The Branches of Geography

November 4th, 2018

Physical geography studies the features and dynamic processes of landform, climate, hydrology, soil and ecology.

Early exposure to the field of geography has left many people with the mistaken impression that its focus is limited to the logging of place locations and names, but geography is much more than that. In the broadest view, geography is the systematic study of our world and its characteristics.

While map analysis is integral, geographers study every facet of our environment, meticulously cataloging the nature and distribution of the world’s features, and documenting the connections that humans have with their surroundings.

With such a massive scope, the field of geography has been divided and subdivided into myriad branches. The two primary divisions are physical geography and human geography. This article will provide an overview of the two disciplines and drill down into the subdivisions that refine their focus.

Physical Geography

Physical geography focuses on all aspects of the natural environment, including land, water, and air, and the plants and animals that inhabit those domains. Considered an Earth science, physical geography attempts to explain the physical characteristics of the world’s natural contents and examine the associated formative and destructive forces.

Due to the field’s breath of focus, a good way to understand physical geography is to examine its many subbranches. Below is a list of the major divisions of physical geography.

  • Geomorphology is the study of the Earth’s surface and how it is shaped.
  • Hydrology addresses the quantity and quality of the planet’s water as it exists in the soil, rivers, lakes, and aquifers.
  • Glaciology is the branch of physical geography that studies glaciers and ice sheets.
  • Biogeography focuses on distribution patterns of plant and animal species and the forces that cause those patterns.
  • Climatology deals with climate, or weather viewed over an extended period.
  • Meteorology examines weather viewed over a short period, with an emphasis on forecasting.
  • Pedology is the science that deals with the study of soils in their natural environment.
  • Palaeogeography utilizes geological analysis of the rock strata to determine the distribution of the continents over time.
  • Coastal geography is the branch of physical geography that studies interaction between the ocean and the land.
  • Oceanography focuses on the planet's oceans and seas.
  • Quaternary geography limits its scope to the last 2.6 million years, examining the most recent ice age and creating conceptual models of environments during this period.
  • Landscape ecology combines ecology and geography to address how landscape variation affects ecological processes.
  • Geomatics, or geospatial science, deals with the gathering and management of geographic data.
  • Environmental geography looks at the spatial details of how humans interface with nature.

This may seem like a mind-bending collection of challenging disciplines, but when you consider that the study of physical geography must address essentially everything in the natural world, distilling the scope into a bounded set of subbranches like this is actually quite an accomplishment!

Human Geography

Emphasizing the study of geographic influences on human society, human geography focuses on people, their cultures, and the interactions they have with their surroundings, including the study of political, social, and economic factors.

Like physical geography, human geography includes numerous fields of study, so it helps to take an overview of its subdivisions, which are listed below.

  • Cultural geography focuses on Earth’s cultures, examining norms, location-based variations, and the relationships between cultures.
  • Development geography deals with the standard of living and the quality of life that the planet’s people experience.
  • Economic geography looks at the relationship between the economies of human civilization and the natural world.
  • Health geography uses geographical data and methodologies to examine health, disease, and health care.
  • Historical geography studies how humans have changed a place or region over time.
  • Political geography focuses on how spatial factors impact political processes.
  • Population geography deals with location-related variations in population makeup, size, growth, migration, and distribution.
  • Settlement geography is the study of urban and rural settlement, emphasizing the analysis of buildings and infrastructure.
  • Urban geography deals with dense settlements, including a focus on how cities are positioned in relation to their natural environment and how they are positioned relative to each other.

In this article, we’ve taken a high-level look at the two major branches of geography. Physical geography examines the natural environment, while human geography turns its attention to the man-made part of our environment.

Hopefully, this will be a jumping-off point for you to explore geography on your own and think about which branches of geography interest you the most.

A video on the branches of geography, by Youtuber Darron Gedge