Are you human? Does it matter?

Are you human or physical? A question posed to many geographers on a frequent basis, particularly when in an academic/conference setting. While I think this classification is useful, as there are clearly some different skills employed in each, I think that the separation of the two sections of the discipline can be harmful for the subject as a whole.  Or rather I think the attitudes of some members of either side of the discipline who fail to acknowledge the benefit of the other, is harmful.

There are those who argue that Human and Physical Geography should separate. Physical geography should be absorbed into the earth sciences and science departments, while human geography should be divided up into a range of social science departments, be it economics, sociology, philosophy or planning.  There are those who argue they should remain unified as one discipline. My aim here is to think about this issue and explain to the reader a little about my own position.

Let us first consider some definitions of the two subject areas. According to the Oxford Dictionary:

  • Physical Geography is the branch of geography dealing with natural features and processes.
  • Human Geography is the branch of geography dealing with how human activity affects or is influenced by the earth’s surface.


If we take a holistic approach where both aspects of physical and human geography are employed then geography as a discipline can provide a synthesis of the understanding of the complex interactions between the natural world and society.

I can understand why people wish to associate themselves with either group, that’s where their primary research interests, (or just general interests), and skill sets, lie. But what frustrates me is the attitude from some geographers, that the other does not matter, and outrightly refuse to engage with any material from the other side of the discipline.

This works both ways, I have seen human geographers look at a table of climate data with distaste and state that they ‘don’t do quantitative analysis’, and ‘change in sea level rise in the Atlantic ocean doesn’t matter for their work’.  I have witnessed physical geographers, look at workshop and conference programs and scoff, ‘oh that’s far too human for me’. It works both ways. Similarly when guest lectures are scheduled people will often not commit to say if they are attending until they find out if it is a human or physical geography lecture.  The whole point of guest academic lectures is to broaden knowledge of geography, it should not matter what the content is.

This is fair enough, academics specialize, and so they do not have an in-depth knowledge of every aspect of geography (and do not necessarily have the time to develop such knowledge), but surely taking an interest would not to do any harm. It doesn’t even need to go as far as taking as an active interest, it would be impossible to be interested in every aspect of geography, it is such a broad subject. Without the physical environment we wouldn’t be able to exist, but conversely without our existence as human beings interacting with the environment, then an understanding of the physical environment would not be necessary. We humans interact with the physical environment around us, it is important that we understand to the greatest extent possible both aspects, and where possible work together to see where the two are interconnected..

While the thought of using GIS will baffle some human geographers, and the epistemological and ontological standpoints of some research will equally baffle some physical geographers, it would not do either side any harm to engage on some level with each other.

Among many things, I am a geographer. My research at present happens to be in an aspect of human geography, but I retain a strong interest in all aspects of geography as I always have done.   While I look at some conference sessions and agree that yes, they are physical geography orientated, include various techniques and programmes that I don’t fully understand but I still find them interesting.

There are so many aspects of our world that require the expertise of both human and physical geographers. Take recent disasters that have happened around the world recently. Earthquakes are a physical phenomena and we need to try and understand the processes that take place which cause these events. But we also need to work out how to minimize their impact on their human population, this requires not only a knowledge of the physical environment but also of the population and communities that these events could affect, and in when such events occur the best ways to help people recover and learn from these experiences to benefit others.

Clearly the skill sets from physical and human geographers are going to be different, then shouldn’t they be complementary. Surely we should be working together on many topics to try and develop a more complete understanding of the world. Now, I recognize that this will not always work, there are some areas of both parts of the discipline which require certain skills or deal with certain subject matter than does not easily fit into both groups, but that doesn’t mean that the other should be aware of it.

It is argued that geography is a science of synthesis, “a science linking humanity and environment and creating a bridge between the social and natural science”.  Therefore, surely we should be working together on a more frequent basis.  I recognize however, that a complete synthesis of the two would be impossible.

Geography really does represent a subject that can provide a synthesis among other disciplines. It seeks to study overall interaction between phenomena that in the other disciplines they are considered specific. For example, the economic development based on agricultural production may relate to soil type and the climate conditions of the area and not merely by the specific economic factor.

Yesterday I heard a presenter at a conference state that ‘everyone is geographer….they just don’t know it yet’. We all have to navigate through different spaces and places and are faced with a plethora of geographical issues on a daily basis. Some are just more aware of these issues than others.

This post has not covered the breadth of issues which need to be discussed when considering the divide between human and physical geography but is more of short splurge of thought to get anyone interested in geography to think about the divides that exist within geography, and what can be done to overcome them. I will try to articulate this argument more eloquently in a written paper in the near future.

I am presently at the Association of American Geographers Annual meeting in Seattle, which has literally hundreds of presentations, covering the breadth of the discipline representing a fantastic range of both human and physical geography. Looking at this program alone it is possible to see that geography really does cover everything from fluvial processes to neoliberalism and everything else in between. We should be focusing on benefiting from the different skills every geographer has to offer, whether from a human or physical geography background to help consolidate our understanding of the earth, we humans, live on.

Those interested in the issue should read, Unifying Geography: Common Heritage, Shared Future? by David Herbert and John Matthews.

Should the discipline be separated into human geography focusing on the social, cultural, political and economic interactions in the world while physical geography deals with all the scientific and environmental aspects of geography? I would argue most definitely not. But I would welcome a discussion with anyone who agrees or disagrees.

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One Response to Are you human? Does it matter?

  1. The problem seems acute in Geography, but you’ll also find it in other disciplines. We have progressively instituted separations, silos and firewalls between disciplines, then inside disciplines, and then furrowed deeper and deeper in our own topics. Not everyone decides to keep an open mind with regards to the world around; but with the kind of challenges we all face, we would do well to look around outside of our turfs and, yes, our navels.

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