A little over two years ago I fatefully fell into my second geography class. The first geography class was a general education course I took as a freshman because my adviser claimed it was popular among journalism students. That first class opened my eyes to the wide variety of fields that fall under the geography umbrella, but I was firmly entrenched in my romantic dreams of a journalism career. Eventually my desire to enter the mess of modern media eroded. Having no idea what to do, I threw caution to the wind and became an English major because I enjoyed writing and reading. Who needs to actually make money, right? (Just kidding. English majors are often as misperceived Geography majors.)
It turns out English majors are required to take a sequence of science classes, so I picked up the second geography course where I previously left off and immediately knew I was where I truly belonged. Only, I didn’t know geography would require repeatedly explaining that my major is more than memorization of countries and capitals and that it offers many career options besides teaching. For the last two years countless family members, friends, and new acquaintances have asked the same question with the same bewildered and concerned looks on their faces as if picturing me at the front of a class full of brace-faced seventh grade brats or cornered in a classroom by ravenous parents.
And now we’re here. I love all of these people very much, and I greatly appreciate their concern and interest. But it is also frustrating to constantly have to defend my career choice. I didn’t know what geography actually is either before that first class in college, so I want to pass on the torch and explain just how viable and promising the field of geography is. Let the crash course begin!
In order to promote a better understanding of geography on a basic level, I want to ask and answer two simple questions in a two part series: First, what is geography? Later, what can you do with a degree in geography?
What is it?
In the broadest sense, geography is the study of the earth and people, often regarding the interactions between the two. A textbook might tell you that geography looks at these subjects through four lenses: place, space, scale, and time. Again, what does that mean? The easiest way to explain this will likely be through an example of a geographic study.
For place, let’s look at an example relating to physical geography: sinkholes. A geographer studying sinkholes may ask something like, “What are the physical conditions conducive to sinkholes,” or, “What conditions make a place more likely to experience sinkholes?” Some of the characteristics of at-risk places include highly acidic water and soluble geologic layers made of limestone. These physical conditions have to do with place, although abstract concepts like economic power can also apply to place.
Space is a more difficult concept to grasp. It ultimately deals with how places are related (or not related) to each other. Continuing our sinkhole topic, one may ask how sinkholes in Place A have affected its relation to Place B. Have an increased number of sinkholes caused displacement—a migration of people from Place A to a Place B? If so, how has the arrival of these migrants impacted Place B, and how has their absence affected Place A? How have the sinkholes changed the economic relationship of the two places? These questions of space combine aspects of both physical geography and human geography.
Scale is simply the size of the study area and how it relates to larger and smaller study areas. Common scaler terms are “local,” “regional, “national,” and “global.” I will use a new example to explain this: Brexit. A geographer may ask how Brexit will affect the economy of one specific town in the UK, or ask how it will affect the UK’s economy as a whole. They may further look at the affects to the UK’s relationship with France, Germany, and the US. These are all questions of economic and political geographers who fall under a larger category as human geographers.
The last of the four concepts is time. This is important because many geographic studies look at relationships over time. How have things changed, or not changed and why? A geographer looking at Brexit may ask when the path towards Brexit started and how it progressed. They would research public political opinion and policy over the last 5, 10, 20, 30 years to discover patterns leading to the current nationalism rise in the UK. Another example of time is mapping the change in landscape over time with aerial photography and satellite imagery. This kind of geography falls into Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Geographic Information Science (GISc).
I hope that I have successfully summed up what geography is. It is simply the study of the earth, people, and how they interact over place, space, scale, and time. I also introduced three other important ideas that I will cover in Part 2. These relate to what kind of geography that is being done: Physical Geography, Human Geography, and GIS. I hope to explore these in more detail by looking at what careers are out there for a geographer. Please feel free to reply below with any comments and questions!