Dualisms in Geographic Studies Full Notes By NETSET CORNER

Dualisms in Geographic Studies Physical vs Human, Regional vs Systematic, Qualitative vs Quantitative, Ideographic Vs Nomothetic

Dualism in Geography

During the period of prehistory of geography, an obscure and vague dualism can be found in the writings of the Greeks, Romans and Arab geographers.  Herodotus laid emphasis on the description of the then major tribes and nationals and their physical surroundings; Strabo concentrated on regional description, while Ptolemy stresses on mathematical geography. Hippocrates, Aristotle, Xenophone, Aryabhatta, Al-Masudi and Ibn-Khaldun attempted to interpret the influence of physical environment on the life-style of various peoples.

The thinking and knowledge of human being is always dynamic which developed over a period of time under the influence of society, culture, geography, climate and peer group interaction. All these things can be best understood by analysing concept of regional synthesis that sphere of geography is not homogenous and is guided by various sister disciplines which over period of time create dichotomy and dualism.

Dichotomy means branching of subject into 2 parts- Dualism also stands for dichotomy. Geographers right from classical period have been dividing subject into 2: – Human and physical geography. Over a period of time, several dichotomies emerged out of which some are:

[1] Physical Geography versus Human Geography

[2] Regional Geography versus Systematic Geography

[3] Quantitative versus Qualitative Geography

[4] Idiographic versus Nomothetic


[1] Physical v/s Human Geography Dualism

Greeks were the first who started branching of geography into physical and human geography.

Physical Geography

Physical geography is defined as study of natural environment. It comprises of Climatology, Hydrology, Oceanography, Geomorphology, Pedology etc.

Hecataeus, Immanuel Kant, Humboldt and Darwin were primarily interested in physical geography. Varenius in his ‘Geographia Generalis’ was the first to highlight the differences in characteristics of physical and human geography. ‘Physical Geography’ by Mars Somerville and ‘Physiography’ by Henery Huxley highlights their inclination towards physical geography.

Later on Koppen, Davis, Martonne, Mill, Jafferson and Dokuchaive put great emphasis on landforms and climate as major concerns of geography. Davis introduced the concept of normal cycle of erosion.

Ratzel and Semple believed that physical environment determines lifestyle of people. Semple asserted that ‘man is the product of earth surface’. Huntington considered weather and climatic conditions as prime reasons for shift in centres of civilisation.

Mackinder, Chisholm and Herbertson also recognised physical geography as main field of geography.

Supporter: Hecataeus, Immanuel Kant, Humboldt, Darwin, Ratzel, Semple, Koppen, Davis, Martonne, Mill, Jafferson and Dokuchaive- all belonged to school of Physical Geography.


Human Geography

Human Geography is defined as study of impact and behaviour of people and how they relate to physical world. It comprises cultural geography, social geography, political geography, economic geography, urban geography and population geography.

Herodotus, a Greek geographer, emphasised human aspect in geography. Strabo, Ritter, Ratzel and Febvre considered man as an agent who brings change in the landscape.

According to Vidal de la Blache, in an area of human settlement, nature changes significantly because of presence of man and these changes are greatest where the level of material culture of community is highest.

Mark Jafferson brought the idea of ‘central places’, ‘the primate city’ and ‘the civilising rails’ in the field of human and urban geography.

The followers of human geography worked to establish a man nature mutual relationship in which each of the two is dependent on the other.

Supporter: Herodotus, Strabo Ritter, Ratzel and Febvre, Vidal de la Blache, Mark Jafferson all belonged to school of Human Geography.


Geography does not fall into two groups i.e. physical and human. These two are just the two extremes of a continuum. This division is artificial and illogical. It is just a consequence of historical development of the discipline. Hartshorne asserted that if geography is divided into physical and human phenomena, then the rest of the work is made illogical.



[2] Systematic Vs Regional Geography or General Geography Vs Regional Geography

Bernhardus Varenius introduced the dualism of general (Universal) geography and special (particular) geography, which led to the development of systematic and regional geography. Thus, Varenius was the first scholar who laid the foundation of the dichotomy of systematic vs. regional geography. Alexander Von Humboldt made difference between systematic and regional geography.

Systematic Geography

The systematic geography approach is the same of general geography. This approach was introduced by Alexander von Humboldt, a German geographer.

It deals with one or a few aspects of the human environment or the human population and study their varying performance in the world or over a predefined geographical space. It deals with whole world as a unit.

It is concerned with the formulation of general laws, principles and generic concepts. It is essentially analytical.

For example, the study of patterns of distribution of temperature, rainfall, vegetation, minerals and crops at the world level or continent wise is case of systematic geography.

Supporter: Alexander Von Humboldt Koppen, Whittlesey, Stump, Candolle, Penck- all belonged to school of systematic geography.

Regional Geography

This approach was developed by another German geographer and a contemporary of Humboldt, Karl Ritter.

The approach of regional geography seeks to understand the unique character of an area as produced by the interaction of human activities and the physical environment.

It is the study of the geography of regions. It deals with description of individual countries and world regions. It is necessarily synthetic and deals with unique situations and their peculiarities.

For example, study of landforms climatic variables, soils, vegetation, minerals, fauna and flora and superimposition of these physical factors on the cultural landscape or on any of the elements of socio-cultural aspect highlights the peculiarities of a region and is a case of regional geography.

Richard Hartshorne in his book ‘Nature of Geography’ declared that the essence of geography is regional geography. Ritter too believed in the centrality of regional geography and studied areas synthetically i.e. in their totality.

Richthofen also emphasised that regional geography must be descriptive to highlight the salient features of a region. Alfred Hettner and Vidal de la Blache too claimed that geography is regional.

Supporter: Karl Ritter, Richard Hartshorne, Richthofen, Alfred Hettner, Vidal de la Blache all belonged to school of regional geography.


The dichotomy of systematic versus regional geography seems to be quite logical. Systematic geography emphasises on universal laws while regional geography emphasises on individual laws of region. However, the emphasis on any one of them is wrong.

They do not oppose but support each other in the final analysis as the subject matter of geography. In the words of Berry “the regional and systematic geography are not different approaches, but are just the two extremes of a continuum.”

Anuchin the soviet geographer, summarized controversy by saying that systematic geography cannot exist without regional geography and regional geography cannot be survived without systematic geography. In brief, dichotomy of systematic vs regional falls and they are complementary to each other.

[3] Qualitative V/S Quantitative Geography

Geographic studies involve studying different areas and phenomenon such as physical features like landforms and distribution of climatic zone or human characteristics like population of country and the impact they have on the environment. This study can be qualitative and quantitative.


It is descriptive information usually in form of text. It is used to formulate theories and hypothesis. It tends to be subjective, inductive, descriptive and theoretical.

It depends upon correspondence of evidence across contexts or sources to make generalisations. It aims to be holistic and articulates actual causes of particular events or phenomena.


It is information that can be expressed by numbers or that can be placed into specific categories. It is often used to test and prove previously specified concepts or hypothesis.

It is objective because it provides specific values about concrete elements. It depends on accuracy of instruments. It aims to be deductive or hypothesis-driven, testing the data to make generalisations.


Both qualitative and quantitative approach together make the geographic discipline.

[4] Idiographic V/S Nomothetic Geography

Nomothetic and idiographic are terms used by Neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband to describe two distinct approaches to knowledge, each one corresponding to a different intellectual tendency, and each one corresponding to a different branch of academia.

Idiographic Geography

It describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena. It is a qualitative approach. It is based on tendency to specify. It is typical for the humanities.

Kant, Hettner and Hartshorne considered geography as an idiographic science. Hartshorne asserted that geography deals with the spatial differentiations of phenomena. He conceives geography as the study of peculiar phenomena of regions. For Kant, geography is description; for Hartshorne, it is a ‘naive science’.

Supporter: Kant, Hettner and Hartshorne- belong to school of Idiographic Geography.

Nomothetic Geography

It describes the effort to derive laws that explain types or categories of objective phenomena in general. It is a quantitative approach. It is based on tendency to generalize and is typical for natural sciences.

Systematic or general geography comes under this category. Humboldt, Sauer and many of their followers laid stress on systematic geography and the formulation of general laws.

Despite many revolutions in geography, formulation of nomothetic laws is not a success. Only after second World War, diffusion models, location theory and gravity models were designed to explain geographical patterns.

The new nomothetic (general) laws will be formulated in future which will bring greater recognition to geography.

Supporter: Max weber Humboldt & Sauer – belong to school of Nomothetic Geography.


Some scholars consider geography as an idiographic science while others consider it as a nomothetic science.

James, while discussing idiographic and nomothetic approaches, declared the non-existence of a thing such as ‘real-region’. According to him region exists only as an intellectual concept which is useful for a particular purpose.

N.B- Notes will be updated time to time

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