Geography as a Field

In a world challenged by diminishing resources, a rapidly growing population, and increasing tensions over cultural values and economic development and environmental issues, it is imperative that students learn about the earth and their place on it. Geography offers students the opportunity to study the dynamics of global change and to place their local experience in a global perspective.

Geography is the study of the physical and social processes that shape the world we live in. It is an integrative discipline especially suited to examining complex and dynamic interactions between factors such as physical environmental processes, resource use, urbanization, economic development, conservation, population change and migration, geopolitics, cultural change, and a humanistic sense of place.

Geographic subfields and research topics cover an extraordinary range of pressing world issues: global climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, natural hazards, economic globalization, migration and urbanization, world hunger, human and indigenous rights, ethnic and religious conflict—virtually all of the problems facing countries and communities today are the focus of geographic research.

Geographers make use of multiple methods in their work, from interviews, observations, archival research, and mapping to new kinds of participatory and collaborative research and the use of satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Within the broad scope of the field of geography, geographers in the Department of Geosciences particularly focus on the past and present dynamics of environmental perception, environmental change, and conservation. Social actions and globalization now constitute an unprecedented force threatening the destruction of natural ecosystems, land cover and land-use change, extinction of species, and climate change. At the same time unprecedented efforts are being made by community, governmental, and Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) on behalf of environmental conservation, sustainable livelihoods and development, and social justice.

Campus geographers are engaged in research and activism addressing many of the great environmental, conservation, development, and social justice issues of our time, working at local, national, international, and global scales with expertise and projects in the Pioneer Valley, the U.S., the Arctic, China, Nepal, Japan, Europe, and Latin America. The department also houses a major center of climate change research.

The many different specializations within geography are often conceptualized as subfields of human geography or physical geography.

Human geography seeks to identify and explain patterns and variations of settlement, social organization, culture, economies, political systems, and environmental impacts. This involves human geographers in studying issues such as population change and migration, urbanization and urban change, land and water use, environmental change, conservation, sustainability, and development. The department offers courses in subfields of human geography, including conservation geography, political ecology, urban ecology, environmental history and issues, cultural geography, environmental perception and sense of place, humanistic geography, economic geography, urban geography, and remote sensing and GIS analysis and applications.

Physical geography involves studying the physical processes, both natural and anthropogenic, that affect the earth’s surface, atmosphere, and biosphere. The department has strengths in the study of climate, climate change, landforms and land surface processes, remote sensing of the environment, and GIS analysis and applications.