Today we are going to introduce some basic concepts associated with the study of geography. Geography is obviously the study of space, of place, of location – but geography is primarily concerned with issues of WHY space, place and location matter. If everything on the Earth was the same and stayed the same, there would be no science of geography. Think about where you are sitting in the classroom right now and WHY you chose to sit there – all those choices, all those ordinal decisions fall under the study of geography.

Reliable maps and accurate descriptions of distant lands were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans not just for the sake of knowledge, but because such geographical knowledge could be used for commercial profit. Herodotus, working about 400 BCE, gives us the first history and semi-accurate description of foreign cultures (although it should be noted, many of his stories were exaggerations or outright falsehoods). Eratosthenes, a geometer, proved the Earth was round circa 200 BCE. And the Roman geographer and astronomer Ptolemy created accurate maps of Europe, Africa and Asia about 200 AD including inventing gridlines of latitude and longitude to make calculating distances possible

Our course is concerned with the interaction between humans and their physical environment. This interaction, this cause-and-effect runs in both directions. The environment encourages and rewards human adaptations to it – whether they be physical or cultural. In the case of Inuit, over time their cold climate has reinforced cold-resistant adaptations like shorter limbs. Their culture has also adapted – developing dozens of new words that describe various types of snow. And the Inuit change their environment – building igloos to shelter against the extreme cold. The Inuit are an example of adaptations to an extreme environment, but this interaction between humans and the physical world happens in every environment. How have you adapted to the environment of SRMHS?

Geography is an integrative science, a holistic discipline that touches upon almost every aspect of rational inquiry. Physical geography and geographic techniques (and technology) are concerned with describing all aspects of the physical world. Human geography concerns itself with humanity and touches upon history, political science economics, anthropology, psychology and sociology. A note on fields: it may sound a touch cynical, but often behavioral economists, sociologists and anthropologists are all concerned with the same things, the primary difference being that on a university campus, their offices will be located in different colleges. In other words, there’s a lot of overlap.

With the notion of space, we introduce the concepts of “absolute” and “relative” which will show up over and over again in our study of geography. Absolute space is a precise agreed-upon measurement of area (square miles or square kilometers) that will not vary over time or change based on your audience. Relative space depends on how space is perceived. In NYC, a square mile contains vast amounts of people and infrastructure – it’s too big to get your head around. A square mile in Montana might just be one part of a cow pasture, easily understood. If space is area, then place refers to location and to all the attributes we associate with that location. We often call these attributes a “sense of place” and thanks to culture, we can have a sense of place about a place we’ve never actually visited.

The system of latitude (measuring your progress as you travel north and south) and longitude (measuring your progress as you move east and west) is anchored on two main lines. First, there is the equator which circles the earth running from east to west and is equidistant from each pole. We measure latitude from 0 degrees at the equator to 90 degrees at each pole. Next, the Prime Meridian of longitude runs north-south through the Greenwich Observatory just outside of London. We measure longitude from 0 to 180 degrees from this Prime Meridian. Its antipode (the 180 degree mark) is on the opposite side of the Earth, running through the Pacific Ocean (this meridian is also known as the “Date Line”). Regarding relative location – we normally think of Russia being very far away from us, as it appears on most conventional maps. But look at the polar projection seen here and Russia is actually much closer north-south than it is east-west. Its relative location depends upon which view you use.

It is important to note that the location of the equator has geometric significance (equally distant from both poles) but the Prime Meridian is arbitrary. It runs through London because it was in Great Britain that this system of latitude and longitude were established, for use by the Royal British Navy and and the British commercial fleet.

Examples of site and situation – the site of New Orleans is located below sea level, this makes it a poor site for a city as it is prone to flooding. The situation of New Orleans, near the Gulf of Mexico and at the base of the mighty Mississippi is an excellent situation as it enables commerce and growth. Notice that site and situation are teleological – we need to known the purpose of the thing we are assigning the attributes of site and situation to for the terms “site” and “situation” to make sense. An excellent site for a fort may indeed be a bad site for a city. I would use military concepts to relate the situation of a fort, those concepts make less sense if I am relating the situation of a city.

Another look at site versus situation – site contains the physical attributes of a location – and nothing else. Situation contains the “everything else” – it describes how the location is connected to the surrounding environment.

We are very familiar with cardinal or absolute directions (the north-south-east-west of the compass) and absolute distance as typically measured in miles or kilometers. Relative direction means we are using cultural or political references. Example: the “Middle East” or “Down South”. As for distance, it becomes relative when psychological or cultural factors are accounted for. “Nearby” means different things for a rancher in Montana versus a stockbroker in Manhattan. A seemingly short walk in a parking garage in the daytime can seem much more distant if you are making the walk at night, in a bad neighborhood with many of the garage lights flickering…

The 1st Law of Geography (from Tobler) is that everything is connected and everyplace affects every other place – but these interactions become less significant as distance between places increases. This idea, that the interaction between places declines as distance increases is called “distance decay”. The related terms accessibility and connectivity are used to describe modifiers that can increase or decrease the impact of distance decay. Accessibility describes how easily we can overcome physical barriers of time and space or the “friction” of distance. Think of how interstate highways have transformed interactions between formerly quite distant locations. Without interstates, if I work in downtown Raleigh, where can I live? “Connectivity” is a very similar concept but includes cultural and technological barriers. Geographers would say roads are an accessibility issue but cellphones relate to connectivity. Globalization is a term used to describe increasing connectivity amongst the nations of the world. Finally, geographers use the term diffusion to describe ways in which a central location (called a “node”) can connect to other locations and exchange goods or information or even people.

The regional concept is critical for geographers. If space and place are my two most important geographic ideas, then I can select criteria by which places can be sorted, ordered and connected. A space or area that contains these related places is then called a “region”. The “Research Triangle” is a space containing three communities, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, that are all related in that they host major research-based universities (the criteria). The “Bible Belt” is a region of the US where we find most of our country’s evangelical Christians (the criteria). A great first question to ask about any region is – what is the criteria we are using to connect the locations within the space? Another way of looking at regions is that they are to geographers what eras (Gilded Age, Roaring Twenties etc.) are to historians.

An example of a formal region that we are all familiar with would be a state. There is no sense of a state’s center. You’re either in North Carolina or not. The quality that makes it a region stays the same throughout (it is homogeneous). Formal regions can be based on cultural characteristics, like the “Bible Belt” or on climate like the “Sun Belt”. A functional region is not homogeneous throughout. There is a center or node and as you move away from that center and towards the periphery, the characteristics that define that region tend to weaken. Think about the reception range for a cellphone tower or the region defined by reasonable commuting distance to a nearby city. Finally, a perceptual region is based on feelings and other subjective criteria. Where is “Dixie”? Is NC part of Dixie? Where is the “Midwest”? Is Nebraska in the Midwest?


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Geography Basics Day 1: Resources

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