Geography is a synoptic science that uses the same elements as the other sciences but in a different context. It integrates data spatially, making elaborate use of maps as its special tool. Geography may be studied by way of several interrelated approaches, i.e., systematically, regionally, descriptively, and analytically. The systematic approach organizes geographical knowledge into individual categories that are studied on a worldwide basis; the regional approach integrates the results of the systematic method and studies the interrelationships of the different categories while focusing on a particular area of the earth; the descriptive approach depicts where geographical features and populations are located; the analytical approach seeks to find out why those features are located where they are.
In the study of geography two main branches may be distinguished, physical geography and human (or cultural) geography, originally anthropogeography. The first, based on the physical sciences, studies the world's surface, the distribution, delineation, and nature of its land and water areas. Climate, landforms (see geomorphology), and soil are examined as to origin and are classified as to distribution. Drawing on the biological sciences, fauna and flora (biogeography) are brought into an areal pattern. Through the mathematical sciences the motion of the earth and its relationship to the sun (seasons), the moon (tides), and the planets are studied, as well as mapmaking and navigation.
Human geography places humans in their physical setting; it studies their relationship with that environment as well as their conscious activities and continuous progress in adapting themselves to it (and to other humans) and in transforming their environment to their needs. Human geography may in turn be subdivided into a number of fields, such as economic geography, political geography (with its 20th-century offshoot, geopolitics), social geography (including urban geography, another 20th-century ramification), environmental perception and management, geographical cartography, geographic information systems, and military geography. Historical geography (which reconstructs geographies of the past and attempts to trace the evolution of physical and cultural features) and urban and regional planning are sometimes considered branches of geography.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.