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Analyzing Spatial Processes in Human Systems

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Humans can be found all around the world, but how did that happen. and does this mean all communities use space in the same way? Let's examine these questions, and see how human systems influenced the world we see today.

Spatial Processes and Human Geography

So, you want to know more about humanity and its role in the world? As anyone in research knows, most topics can be answered in the 5 W's, and in studying humanity, each W has its own branch. If you want to know the ''who'', study anthropology. If you're interested in the ''when'', try history. If you want to know the ''what'', you'll need to learn biology, and if your focus is ''why'', then check out philosophy. Our focus today, however, is the ''where'', and for that, we need geography.

Geographers have long been interested in understanding exactly how humans ended up covering the world. How did humans expand? What patterns did they follow? How did the world influence their distribution? These questions are all ones of spatial processes, which explain the ways that spatial organization occurs. So, where are humans, and how did this happen? Let's find out.

Kinds of Spatial Processes

Spatial processes explore systems, or patterns and methods, and there are three sets that dominate the study of human distribution and movement. First are the natural-physical systems that examine the influence of the natural flow and organization of energy and matter, like temperature, climate, and physical landforms. Early humans lived near water sources, farmed in naturally fertile plains, and tended to avoid harsh climates. The second set of systems are environment-society relationships, which look at the impact of societies on the physical environment. This could range from deforestation, and rising sea levels, to the planting of trees and forest management.

Our focus today, however, is going to be on the third set of spatial processes, human systems. Human systems are processes that define the spatial distribution, and movement, of people, goods, and ideas but, unlike other processes, are specifically defined by human behaviors. So, the question here is, how do our own behaviors influence spatial patterns?

Political Influences

Human behaviors are some of the most influential factors on human movement and spatial organization, so there are countless ways that we could examine human systems. In general, however, we can sort these into three related systems, and the first is political influences.

Countries of the European Union have made it easier for people and goods to cross borders within this region. Do you think this impacts spatial distribution and movement?
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In the world today, people live in nation-states, or realms associated with a nation and its government, bounded by borders. Borders define the limits of the nation-state and are among the most influential features, in how we organize ourselves, today, but they aren't natural. They're something we created. They're products of human behavior.

Political boundaries like these are a great example of a human system with geographic implications. People tend to stay within their political boundaries, and the act of crossing one can be a big deal. Many can't be crossed without special kinds of permission. So, political factors can influence how people organize, and how people, ideas, and products are able to move around.

Economic Influences

Just as political borders are products human systems that impact spatial distribution, so are economic factors. Today, do people move to cities just for the climate or access to natural resources? No, most move for job opportunities. The desire to increase economic opportunity has a long history of human migration. Americans from east of the Mississippi flooded into the Great Plains for economic reasons, not because the prairie had an abundance of resources. Medieval Europeans traveled thousands of miles across the Silk Routes to get to China in order to participate in international trade.

People crossed great distances to participate in the Silk Routes
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We can also see that economic conditions can have a strong impact on how people organize within larger communities. Families of lower income tend to live in the same neighborhoods, while wealthier individuals live in different neighborhoods. Economic factors lead many societies to distribute physical space in different ways.

Cultural Factors

Finally, we can't ignore the cultural factors that influence how people, ideas, and products move and organize spatially. This set of processes is as broad as the definition of culture itself, but there are some major cultural factors, that have influenced human geography throughout history.

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