Defining Geography

Geography tries to answer questions regarding two aspects of human life:  Environment and Place. Environment is made up of the complex of natural and human factors that interact with individuals and communities.  Relationships between humans and their sociocultural and environmental settings are of particular interest to geographers.  How do people, as individuals and in groups, interact with urban habitat?  What are the relationships between climate and agriculture?  How do attitudes and perceptions in a particular culture relate to the way people design and build cities, and how, in turn, do the latter alter the natural landscape?  What are the mechanisms that give rise to environmental change?  What is the role of instinct and cultural experience in forming landscape tastes and ultimately landscape designs?  How have humans interpreted their relationship to nature over time?  These are among a host of questions that can be asked about the environment and the way people interact with it.  Place becomes distinctive only when one appreciates the wide range of variation in environments, natural and built, across the earthís surface.  What are the explanations for a particular climatic, biotic and soil association?  Why is a certain kind of human activity located at a certain place?  What are the internal and external characteristics and qualities of a place or landscape?  How do atmospheric processes in the tropics influence the climate of the United States?  Is it significant that human activities vary from place to place?  Why are things located where they are?

Neither of these sets of questions is unique to geography.  Biologists, physicists, ecologists, psychologists and philosophers, for example, study environmental questions.  It also happens that economists, sociologists, planners, geologists and meteorologists study locational (place) questions.  What makes geography different is its particular approach or perspective, for geographers try to integrate the two sets of questions:  to emphasize that the locational questions involve the environmental ones, and vice versa.  Let us illustrate the geographerís perspective with a couple of examples.

Suppose that, as a geographer, you were asked to decide the location for a new highway.  You would probably consider the need for such a highway, the places it would serve, the volume of traffic flowing over existing highways, and the economic and social changes to the places the highway would pass.  But with the geographic approach, you would also consider the alterations to elements of the environment; that is, the changes the highway would bring to the patterns of soil, vegetation and climate in the areas it would influence.  You would probably take into account the planned appearance of the highway environment, as well as the political and economic factors influencing the planned location of the highway.  You also might give consideration to the role of the highway in your overall philosophy or set of values concerning the way people should shape or design the landscape.

Consider a more specifically environmental question.  Suppose you were asked to study the consequences of increased air pollution in an urban area.  You would obviously make an intensive examination of the environmentótype of pollution, prevailing wind and speed, amount of precipitation, likelihood of inversions, and so on.  But, in applying the geographic approach, you also would examine where air pollution would be highly concentrated, what segments of the population would be most affected, and the economic impact of the pollution.  Finally, you might evaluate which people in different parts of the city perceive air pollution as a problem.

In both of these examples, the geographer looks at a human problem from an integrative perspective, and, of course, using this perspective, virtually any type of topic or problem can be examined.  As an undergraduate major, this is perhaps the major advantage of geography: it allows a student to pursue a broad range of topics, yet within the context of a specific discipline.  It thus goes some way towards satisfying the aims of breadth of knowledge, a goal of liberal education, while at the same time providing the opportunity to acquire a specific set of abilities involving the approach, thinking, tools and skills of a particular field.

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Subdivisions within the Geography Department

The Geography Department at Delaware emphasizes three geographic themes.  Physical Geography examines the physical and biotic aspects of the environment; Human Geography investigates the economic, social, cultural and historical aspects of societies, especially of urban societies; and Geographic Methods deal with the unique techniques required for analyzing and understanding data that are distributed on the surface of the earth.  The three themes can be described more fully as follows:

Physical Geography (climatology, biogeography, and geomorphology).  Climatology investigates the exchanges of energy and moisture that take place between the earthís surface and the lower atmosphere.  Climatologists within geography study all aspects of how these interactions control global climate.  Some of their more important contributions have been in areas where climate information interacts with human activities, such as assessment of climatically controlled resources, including solar and wind energy and water resources, and predicting the effects of human-induced global climate change on agriculture and other human activities.  Owing to the increasingly quantitative nature of the discipline, climatologists must be well-versed in mathematics, statistics, and computational techniques as well as in the environmental and atmospheric sciences.

Biogeography evaluates the distribution of living organisms as functions of climatic and other physical processes and defines adaptations of animals and plants to environmental stresses.  As in other aspects of physical geography, human influences on biological communities are important.  These may include habitat alterations, which affect biotic distribution and conservation techniques, which attempt to rectify previous human mismanagement.

Geomorphology is the study of landforms, and how topography and soils develop from interactions between the underlying surface material and the processes that modify that material over time.  The processes of geomorphology, including physical and chemical weathering, motion created by freeze-thaw cycles, and erosion by wind and water, are strongly controlled by climate and also influenced by vegetation.  As in other areas of geography, all the subdisciplines work together to provide an understanding of how a place came to have its characteristics.  Particular interests within Delawareís Geography Department include:  global rock weathering rates, soil erosion rates, uses of surface materials in Delaware; reconstruction of past climates on the Delmarva peninsula and in other nearby areas, glacier activities, and understanding permafrost and arctic environments.

Human Geography (urban, social-economic, and cultural-historical geography).  Urban geography deals with the form or plans of a city, the processes that have produced such plans, and their importance as cultural expressions of urban life.  For example, a study of American cities might look at street-plan grids to see how grid arrangements shape social and economic patterns.  Geographers also might be interested in the plan as an idea of urban organization.  Urban geography examines the locational patterns of city functions, addressing questions that range from the reasons for the residential location of a particular ethnic or economic group, political and economic decisions that affect the distribution of services.  Urban geography also involves the study of the development of particular city types in different cultures and epochs.

Social and economic geography represent an area of concentration which ranges from research on minority groups in the United States to development issues in the Third World.  Emphasis is placed on the global economic system as it explains, in part, the persistence of the underclass in the United States, and exploitation of both natural and human resources worldwide.  Topics of study include:  changing locations of various economic activities; housing and neighborhood change; institutional factors that shape the local environment; homelessness; resource distribution and use; global environmental conservation; and international and domestic migrations of human populations.  Foreign study is strongly encouraged and fieldwork may be an important component of this area of concentration.

Cultural-historical geography represents a humanities perspective and as such it involves the study of culture in relation to environment.  The emphasis is on culture as a means by which humans interpret and create their immediate environment.  This specialty might include the evaluation of historic attitudes towards nature or landscape aesthetics, or the analysis of environmental attitudes in literature, poetry, and folklore.  It might include the study of urban landscapes or gardens as expression of particular philosophies and ideas concerning man and nature, or it may focus on ethical and aesthetic values in the modern world, including the human condition in contemporary space and time.

Geographic Methods.  Courses in this area deal with map analysis and display, remote sensing, quantitative analysis, and field methods as applied to common geographical problems.  Data analysis problems generally require a background in traditional statistical methods.  Geographic data analysis problems often require special understanding of how location and adjacency affect data.  For example, values of many parameters such as population demographics, agricultural land uses, soil characteristics, and so on are much more likely to be similar in adjacent counties than in counties separated by hundreds of miles.  Traditional statistical methods do not readily account for these spatial relationships.

All fields of science use graphics to present data and illustrate relationships.  Geographers maintain and develop and enhance the special graphical domain of mapsóa field known as cartography.  The problems of projecting a spherical surface onto a flat plane via trigonometric calculations and the need for the precise location of many data points, even for the simple task of drawing a typical boundary, have made this an almost exclusively computerized field. The combination of cartographic display capabilities with geographic database handling and an ability to do spatial statistics, all within one computer environment, has led to major advancements in how geographic data can be analyzed, manipulated, and presented over the last two decades.  We refer to this combination of cartography and data handling as Geographic Information Science (GIS).  GIS-trained individuals are in high demand by governments at all levels and by many private corporations and public utilities, so learning GIS is a highly recommended part of any Geography majorís program.

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Requirements for the B.A. Major in Geography Back to the top of the page  


Students considering a major in Geography should talk to an Undergraduate Advisor or to the Chair or Associate Chair.  It is important that a student file the necessary Change of Major form, either on paper or on the Web, as soon as a decision is made to become a Geography major.  A major will then be assigned an advisor who will work to develop an undergraduate program appropriate to the studentís own interests.  Wherever possible, the advisor will be a faculty member whose academic interests include those expressed by the student.  Students are urged to consult and meet frequently with their advisors.  The department is relatively small so it is usually not difficult to see your advisor.  If you cannot see your advisor on a particular day, the Undergraduate Advisor may be able to help with a specific problem.  Specific questions can also be dealt with via e-mail.

Tutoring.  Students who need the services of a student tutor should see the Undergraduate Advisor.  Majors in any sort of temporary academic difficulty are strongly urged to talk with their advisor or the Undergraduate Advisor before such difficulty finds expression in a final course grade.

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Outside the Classroom

Study Abroad and Geographic Field Work.  The department offers several opportunities for study abroad through participation in semester-long or winter-session programs.  Individual faculty members also may assist in arranging an international student exchange or independent study abroad.  Field work always has been an important component of geography, and students are encouraged to participate in field-oriented activities.

Part-Time Student Employment.  The Department has a limited number of employment positions, though most have certain prerequisites; however, it is departmental policy to hire Geography majors whenever possible.  Occasionally departmental research projects require student assistants.  Some students have also been accommodated in the past on research projects during summer and winter sessions and occasionally the Department receives requests for private cartographic work, so if you have such skills, make them known to one of the Coordinators.  The total number of employment opportunities is not large, but knowledge of your interest does help when such jobs appear.

Departmental Activities.  The faculty organize an annual picnic in the fall for staff and all students.  Majors are also invited to Friday afternoon seminars, in which visiting and in-residence scholars give talks on their research.  Majors interested in departmental affairs and policy are always urged to communicate opinions and ideas to the faculty.

Delaware Organization of Undergraduate Geographers (DOUG) is a student-run organization of majors in Geography (and Environmental Science).  Their organized activities may include social events, service activities, recreational adventures, and professional development opportunities.  See the bulletin board between the two entrance doors to 203 Pearson Hall for current activities and announcements from DOUG.

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After College

Graduate Study.  The Department offers M.A. and M.S. degree programs in selected areas of Geography (primarily climatology, land surface processes, and urban and social geography) as well as a Ph.D. program in Climatology.  More information on the graduate programs is available from the departmental office.  University of Delaware Geography majors who are considering graduate study may, however, wish to obtain a different perspective of the discipline by applying to a program in another university.  In this case, students should be investigating such programs no later than the start of their senior year.  The Guide to Geography Programs in the United States and Canada (issued annually by the Association of American Geographers) is available to borrow from the departmental office.  This guide provides a description of each program, requirements for admission, availability of financial aid, and a list of faculty for each department offering a Geography graduate program.

Undergraduate majors in Geography may also be prepared to undertake graduate study in fields other than geography, such as landscape architecture, history, American studies, urban or regional planning, resource management, and agricultural sciences.

Employment. Geography, in common with most social science and humanity disciplines, commands few jobs with the title of the discipline.  Only a limited number of positions bear the name "Geographer."  On the other hand, there is a wide list of jobs for which training in geography prepares an individual.  Few disciplines or undergraduate programs (other than strictly professional programs) are so closely associated with the existing requirements of the job market that a student can move directly to a pre-existing employment slot.  It is sometimes necessary to persuade a prospective employer of your potential contributions as a geographer.

With this in mind, in several areas of employment, geographers have been particularly successful in making a contribution. 

  • Teaching.  Geographic concepts are part of the science and social science curricula at the Secondary Education level, and some former majors are now teaching High School; Geography is also taught in most colleges, from university to community college, although such positions usually require graduate degrees. 
  • Government.  Geographers are employed in all levels of government, particularly with environmental, planning, and natural resource agencies.  At the national level, the Bureau of the Census, the Soil Conservation Service, the Council of Environmental Quality, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Departments of State and Defense all employ geographers.
  • The private sector. Private business has become increasingly interested in the skills of geographers.  For instance, a large number of private consulting firms working on environmental impact statements find the geographerís integrative capabilities useful.  Firms dealing with transportation and marketing, especially the location of plants and stores, also employ geographers.  Increasingly, businesses are seeing the value of GIS in analyzing the spatial aspects of their operations and markets.
A list of agencies and businesses employing geographers has been compiled and is available in the departmental office together with other materials related to careers in geography.  A follow-up study of our students after graduation shows that approximately one-quarter of our majors enrolled in graduate school and another third have obtained jobs related to geography.  Computer programming, cartographic skills, and GIS have been particularly important to students for gaining employment as a geographer.


Last Update 5/23/13