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The Limits In Geography

What are the limits of the focus in the study of geography? It is usually assumed that geography is concerned with the surface or "shell" of the Earth, but workers do not specify how deep or high this sphere of interest to geographers extends. With some prescience Hartshorne wrote before 1966, "Man has for the first time projected his world of action beyond the [Earth's] atmosphere … and may soon be expected to extend that range to the moon" (Hartshorne, p. 24). This prediction was shortly realized when the United States, through its Apollo 11 mission of July 1969, landed two astronauts on the Earth's natural satellite, and images were taken of the Earth from the Moon. Further, rocks from the lunar surface were collected for the study of which the term geology was employed. Subsequently, many artificial satellites, both with humans aboard and unmanned, have been launched so that we now have a much greater understanding of the "blue planet" Earth, from above. Considering that the first aerial photographs of parts of the Earth were taken from a balloon in 1858, and that the science of photogrammetry—making maps from overlapping vertical air photographs—was developed in the first half of the twentieth century, progress has been remarkable. This was largely accomplished in European and North American countries, which assisted other areas that benefited from this technology.

Another realm of the Earth that has been seriously investigated is the ocean depths, made possible by modern technology—sonar or echo sounding. The oceans, the greater part of the surface of the Earth, have, of course, long interested maritime nations but until recently this interest had been confined to the surface, coastal limits, and other shallow areas—or to speculation. The most remarkable example of the latter is the postulation by the German meteorologist and physicist Alfred Wegener (1880–1930), who proposed that at an earlier period the continent(s) consisted of a single or, at most, two major land masses that had subsequently drifted apart. At the time of his death, not enough evidence was forthcoming to prove Wegener's theory of "continental displacement," or "continental drift" as it was later termed. Sonic sounding now permits continuous traces, or profiles, to be made across the ocean floor by ships in progress, which, in aggregate, provide a true three-dimensional image, making possible the charting of the ocean basins. This process has revealed an assemblage of "forms" as varied as those on land areas above sea level, including profound depths greater than the highest mountains on Earth. Most important, it has given validity to Wegener's theory, through identification of mid-ocean ridges, from which apparently the continents spread for the most part laterally. Other forms of evidence support this fundamental, and now widely accepted but hitherto controversial, theory.

The two examples given above illustrate how the Earth's surface or limits have been vastly enlarged in the past half century, and they also suggest that geographers who are concerned with the Earth as the "home" of humankind must come to terms with this increased realm. Geography, however, remains a very divided subject searching for a core. As indicated above, a few women geographers in the past have made signal contributions to the subject. However, as in many other studies, often women geographers became editors, school teachers, and librarians, in spite of the tradition of the intrepid Victorian lady traveler. Until quite recently women were often "excused" from field work in geography departments, considered a necessary part of the curriculum for males. Now that they constitute about one-half of the enrollment in colleges and universities, and owing to changing mores, women are now making an impact on the subject at the research level. This is expected to continue and expand, since previously, half of the human in human (and physical) geography had been excluded. The closeness of the female to Mother Nature, it is speculated, gives women an advantage in geography that is now being realized, understood, and, to a greater extent than previously, appreciated.

Just as women and their special points of view have not been an important part of geography in the past, so, it is argued, have the interests and aspirations of the proletariat not been included. An attempt to address this lacuna has been through what has been called in its extreme form (and comparable to feminist geography) Marxist or, more acceptably, socialist geography. Notable proponents of feminist geography are Cindi Katz and Janice Monk; and of Marxist and Socialist geography, Massimo Quaino and David Harvey. Marxist and socialist practitioners assert, with considerable justification, that geography has been a white male, Eurocentric (even imperialistic) study, with the protection of the "establishment" in mind. This conservative view is being challenged by new graduates of "red-brick" universities, particularly, recalling their working-class roots. This concern also extends to various, often ethnic, minorities who were not previously part of the geographical equation. How far this development will redress past inequities and affect the future direction of the discipline may depend on further recruitment of university students from the underclasses and those concerned with their welfare.

The wide range of topics investigated by geographers will not be elaborated here, but it is suggested by the indexes of textbooks in physical and human geography where they are later treated in varying degrees of detail. Methods mentioned earlier, including field work, interpretation of aerial photographs, and individual images from space are of course still available, but other methods have been added recently: continuous surveillance and imaging of the Earth, since 1972, through the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) and its successor, Landsat; and new computer programs, especially ARC/INFO, introduced in 1982.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGeography - The Nature Of Geography, Geographical Determinism, Military And Public Geography, Geographical Theories, The Limits In Geography