Human geography has been around as long as, well, humans. But our study of “human geography” as a concept is relatively new, especially among the geospatial/GIS community.
As kids in school, we learned about physical geography — mountains and lakes and rivers and such. We even learned about political geography — countries and their capitals, and the wars and agreements that lead to the creation of their borders. But human geography, while a foreign concept for many, provides us with a means of better understanding the complexities of the world and our place in it.
Human geography is a social science (whereas physical geography is a natural science). It helps us understand why people do what they do, and where. And that comprehension gives us a deeper understanding of cultures and helps us anticipate human behavior, which gives us a solid base for promoting human security.
Because it’s such a fascinating and important topic — and at the core of who we are as a company — we want to share this primer on the main themes (or domains) of human geography. These categories were designated, after years of study and classification, by the World-Wide Human Geography Data Working Group (WWHGD WG), a partnership of scholars, geographers, and government entities from around the globe.
So without further ado, here are the main themes of human geography and some of the questions they seek to answer:
- Demographics and population measures. This category looks at the size of a group, their ages, their genders, their racial composition, and population growth or loss (migration, emigration, births, deaths). It asks the basic question: Who are the people who live in this area?
- Language. To understand a group, it’s important to know more than just what language they speak: Are there different dialects between regions? Do they divide themselves by ethno-linguistic groups?
- Religion. Many people’s routines and traditions are steeped in their religious belief systems. This category asks: What is the affiliation of the people in the area? What are the sects and subgroups? What are their holidays, ceremonies, taboos, customs, and religious laws? Where are their places of worship?
- Ethnicity. Ethnicity is about more than just what people look like or where their ancestors came from. For a more thorough understanding, we must ask: What is their leadership or power structure like? Where are their meeting places? Who are the influencers of the society? What are their customs and traditions? Are there conflicts or alliances between groups?
- Education. Who in the group is educated (and to what level) helps us understand a society’s values and priorities. When studying an area, ask: What educational facilities and services exist, where are they, and who has access to them? What is the percentage of literacy and school enrollment?
- Health. Do people in this group have access to medical care? Where are the hospitals, pharmacies, and clinics? What diseases are common in the area and how are they spread? Are they caused by sanitation issues or malnutrition? What is the average lifespan of the people who live here?
- Groups (politics, civil, ideological). As we well know, people within a society tend to divide themselves into groups and subgroups. What formal or informal groups exist, and where do they meet? What is the structure of their military, police, and judicial systems? What are the voting patterns of the people who live here?
- Economy. A firm grasp of the living standards — and how they vary between groups and subgroups — is vital to understanding why people in a specific area do what they do. How do the people of this region support themselves? Do they have access to electricity? What are their major industries? What goods and services do they produce?
- Land use. How do the people divide their physical land? Is it urban or rural? Who owns it? What are their natural resources and crops?
- Transportation. Human geography is greatly influenced by mobility. How do people, things, and ideas travel within the culture and outside of it? What is the infrastructure like? Are there buses, taxis, trains, planes? Who uses them? Who controls the roads?
- Water supply and control. Are there aqueducts, dams, wells, springs, reservoirs, etc., and who owns them? What is the main water source? Are there disputes over water rights?
- Communications and media. How information is disseminated tells us much about a society. How many people have phones, TVs, radios, or computers? Where are the cell towers, telephone lines, and post offices? Do they have a free press? How is information distributed, and who controls the content?
- Significant events. What conflicts, violent events, natural or human disasters have shaped the area? What current events are being reported? Where are they happening?
- Climate/weather. Climate and weather can significantly — even catastrophically — influence people’s behavior and actions. Weather reshapes/changes physical geography, to the point of changing and influencing human geography.
These themes of human geography are not all-inclusive, and they are each dependent on the others in many ways — some intersecting with all or most others, some only one or two. Being able to answer these questions gives us a cultural baseline for understanding people and places, but it’s just scratching the surface. Human geography is dynamic and unique — which makes it difficult to define in absolute terms.
There is certainly more understanding to be gained through an integration of human and physical geography. Applying data-fusion methods, we can visualize that understanding, allowing for better decision making, impact assessment, and predictive analysis.
Todd Pollard contributed to this post.