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2011 December 7


In his definitional work, ‘The nature of geography’, Richard Hartshorne attempts to capture much of the history and tradition of the field of geography, so as better to understand its present.1 He was all-too-prescient in noting a distinction within the field between what he termed “regional geography” and “systematic geography”. In years to come, for various reasons, the two would be largely sundered, with systematic geography taking possession of the discipline.

Regional geography, to Hartshorne, is the study of all the features of a given region, any two-dimensional area of interest. The first objective is to learn and record the facts of the world within the region, to describe the region’s “contents”, and therefore describe the region itself. The second objective is to understand the region as an independent entity, as well as a reality within a broader context.

Systematic geography deals, generally thematically (for example, morphological, economic, political, climatic), with processes that operate through space, in an attempt to understand and explain them. It needn’t be done on a global scale; to the contrary, most systematic geography is done through “case studies”, which in geography are generally regional. But the point is to be studying a phenomenon that is presumed to be universal, to operate identically elsewhere (subject to conditions, of course); any results are meant to be generalizable.

The dichotomy of systematic and regional is similar to others within geography. The most obvious is that of nomothetic and idiographic, the former about discovering general laws, the latter about describing particularity. But the relationship is not strict. Systematic geography certainly makes use of the facts that belong to regional geography, and produces its own descriptions. Regional geography does often seek explanation of local idiosyncrasies (and while regional observations may be taken as examples of broader phenomena, this has thus become systematic geography).

Following John Agnew, we can connect this to a wide range of other dichotomies as well: space and place, general and specific, modern and traditional, quantitative and qualitative. As Agnew himself notes, these are associations as they exist in the minds of geographers, not inescapable logical connections, and they, too, are approximate and incomplete.2

It is worth noting that until recently, geography partook of both and drew no bright line between them. This is evident in David Livingstone’s history of the field. We can look to “founding” figures such as Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter. Humboldt in particular was seeking explanations for the world (a ‘cosmos’ is an orderly whole), but at the same time he and colleagues like Aimé Bonpland were gathering massive amounts of data in an encyclopedic effort at description. Ritter existed in an era where regional geography was common, but he himself wished to make geography about more than the recitation of facts (or as the defensive geographer today says, “Geography is not about memorizing states and capitals.”). Mary Somerville’s excellent description of physical geography3 (easily extended to geography as a whole) allowed that it is intended to describe the features of the world, but also describe their distributions, and finally attempt to find the causes of those distributions.

Vidal de la Blache belongs particularly to regional geography, identifying “genres de vie” in the areas under study. Le Play can be associated with this tradition as well. Patrick Geddes helped to create in Edinburgh a strong local tradition of regional geography; Livingstone sees this tradition as quickly degenerating into mere description, but that suggests a lack of appreciation for description. Jefferson’s work was regional, of course. And Carl Sauer has been a recent practitioner and advocate of the regional-monograph tradition, which Europe always embraced. John Fraser Hart strongly advocated regional geography. Donald Meinig not only endorsed its value (1965), but practiced it, with a study (1983) of the history of the Mormon culture region of the North American Intermountain West.

By contrast, geographers who study regionalization — the identification of regions — are generally practicing systematic geography. Such is A.J. Herbertson, whose “natural regions” were compages mainly of climate (particularly weather) and morphology (“configuration”, as he says), with vegetation and settlement patterns as further features largely dependent on the first two. Herbert John Fleure explored the process of regionalization for human regions, and proposed the “zone de bordure” or transitional zone between them. The modern quantifiers, and the thematic subfields of modern geography, are very much systematic.

There are hybrids, in the oldest geographic tradition. Meinig was not merely describing the Mormon culture region (in fact, he was not primarily doing so), but explaining how it came to be, and why it should be considered as an entity in historical and cultural contexts. Joel Garreau reimagined the divisions of North America, using observed facts to identify regions and then illustrating the regions with rich stories of life within them.

Owing to the creation of area studies programs and the Quantitative Revolution, regional geography is nearly dead as an element of the discipline. Scholars are still doing regional geography, of course; they’re just not calling it that. I find Hart’s defense of regional geography to be persuasive. While I am more inclined, at the beginning of my work, to practice systematic geography, at some point, someone must fill in the details. History, as Meinig points out, is a well-respected academic discipline that makes use of the same approach as regional geography. Area studies is a thriving field. Anthropologists and linguists are given doctorates for descriptive work. While the federal government may have helped to remove regional geography from the nominal discipline of geography, quantifying systematic geographers aspiring to science were just as happy to let it go. This is a loss in more ways than one.


1. As Livingstone and others have pointed out, he was especially recounting the history of German geography, but this was a significant portion of the disciplinary history nonetheless.

2. Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, for instance, is a prototypical regional geography, but is described by Livingstone as something of a quantitative extravaganza, with measurements frequently taken, often to justify national pride.

3. “Physical Geography is a description of the earth, the sea, and the air, with their inhabitants animal and vegetable, of the distribution of these organized beings, and the causes of that distribution.” (Quoted in Livingstone, p173.)


John Agnew. ‘Space : place’, p81-96 in Cloke and Johnston, eds.
Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston, eds. ‘Spaces of geographical thought: deconstructing human geography’s binaries’. Sage, 2005.
Joel Garreau. ‘The nine nations of North America’. Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
John Fraser Hart. ‘The highest form of the geographer’s art’, p1-29 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v72 n1 (1982 March).
Richard Hartshorne. ‘The nature of geography: a critical survey of current thought in the light of the past’, in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v29 n3,4 (1939). Reprinted by the Association of American Geographers, 1961.
David N. Livingstone. ‘The geographical tradition’. Blackwell, 1992.
Donald W. Meinig. (1965) ‘The Mormon culture region: strategies and patterns in the geography of the American West, 1847-1964’, p191-200 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v55 n2 (1965 June).
—————. (1983) ‘Geography as an art’, p314-28 in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, v8 n3.


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