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Geography Tools: Fieldwork, Databases & Primary Sources

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Geographers study physical space, but how do they do this? Let's take a look at the data and sources used by geographers and see how this evidence is gathered.

Studying Geography

How do people interact with landforms, and how do we understand and relate with the world around us? How are our lives, movements, and interactions defined by physical space? These are the questions of geographers.

Geography is the study of physical dimensions and contours of landforms and how those came to be, but also why those spatial relations matter. So, how exactly do you study this? As with any other discipline, you need data.

Primary Sources

In the humanities and social sciences, data is collected in the form of primary sources, pieces of evidence that are directly related to the question being studied. For example, a primary source for a history project on the American Revolution could be a diary written by a soldier during that time. This source provides the data or evidence we need to answer historical research questions.

Geographers rely on primary sources to identify spatial relationships, patterns, and ideas as they actually exist. Like the diary, primary sources in geography are not created by other academics studying this topic.

What can a landscape painting like this tell us about how people interacted with the environment?
landscape painting

For geography, primary sources could include a wide range of things including:

  • statistics about spatial patterns
  • maps
  • photographs of landforms
  • landscape paintings
  • satellite images
  • population data

Geographers sometimes have to get creative in how they use primary sources, and are very good at finding evidence to explain relationships in physical space. The next question, of course, is where this evidence comes from.

Fieldwork

There are two primary ways that geographers collect evidence for their research. The first is fieldwork, which implies actually getting into the space you're studying and researching it on the ground.

Geographers conducting fieldwork may measure or scientifically describe landforms, count the number and distribution of plants in an area, collect statistical data on human populations and demographics, or simply walk around and describe the sights, smells, sounds, and experiences of being within a natural or artificial landscape.

Fieldwork gives geographers access to different kinds of data. Some is quantitative, which means it can be expressed in numerical or statistical terms. How many people live in a region, how many times a month do they travel beyond a 50-mile radius, what is the average distribution of life forms across a geographic feature?

These are questions that can be answered by compiling numerical data. To assist with this, many geographers rely on geographic information system (GIS) software, which compiles statistical data into maps, providing a clear spatial dimension to numerical figures.

Qualitative data can help us do things like identify spatial patterns in the use of Gaelic in Ireland
ireland map

At the same time, geographers also use fieldwork to compile qualitative data, which is evidence that's not so easy to define in statistical terms. Geography is often about relationships in space, so how do people talk about their environments? What does the urban landscape look like, and how is it different from a natural landscape? How do people feel about nature? What colors, sights, sounds, or smells define a forest or a coastline?

All of these questions can provide important insight into how we understand physical space, and these can be answered through fieldwork.

Databases and Archives

At the same time, not all of the information we need is going to be found in the field. Some data is compiled in libraries, museums, archives, and databases. So, what can we find in these repositories? Let's start with one of the most basic forms of primary sources in geography: maps.

Maps are great primary sources if we're trying to understand how the people who made the map understood the physical world. There are countless kinds of maps, not just the cartographic depictions we see today.

Did the mapmaker represent space in purely realistic terms? Is the perspective from above or from the ground? Are things like cars, ships, or people included in the map? Maps are important symbols in many cultures that tell us a lot about how they understand space and their place in it.

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