Published on Geographical’s website, September 2010. To view the article in its original format, click here.

Kara Moses asks what people think ‘geography’ is and why anyone would want to study it as a subject….

A conversation I had with a geographer friend the other day got me thinking; what exactly is geography?We were talking about what makes something a geographical topic. Broadly for him, as long as it fits into the broad categories of ‘people’ and ‘places’, then it’s geography. As he sees it, geography is all about drawing together disparate pieces of information to create overarching explanations for the way the world works – whether it’s explaining patterns of human migration or the way that a particular landform, well, formed.But ‘geography’ can encompass anything from natural history, weather and glaciers to politics, human health and sociology.

The Collins English Dictionary defines geography as: ‘The study of natural features, including topography, climate, soil, vegetation etc, and man’s responses to them,’ while according to the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), geography is about ‘the understanding of the people, places and environments of our world, the processes by which they are changing, and the interconnections between them – both locally and globally.’

But what do most people think of when you they think of geography? Do they know what it is? I asked a few friends, and responses ranged from cartography and topography to ‘the interaction between space and time’. Most people mentioned the study of the land and maps.

I also posed the question to some professional geographers and academics.David Sugden, professor of geography at the University of Edinburgh, sees the discipline as ‘the study of the spatial organisation of the processes and forms on the Earth’s surface, both physical and human, and their interrelationships’.

For Ed Parsons, Google’s geographer-in-residence, geography is the art and science of why places are different. ‘It’s 80 per cent science – I regard myself as a scientist – but it’s impossible not to recognise the art in a well-produced map or in the description of a location in an explorer’s journal.’

Michael Palin, the current RGS-IBG president said in an interview with The Independent that geography is an adventure: ‘It’s learning about how the world works. Everything you do, even if it’s research in a laboratory, is adding to that knowledge, and that’s all part of the adventure.

‘Geography teaches us so much about how we live, from what we eat, to our transport systems, to population problems, diseases and global warming.’

Palin points out that geography isn’t considered to be a popular subject in school. ‘It’s seen as very unglamorous.’ All that many of my friends remembered of geography lessons at school was colouring in maps, and one person even described it as ‘the worst subject at school’.

Perhaps the rather dry image of geography as a subject puts people off studying it. ‘Map colouring’ is unlikely to have a terribly wide appeal. However, the ‘I’m a Geographer’ careers feature in this month’s Geographical illustrates the exciting possibilities that lie before students of the subject.

Twelve geography graduates describe the places their degree has taken them. Jobs range from academics and BBC weathermen to charity directors, adventurers and even Red Arrows display pilots.

There’s obviously a lot more to geography than map colouring. Put simply, geography is the study of the world in which we live – a broad and vibrant subject that offers an exciting range of career possibilities for those who sign up for the adventure.