Jun 7, 2019 in Science

Functions of Geography


The growth of geography as an academic field can be traced back to the writings of earlier scholars. This paper aims at tracking down the history of how geography developed; and identifying the functions it played in each development period. There has been an ongoing debate between geographers relating to various aspects of the field, how they should be interpreted and applied. Evidently and as per the conclusion of the following discussion, these aspects are explained in the classical scholarly works of people who at one point or throughout their lives considered themselves to geographers.  

Greek Period 

Reference to geography can be traced back to the Greek’s classical writing. In most of these writings, the term was taken to imply earth-writing. It is worth noting that though most of the Greek classical writing made reference to aspects of modern geography, they themselves were not intended to be geographical. Prior to the invention of writing, the Greeks had formed an informal pre-geography that was characterized by earlier time explorations, and the knowledge of pre-historical people (“Class material”). In this context, pre-geography set the foundation of geography as it is known today. 

In Greek period, geography played three crucial functions: providing topographical descriptions of the earth and its inhabitants, measuring earth dimensions; and explaining the reasons behind man existence. Of the three functions, the first two are discussed. The topographical function of geography was derived from the exploration travels made by pre-literate people. As commercial exchange gained popularity, it became necessary for people to develop knowledge of the commercial routes including those of the sea and the land. Further, as more discoveries were made, explorers sought knowledge of communicating to the society about their existence. In this context, geography during the Greek period played a utilitarian function with explorers and traders sketching maps on bones and rocks. This knowledge became formalized with the discovery of writing (“Class material”). During this period, the world was described in various genres including literary writing and poems. For example, the recording of how the Trojans related with Achaeans provided writers such as Homer with a basis on which they could create vivid description of the people in the earlier recording. This knowledge also helped guide the 8th, 7th centuries’ explorations, and Greek colonization of the Mediterranean. 

The knowledge gained from efforts to provide a topography of the earth also helped in defining the second function of geography. Explorers in this case began making serious efforts to provide a cartographical explanation of the earth. The first map of the earth dated between 611BC and 547BC is believed to have been produced by Anaximander of Miltus following knowledge gained from the explorations (“Class material”). This was followed by Periodus translated to mean ‘Earth description’ by Hecataeus. This piece of work even contained suggestions that the classical writer were also curious about climate, flora and fauna as well as customs. There was also interest in measuring earth with the classical explanation holding that the earth was a circular plan, which was surrounded, by ocean on all sides. Later, Pythagoras prompted that the earth was a sphere though this is believed to have been based on philosophical and mystical beliefs. Later, Plato also described the earth as a sphere for future understanding of the shape of the earth. Plato however was of the opinion that the earth was in the center of the universe and that all other heavenly bodies including the sun and the moon revolved around it (“Class material”). This was to hamper the understanding of the universe for many years to come. 


Roman Period

Following the emergency of Rome as the major power in Mediterranean after the Hellenistic stage, geography received increased recognition. During the Roman period, geography was not only used to give topographical descriptions of the earth but also to answer questions in teleology and astronomy. In this context, geography according to the Romans could be used in explaining questions about the role of people in nature (“Class material”). Geography was also highly used in developing knowledge of measuring earth. These are geographical elements, which dominates classical roman writings. Earlier authors in classic roman writing focused on topography of the earth. As in the case of classical Greek, these writings were however more of histories as opposed to geography. According to classic roman writers and more specifically Strabo, geography played a political role. In between 60 BC and AD21, Strabo wrote extensively of issues of modern day geography (“Class material”). He held the believe that geography substitutes the needs of the state and that the new knowledge area had a direct effect on the activities of the people. In this context, geography role was to provide information to the rulers to allow them conquer more land and to maintain power over their colonies.

In offering topographical description of the earth, Strabo believed that the earth was sphere in nature and that it was at the center of the universe a suggested by Plato. He however believed that the earth comprised of five zones. Strabo described the inhibited part of the earth as a large island that was surrounded by ocean on all sides. Later writers largely sought to explain the natural history. Despite the fact that natural history was not used to imply geography, it was used in explaining everything that existed on earth. It was aimed at accounting for earth and its elements by comparing and analyzing them. The works of authors such as Pliny (AD23 to AD 73) included a dimension of history in Geography (“Class material”). For example, Pliny included a discussion of tribes in his writings and suggested that some tribe had been disappeared while others remained. He also acknowledged human inventions, flora, fauna, and medicine. 

Islamic Period

In Islamic period, the development of geography was based on the knowledge obtained from previous periods. Geography in this period played two major functions. Muslims used geography as a tool for expanding the Islamic state and faith (Meri, 2006). In this context, the science of geography played an impetus role in guiding governance and administration in the Islamic state. By applying knowledge from previous periods, Muslims were able to travel, trade and conquer other regions thereby expanding the Islamic state. 

The science of geography, was also important in developing a new cartography and an astronomical geography that emphasized on Mecca as well as the prayer direction. Muslim geographers treated the earth as a bird with spread wings. The head pointed towards the east and the tail to the west. The breast included Hijaz, Mecca, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. These five formed the core of the Islamic empire (Meri, 2006). Through the Umayyad postal services, precise itineraries were developed with the mile been used in the western parts. A new measure, known as the farsakah an which was equal to three miles was also developed. Latitudes were masurd and observatories constructed. The inhabited part of the earth was divided into nine sections. It is from these developments that the Islamic geographers were able to map the prayer direction. 

Early Modern

In earlier modern period, the science of geography was used for colonization and imperialism (Hudson, 1977). The two processes are attributed to early modern geographers by mapping out paths and areas as requested by political forces. In order win war, countries such as France and Britain sought the help of geographers. Scientific geographers provided the maps that could be used to guide military force in the battle and show them the best point from which they could attack their enemy. Thus when attacking any country, the imperial army would be equipped with enough knowledge of the area they are attacking enabling them to make winning strategies (Hudson, 1977). Science of geography was also one of the subjects taught during military training. Thus superior powers were able to attack under developed countries and colonize them such as was in the case of Africa. This led to the growth of empires primarily through raw materials drawn from them.

Late Modern

In the late modern time, scientific geography has primarily focused on ways of improving the welfare of the society. In modern time, scientific geography has been focused on making new discoveries and astronomy. With increasing complexity in issues related to globalization, scientific geography has once again gained popularity in understanding the forces of nature and the universe. Problems such as global warming and depletion of natural resources have shifted the focus of scientific geography to try to understand how the universe operated or how different elements of nature are related. The development in technology has helped geographers to make big milestones in describing and explaining the relationship between man and nature and other aspects of nature. 


From the above discussion, different periods in the development of the science of geography had different and yet similar agendas. One of the most common agenda in all the periods is the provision of a topographical description of earth, and to explain its various elements. Efforts in all this period are reflected in the modern day geography and there is a clear indication that though there are some differences on how issues were conceptualized in different period, they were more or less understood to have the same meaning. In essence, every period tried to develop on knowledge from the preceding period with the major aims of understanding the topography of the earth and the universe, and to measure different aspects of the universe.

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