin with an assumption that geographic space was to begin de novo––that is, without people or prior history. In short, the approach was, “All things being equal, then…” Within these assumptions, the planner could move freely within geographic space, the only variables would be questions of distance, direction, and connection (linkage). The geographic region was understood as the space in which internal differences are minimized and everything beyond its boundaries would be of much greater difference or variance.

Under the idea of pragmatic geography (as another subset of human geography) there were various trends. First, quantitative geographers studied the relations and interrelations of different geographic phenomena, local variations of physical landscape, and the impact of nature on societies and of the latter on the environment. These were all to be numerically expressed and understood. The second trend involved geographers who used systems theory. Hence it is given the name “systematic” or “modeling geography.” For example, the geographer Brian Berry defines models as key to the formulation of explanations. A third school of pragmatic geography is represented by a focus on the geography of perception. Drawing on the instruments of behavioral psychology, the followers of this trend try to analyze the subject valuation of space, both in the case of the behavior of the urban dweller and that of native African communities. It is focused on culture as the key to the creation of human geographies.

A part of the legacy of the approach of pragmatic geography has been the evolution of GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEMS (GIS), a field in which the concept of abstract space and the formulations of a mathematical character continue to play an important role. And it is a practice now widely used by many fields of science, both physical and social.


As part of the sociology of its era, the decades of the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a major political convulsion in the field of human geography. In addition to the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War, it was a period during which many of the long-established European colonies in Africa achieved independence. Various social movements, such as those in defense of human rights, the rights of women, and the protests of an ecological character all appeared on the world scene and were especially intense in Europe and the United States. Many contemporary human geographers not only participated in these movements but also began to question their own practices. The crisis to be identified in geography was a symptom of other crises occurring in capitalism, politics, and science.

Some human geographers now considered that scientific knowledge should not only serve for the understanding of society, but should also help to guide and transform it. Positioning themselves simultaneously against both classical and quantitative geography, they tried to establish the basis of a new science that, as they saw it, would help create the basis of a new society. These geographers called themselves radicals in the UNITED STATES; in other contexts, such as the French, the Italian, the Spanish or the Latin American world, they were referred to as critical geographers.

Both the radical and critical schools of human geography followed the philosophical tenets of Marxism and stressed first and foremost the importance of economics (not the natural environment) when it comes to the interpretation of social dynamics. Second, they stressed the role of ideology in the production of knowledge, opposing the idea that there is any possibility of creating an objective or value-neutral science. Both the radical and the critical geographers reverted to the concept of space already worked upon by the pragmatic geographers in order to provide the social content it had consciously omitted (to be scientifically neutral) when formulated in the 1950s. Radical and critical geography was a shift to emphasizing human economics and philosophies in the creation of human geographies.

The approach known as active geography was opposed to the applied geography promoted over the decade of the 1950s. The first manifestation of this approach was found in Geographie Active (1964) the name of a book written by Pierre George, Yves Lacoste, Bernard Kayser, and R. Guglielmo. This book undertook an analysis designed to reveal the contradictions of capitalism in different regional geography frameworks. Thus, a type of geography was formulated for regional analysis that would reveal inherent social contradictions such as poverty, malnutrition, and precarious housing. The proposal for active
human geography also gave a new significance to actual fieldwork in the countryside. Thus, for example, in the Anglo-Saxon context, William Bunge proposed the organization of expeditions to communities living in conditions of poverty in order to help them overcome their situation, establishing a priority for social welfare over academic work.

Following the interdisciplinary exchanges that were opened up by the pragmatists, the radical and critical geographers exchanged ideas with other social sciences. This further removed human geography from its earlier emphasis on the physical environment. This exchange can be seen in the influence of the book by sociologist M. Castells, La Question Urbaine (1972), or the philosopher Henri Lefebvre's La production de l'espace (1974) on the urban geography of the period.

Among the radical geographers, one of their most representative works is Urban Justice and the City (1973) by David Harvey. Harvey questioned the liberal theories of the city and took on a socialist posture. He adopted the Marxist theory of rent in order to analyze the valuation of urban space. He then studied the use of the land in terms of use/value categories and exchange value. This sort of analysis enabled him to understand the active importance of spatial forms in social processes, an approach that he later developed in works dealing with the role of capital in the generation of unequal space usage and the compression of space/time. In one sense, it was a human geographic view of socialism rather than the traditional emphasis on how humans modify the physical environment.

For critical geographers, particularly in Latin America, one of the most important texts has been Por uma Geografia Nova (1978). The author, Milton Santos (1926–2001), showed that it was possible to conceive of personal ideas that could be applied to the interpretation of the third world. In effect, his analysis of the specific nature of urban processes in underdeveloped countries and his theory of banal space (the daily space for solidarity where men, living and feeling, have the opportunity to create a new history) are an example of this. Santos offers multiple ways of perceiving social space. First, space appears as a social product, born of human action. Second, it signifies accumulated work, the incorporation of capital into land surface, which creates lasting forms known as “roughness.” These manifestations of “roughness” turn out to be space legacies that end up by influencing the pattern of contemporary action.

In this sense, spatial patterns are the product of past processes that also condition the future. Now there were human geographers who simply followed a modified version of the philosophical view cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.”


This approach led the human geographer Edward Soja to argue that while modern times have granted primacy in their explanatory role to history and time, postmodernism should open up the way to the social sciences, allowing them to achieve “the spatial turn.” Such an approach would be ideal for the analysis of changes and urban dynamics in cities such as Los Angeles. Such a city has particularly diverse geographic landscapes, constantly undergoing a process of change, and continually being reshaped by local and state practice, by internationalization, and by the globalization of work and trade. The city is produced, lived in, and provides for not only a middle class society, but also women, children, old folk, gays, lesbians, a multitude of ethnic minorities, the unemployed and the poor. With the approach prevailing until now, it was difficult to identify any urban fragments associated with the place of residence of certain social classes or the establishment of certain productive activities. In fact, global cities such as NEW YORK or LONDON are composed of a iscontinuous collage of partial human geographic landscapes that no longer respond to the old center-periphery pattern. Approaches such as this may also be used for geographies of rural and regional environments.

Human geographers now have conducted a series of studies governed by this perspective. Some of the work along these lines includes: a) gender studies, b) postcolonial studies, and c) new cultural geographies.

Gender studies originated in the feminist movement of the 1960s. One of the basic points of these studies was the recognition that distinct gender geographies are to be found throughout all societies and all of history and that they always play a role in the organization of patterns of human geography. For example, in the geographic patterns resulting from the locations chosen by multinational clothing manufacturers and shoemakers in different parts of the world, there is a pattern that increasingly seeks female workers willing to work at home on a part-time basis. This means there is a new kind of manufacturing geography, one not focused solely on large plants. Gender studies have also shown the need for a new kind of urban management and planning geography, an approach that looks at the needs for mobility and recreation of women and families.

Postcolonial geographic analysis begins by studying the human organization of space both under the colonial experience and how it exists today. The book Orientalism, written by Edward Said (1935–2003), is considered to be the basis for this field. Said maintained that the way in which we view the East from the West is the result of a Western cultural bias or mindset. Such a vision of the East was presented as exotic, sensual, culturally inferior, and backward—all of which supported imperial European expansion between 1870 and 1914.

In this context, colonial space (geographies) became an area of contact where diverse cultures met, collided, and fought. Postcolonial studies have also tried to listen to those who were the object of the colonial experience and had often been silenced by the European discourse.

They attempt to give space to voices that come from countries that went through colonial and live their consequences today (economic dependence, dictatorship, exclusion of women). Postcolonial researchers are also now being called upon to research image construction for the Muslim world and the immigrant Muslim populations, as reflected in political discourse and in the communications media. These findings are proving useful both for the justification of the new imperialism and for the imposition of restrictive migration policies, both aspects are used for understanding the political transformation and the globalization of the world.


This section of human geography is the one that has turned out to be the most dynamic, although some authors believe that all human geography is really cultural geography. It was Denis Cosgrove, Chris Philo, and Peter Jackson who, in the decade of the 1980s, introduced politics into the field of culture, aiming at showing its influence on history. This was the so-called cultural turn. Completely new subjects began to be studied in detail, such as daily objects, images of nature in art and the cinema, and even the significance of landscape and how territorial identity is socially constructed.

The discussion of GLOBALIZATION is a very important issue here, especially when it is viewed as a strategy to reduce all cultures to a single model, with the threat that this implies to individual local identity. And other authors think that new subjects should be considered for future studies, such as the interaction between various factors and beliefs, while local and global factors also need to be taken into account.

One element that has always formed a part of human geography and is now the object of renewed interest is “landscape.” Cosgrove, a North American geographer, headed this movement in the 1980s. Cosgrove tried to show how economic processes such as capitalism and the relation between capital and labor influence cultural patterns. He undertook a revision of the landscape art of the 18th and 19th centuries and found a link between the different ways in which landscape was represented at that time and such things as different types of land ownership and social relations in rural areas over the centuries. He found that these paintings had an “iconographic” content, transmitting symbols that had a meaning in the places concerned because they reflected the interests of particular social classes. Today, for example, human geography landscapes are being viewed in the light of the postcolonial gender perspective.

Studies like this show how the paintings of the time formulated an exotic world of paradise, associated with tropical environments such as those of the Caribbean. This idealization hid any reference to social injustice, such as the political and economic exploitation that lay behind work on the plantations. Gender studies today clearly show that this type of painting also reflects a purely masculine point of view. They underline the differences between colonial images created by traveling women and those created by men, yet the men led the work of exploration, conquest, and control of the colonies.

Landscape paintings are also being studied with a view to showing their contribution to the concept of a “pure” national identity, a founding stone for nationality. All of this contributed to the construction of “new” geographies. James and Nancy Duncan feel that these paintings can be read as “texts.” They say it is possible to recognize the painters and that this is an expression of values, tastes, and aspirations presented in a “codified” way. As is the case with texts, different people can interpret the images in different ways. In a city, architects, dwellers, visitors or spectators each have their own view and thus the geography of landscapes is rewritten.


While the above discussion may give the impression of human geography being a fragmented field, in fact it is the only way in which we can understand the form and complexity of the organization of the modern world.

The practices of human geography today are no longer limited to simple geometric space. Rather, modern human geographers stress how geographic space is organized by and for relationships. This means that geographic space no longer is conceived of as a static container for objects, processes, or flows—Euclidian geometry (with the dimensions x, y, z) or simply by the laws of physics and natural processes. There has been increasing importance of the concept of “place” (local human-physical environments) in the work and thinking of human geographers over the last two decades. The visions of place of John Agnew and Doreen Massey are complementary in this connection and allow a better understanding of the concept. For Agnew, the concept of place has three dimension: the first is connected with the idea of location as it refers to the social and economic processes that endow it with a material character; the second—locale—refers to daily social relationships that lead to the creation of an environment (setting); and the third refers to the creation of a subjective feeling as to this environment.

The processes participating in the creation of this place involve actors operating at different levels. This English geographer points out that the relationships places maintain with each other are the product of particular power arrangements, be these of an individual, institutional, material or imaginative character; they are the specific interrelationships that define the particular characteristics of each one. Clearly, for human geographers, the role and impact of nature upon humans and how humans and their various idiosyncratic cultures and politics affect the organization and manifestation of geography remain key topics for analysis and description.


The field of human geography made big strides forward between 1910 and 1930. The imperial expansion of the European countries was inspired by the idea that the power of a state was based on its capacity to expand its territory, a concept used to justify German expansion in Europe between 1933 and 1945. After the fall of Hitler, the whole field of political geography suffered from a corresponding loss of prestige that lasted until 1980, when it began to arouse interest once again.

Two factors have played a big role in its rebirth; first the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, considered a symptom of the decline of the Soviet bloc, the end of the Cold War, and the birth or rebirth of states that would be incorporated into the market economy; and second, the assault on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., in 2001. On the one hand, the United States appeared as the world's leading military power and adopted an aggressive Middle East foreign policy.

The interest of the United States lies in controlling territories, populations, and natural resources, particularly oil, in that part of the planet; but, on the other hand, it is faced with the organization of radical groups using tactics to destabilize institutionalized methods of warfare. (They do such things as attacking civilians who are then beset by a feeling of insecurity. It is no longer a question of confrontation between states, but now within states; there is no such thing as neutrality or the laws of cease-fire. And the financing providing for the activities of these groups is usually of criminal origin.) Both of these series of events have unleashed processes that form a part of the agenda for political geography today.

The new agenda includes the reformulation of the relationship between territories and power. In this sense, the state is no longer the only basic legal and administrative unit that creates other types of international political relations. Organizations such as the EUROPEAN UNION and other international and transnational agencies have powers that have often been redefined, so that they can now acquire authority over the territorial states themselves (one example would be the World Trade Organization). These new types of organizations have also redefined the sovereign power of individual states, now sometimes reduced to certain limited fields such as the management of labor markets. In fact, functions that before were the exclusive domain of the state, such as capital attraction promotion, are now also encouraged by political groups associated with specific regions or cities. State territorial sovereignty is increasingly questioned in some countries like COLOMBIA, where guerrilla fighters and drug traders control part of the national territory. Frontier building also depends to a great extent on the new vision of power and of territory. Processes designed to stimulate the free circulation of goods and persons exist at the same time as the increase in measures destined to prevent displacement.

Thus, while the European Union extended its eastern frontier in 2004 to include SLOVAKIA, SLOVENIAMALTA, POLAND, LATVIA, LITHUANIA, CYPRUS, and the CZECH REPUBLIC, the Mediterranean area is becoming a major monitoring system designed to restrict the access of people from Africa to the New Europe. The wall raised by Israel on the Gaza Strip is also aimed at preventing the Palestinian population from entering the country. And, finally, the direct relation between statenation-territory is now being challenged. It is true that the so-called equivalence of these terms was fractured when local national claims led to an increase in the autonomy of certain regions of the planet (Cataluna, the Basque Country, Northern Ireland, Quebec and Casamance) or to separatism (with the division of the ex-Yugoslavia and the independence of EAST TIMOR).

The agenda for political geography in the 21st century is engaged in redefining the relationship between state, nation, and territory. It is also incorporating new concerns (such as the environment or HIV/AIDS) and new subjects (guerrilla fighters, mafias, emigrants, and refugees), new conflicts (particularly of an ethnic-religious character such as between INDIA and PAKISTAN or in SUDAN), and studies of future scenarios, such as the political and economic role in this new century of countries like CHINA.