Spatial Processes: Definition & Types

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  • 0:02 Process in Geography
  • 0:37 What Is a Spatial Process?
  • 2:58 Types of Processes
  • 4:17 Spatial vs. Temporal
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

How did you end up moving to where you live right now? This lesson looks at the processes of geography that helps to explain why certain physical and cultural movement occurs, such as migration and settlement patterns.

Process in Geography

How did you come to be where you are living right now? Did your ancestors move or were forced to move to the region? Did you pursue work, education, or social connections in another area? What led you to live where you do now?

This movement from one place to another and the sequence of events it took to get there is an example of a process in geography. This lesson focuses on spatial processes and explains why geographers are interested in how you got to where you live today, along with other distributions across the earth.

What Is a Spatial Process?

Geography involves the study of why things vary from place to place on the earth, also known as spatial distributions or anything that can be mapped. Spatial distributions that can be mapped can include anything from temperatures in an ocean, the language of a country, the spread of forest fires in a region, and the ethnic demographics of a particular city.

A specific question a geographer might ask is why people of a certain ethnic background have migrated to another area of the world. Once a geographer knows what phenomenon they want to study, they'll look at the underlying process for how things came to be a certain way, such as how the migration occurred. They also try to predict what is going to happen in the future, like whether people will continue to migrate to a particular area or not.

The underlying process that geographers study is known as a spatial process. A spatial process explains how people came to live in a certain area because it answers the question: Why does this spatial distribution exist?

That sounds pretty broad, doesn't it? That's because the concept is as vast as the variety of phenomenon on Earth. Even geographers themselves sometimes have a hard time using the term spatial process because it can describe so much.

A process is involved in every spatial distribution that can be mapped: from temperatures in an ocean, the language of society, the spread of forest fires in a region, and the ethnic demographics of a particular city. Let's focus on one example to see how a geographer might connect a certain spatial distribution with the spatial process involved.

The Irish potato famine in the 19th century contributed to Irish migration to the United States during that time. People were starving and sometimes without work, and they were looking for an opportunity in another region. Looking at these events as spatial processes helps us to consider how and why the numbers of Irish people in the United States increased and why people chose to leave Ireland.

In this case, the spatial distribution is the Irish-American population in the United States, and the spatial process was the series of physical, environmental and human events that led to this change.

Types of Processes

According to National Geographic, there are three general types of spatial process: natural-physical systems, environment-society relationships, and human systems. These different systems help to explain how a spatial distribution came to be, such as the distribution of Irish-Americans in the U.S.

Natural-physical systems include processes caused by natural laws of energy and matter, such as temperature. These phenomena are local and measurable and relate to the physical earth. Environment-society relationships are the processes that involve the impact of society on the environment, such as soil erosion and the destruction of rain forests. Finally, human systems describe processes related to human behavior and innovation, such as language, technology, and religion.

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